This Thanksgiving along with family, friends, and health, I am giving thanks for basketball. Thanks to Sterling High School, Illinois State University, UW-Stevens Point, the first women’s pro league WBL, International Basketball Association FIBA , and all the other high school, colleges, international clubs and federations that granted women permission to play basketball. Because it wasn’t so long along that girls were confined to the sideline.

Sterling Daily Gazette 1977

I am thankful for Jim McKinzie, the first man convinced I had the right to play. He taught me how to dribble and shoot before a time when dads and daughters playing ball together was apropos. In 1977, he coached my younger classmates and sister, Karen, to Illinois’ First Girls State Championship as co-coach of the Sterling Golden Girls. That first tournament was played at my alma mater Illinois State University where I earned the first college basketball scholarship, playing for the woman who first proved that a women’s heart wouldn’t explode by running fullcourt. God bless Coach Jill Hutchinson. And Shirley Egner, once a rival of mine graduating from UW-LaCrosse, making her mark as DIII national championship coach, who thirty years later shaped my daughter as an athlete at University Wisconsin Stevens Point.

Coach Hutchinson, Coach Egner & Nat

I’ve never been back for an ISU alumni game nor experienced the thrill of playing at my college alma mater in the Redbird Area in front of 10,000 fans. I’ve never even had the honor of racing down that polished wooden floor on my own highschool gym. In my day when girls were finally granted permission to play, we were relegated to the junior high gym.

I spent the first decade of childhood fighting to get on the court, the second decade playing the game, the third coaching competitively abroad, the fourth writing about the sport and the fifth feeling grateful that one day forty some years ago, somebody under my roof in my community, at my college, in my country gave me – a girl – a chance to play a man’s game. To gain that opportunity at that time was a battle; many people fought it every step of our way.

This Thanksgiving weekend, Sterling High School celebrates its first alumni basketball game. I wish I could be there, not to hit jumpers – my playing days ended long ago – but to give thanks. Over a century ago, James Naismith invented the game to bring people together and sent it traveling round the world with the missionaries he trained. I did my own small bit coaching internationally uniting high school players from all four corners of the globe. From starting the first girl’s basketball camp in Sauk Valley to initiating the first alumni game at the International School of Geneva, my life has been about taking the opportunity people gave me and passing it on, so that nobody grew up feeling second best.

This T-Day, no one thinks twice about girls getting sweaty, knocking down treys and going coast to coast. Nowadays, women would never consider blessing the gift of the game along with the bird. Equal opportunity in sport and education is a given. But today at my table, I’m taking time to thank the people who paved the way. Hallelujah, the chance to play ball is a birthright. Even for the female gender. Amen.