From the Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics
From the Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gender equity got a major boost in 1972 when Congress passed Title IX legislation. Enacted in 1976, the law made it a crime for any educational institution receiving federal money to deny females the same rights as males, including in the field of athletic competition. The effects of Title IX have been far-reaching.
Since Title IX’s passage, female participation in interscholastic-intercollegiate sports has grown from a few hundred thousand annually to millions, U.S. Department of Education figures show. Once rare, female athletic scholarships are now proportionally the same as men’s. The amazing growth in female athletics — from the explosion of girls softball, soccer, swimming, track, volleyball and basketball programs to the birth of professional leagues to the capturing of Olympic gold medals — can be traced to Title IX. The legislation didn’t so much create great female athletes as legitimize them and provide an equal playing ground. It’s in this context Omaha’s black female athletes emerged on a broader stage than before.
Cheryl Brooks-Brown came along when fledgling athletic programs for girls were just evolving in the post-Title IX era. In local hoops circles, she was known for being a bona fide player. She got her game competing with boys on the courts near her home at 25th and Evans and with the Y-based Hawkettes, a select Amateur Athletic Union touring program for school-age girls founded and coached by the late Forrest Roper.
“I guess the ultimate complement for a girl is when you’re told, ‘You play like a guy,’ and I got that quite often,” she said. “I think I was a player that was before my time.” Wider recognition eluded her in an era of scant media exposure and awards for girls athletics. “That’s just the way it was,” she said.
For decades, Nebraska girls hoops was confined to intramural, club or AAU play. In the early ‘70s, the Hawkettes’ Audrey and Kay Boone, sisters of pro legend Ron Boone, were among the first local women to land athletic scholarships — to Federal City College in Washington, D.C. and John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo, Neb., respectively. When, in the mid-’70s, girls hoops was made a prep pilot program, Brooks got to compete her senior year (‘74-’75) for Omaha Central. In a nine-game season, she scored 20-plus points a game for the Eagles. It wasn’t until 1977 the Nebraska School Activities Association sanctioned full girls state championship play.
Brooks got two in-state offers — from UNO and Midland Lutheran College (Fremont, Neb.) She became the first black female to play at Midland, which competed then in the AIAW. Small college town life for a black woman in a sea of white faces presented “growing pains” for her, just as women’s athletics faced its own challenges. For example, she recalls the women’s team having to defer to the men’s team by practicing in the auxiliary gym. “Today, it’s much better, but athletics is still a male-dominated field. The battle’s still on,” she said.
An impact player ranking eighth all-time in scoring at Midland with 1,448 points, Brooks led the Warriors in nine individual categories as a sophomore and earned acclaim as one of the region’s best small college players as a junior. She led the Warriors to a 100-19 record over four years, including a berth in the ‘78 AIAW post-season tourney. She was selected to try out for a U.S. national Olympic qualifying team.
Her coach at Midland, Joanne Bracker, said the 5’9 guard’s “strength was her penetration to the basket. She was very offensive-minded. She had the ability to see the court extremely well. She was probably as good a passer as scorer. She would be competitive in today’s game because of her intense love and appreciation for the game and her understanding of the game. She’s a basketball junkie.”
After college, Brooks coached at Central, but her playing was strictly limited to recreational ball, as women’s pro hoops was still a decade away. The elementary ed grad has taught in the Omaha and Chicago public schools and was an adoption caseworker with the state of Illinois. She’s now back in Omaha, on disability leave, awaiting a kidney transplant. She’s done some recent coaching at the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club and continues working as a personal coach for a promising Omaha Benson player she hopes lands a scholarship, an easier task today than when she played.
“When I coach kids I tell them, ‘You don’t know how good you have it with all the opportunities you have.’ It’s unbelievable.”
By the time Brooks left Midland, a new crop of girl stars arrived, led by Central’s Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes, both of whom were premiere prep and collegiate players. At the head of the class is Ivy, arguably the best female player ever to come out of Nebraska. Her credits include: vying for spots on the U.S. Olympic squad; leading the Nebraska women’s program out of the cellar en route to topping its all-time scoring charts; starring in pro ball in Europe and America; anchoring national title Hoop-It-Up teams; and directing her own 3-on-3 tourney.
For inspiration, Maurtice looked to Cheryl Brooks, whom she followed into the Hawkettes and at Central. A 5’9 swing player, Maurtice combined with Haynes, a 6’0 all-court flash, in leading the Hawkettes to high national age-group rankings and the Eagles to two straight state titles.
From more than 250 college scholarship offers, Ivy selected then-lowly NU. The high-scoring, tough-rebounding playmaker became the first Lady Husker to top 2,000 points while being named first-team all Big 8 her final three years. She closed out a stunning collegiate career with Kodak All-America and Conference Player of the Year honors. As a senior, in 1987-88, she capped NU’s turnaround by leading it to its first NCAA tournament appearance.
Great players are born and made. Ivy earned her chops going head-to-head with boys.
“They were the ones that pushed me. They were the ones that made me,” she said. Her proving grounds were the cement courts at Fontenelle Park, across the street from her childhood home. There, she hooped it up with boys her own age, but didn’t really arrive until the older guys acknowledged her.
“They wouldn’t let me play for years. I had something to prove to them. Then, eventually, as my game improved…I proved it. The fellas were yelling my name to come across the street to the park. Once I got respect from the fellas, I knew I was there.”
Off the playground, her hard court schooling came via two men — the Hawkettes’ Forrest Roper, whom she calls “by far the best coach that ever coached me,” and her father, Tom, a former jock and youth sports coach who coached her in football. “I played middle linebacker for five years with my dad’s Gate City Steelers team,” she said. “He didn’t start me. I had to earn everything I got.” When not on the sidelines, “Pops” was courtside or trackside giving her “pointers and tips.”
Despite also competing in softball and track, basketball was IT. “That’s all I did — from the crack of dawn till the street lights came on,” Maurtice said. “That’s when we had to be inside. That was our clock.” The court was the place she felt most complete. “That’s where I found my peace. I was happy when I was out there. That’s what, as a child, brought me joy,” she added.
Her prowess on the court made her a star but her low-key personality and workmanlike approach tamped down any raging ego or showboat persona.
“I may have expressed myself out there, but I never wanted to tear anybody down,” she said. “I’ve always been pretty grounded. I expressed myself as a fighter…a warrior…a winner…a competitor. I had a blue collar work ethic out there. I did whatever I needed to do to get the W.”
The fire to win that raged inside was stoked by the heat of competition she braved every day. “I grew up around a lot of competitive people and it just challenged me to want to be a complete basketball player. I had people challenging me all the time and, so, either you sink or swim.”
Steeled early-on in the rigors of top-flight competition, Maurtice blossomed into a hoops prodigy. So rapid was her development that, at only 15, she made the U.S. Olympics Festival team and, at 17, she was invited to the 1984 Olympics tryouts in Colorado Springs. She was again invited to the tryouts in ‘88. Although failing in both bids to make the Olympics squad, she regards it as “a wonderful experience.”
“Still hungry for the game” after college, she pursued pro ball, playing two years in Denmark before joining the WBA’s Nebraska Express. In a five-year WBA stint, she twice won league MVP honors and led the Express to the league title in 1996. While her pro career unfolded before the women’s game reached a new level with the WNBA, she’s proud of her career. “I do think I’ve been a pioneer for women’s basketball. I’m always flattered when they compare players coming up now to me.”
Since retiring from the game, Ivy’s remained involved in the community as a mentor, YMCA program director, Head Start administrator and director of her own 3-on-3 Tournament of Champions. She’s also pursuing her master’s degree.
The hoops journey of the former Jessica Haynes (now Jackson) mirrored that of Maurtice Ivy’s before some detours took her away from the game, only to have her make a dramatic comeback. From the time she began playing at age six, she often went to great lengths to play, whether walking through snow drifts to the YMCA or sneaking into the boys club.
“I can honestly say basketball was my first love,” she said. “I’d wake up and I couldn’t wait to get to the gym.”
Another product of the Hawkettes program, she got additional schooling in the game from the boys and men she played with in and out of her own hoops-rich family. Her cousins include former ABA-NBA star Ron Boone and his son Jaron, a former NU and European star.
She recalls her uncles toughening her up in pickup games in which they routinely knocked her down and elbowed her in the ribs, all part of “getting her ready” for the next level. She tagged along with Ivy to the parks, where they found respect from the fellas.
“When they would choose us over some of the other guys to play with them, that was an honor. We were kind of like the pioneers” for women’s hoops,” said Jackson, who dunked by her late teens, although never in a game. LIke Ivy, Jackson was considered among America’s elite women’s players and was selected along with her to compete in the Olympic Sports Festival.
Originally intending to join Ivy at NU, Jackson opted instead for San Diego State University, where she was a first-team all-conference pick in 1986-87. “My strengths were speed and quickness. I was a slasher. I loved to go to the cup,” she said. Haynes, who played at the top of the Aztecs’ 1-3-1 zone, was a ball-hawk defender and fierce rebounder. Despite playing only three seasons, she ranks among the school’s career leaders in points, rebounds, steals and blocks.
Her career was cut short, she said, when harassment allegations she made against a professor were ignored by her coach and, rather than stay in what she felt was an unsupportive atmosphere, she left. She moved with her then-boyfriend to Colorado Springs, where he was stationed in the Air Force.
After the couple married and started a family, any thoughts of using the one year of eligibility she had left faded. But her love for the game didn’t. She played recreational ball and then, in the mid-’90s, earned a late season roster spot with the Portland Power pro franchise of the ABL. That led to a tryout with the L.A. Sparks of the newly formed WNBA. She got cut, but soon landed with the league’s Utah Stars, for whom she wore the same number, 24, as her famous cousin, Ron Boone, who’d played with the Utah Jazz.
To her delight, her game hadn’t eroded in that long layoff from top competition. “It came right back.” When a groin injury sidelined her midseason, she ended up returning to her family. Her last fling with the game found her all set to go play for an Italian pro team. Only she’d have to leave her family behind.
“I was at the airport with my passport and visa. My bags were checked. The reservation agent was searching for a seat for me. And then I looked at my daughter, who had tears streaming down her face, and all of a sudden I said, ‘I can’t go.’ I didn’t. I’m very family-oriented and I really feel in my heart I made the right decision,” she said.
Today, Jackson is the youth sports director at the South Omaha YMCA, where she coaches her daughter’s team, and a voluntary assistant coach at Central High. She hopes to coach at the next level.
In the annals of Nebraska prep track athletes, one name stands alone — Mallery Ivy (Higgs). The younger sister of Maurtice Ivy, Mallery dominated the sprints in the early ‘90s, winning more all-class gold medals — 14 — than anyone else in state track meet history. Her run of success was only slowed when injuries befell her at powerhouse Tennesee. So dominant was Mallery that she never lost an individual high school race she entered. She set numerous invitational and state records. She holds the fastest time in Nebraska history in the 100. She ran on the 400-meter relay team that owns the state’s best mark. The Ivys form an amazing sister act.
“There’s not a lot of siblings that have done what we’ve done,” Mallery said.
The two never seriously competed against each other, but their individual exploits influenced each other.
“I think there was a mutual respect we had for one another. Mallery is one of the best track athletes to come out of this state,” Maurtice said. “I encouraged her. And the reason I got in track is that Mallery started having some success. I was like, Wow, she’s bringing in way more medals than I am in basketball. And she got in basketball because of me. We didn’t really compete one-on-one. I think we had a couple races, but, to be totally honest, she probably would have beat me, especially in the 100 and 200.”
Three years younger than her sister, Mallery used Maurtice as a measuring stick for her own progress.
“Well, I was the baby, so I always had to follow on behind her footsteps. She was somewhat my drive,” Mallery said, “because if she excelled, I had to excell. If she did it, I had to do it, and do it better. There was not like a rivalry with us. We always wanted each other to do the best we could. We always had each other’s back. But because she held track records, I still had to compete with her times…and I had to beat them.”
For extra incentive, Maurtice made challenge bets with Mallery to best her marks. One year, a steak dinner rode on the outcome. “I was down to my last race, the 400, and she held the record…and I broke that record,” Mallery said. “She still owes me that steak.”
As with Maurtice, Tom Ivy was there for Mallery. He challenged her to races and put her through her paces. She further refined her running with the Midwest Striders, a youth track program that’s turned out many award-winning athletes.
“He was the one who wouldn’t let us let up,” Mallery said of their father. “If he would show up at practice, he would make comments like, ‘You gotta dig down and fight,’ and that made you fight a little bit harder. We couldn’t perform until we heard that voice, and then we were fine. I remember at one of my state meets being in the blocks and thinking, Oh, my God, my daddy’s not here, and then literally hearing his voice, ‘Let’s go ladies,’ just before the start. And I was like, All right, I’m cool.”
Mallery dug the deepest her final two meets when, not long before districts she came down with chicken pox. Badly weakened after sitting out two weeks, she barely qualified for state. A grueling training schedule for state paid off when she gutted out four victories in winning four all-class gold medals.
The Ivy sisters fed off the motivation their family provided. “They always reinforced we could do anything we put our minds to,” Mallery said. “They knew that whatever anybody told us we couldn’t do, we would do it.”
Like her sister, Mallery is community-oriented, only in Atlanta, where she lives with her husband and their two children. She works in an Emory University health care program aimed at preventing HIV, STDS and unplanned pregnancies and contracts with the country to counsel at-risk youths. The owner of her own interior design business, she’s back in school going for an interior design degree.
Many more women athletes of note have made an impact. Just in track and field alone there’s been Juanita Orduna and Kim Sims as well as Angee Henry, the state record holder in the 200-meter dash (24.52 seconds) and Mikaela Perry, the state record holder in the 400-meter dash (55.36 seconds). In hoops, there’s been the Hawkettes’ Deborah Lee and Deborah Bristol and Bryan’s Rita Ramsey, Annie Neal, Marlene Clark and Gail Swanson. More recently, there’s Bryan’s Reshea Bristol and Niokia Toussaint.
Point guard Bristol starred at the University of Arizona. As an All-Pac 10 senior she averaged 15.6 points and 7.5 assists. She led the league in assists and was second in steals. She ranks among UA’s all-time leaders in 12 categories. Drafted by the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting, Bristol later played in Europe.
Now, there’s softball standout Peaches James. The former Papillion-La Vista pitching phenom just concluded her record-setting Husker career and brilliant season-ending senior run by leading NU within two wins of the College World Series. She’s now playing professionally for the Texas Thunder in the newly formed National Pro Fastpitch League.
UPDATE: Since this article appeared more than a decade ago many more black female athletes of distinction have emerged in Nebraska, including Yvonne Turner, Dominique Kelley, Dana Elsasser, Mayme Conroy, Chelsea Mason, Brianna Rollerson. When my article was published the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame didn’t exist and now all of the women featured in the story are inductees there in addition to various school athletic halls of fame.
- President Obama Talks Title IX (whitehouse.gov)
- From ESPN’s celebration of Title IX’s 40th: (womenshoopsblog.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Gender Equity in Sports Has Come a Long Way, Baby; Activists-Advocates Who Fought for Change See Progress and the Need for More (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lisa Leslie: The First Daughter of Title IX (huffingtonpost.com)
- As Title IX turns 40, legacy goes beyond numbers (cnsnews.com)
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