3.14.2013

Wilt Stands Up for Women's Basketball



March 26, 1978

Today we fall into combat with Wilt Chamberlain. At issue is women's basketball. Chamberlain says it's exciting and deserves to be on television and ought to be playing to full houses. Anybody who is 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds commands attention. So I listened thoughtfully. Now, out of his reach and locked in a hotel room, I can say Wilt has hit his head on too many rims.

All this came up the other night when the University of Maryland women's basketball team beat Wayland Baptist, 90-85, in a semifinal game of the national championship tournament. There, in a front-row seat, bigger than a building, was Wilt Chamberlain, the all-time leading scorer, all-time leading rebounder, all-time world's LARGEST-male chauvinist.

And what, in the name of Naismith and Cousy and all that's holy in roundball heaven, was The Dipper doing at a women's basketball game? In his autobiography, Chamberlain revealed a seeming devotion to the idea that women are utilitarian objects on earth only for his sexual pleasure.So I asked what brought him to courtside.

"I like basketball, my man," Chamberlain said. "This is tremendous. These girls can play. This is as good as watching the Lakers. If I'm going to watch the Lakers, I'll watch this.

"That little guard for Maryland (Tara Heiss) was up and down the floor all night long. She never stopped. And I was impressed with their center (Kris Kirchner), She was very intense. You can't tell me that No. 13, the redhead (Debble Jones), can't play basketball."

Almost 8,000 customers had paid from $3 to $5 a ticket in the 13,000-seat Pauley Pavilion. The empty seats bothered Chamberlain.

"I don't see why they don't fill it now," he said. "They will as soon as you guys give them the press they deserve. If they could have the quarter-finals of the men's tournamnet on television, there's no reason they shouldn't get the semis of the women on. You can't tell me that wasn't an exciting basketball game tonight."

No, I couldn't.

Cowardice was why.

Now, from behind my locked door, I can say it was not an exciting game. Not to a guy who has been paid to see a thousand men's games. Undoubtedly, the 8,000 customers had fun. They made a lot of noise as Maryland came from behind in the last seven minutes to win. In victory, the Maryland women danced on the court, hugging each other. It was a wonderful scene.

And that's what I liked most about the night. These women are as yet unspoiled by the Big Time. A certain naivete accompanies them. The first thing Kris Kirchner did after scoring 30 points against Wayland was dash off the court and get Wilt Chamberlain's autograph. When is the last time you see a Big Time hero go into the crowd to get an autograph?

"Sign this," Kirchner told Chamberlain, one big center to another. She held out a cap.

Wilt recognized the intense one. "Congratulations to you," he said and began to write his name.

"No, no, sign it here," Kirchner said, twirling the cap until she found a picture of Donald Duck dribbling a basketball. The dashing duck wore jersey 13, Wilt's old number. Smiling, The Dipper put his autograph around Donald's head.

The game, in contrast, was forgettable. The women are limited in what they can do.

Limited by strength.

They cannot jump well. Their lateral movement is slow. And while they run well, they can not stop well, which is to say they often teeter offbalance at the end of a sprint. Their body control is terrible.

All of those things deal with strength of the legs' largest muscles.

So, for that matter, does shooting. The women are sensational inside 10 feet. Outside 10 feet, they are not good. The women's all-time leading scorer, Carol Blazejowski, was advertised as something of a - for lack of a better description - "man's shooter." That is, she could put up a jump shot from anywhere.

Forget that. Women favor a kind of hop shot, not a jumper. They barely leave the floor, pushing the ball up in the same motion. That's because they're not strong enough to leap high, keep their bodies perpendicular and then, with the wrists, mostly, flip the ball at the basket.

So most of the women's shooting comes near the basket. Maryland and Maryland Baptist made 71 field goals the other night. Of those, only 13 came from outside 10 feet while 30 came from inside four feet. The game was one long layup contest.

Now, maybe that's exciting to women who for too long have been relegated to tiny gyms and regarded as oddballs for participating. They're coming out of the darkness now, and almost 8,000 people paid to see them play here the other night. For the first time in its seven-year history, a large state university has won the women's national championship. Film of the championship game will be on television today.

Yes, the overdue acceptance of women athletes is exciting. But not the game itself. As unappealing as the offense is to basketball afficiandos, the defense is worse. The women know the game and work at defense. They just can't play it. They stand still. They lack the quickness to move with the offensive player. Once beaten, they aren't quick enough to recover.

That is a matter of leg strength. Somewhere sometime a coach will put the women's basketball team on a strenuous weightlifting program for four years. That team will win a ton of games.

The primary flaws in the women's game now are weak hands (at the slightest touch, the ball is knocked loose) and weak legs (few women can jump very high, none land and go high a second time). Weightlifing programs will change that.

For now, excitement comes only occasionally. A quick guard like Tara Heiss is a joy to watch. UCLA's Ann Meyers, a four-year All-America, is an aggressive and strong forward. Sometime soon, we'll see teams full of their kind and then I'll look up Chamberlain and tell him how right he is.

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