In this docuseries, we are working to preserve the stories of those that built the foundation of college women’s basketball throughout the United States.
Our travels this week took us to Southern California to capture stories of how women’s basketball grew on the west coast before the years of the NCAA. On Tuesday, Sep. 13th, UCLA was our host for a day of interviews with those involved in the storied history of the Bruins and other prominent programs in the region.
Violet Palmer grew up in LA and was drawn to Cal Poly Pamona to play for the legendary Darlene May. Besides building a basketball dynasty as a coach, the late May was the first female official to referee a men’s international basketball game. Not coincidentally, Palmer was also the first woman to referee in the NBA. Interestingly, Palmer’s mother played basketball in high school in Louisiana in the 1940s. She is now the mother of several college basketball players and remains a lifelong basketball fan.
Colleen Matsuhara’s father coached a women’s basketball team of Japanese Americans in the 1940s after they were released from the internment camps of World War II. Colleen grew up playing basketball in the Japanese League in Sacramento and she went on to coach some of the greatest players in the game alongside some of the greatest coaches in history. Her contributions are critical and often forgotten in women’s basketball history though she is considered a leader and role model for Asian-American women, and an inspiration for all.
In 1978, UCLA became the first large university to win an AIAW National Title. 1976 Olympian Ann Meyers was a senior, the incredibly talented Anita Ortega was a junior and high-scoring Denise Curry was a freshman on that team. Billie Moore was the Head Coach and we met with her on Wednesday.
All three players joined us for interviews at UCLA. Ann Meyers has continued to contribute to women’s basketball throughout her career as a broadcaster and vocal historian. Anita Ortega served an important leadership role as a Puerto Rican / African American woman who rose up the ranks in the LAPD for 20 years. She also still referees college women’s basketball games. Denise Curry played professionally overseas when there was no league in the US and coached and mentored young women when she returned.
Joan Bonvicini grew up in Connecticut and played basketball for the successful Southern Connecticut team in the early 1970s under the legendary Louise O’Neal. When she was invited to play in a basketball league in Southern California, she never went back. She coached under Darlene May at Cal Poly Pomona, then helped build the Long Beach State program into a national power through relentless recruiting. She went on to have a successful career coaching at The University of Arizona and now is a broadcaster for the Pac 12 Network.
A big thank you to Pam Walker and Jaelynn Penn who helped to arrange our space at UCLA and took great care of the If Not For Them / Real Media crew during the day.