Twenty-eight hundred, seventy-seven-2,877-that's the number of spectators who showed up Sunday at Greensboro Coliseum to see Old Dominionhs once-beaten, No.1-ranked women's basketball team hold off No.2 Louisiana Tech for the AIAW championship.
That is the number-2,877-that sticks in Nancy Lieberman's throat like particles of a pretzel without a beer chaser. The uncomfortable feeling lingers. Neither the pleasure of the 76-65 win over Tech nor the satisfaction of playing in the first nationally televised, live, championship game can wash away the pain that number represents.
"It's embrassing," said Lieberman, the Old Dominion junior from Far Rockaway, N.Y., who was honored as a member of the Kodak All-American team. "There should have been 7,000 people there (in the 15,500-seat auditorium). I'm not comparing us with the mem. If I were, I'd say the place should'v been sold out.But 2,800 is embarrassing."
There are several valid reasons for the disappointing attendance. First, no local team was involved and Atlantic Coast Conference fans demonstrated just how parochial they are by the thousands of no-shows at the Penn-St. John's NCAA Eastern regional 10 days ago. Also, the game was televised and the tickets-for some inexplicable reason-were $10 apiece.
But Sunday's attendance-or lack thereof-is camouflage for the real problem. For all the AIAW administrators try to deny it, what really rankles is comparison to the NCAA.
"What people must realize is that the men are just bearing fruits of their labor now." said Lucille Kyvallos, Queens College coach and chairman of the AIAW basketball committee. "They started out as a fledgling, too, and it's not fair to make comparisons.
"We haven't even had the support of our culture unil just recently. We're only beginning to erase the stigma that it was good for men to be athletic but not women. Now we're just starting to fight for the (Title 9-generated) finances."
All along the way, the women athletes are bucking the men. Kyvallos asks, "Intrinsically, is it more important to a Larry Bird than to a Nancy Lieberman to compete. She's bursting a gut 12 months a year, practicing and working out on a Nautilus. And she doesn't have as good a support system as larry Bird has."
Lieberman, a two-time All America who was the youngest player on the 1976 Olympic team, is the obvious name to use when you make an example of the inequities between the men and women. But she is not alone. Most women feel it.
"Many people don't look at women's basketball as a sport," said Rosie Walker, a 6-foot-1 All-America center from Stephen F. Austin. "They think it's just to give us something to do.
"I know one men's college coach who said he'd rather watch grass grow than women's basketball. But his team is always losing. That's probably why he said that. He's jealous."
Jill Rankin, a super 6-3 cener at Wayland Baptist College in Texas, has had a different experience.
"They're sarcastic a lot of times," said Rankin. "They don't want to admit we can perform to our potential.
At the end of each season, Rankin and Walker and Lieberman hear the same refrain. "You've come a long way, baby." And they have . . . from the six-player-to-a-side rules, from the 16-team, four day national tournament which handed the AIAW championship to the winner of that marathon, from the pleated jumpers and bloomers that used to be de rigeur women's uniform.
But most of the growth, as Lieberman pointed out, has been internal. "We're progressing rapidly," she said. "But it's inner-game. The talent is getting better. We have better athletes."
The marketing of the game lags behind for serveral reasons. As Kyvallos noted, the AIAW is new at game and because of the NCAA's success, it is unable to make its mistakes in private.
Many of the AIAW administrators do not want to highlight basketball as the premier women's sport. Why should we decide, they reason, that a basketball player's expenditure of time and energy is more valuable and more worthy of recognition than a field hockey player's?"
It is an idealistic approach, but one that probably will go by the boards because of the internal and external pressures placed on the AIAW to come up to the NCAA's achievements.
For example, the AIAW has awarded next year's final-four site to central Michigan University. A rumble of dissent is building, however, to hold the chamipionship in a larger, more accessible site. Madison Square Garden is making a pitch to bring in the women's championships.
Maybe next year's final won't be played before 2,877. Maybe next year. Maybe.