This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Ora Washington.
Ora Washington was so good at tennis that white champions refused to play her.
Helen Wills Moody, then the top white champion in tennis, declined to play against Washington, a match that according to The New York Times was one of Washington's "greatest desires."
Washington was also a standout basketball player. Her team, which barnstormed the country during the 1930s, was so entertaining that they would "make you forget the Depression," according to a Sports Illustrated story from 2018.
Washington won title after title in the women's singles championship of the American Tennis Association—12 years in a row, in fact. At the time, tennis was segregated into African American and white circuits.
All the while, she would play basketball in her "offseason," winning national championships at will in her similarly segregated professional basketball league.
Washington was finally honored with entry into basketball's Hall of Fame in 2018.
Here's how one Pennsylvania historical magazine described her tennis game, according to a 2018 Sports Illustrated story:
“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.”
Forget Bo or Deion—Washington might have been the best two-sport athlete of all-time.
From the SI Vault:
"Dual-Sport Trailblazer Ora Mae Washington Gets Her Due In Basketball Hall of Fame," by Charles P. Pierce (Mar. 31, 2018)