Open Letter to Stanford Women’s Basketball Alums

The following article appeared in the Stanford Women’s Basketball Alumnae newsletter, May 2011.

Today I gave a speech about nonprofit management. As soon as I finished, a man eagerly raised his hand. “Did you play for Tara?” he asked.

This happens all the time. Everywhere I go, people want to talk Stanford hoops. Kate Starbird. Candice Wiggins. The Ogwumikes. Beating UConn’s streak. Even that scary tree.

It’s my own darn fault. I proudly include my Stanford basketball story in my bio. I’ve written about sports at length. My body itself – at six-two – makes its own bold statement, prompting the question, “Did you play basketball?” – or, when I was younger, “Do you play basketball?”

But this is also your fault, my Stanford sisters. You’re the ones who made Cardinal basketball famous. My teammates and I pried the “Men Only” signs off the Maples Pavilion doors, then marched defiantly inside. You blew those doors off their hinges. Thousands of fans (and one dancing tree) streamed into that merry arena, eager to celebrate your many achievements.

That’s who I meet: your fans.

Funny, we never thought about fans in the seventies. We never anticipated your popularity. We just wanted access. Equal coaching, training, recruiting, scholarships, uniforms, and travel. Equal rights. Equal respect.

In an era of daily insults and exclusions, sports were becoming a symbol of women’s nascent power. When I arrived at Stanford in 1974, Billie Jean King had just beaten Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised tennis match (1973). Title IX had just passed (1972). A poster in my dorm (Larkin) showed a photo of women running, swimming, and cycling. “Women in Sports,” it read. “WE CAN.”

Yes, we can, and yes, you did. Because of you, I meet people all over the country whose lives have become more exciting, hopeful, and inspired. They tell me about watching you, admiring you, wanting their daughters – and sons – to be like you.

I, too, am a fan of yours – and not only because you make my resume look good. You have taken the Stanford program farther than we pioneers dreamed possible. You probably played (as we did) for the love of the sport, but because of your strength, spirit, and success, you helped transform the way society perceives women, and how we all perceive ourselves.

Thank you!

Mariah Burton Nelson

More from Mariah about Stanford women’s basketball history.


One Response to “Open Letter to Stanford Women’s Basketball Alums”

  1. Pat Says:

    Mariah- what a great message! Like you I was a pioneer in bball back in the day when we still fought for gym space. But times have changed. My daughter just graduated from med school AND my niece just won her second state high school rugby championships in Minnesota. Thanks for standing tall and leading the way, so that girls today can slam dunk their own dreams.

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