When Linda Sharp, coach of the University of Southern California women's basketball team, watched her players compete against a group of former Trojan players last week, she had trouble believing what she saw.
"My team was playing against some alumni from four or five years ago," Sharp related, "which isn't really that long ago. But I noticed that, player for player, the women I have now are taller, quicker and have more skills.
"Everyone on this team can shoot jump shots. Some of my former players still have to use set shots."
Concluded Sharp: "Most definitely, the girls and young women playing basketball can do things that their predecessors of a few years ago could only dream about."
Sharp is not the only one to see marked differences in women's basketball these days. Those who have followed the game closely in recent years conclude that, much as the men's game underwent a transformation the last few decades, so has women's basketball.
"When I was in high school (at Holy Names in Silver Spring), I was a 5-9 center who didn't have to worry about handling the ball," said Georgetown Coach Mary Briese. "Now you're seeing more complete ballplayers. You're seeing 5-11, 6-foot people who can play the point."
"In the last five years, we've seen a steady progression, an evolution," agreed Marianne Stanley, coach at Old Dominion. "We're getting better athletes. They're specialized. They start playing earlier and develop earlier. College coaches no longer have to do the teaching of the fundamentals. Now we refine the players' talents, help them develop their potential."
Coaches interviewed cited several reasons for the number of skilled young players in high schools and colleges: playing year round, more media recognition, the institution of college scholarships and an increase in the number of inner-city girls playing. All agreed the primary impetus was the implementation of Title IX in the early 1970s.
"When Title IX came on, all those schools suddenly had to put in athletic programs for girls as well as boys," Briese said. "And with that came scholarships. When I first started playing, you didn't worry about college. You learned how to play in CYO and played in high school. And that was it."
With the implementation of Title IX, girls and women's basketball became less the province of all-female schools. Players from public schools, many of whom honed their skills not in a CYO league but in city playgrounds, began to influence the sport. They brought with them the trademark of city ball: aggressive play in which individualism was encouraged, even expected.
Nancy Lieberman best typified this new approach. She grew up in Far Rockaway, N.Y., learning the game on the playgrounds of Queens and Harlem. Hard-nosed, yet highly skilled, the 5-10 guard led Old Dominion to national championships in 1979 and 1980.
"Nancy turned a lot of peoples' heads with her aggressive play," Stanley said. "I think now there are a lot fewer self-imposed walls among girls and young women. They play hard without worrying about their femininity, especially the big girls. They no longer see their height as a social handicap."
"Many of the women coming into the college game today have played in a lot of pickup games," said North Carolina State Coach Kay Yow, whose prize freshman, Linda Page, scored 100 points in a high school game in Philadelphia last season.
"Sometimes it is a disadvantage: they can pick up bad habits. But the level of mental toughness that a player like Linda can develop in games like that outweighs the liabilities. A number of her skills have been very well developed on the playground."
Sharp's Southern California team has entered the top five in the nation with such players as all-America Paula McGee, a 6-3 sophomore. "Paula's strength and quickness, her coordination and agility are unbelievable," Sharp said. "She's got the shooting range from 18 to 22 feet, and the power moves to the bucket.
"Not only is she 6-3, but she weighs 170-175 pounds. Let me tell you, when you're 5-10 and she star moving in on you, you back off."
As the women's game becomes one of increased quickness, aggressiveness and strength, one more barrier appears certain to fall. "You never used to hear about any women dunking the ball," said Briese. "Now you hear that so-and-so can do it or someone else can. I really think in about five years, you're going to see it fairly often."