Perspective | As Caitlin Clark breaks all the records, the NCAA can correct its own

Perspective | As Caitlin Clark breaks all the records, the NCAA can correct its own

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

The NCAA badly needs a victory, and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is trying to hand it one, if the hole-dwelling gollums who keep the record book will only seize it. Tickets to see Clark’s last regular season collegiate game have gone for as much as $877, which seems almost worth it to witness the shot she brandishes with such a combination of darting and languor. The NCAA should honor the architects of that stroke, acknowledge those who built her burgeoning game, and quit claiming false credit.

It’s fun to live through a historical phenomenon, isn’t it? To witness a performance so sustainedly aerodynamic that it signals a lasting cultural uplift. That’s what Clark is accomplishing, as she approaches Pete Maravich’s NCAA Division I points record with her logo three-pointers, all gathered tension and then free unwinding and ruffling of the net. But Clark’s performances couldn’t come without the elevations of the past, and especially without the surehanded 62-year-old coach Lisa Bluder, one of the original pathfinders of the women’s game.

Bluder has kept Clark’s head and body so straight in the face of double teams and jersey grabs all year, so consistently in alignment, feet, hips, elbow, wrist and flow.

Yet NCAA record-keepers don’t acknowledge women’s basketball existed before it took the game over in the 1980s. Exactly when do they think women acquired their knowledge of the game? From online seminars?

“For some reason, the NCAA doesn’t want to recognize the basketball that was played prior to 1982, and that’s wrong,” Bluder said this week, after Clark passed what Bluder called “the real record” for women’s major collegiate scoring. That was set by the smoother-than-licorice Lynette Woodard at Kansas from 1978-1981, under the AIAW, before the NCAA deigned to care.

“We played basketball back then,” Bluder added. “They just don’t want to recognize it. That hurts the rest of us that were playing at that time.”

Correcting the record should be the easiest thing in the world. The NCAA can use some goodwill to break its cycle of doom. It should reverse its position, stage a ceremony at the upcoming Final Four to pay tribute to the fall of the “real record.” Those pre-1982 generations of women formed the AIAW only because the NCAA did all it could to thwart, suppress and starve them. Rectify the past and give credit where it’s deserved — to the people who handed the NCAA such a gift, the polished and popular generation of players exemplified by Clark.

“We aren’t talking about this enough,” observed ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a transformative player in her own day, on X. “The NCAA should not only acknowledge the records but embrace the AIAW era. It’s part of the history of women’s basketball (and the right thing to do.).”

Instead, it’s been left to Clark herself to pay proper respect. She went out of her way to talk about Woodard and the AIAW after she scored 33 against Minnesota to pass Woodward this week. “I think it just speaks to the foundation that these players have laid for us to have opportunities to be able to play in environments like this, in front of crowds like this,” Clark said.

The undergraduate showed a better sense of gratitude and history than any NCAA overlord.

The force of Bluder’s remarks on the subject are a clue to the passion she and her coaching colleagues feel about the way the NCAA has blotted out and marred their personal pasts by obstinately clinging to its weird line in the sand. These women had no “coaching trees.” No mentors. They learned the game from the floor up as AIAW players, and they picked up strategy from purloined male coaching manuals and playbooks and translated it as best they could to each other.

There won’t be a coach or player in this Final Four who wasn’t formed, influenced or touched in some way by the AIAW years. Bluder was a three-year starter at Northern Iowa from 1979-1983, after which she took a job at tiny St. Ambrose. She learned to coach by spending her summers working the basketball camps of C. Vivian Stringer, who built Cheyney State into an AIAW powerhouse. The formative years of Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, the career victories leader, were spent as a guard from 1973-1975 at Indiana, where she reached an AIAW Final Four, and in between her own practices would watch Bob Knight’s from the bleachers and sketch plays in her notebook.

Then there was one Kim Mulkey, who with a braid like a bullwhip led Louisiana Tech to a 130-6 record and won two national championships: an AIAW title in 1981 and the inaugural NCAA title in 1982, after the men executed a hostile takeover of the game, once they saw it had become a televisable entity on NBC. Mulkey is the only person in college basketball history — men’s or women’s — to win nattys as a head coach, an assistant coach and a player. But go ahead, whack off half her collegiate accomplishments, simply because she didn’t play all four years under the right “governance” body.

The list goes on and on. Blot out the AIAW, and there goes Debbie Ryan, who went almost straight from her playing career as a point guard at Ursinus to a head coaching job at Virginia in 1977, where she merely did the following: In 1981 she gave a promising young guy named Geno Auriemma a start as an assistant coach, and then mentored a point guard named Dawn Staley.

The AIAW was simply a result of enforced penury. That’s all it was. Its members lived on the same campuses and played on the same wood floors and shot the same ball as their male NCAA counterparts. “Maybe the NCAA will realize that now,” Bluder said. “Maybe it will be brought to their attention, and they will start recognizing those women who played in the ’70s.”

Maybe that will be another of Clark’s lasting contributions to the record book. She not only represents the game’s new standard, but she has shined a welcome light on so many past careers and standards, from Woodard’s, to Maravich’s, to Bluder’s. Sports record debates can become reductive shouting, trash-talking bar arguments, but Clark’s senior season has seemed like one pleasantly continuous tribute to hoops history.

The NCAA’s old guard is always fighting from behind the times. It scrambles to address court storming only after someone gets hurt. It acknowledges NIL rights only after it gets trounced repeatedly in court. It puts more effort into preserving the wrong thing than doing the right one, especially in its chronic maltreatment of women’s basketball. This is a chance for the NCAA, for once, to get in step with the flow of history.

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