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  • A dominant basketball and tennis champion, Ora Mae Washington is going into the Basketball Hall of Fame along with one of the women she laid down a path for.
By Charles P. Pierce
March 31, 2018

SAN ANTONIO – By and large, I am not a fan of halls of fame. It is not so much them as institutions per se, although I find the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be oxymoronic and the damn thing should be in Memphis anyway. I am not a fan of halls of fame because they seem to be the seedbed of some of the most ridiculous arguments in the history of man. For example, every year, the Baseball Hall of Fame and its voters turn themselves inside out over who is moral enough to be on a plaque in the same big room with, say, Babe Ruth, whom the Red Sox used to have to roust out of brothels on the morning of the days on which he was pitching. And don’t even get me started on the whole PED thing.

(I make only one exception to this rule. I am a great fan of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin—or, at least of its original building, which was designed as a giant muskellunge. Visitors could climb up and stand in the muskie’s mouth. Of course, there were guardrails around the muskie’s teeth to keep the paying public from plunging earthwards. These made the fish look as though it had been afforded expensive orthodontia.)

I made my peace with halls of fame when I decided to look at them simply as museums, and I am a very big fan of museums, large and small. Once you decide that they are museums—which is to say, a repository of the collective cultural memory, places for old things and dead people—you can cut yourself loose from all the moral and social folderol that attends the induction of new members every year. It was in this spirit that I approached the 2018 class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

It is a guard-heavy class: Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Charlie Scott, Mo Cheeks. There are three former Boston Celtics: Allen, Scott and Croatian inductee Dino Radja, who played in Boston for four seasons. Lefty Driesell finally was elected, and at 87, he’s changed not a bit. In fact, he reminded everyone that, when he was at Davidson, he and Scott recalled that Driesell had recruited Scott so heavily that Dean Smith at North Carolina noticed and proceeded to make Scott the first African-American scholarship player in the ACC. Scott responded by beating Driesell and Davidson not once, but twice, at the horn to keep Lefty out of the Final Four. But the most interesting new inductee was the woman who wasn’t there.

Ora Mae Washington died in Germantown, Pa., on May 28, 1971. She was 73 years old and a retired domestic. She also was one of the greatest female athletes the country ever has produced. She was the daughter of farmers in rural Virginia. When she was a teenager, with the farm failing and her mother passed on, she moved to Germantown to live with an aunt. In Germantown, there was a “colored” YWCA. Ora Mae Washington found a home and a place to get over her grief from the death of her sister from tuberculosis. Her first sport was tennis, and she was so good that the reigning white women’s champion, Helen Wills Moody, refused to give her a match. Starting in 1925, Washington won the women’s singles championship of the American Tennis Association 12 years in a row. (The ATA was the African-American equivalent of the mainstream tennis organizations, all of which were rigidly segregated.) In an article for a Pennsylvania historical magazine, Pamela Grundy quotes a number of people who saw Washington play.

“She had the strategy and was dynamic to watch,” one fan later recalled, adding that “her overhead game was terrific.” Opponents struggled to cope. “She was so strong,” recalled Amaleta Moore, whose sister competed against Washington. “It was hard for you to fight against her with the talent she had.” She also had a winner’s drive. Off the court, family members described her as a kind, caring person, who was always looking out for others. But her competitive zeal was fierce. “If you made her mad,” noted nephew Lewis Hill, “you had a tiger on your hands.” Opponents often feared her. “She was intimidating,” Moore noted. “The way she looked at you: ‘You’ve got no business in my way.’“ The Chicago Defender concurred, noting in 1931 that “her superiority is so evident that her competitors are frequently beaten before the first ball crosses the net.”

She briefly moved to Chicago, where she picked up the game of basketball and, upon returning to Germantown, ostensibly to stay in shape for tennis, she played for the YWCA team called the Hornets. In 1931, the Hornets turned pro. Washington was their star. They quickly developed a ferocious rivalry with the women’s team sponsored by the Philadelphia Tribune, the leading African-American newspaper in that city, and that team’s star, Inez Patterson. A best-of-five series between the two teams was arranged. In the deciding game, Washington nailed a shot from nearly midcourt to ignite a Germantown rally, but the Tribunes scored eight points in a row to win. Grundy quotes from an account in the Tribune.

“It was fully ten minutes before order could be restored,” Dixon reported. “The cash customers fanned to fever heat by the ardor and closeness of combat gave outlet to all kinds of riotous impulses. They stood on chairs and hollered. Others hoisted members of the winning team upon their shoulders and paraded them around the hall. They jigged and danced, and readers believe me, they were justified. It was just that kind of a game.”

The Tribunes were not run by fools. They signed Washington away from Germantown the very next season. And, for the rest of the 1930s, the Tribunes barnstormed the country, winning the black national championship every year and being billed as a good enough attraction to “make you forget the Depression.” In fact, as Grundy writes, Ora Mae Washington was not shy about making her point on the court.

As she faced off against Washington, Bennett center Lucille Townsend recalled, she heard a whispered warning: “Don’t outjump me.” Townsend disregarded the admonition at her peril. “I never saw her when she hit me, but she did it so quick it would knock the breath out of me, and I doubled over,” she explained. “She could hit, and she told me that she had played a set of tennis on her knees and won it..”

Meanwhile, in the offseason, Washington kept winning tennis titles. Her last national championship came in mixed doubles in 1947. On the other side of the net was a talented teenager named Althea Gibson. (A decade later, of course, Gibson would win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, completing the trail that Washington had blazed for her.) And she continued to work as a housekeeper to pay her bills. She died in 1971, and after a while, nobody was alive who remembered Ora Mae Washington—or, for that matter, the Depression that she was good enough to make hard-luck people forget, at least for an evening. Until this weekend, when her name was read among those of Ray Allen, and Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd, and Tina Thompson, the last of that great trio from the old Houston Comets to be inducted after Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes.

“Her contribution, and all of those women who played the game with people watching, and that wasn’t the only thing they did,” Thompson said. “She was a hard-worker. The amount of time we get to put into our games and to practice, I couldn’t imagine being able to do it at the level she had the privilege to do it with all those responsibilities. It just makes it all that more amazing that she was able to be not just a basketball champion, but a tennis champion, and then live a full life in the fashion she did.

“It’s an honor to be in this class with her. I would think that she would be so proud of the number of young women now able to play the game. Both games, actually.”

Halls of fame and museums are not the only repositories of cultural memory. It also lives in the lives and work of the people who came afterwards. There is no Tina Thompson—or, perhaps, no Serena Williams—without people like Ora Mae Washington, who is now a Hall of Famer, and I certainly can make peace with that.

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