Knoxville-home of Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

Knoxville (Tennessee) is a city of almost 200,000 people and full of surprises.  It was a central focus of East Tennessee’s intention to become a separate, Union-loyal state during the Civil War.  It is a focal point of Southern Appalachia and its pervasive country music culture.  Knoxville is also the birthplace to more than its share of famous people: Hollywood writer and director Quentin Tarantino, movie star and cosmetics magnate Polly Bergen and internationally famous writers Alex Haley and James Agee.

A final surprise was the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame located in downtown Knoxville.  It’s a 32,000 square foot building which has on one end the world’s largest basketball.  Located on the north end of the hall the ball weighs 10 tons and sits above a staircase, which is designed to look like a basketball net.

Largest Basketball in the world - Photo Courtesy WBHOF

Statue in Foyer of Hall of Fame ©R. Basch 2011

Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

Inside the Hall of Fame is a 17-foot bronze statue of 3 women playing basketball in the South Rotunda, sculpted by Elizabeth McQueen, to reflect the Hall’s mission to “Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present and Promote the Future” of women’s basketball.  The sculpture shows a child representing the future in play clothes, an adult female in a current basketball uniform and an aged player with the uniform design from the 1890’s all playing basketball.

Women playing basket ball, as it was called then, must have seemed a pretty outrageous idea at the end of the 19th century.  After all “Horses sweat, Men perspire and Ladies glow” was the common idea about exercise in those days. But in 1892, just after James Naismith used peach baskets to create the game for men in 1891, a female version of the men’s game was created at Smith College in Massachusetts.  Basket ball was introduced by Sandra Berenson, a physical education teacher at Smith.  She is referred to as the mother of women’s basketball.

History of women’s basketball

Because it was thought unladylike to run, there was no running in women’s basketball and no dribbling.  Instead, the court was divided into three zones and the women simply passed the ball to each other.  “It must have been pretty boring,” said Dana Hart, the Vice-President of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.  “There was also no stealing the ball.”  There were three players on a side.  The only action was to pass the ball back and forth until someone was able to throw it into one of the peach baskets.  The basket was closed at the bottom, so after a basket was made, someone would come out with a ladder and retrieve the ball. The game would resume with the passing of the ball again!  Boring indeed.  The girls wore long linen skirts and middies, a long shirt, and wool stockings along with lace up boots, not the most comfortable uniform for playing. Men were prohibited from watching the women play basket ball at Smith.  Much too exciting, stimulating for the boys!

Women's Basketball attire in 1892 ©R. Basch 2011

In the first intercollegiate women’s game the score was 2 to 1.  It was played between Stanford and the University of California at Berkley. “There must have been a lot of time taken up in passing the ball,” says Dana Hart.  Apparently the rule prohibiting men was only at Smith for there was no word that men were prohibited from this game.

Women’s basketball remained as a three zone game until 1938 when it became a two court game with 6 players, 3 forwards and 3 guards.  This change came to reflect the necessities for women spawned by the terrible depression of the 1930s and the Second World War.  Women were becoming freer, less limited by the conventions of the Victorian era. Then came the Second World War.  The War made it necessary for women to go to work in factories and mills to support the home front.  Suddenly, women running on a basketball court seemed natural as an after work past-time.  During this time period, women were wearing conventional, modern basketball outfits.

All American Red Heads feature - Photo Courtesy WBHOF

All-American Red Heads

In the 1930s a team was born which, like the Harlem Globetrotters, began playing local men’s teams around the country.  The All-American Red Heads traveled the country playing and often beating men’s teams.  It was required that all the players had red hair to be on the team.  If they didn’t naturally have red hair they had to dye their hair!  Mrs. Doyle Olson, owner of a chain of beauty shops in and near Cassville, Missouri, founded the Red-Heads as an idea to promote her salons in 1936.  They played full court basketball against men’s teams all over the United States.  The team played from 1936 to 1986 when they were disbanded.  In 1950 they won 129 games of 169 played all against men’s teams.  They always won at least 100 games a season and created an entertaining version of show basketball.

Women’s basketball continued being a two court, six player game until 1972, when Title IX became law.  “Title IX stated that by law you have to have equal opportunities in men’s sports as in women’s sports.” says Dana Hart.  This meant the end of the two court, 6 player system and women’s basketball became a full court 5 player game.
This was the beginning of the women’s movement.  Helen Reddy was singing “I am Woman” and Germaine Greer’s published “The Female Eunuch” close to this time.  Things were happening, changing for women.

The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is honoring All-American Red-Heads in June as “Trailblazers of the Game”.  The hall even sells a souvenir program from 1999, when there was the first of several recurring reunions for the Red Heads. The WBHOF opened in 1999 in downtown Knoxville as an international museum.  The Hall development was a public and private campaign to raise funds for the building.  Knoxville considers the WBHOF a crown jewel in downtown Knoxville.

You’ve come a long way, baby…

When I asked Dana Hart for her sense of where women’s basketball is today she replied, “The sky’s the limit.  Today women can have a career in basketball, they can play in the WNBA, they can play in the international arena, there are coaching opportunities, and there are broadcast opportunities.  They can choose their own path.”

“Average salaries are $65,000 in the WNBA with the highest being $92,000.  It’s possible for a coach to make up to $2,000,000 a year.  In the international leagues they can make over $100,000 per season.    Since the WNBA plays in the summertime and the international leagues play in the winter many women play in both leagues” according to Josh Sullivan, the Hall’s Director of Basketball Relations.

When it comes to Women’s basketball, “You really have come a long way, baby!”

Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame
“Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present, Promote the Future”
700 Hall of Fame Drive
Knoxville, Tennessee 37915

Richard Basch

Guest contributor, Richard Basch, is a writer/photographer based in Washington, DC.  He has been  a professional photographer and video producer in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, CA.  He has taught for the Smithsonian Institution, Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and Chapman University.

Richard has been published in “The Baltimore Sun”, “The Arizona Star”, NPR’s “Savvy Traveler”, “Modern Maturity”,’s “Mexico Insider”, and other publications.  His website is