Within the last week, we witnessed prime examples, literally and figuratively, of the broadening scope and reach of sports in our community and our country.
Locally, the University of Central Arkansas’ Megan Herbert and David McFatrich and Hendrix’s Jim Kelly were honored with Pitts-Delph Awards by the Conway Athletic Awards Commission. The Elijah Pitts Award for lifetime achievement and the Marvin Delph Award for Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year are among the highest honors an athlete can receive in Conway. It includes having some of their memorabilia placed in a permanent exhibit at the Faulkner County library.
Herbert plays women’s basketball. McFatrich coaches women’s volleyball. Kelly has coached Hendrix’s swimming and diving teams for more than three decades. All all these individuals coach sports that are slightly or significantly off the radar of most sports fans — far from the scope of big-money, huge TV ratings and contracts and major endorsement packages. It’s a major achievement that each, sometimes boldly, often quietly, has earned a place in the spotlight by their dedication, hard work and accomplishments on the court and at the pool.
Nationally, race car driver Danica Patrick has won the pole for the Daytona 500.
Think about that for a minute. Think about whether you would have believed it if someone had told you 10 or 15 years ago that a female driver would be at the pole position in what is considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR.
Patrick is one of the most physically attractive female sports figures of her time and has earned major endorsements because of that. She’s appeared in a swimsuit in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
But she’s not just another pretty face. She’s a good and skillful driver. Bad drivers don’t earn the pole at Daytona.
Monday, two of the top-ranked women’s basketball teams in the country, No. 1 Baylor and No. 3 UConn, played a late-season, nonconference game before a sellout crowd of more than 16,000 in Hartford, one of the hottest tickets in sports in the northeast this month.
It was a fast-paced confrontation of two great teams that typically made each other look bad at times.
The game, won by Baylor, was good for women’s basketball.
The fact that two teams who are very likely to meet again in the national finals or semifinals agreed to play each other in prime time so late in the season is a tribute to both and the steadily rising appeal of women’s basketball.
UConn’s consistent excellence has had a lot to do with it. So, has Baylor’s Brittney Griner (who many now rate as the best overall college women’s player ever), who has become a rock star in women’s basketball.
Griner, 6-foot-8, who is now in double-figure dunks for her college career, has more than 3,000 points, more than 600 blocks and more than 1,200 rebounds for a career.
She has changed the women’s game to the degree that Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar changed the men’s game.
It’s played closer to the rim and it’s much more physical and is generally called much looser. It’s interesting to watch how other teams play Griner and the pounding she takes every game. My wife, after viewing a game personally, said it was like watching a swarm of gnats attack a beast. And some players get away with stuff that would get them arrested outside the arena in any town in America. But realizing officials can’t see or call everything, it’s all the opponents can do. It’s what you used to see in games involving Chamberlain, Jabbar, Shaq and every other giant in the NBA.
Large crowds arrive early for Lady Bears’ games, even on the road, to see Griner put on a legal dunking exhibition before the officials appear on the court. Spectators scramble to front stands and the edge of the court and fire away like paparazzi with cameras and smart phones. News conferences are often packed.
When Griner shows up at a restaurant or a mall, she is reportedly swarmed by autograph-seekers. And she takes the time to sign anything and everything.
There is a life-sized poster of Griner, with her arms outstretched, at Baylor’s Ferrell Center. Youngsters of all ages can be seen jumping up and down and stretching their arms to see if they measure up.
A few adults can be observed, sneaking up to the poster, slowly gazing about to see if any friends are watching, then stretching their arms to match the wingspan.
Former UConn star Rebecca Lobo, now a ESPN commentator who was one of the greatest to play the women’s game herself, had this tweet Monday after the game, “Hope women’s college bb fans understand how special Brittney Griner is. Only 6 more weeks to watch her as collegian.”
We’re living and experiencing a special time.
We’re seeing a cultural shift in athletics that reflects what is happening in society. Barriers continue to be broken.
It won’t be long before we wonder why those barriers existed in the first place.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at email@example.com or 505-1235)