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Sharon Beverly's First Love? Basketball


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

The men of the NBA tip off their season this week, but today, I'm joined by a woman who spent her career proving to the world that girls have got game, too. In the late 1970s, Sharon Beverly played with one of the first professional women's basketball teams in the country, the New Jersey Gems. That was nearly 20 years before the WNBA was created, a time when she and her teammates had to cobble together funding, find their own playing venues and deal with the attitude that nobody wanted to watch women play basketball.

She went on to have a distinguished college coaching career, and she is now one of the few women athletic directors in the country. She holds that post at Vassar College in New York. And Sharon Beverly is with us now.

Coach, thank you so much for joining us.

SHARON BEVERLY: Oh, I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: One of the reasons that we were excited to talk with you is that we spoke with you previously about, you know, Title IX, and we realized that you are one of the very few women and very few African-American women to hold the position of athletics director. And I wondered: Why do you think that is?

BEVERLY: Oh, that's a great question. There's just so many different reasons, I think. You know, we always say that part of the problem is, or part of the rationale is that there are men that are heading most of these programs. That's probably the simple answer, and, usually, men will tend to hire who they're comfortable with, which is another man.

But I also think that it goes larger than that. I mean, we see concerns with numbers of minority women or women of color across the board, not only in the leadership role of AD, but in participation.

MARTIN: According to the University of Central Florida, 57 percent of women's sports teams in America today are actually coached by men. And I want to mention that, in addition to your distinguished athletic career, you are also an educator and you have a doctorate. And when you earned that doctorate a couple of years ago in 2010, your dissertation was actually on why female athletes aren't becoming coaches. Why is that?

BEVERLY: I found that there were many reasons that our young women were giving for not entering coaching. One was the misconception that it doesn't pay well. They didn't think that it was going to be worth the amount of time that they were going to have to commit, and so that quality-of-life issue kind of came in there.

You know, the other thing that they felt was that they didn't really see as many examples in those positions of coach. So I actually had some young women respond to our questionnaire and say, gee, I never thought about running my own team. And I think therein lies a whole 'nother problem. So there were a lot of things that came forward from that research.

MARTIN: Was that something that you had always had in the back of your own mind?

BEVERLY: I would say I always had the drive to want to control my own destiny, and so that sort of led to wanting to be the coach, be the head coach. You know, that sort of led to wanting to be the athletics director. That kind of came sort of as an innate thing.

MARTIN: Let's go backwards. How'd you fall in love with basketball?

BEVERLY: Oh, boy. I fell in love with basketball as a young woman who has background roots in Georgia and spent a lot of time with my family down there and got a chance to play on a dirt court with a basketball that probably wasn't even round. And that was my first love, I guess, at about eight or nine, and truly fell in love with the sport.

MARTIN: You know, I played a little basketball in college and certainly, in high school...

BEVERLY: Yes, you did.

MARTIN: ...I know - not at your level. I was glad to have the opportunity, but I don't remember anybody ever thinking that there could be any future in it. And so I'm kind of - I'm wondering how it is that you got the idea that there could be a future in it for you.

BEVERLY: You just have to dream dreams, and really wanting to be able to pursue my passion. I mean, when I think about times in the beginning there in the early '70s, we had no manufacturers that were making women's uniforms. Those of us traveling, if we traveled at all, it was on yellow school buses. Our coaches were our PE teachers. We didn't have assistant coaches. You know, we carried our own water bottles, you know, all those kinds of things.

And, when I got a chance to really compete at the collegiate level, it just really spurred something else in me to want to do a little bit more, and I just really got very lucky and feel very blessed that, you know, God just kept putting me in the right direction at the right time. So it led to some good things for me.

MARTIN: Speaking of timing, I understand that your team at Queens College was the first women's team to play in Madison Square Garden. Do I have that right?

BEVERLY: You have that right. Yes, we were.

MARTIN: And people said that nobody would come watch?

BEVERLY: That's exactly right. They didn't think that anyone would come to see a women's game, so we were booked as the prelim for two additional men's games to play at the Garden. And our head coach, Lucille Kyvallos, who at that time was renowned, and was very progressive, said to them, oh, you don't think anyone will come and watch us? Well, you know what? I challenge everyone that is coming to see just the women's game, who's there to support the women, when our game is over, I want you to leave. And so we come out to play our game and I think they were over 12,000 people there. We were just ecstatic. And when the game was over there were maybe one or two thousand people in the arena.

MARTIN: So they did it.

BEVERLY: They did it.


MARTIN: But were breaking your own boycott. Come on...


MARTIN: Hopefully somebody got their strategic thinking together and said, wait, we should go too. You know, before your senior year, though, you decided to accept an offer to play in France. And I remember that that apparent, first of all, that that was considered kind of shocking at the time and news making at the time. But even your own father was upset?

BEVERLY: I didn't think it was ever going to speak to me again. He never really communicated what his concerns were. He was just totally against me going, couldn't even conceive that this could be a real reality for me. And he just wouldn't speak to me. We barely had collegiate coverage, forget about going off to France to play professional basketball. So it was quite a battle in my home to make him understand that I was going, whether he understood it or not. And you know, back in those days you didn't do that, and I went.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Sharon Beverly. She is the athletics director at Vassar College in New York. She's also a pioneering women's basketball player and coach. You went on to play for the New Jersey Gems, which was a precursor to the WNBA. It was part of the Women's Basketball League. You played for one season, but that league only lasted for three seasons. And I'm wondering, you know, now, of course, the WNBA, which has had its struggles...


MARTIN: ...is still the longest running professional women's basketball league that we've had in this country. I just wonder, what do you think it was? Was it the timing, that people were just not ready for it?

BEVERLY: You know, a lot of things, I think, played into its demise. It was private funded, which was, you know, one concern. The other was we really didn't have in place the publicity that we have now, the marketing plan that we have now. You know, the fact that the NBA got behind it in the beginning was huge.

MARTIN: We are still in this time when, you know, girls have really made a presence in sports, particularly at the elementary school level, throughout the high school level, through the college level. And in the professional world, you know, individual sports like tennis, or figure skating, or gymnastics, maybe people can name standout figures that they like and that they follow. But it still seems as though women in team sports struggle still to be taken seriously. Do you share that perception? And if so, why do you think that is?

BEVERLY: I do share that perception. And I think again that the media has a lot to do with it. Our sports, such as tennis and gymnastics, they are sort of the glory sports. And when you think about some of the team sports - women's basketball, for instance - it's not getting the same recognition because it's not, I don't want to say in quotes, sort of like girly-girls sports. They're more the traditional rough and tough, you've got to really have an attitude when you come to the court sort of determination sport, or at least that's sort of the history to it. And maybe that plays a little bit to it. It's not that stereotypical sport that you'd like to see a woman in. I'm not sure. I know we excel at it...

MARTIN: Well, I don't know, though. The women - the level of athleticism in women's tennis is high. I mean it's true that in, say, figure skating and gymnastics, you know, people wear sparklies and stuff like that. I mean so let's just set, you know, there's that piece.


BEVERLY: Yes. Let's put them to the side.

MARTIN: Well, I'm not putting them to the side. I mean I do recognize the athleticism required. I mean but I'm just saying let's just set that piece to the side, that I think do people - even if they don't recognize it in, you know, figure skating and gymnastics, you can't deny the level of athleticism in women's tennis. Even to the point where women, those athletes have sometimes been ridiculed, as we know, like for their physicality and muscularity. Do you think it's because of the team aspect of it? Is it because those are sports that were pioneered by men? Well, so is men's tennis. I don't know. I don't know.

BEVERLY: I totally agree. I mean I don't want to give the perception that I don't think that there is athleticism in tennis and gymnastics because there truly is. I'm not sure why we tend to have a different perception of the team sports versus the individual sport. And I guess the only sort of idea that I was trying to share - not very well, clearly, was that I think that the individual sport may be in some folks' minds more of a female-acceptable position as opposed to a team sport. That's the only answer I can give you on that because I'm, I'm lost as well.

MARTIN: There are a number of stories involving sports that are making the headlines. And one of them I just have to ask you about, even though it doesn't pertain to women's sports per se. And I know - I think you know where I'm going with this...

BEVERLY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...is Penn State.


MARTIN: As a person who has been in a position of leadership on a college campus, do you have some insights here about why something like that could have happened and what could keep that from happening again?

BEVERLY: You know, I think that this whole scenario would've been looked at very differently and hopefully handled very differently if we were to have this break at a time like we are now in the present. We didn't look at these things the same way 20 or 30 years ago, which I think is sad. That's not to say that it wasn't happening, but we just didn't handle it the same way. I would like to think that we've all learned something, that what's very important is not just communication, but also follow-up. And at the end of the day what's important is that you do the right thing. And I think if all of those things had happened, you know, we wouldn't have had the scandal that we have now. But you know, I also feel that we have to realize there but by the grace of God go I, and we can't really judge, but we do have to look at it and try to say, what would have been a better process?

MARTIN: Hmm. Some analysts have looked at that and said here's the problem: The problem is sports, football in particular, were just too important on that campus and it became its own universe with its own rules. And then people look at that and they say, well, maybe women have it better in sport because as hard as women train, it doesn't become their everything. And there have been some scandals where coaches have been abusive toward athletes. I mean I think nobody can deny that...

BEVERLY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...in women's sports as well as men's sports, so let's not forget that. In fact, a veteran gymnast, Dominique Moceanu, who is one of the Magnificent Seven in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - won gold there - argues that, you know, her coaches were abusive in a new memoir.

BEVERLY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So I don't want to say that. But I do wonder if you feel that there's some - that might be true, that perhaps in some ways that even though many women who are in sports complain that women in sports aren't taken as seriously in some ways, maybe that's better because it doesn't become the be-all and end-all and people don't think they can just do whatever because it's, I don't know. What do you think?

BEVERLY: We do have a different perspective of it as women. I also don't think that the problem is just football. I think that this could have been at any institution. It could have been involving any sport. We've got plenty of top 20 schools where the football team is the - walks on water, so to speak. I would like to think that we as women can keep it in better perspective. Those truly were the goals of the original women that started the AIW, you know, back in '72, the league for women, which was the comparable league to the NCAA, because the NCAA didn't want us. You know, their goals were to make sure that we didn't go down this road of putting athletics above the quality of the student athlete experience. And so we have gotten away a little bit from that. I think sometimes when we have things like this we sort of need them as our check to make sure we put back in place what our priorities are, what our true vision and goals and what we're all about, to center us, so hopefully that'll be what happens from this scandal.

MARTIN: Just a couple more questions and thank you for taking the time. Many times when we speak with women who have achieved significant roles, significant public roles, there's this ongoing question, you know, of how did you do it, how did you manage to both achieve this level of professional success and also to have the other part of your life? I mean we mentioned that you are, you know, a mother as well. Do you mind taking that question on, if someone were to ask you that question, how did you do it? I mean some people bristle at the question, but I'm still going to ask because people do ask.

BEVERLY: Well, aren't we - women are used to multitasking. We've been doing it for years. You know, we're not just moms at home; we also are the CEO of our own home. We manage everybody's schedule. We get them there on time and ourselves on time. You know, as a mom yourself, you definitely understand that. I definitely feel that I am blessed and very fortunate to have folks around me to support what I'm trying to do. I don't think you can do it by yourself, whether it be a spouse, partner, significant other, family, close friends, you need that. I do believe it takes a village to raise a child. So I don't look at some of the things that I've been able to accomplish and say that I did them in a vacuum. I did them with a lot of, a lot of help, and really being able to have a lot of luck. So you combine both of those with hard work and that's kind of where it comes from.

MARTIN: What do you think has been the key to your success?

BEVERLY: I have an innate desire to win and be successful in at the top of whatever I do. Maybe it comes from a dad who, you know, didn't instill a lot of confidence in me. And so I just had to constantly push myself and had a really supportive mom and I've just always been competitive all my life. I don't know where it comes from, but whatever I do I want to be the top, I want to win, and I want to be the best. And I just constantly try to figure out how to make that happen.

MARTIN: We call this segment Wisdom Watch, where we ask our guests to impart whatever wisdom they care to, speaking to whoever they wish to, particularly somebody who might be a younger you. What kind of advice do you wish you had had?

BEVERLY: I wish that someone had said to me don't ever give up on your dreams. You know, I read a lot. When I say I like to read a lot, I read as a young person, you know, Vince Lombardi. I read inspirational books. I loved Dean Smith. I read anything that I could get my hands on. I strongly loved Coach John Wooden. And so I believed in my dreams. I didn't let anyone stir me from them. And I would say the same thing to young folks out there. You know, find a mentor, find someone who can help you plot your course of action. Plot a plan for you to achieve your goals and then don't let anyone stray you from them. Be steadfast and focused and narrowly focused and it'll happen for you. And I do believe in seeking out a good mentor who can sort of help you along the way. But you've just got to believe. As the New York Mets said when they won their championship, you got to believe.


MARTIN: Sharon Beverly is the athletics director at Vassar College. She is a former professional basketball player, a longtime coach. She was kind enough to join us from Poughkeepsie, New York.

Dr. Sharon Beverly, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BEVERLY: Thank you so much for inviting me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.