I carry memories of my high school basketball career, such as it was, like extra appendages. Reminders of big team victories and personal disappointments will crop up unbidden. For no apparent reason, I’ll remember the smell of a gym or the way my coach’s voice echoed off the walls during practice.
What I don’t remember is that girls varsity basketball was being played in Illinois at the same time I was playing, possibly because I went to an all-boys Catholic school and possibly because if it didn’t involve me, teenaged and thus self-absorbed, it didn’t exist.
But it was being played, and I am grateful that, 40 years later, Melissa Isaacson has taken me by the arm and shown me. Her new book, “State: A Team, a Triumph, a Transformation,” tells the story of her time at Niles West High School, when she and her teammates found joy and pain in their journey to the 1979 state championship. They were among the first generation of athletes to benefit from Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation that decreed that no person could be denied the benefits of an educational program or other federally funded activity on the basis of sex. That included sports. Isaacson writes in the prologue that the book “is about the sheer joy of getting our first uniforms, packing the same school gym where we were once not allowed to practice and gaining access to life lessons previously only available to boys.”
Although Title IX is a thread that winds through the book, Isaacson’s tale is about sports and the love of basketball and what all of it does for you, even if you might not be aware of it at the time.
I’ve known Missy, as her friends call her, for more than 20 years. I know how good a writer she is and how hard she works. But my estimation of her increased when she revealed in the book that, to strengthen her non-dominant hand, she would tie her right arm behind her back and dribble around her family’s Lincolnwood patio. It occurred to me that my high school playing time might have increased if she had lent me some rope. And some determination.
I don’t want to spoil the book’s revelations. The title makes it obvious that the Niles West team reached its goal. But what the players experienced in life and how playing high school basketball helped them along the way is what gives the story its heft. And those experiences and lessons extended to Isaacson, too. The former Chicago Tribune and ESPN writer shares about her parents’ struggles and her frustration over being benched during her senior year after being a starter for two seasons.
The idea of a book about her team was in her head for at least 25 years. Some of the things she learned about resolve from Niles West basketball were there for her when the Tribune laid her off in 2009, and ESPN in 2017. And writing the book helped her fill a void.
“During the times I got laid off, I always had this to come back to, particularly after ESPN, when I had nothing as a writer,” said Isaacson, now a lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “It was the end of my writing career, for all intents and purposes.
“That was very emotional for me. I knew that I probably was not going to do this again, and you know how much I love it. So this was my salvation. It sounds so dramatic, but I knew I could come back to the book and pour myself into writing again.”
The hero of the book is Arlene Mulder, a P.E. teacher who beat out the locker-room matron (yes, there was such a position) to get the job coaching the girls team in 1974. She held the post until ’78, when Gene Earl took over and led the team to the ’79 title.
Mulder was new to coaching basketball but had such dynamic leadership abilities that her players would eventually do anything for her. And those abilities would later be obvious to the citizens of Arlington Heights, who elected her to five straight four-year terms as mayor.
“She was motivating us with books, ‘The Prophet’ and positive imagery — things Phil Jackson did 20 years later,” said Isaacson, who was the first woman to cover the Bulls and Bears for the Tribune.
There are some unfortunate truths in the book. The first is that Isaacson actually liked running “suicides,” the torturous line-touching sprints that coaches use to increase players’ stamina and, apparently, activate their retching reflex. The second is that her musical tastes in high school leaned toward Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” who came and gave without taking, even though no one can recall asking Mandy to do any of it.
But the saving grace is and always will be a sport with a ball and a rim.
“Basketball was, in many ways, one of our best friends, dependable and fulfilling and intoxicating in its unpredictability,” Isaacson writes in the book. “It gave us a feeling of belonging and security and confidence we so desperately needed during the angst of adolescence. Unlike the average high school social group or clique, we had a common goal that would not shake us, withstood petty bickering and deterred all the usual grounds for rejection like the wrong hair or clothes or body type.”
NBC’s “Today” show was set to film a party Isaacson was hosting for her teammates Saturday for a segment to run next month. It was another reminder of what they accomplished and how far they’ve come.
“In many ways, we did realize how lucky we were,” Isaacson said. “We absolutely realized how special it was. I don’t think we knew the full historic significance, but we knew that we were really, really lucky because we had girls before us who weren’t that lucky.”