COLUMBIA — The excitement and success surrounding South Carolina women’s basketball resulted in the Gamecocks leading the nation in home attendance last season.
Forty years ago, Martha Suber and Denise White were excited simply to put on a jersey with the occasional chance to play a game inside the Carolina Coliseum in front of a handful of people.
Suber and White (formerly Denise Nanney) were among the first 18 women to receive athletics scholarships at South Carolina in 1975, three years after the passage of Title IX.
“When I played my last high school game, I thought that was the end of my basketball career,” said Suber, a native of Whitmire. “I had lived for basketball growing up in the textile leagues. We had organized basketball from the time I was six years old going up through high school, but then it was over.”
“My high school didn’t have any sports, so I had to play city league and rec leagues,” White said. “When I found out that South Carolina had a girls basketball team, I was ready to go right then and pack my bags because I was always attracted to Frank McGuire and the boys basketball team. So the thought that I was going to get to go down there and be around them, I was ready to go.”
They played against some of the all-time greats, including Nancy Lieberman of Old Dominion, but the road to equality wasn’t always perfect.
“We all have to appreciate our history and know where we came from so we know where we’re going and appreciate what we have,” Suber said. “That was a powerful piece of legislation that changed a lot of things. At the time, we were just kids and didn’t know what it was about.”
The First 18
After the implementation of Title IX, South Carolina made 18 scholarships available for female student-athletes for the first time in school history in 1975, with three going to each of the six sports. Suber and White had already been playing at South Carolina before scholarships were offered.
Operating more like a club program previously, the women’s teams would now be under the direction of the athletics department.
“I remember there was rumor going around that there was going to be scholarships and everyone was wondering if they were going to get new people or are they going to keep the ones who are here,” White recalled. “We didn’t really know. It wasn’t what you’d call a full scholarship today, but we were happy with it.”
“It was just an honor,” Suber added. “My daddy was happy he didn’t have to write a check. A scholarship was like someone throwing a little gravy on top of the rice because we were just happy to be here playing.”
Suber and White had also played on the softball team, with Suber also previously playing on the women’s golf team. Most of their teammates were not on scholarship, but neither felt any additional pressure to perform because they were driven to play their best before they received the scholarship.
“I was pretty naïve to the politics that were going on at the time,” Suber said. “I was just a kid playing ball and having fun. Looking back, I realize there were a lot of folks who weren’t really pleased that money was being put into the women’s program. They were afraid it was going to take away from the men’s program. I was oblivious to all of that. I don’t know that there was any extra pressure.”
The women’s teams were called “the Chicks” for a short time, and the reviews of that nickname weren’t popular with everybody.
“That was embarrassing,” White said. “I didn’t like that name at all.”
Getting a scholarship was one thing, but these were still humble beginnings, especially compared to what student-athletes of today are accustomed.
“The used to kid me because I would wear black Chuck Taylor tennis shoes, and I still do,” Suber laughed. “We provided our own shoes and our own socks. They gave us a practice jersey and a uniform. We had a travel bag too. I still have my little bag.”
In addition to a lack of gear afforded to the student-athletes, travel conditions weren’t always ideal, especially in the years before the scholarships were given.
“I can remember some trips in my Volkswagen van getting us to and from games,” Suber said. “We provided our own transportation some times. Normally the university provided us with a van.”
“We’d be packed in their like sardines,” White said.
The student-athletes taped their own ankles most of the time, but the teams would later have access to a real athletics trainer.
There were other challenges as well.
“We were completely on our own as far as academics and keeping up,” White said. “When you had some away games in succession, it was kind of tough. Some of the professors just didn’t tolerate it.”
“Keeping up with academics was hard because we didn’t get cut any kind of slack,” Suber said. “We didn’t have tutors or a facility for helping us with our academics. “I remember some of the professors treating us harder because they didn’t want us to feel like we were getting special treatment.”
Today’s student-athletes have access to nutritionists and well-balanced meals. Things were different in 1975.
“Our coach used to love to feed us, and I used to love to eat,” Suber said and chuckled. “So we’d be getting ready to play a game, and we’d go to a steakhouse. There was no looking at our diets.”
This story provided by The University of South Carolina.