Numlock Sunday: Kate Fagan on the untold cinematic history of women's basketball
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Kate Fagan, the author of the new book Hoop Muses: An Insider’s Guide to Pop Culture and the Women's Game, out this week. Kate is a brilliant writer and outstanding sports journalist, and this new book is a stylish and rollicking history of women’s basketball from the earliest eras of the game to the far-flung future of the W.
The book is gorgeous — I’ve included some of the art in here — and is categorically one of the most interesting histories I’ve read about a sport. A motivation of Kate’s when she wrote the book was the scarce cinematic history of the women’s game, and the book delivers all sorts of tales and lore from over a hundred years of sport.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You are the author of a brand new book all about the history of women's basketball, all the way from the very founding of basketball to the future itself. Can you tell folks a little bit about Hoop Muses?
Yeah, Hoop Muses: An Insider’s Guide to Pop Culture and the Women's Game, it's illustrated by Sophia Chang. It's really colorful and fun and poppy, and we tell stories from history, but we also try to do it in a really fun, joyful way. All the illustrations, even if they're time periods that in your mind might seem grainy and distant, Sophia makes everything pop. The book aims to both tell a lot of the stories throughout the history of women's basketball, and women who were playing the game in places that we didn't even know of. Then it also takes that pop culture element, we bring in some iconic ‘90s movies or video games that were about men's sports, and we try to retell them about what if Hollywood was telling women's sports stories, and what if video games were telling the stories of women in sports? It was trying to be an all-encompassing, fun bible of women's basketball.
Yeah, it's so ambitious and it's really gorgeous. I'm glad that you called out the illustrator up front because it is just such a really cool piece of work in general. Where did the idea come from?
Well, I mean I had played college basketball and I worked at ESPN and one thing I've always focused on is why the women's sports and the place in culture is so much different than men's sports. There are all kinds of reasons for that, but there are also a lot of structural reasons. One of them was the way that when it comes to men's sports, we are continually reinforcing the history of the stories of men's sports. By that, I mean we could never forget Babe Ruth, because there will be many Hollywood films about him and documentaries about him. That doesn't happen with women's sports. As soon as the history happens, it's almost kind of eroding as it's happening because it's not actually edified in our culture. I wanted to take my love of women's basketball and give it the treatment that you see men's sports receive with so many assets poured into it.
By that I mean money, to have an illustrator do the kind of treatment that you see all over men's sports in the way their posters are and their advertising is. I really wanted to create something that gave women’s sports that kind of treatment and really elevated its history to the same level that we mythologize men's sports as. That was the origin.
Then the key pieces were like, I really wanted to do it alongside someone who had played the game at the highest level and be able to make sure we told the stories that might have been missing from places I could find it. Then also having somebody like Sophia brought in on the project to make it as eye-popping as possible.
I think that's such a cool insight. I felt like I learned something new every single chapter, every single little mini section, too. You have some really fascinating stories in here, like this one about this group of women barnstormers who kind of swept around the country not unlike the Harlem Globe Trotters. That story was fantastic.
Yeah, I think that's what makes the book so interesting is not just the illustrations, but also the fact that the stories themselves, it's not like they're stale stories out of a textbook. These are stories that have that kind of Hollywood story arc where they're of a time period in a really magical way.
Some of them, as you mentioned, are these stories of these barnstorming teams. Some of them came out of Black Chicago and Philadelphia, and they toured for years all across America, or the All-American Redheads, who were actually in existence for numerous decades. Every player had to have their hair dyed red and they played against men. The stories from the road of these teams, you could imagine it being an HBO scripted show.
These little nuggets are buried in history where you could find them at every turn, yet they have not been told and retold. Obviously you could find them in certain places, but they haven't transmitted to culture the way some of the men's stories have.
I found that in almost every decade I looked at.
You might think, "Oh, nobody was playing basketball in the 1940s." Then you find the state of Iowa — their state tournament had 7,000 people attending it in the 1930s and ‘40s. I was bringing to light all of these stories that had a dynamic, scripted quality to them, but nobody had really told them in this way before.
You keep on using the word cinematic, and I think that that's totally appropriate because the stuff that you unearthed in this book is phenomenal.
I loved a little bit more about how after basketball was founded, women were introduced to the game fairly quickly, but after a certain point the forces that be kind of kept them out. That wasn't the case on the West Coast. Do you want to talk a little bit about maybe how the earliest incarnations of the game emerged?
Yeah, it really is interesting, and maybe it's because I've been immersed in it that I find it so interesting. Right after the game is invented in 1891 by James Naismith — although that is in dispute — women immediately start playing it. The game was developed as a way to keep boys occupied in a gym. Part of it was to be less physical, and so women immediately adopted it because it wasn't the kind of physicality that football required. You immediately see, just down the road at Smith College in Massachusetts, women start playing it, but they can't really agree on the rules because some places want limited physicality, some want absolutely none.
Everywhere you look, as the game starts to grow in that first decade, you look to New Orleans and they're playing it in one style, limiting women even more. Then when the game gets all the way to the West Coast, they might be playing by men's rules, the Native American communities playing by men's rules.
There's this kind of fascinating time period where women and the people who administrated it couldn't really figure out how they wanted to play. Some great stories come out of the first game ever at the college level between Stanford and Cal. As is often the case of women's sports, both here domestically and when you look abroad, there's always a shutdown at some point.
In this case it was that most universities kind of took the stance that it was unladylike or unhealthy for women in some way. You see that when it comes to running marathons, women weren't allowed to do that because it was considered too taxing, and that existed when it came to basketball as well. Through the book we try to tell these really interesting stories about how women's sports at its outset was perceived and then how it was kind of shut down, and then how women kept playing it in these pockets anyway.
I imagine this is a good point to arrive at Title IX, which I think kind of forms like a BC and AD when it comes to the book. I'd love to hear your view of what happened to the game after that. I thought that the background that you had on that law was actually really fascinating.
Title IX, most sports fans would know that name, but for any who don't, it’s legislation that passed in 1972, and for sports purposes, it said that anybody receiving government funding for sports also had to receive equal funding for women's sports.
That definitely had a dramatic impact, although not as extreme as you would assume on women's college sports. The interesting history about that is, there's certainly an influx of money because before then, the money was virtually nonexistent, right? There are all these stories in women's basketball lore of famous coaches like Pat Summitt doing the laundry for her team and driving the bus because there was no money in this. It was basically the same as being a gym teacher who happened to also coach gold basketball. Then Title IX happens.
Just a fascinating aside to that that I learned in the process of writing Hoop Muses is that women governed women's sports for a very long time, including after Title IX, until 1982. That's when the NCAA — after years of trying to strike down Title IX in the courts because they were scared of what it might do, they had funded a war chest to try to legally overturn Title IX — once they realized that it wasn't going to happen and that it was codified beyond, in their eyes, repair, they turned and said, "Well, what we need to do is we need to be the overseers of women's sports so that we can govern them and limit the impact that Title IX has on men's sports."
That's been the existence at the college level, and it's affected everything for women. There's certainly been more money because of Title IX, but there's also been a severe limitation because of the NCAA's point of view and history and how it's viewed women's sports.
Yeah, that also reminds me of obviously one of the other big stories that you tell, which is about the creation of the WNBA, which was timed for an Olympics.
It was timed to coincide with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The NBA had poured a lot of money to create a women's dream team because in the previous Olympics in '92 in Barcelona, anybody who loved sports at that time remembered the dream team was Jordan and Magic and Bird.
The NBA wanted to own all basketball; not just men's basketball, they wanted to own women's basketball. They decided to come up with this plan and create this women's dream team and launched the WNBA on the backside of the Atlanta Olympics.
That coincided with another league on its own kind of organically starting, and the two of them, the ABL, the American Basketball League, and the WNBA, they represented very different things, but of course, as we now know, the WNBA and that kind of money and marketing behemoth that kept the WNBA alive essentially killed the ABL.
It's a phenomenal book because again, it looks a lot at the college game and at the professional game and a lot of the actual individual women who really served as the era-defining forces. Did you have a favorite story that you go into?
Well, I'm a ‘90s kid. I grew up with the ‘90s. So we read a lot about Pat Summitt in it, the iconic University of Tennessee coach. We have both a story that's more about her and then one that's more of a lore, like this story of this one road trip. It sort of stands as an example of her ethos and her resolve. Any time I can write or talk about Pat Summitt, I always really enjoy it, because she's just kind of that iconic person for me in my childhood.
Writing about her and talking to the women around her who were her assisting coaches at the time was just really enjoyable and in that one case sort of exemplary of the enthusiasm and joy I hope that permeates it, because it's coming from this place of a deep love for what the game has done for so many women.
You start the book and continue the book with this very significant eye for the future, very best as yet to come. Why did you take that perspective? Where do you think the game is going?
That was actually a really late addition to the process of the book. We kind of had a lot of the book done, and you'll know that that comic book art is both the beginning and end and talks about and takes you to the future of what the W might look like. The book's structure was chronological, which is fine, but I just thought the book itself was so creative, the illustrations and everything, and different, that I wanted a different framework and engine on it. I thought there was something very Hollywood about a lot of these stories. If I were a director, I wouldn't tell the story of women's basketball chronologically, exactly.
I would probably start us somewhere else and then have a kind of character who goes on the journey with us. That was the origin idea behind introducing this famous athlete from 2072, Jacqueline Jones, who's the highest paid W player, but doesn't know her history. I think when it comes to building that world, there was a lot of the technology elements. It was like, would you have flying cars and what iteration of phones would there be? The other idea in it was like, what makes professional sports successful? The only model we have is men's professional sports. In that case, it's all about money, it's all about contracts, franchise valuations. That was the one thing where I was like, this is the only way to convey to a reader what success looks like, because the only model we have is player contracts, franchise valuations, attendance.
I wanted to create a world where the W had really come to fruition.
Yeah, it's a great framing. The book is excellent. It's called Hoop Muses. Do you want to give folks the pitch for it and where folks can find it?
Yeah, it comes out on Tuesday, March 7. You can buy it anywhere. Obviously we would love if you bought it through your local bookstore or bookshop.org just to keep a lot of those brick-and-mortars afloat and keeping that bookshop culture alive. It will of course be on Amazon.
There's going to be an audiobook for it as well. I guess the end pitch is like, you can get it wherever you personally buy your books.
Amazing. All right. Then Kate, where can folks find you?
Well, I work for a company called Meadowlark Media, and we have a podcast network, and I have a podcast called Off The Looking Glass, which tells a lot of the stories of the history of women’s sports along with sketch comedy and interviews. I'm on Instagram @Katefagan3.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.