John F. Kennedy College, not a big name even among small colleges, was playing Team Canada and fighting to stay alive in the first round of its own tournament. With 1:11 to go, a slick Canadian guard intercepted a pass and set up a teammate, who popped the ball in from 15 feet out and Canada led 54-53. Twenty-four seconds later Canada's center was charged with a fifth personal and left the game, reddened from exertion and anger. A sloppy inbounds pass almost handed the ball back to Canada, but JFK's Simpson dashed across the key to save it and passed off to Wischmeier under the basket. Seemingly trapped, she hurled the ball back to Simpson who, with 18 seconds left, fired in a long shot. JFK hung on to win 55-54 and the next night took the final.
As college basketball tournaments go these days, it was typical, except for the fact this was the first International Invitational Women's basketball tournament—Mexico and the Republic of (non-Red) China were the other teams.
John F. Kennedy College is a half mile from the heart of downtown Wahoo, Neb. (pop. 3,840), and because of two fires the school is even less prepossessing than it was at its founding in 1965. There were 13 buildings then, mostly clapboard, and fewer than 200 students. Enrollment ballooned to 700, but the library and another building burned down in 1970, and JFK has never really risen from the ashes. Even though the new library and cafeteria are hastily constructed metal affairs that look like airplane hangars, they were expensive to build. The faculty went unpaid for months, and with the school's solvency in doubt students transferred in droves. There are 280 this year and a faculty of 20.
JFK has never been accredited. Indeed, its one claim to distinction is its women's basketball team, which in a way it can credit to its close proximity to Iowa. No state in the U.S. turns out more good women players than Iowa. Of the 12 JFK Patriettes, eight are Iowans. Since 1970, when JFK decided to use women's basketball to help build a reputation, the Patriettes have won the National AAU championship twice and last summer represented the U.S. on a tour of the People's Republic of (Red) China (SI, July 2, 1973).
Unlike the Patriettes, the JFK student body is coed and hails from 27 states. The students are not the pick of the academic crop, but they are an enthusiastic group, full of uplifting sentiments on the pleasures of attending a small, and therefore intimate, school. Although a full liberal-arts curriculum is available, more than 50% of the students major in physical education, including all the girls on the basketball team.
One of the best Patriettes is Barb Wischmeier, a 6'2" All-America from Mediapolis, Iowa, and the only player on a full athletic scholarship. Wischmeier intends to teach phys ed when she graduates and hopes to coach in Iowa. "I never saw a lady head coach when I was in high school," she says, "but there are more now." Among them is her sister, a 1972 JFK graduate who teaches and coaches in Council Bluffs.
"Iowa girls still play the old half-court game," Barb says. "Perhaps that makes us fundamentally more sound. We're taught basics: shooting for forwards, defense for guards, and in high school I played two years at each position."
JFK is not a one-woman show, however, as are so many college teams. It has two other All-Americas, 5'7" Julie Simpson and 6'2" Linda White, and two more candidates this year, Gail Ahrenholtz and Janie Fincher, who was a junior college All-America last season at Murray State.
The Patriettes' coach, George Nicodemus, recruits with a vigor usually associated with top men's teams. He had coached only two women's teams before coming to JFK in 1970, a 14-0 junior-high team in 1949 and the Look magazine AAU squad in 1969. In between he coached boys throughout Iowa, which accounts for his familiarity with those fertile grounds. "I go out to the cow pastures to get these girls," he says. "I don't mind manure on my shoes."
For all of Nicodemus' efforts, the team seems to be structured more by chance than by design. He had never heard of Julie Simpson when she arrived from New Jersey. But after watching a practice she approached Nicodemus and said, somewhat facetiously, "I'd like to learn this game." She learned well enough to start her first year and was named MVP in the international tournament. Linda White played in Victoria, Texas, a state that probably ranks second to Iowa in girls' basketball. She spent half a year at Wayland Baptist, another top women's basketball school, flunked out and went to Phoenix where she played on an AAU team. Eager to return to school, she came to Kennedy, where at 24 she is the team's senior citizen.
Until this year, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletic Women barred schools that competed for its titles from giving athletic grants. Now that the rule has been changed, Wayland plans to challenge two-time AIAW champion Immaculate of Pennsylvania. JFK still will be non grata since it is unaccredited.
Which explains in part why JFK staged the international tournament earlier this month. But what explains the presence in nearby Omaha of Team Canada, the National Women's Selection of Mexico and the Republic of China All-Stars is, first of all, JFK, and second, the chance for all four squads to polish their skills—the 1976 Olympics in Montreal will be the first to include women's basketball.
The opening game at the Omaha Civic Auditorium, in which Mexico beat China 53-49, showed that both those teams could use a lot of polishing. Averaging only 5'7", the Mexicans played a helter-skelter game against the well-schooled Chinese, who dribbled and passed with finesse but failed to move the ball inside for high-percentage shots and did not sink enough of their outside efforts. This shortcoming enabled the taller Canadians to beat them in their next game.
The Chinese and Mexican delegations were equally strong in contrasts off the court. The Chinese kept their players confined to the hotel until the games were completed. They watched the unfamiliar, enticing snowfall from behind plate-glass windows, so no one would catch cold in the below-zero weather. Only after losing to Team Canada were they allowed out, being escorted to a shopping center where they all bought dungarees.
The Mexican women enjoyed their first snowfall to the fullest. They rushed out of the arena after their first game and did their best to have a snowball fight. No one caught cold. In fact, Mexico's play improved in the hard-fought finale.
Kennedy won 68-50, despite a poor first half. Behind 31-25, the Patriettes rallied in the second half, running up a 20-3 edge during one eight-minute stretch. JFK's balanced attack was led by Wischmeier and Fincher with 15 points. Ahrenholtz had 12 and Simpson 9.
The Canadians, of course, were unimpressed with Nebraska's weather, having just come from training camp in Winnipeg. They are older than the Americans, ranging from 18 to 26, and equally tall and talented. With different pairings, Team Canada probably would have come in second.
As host country for the 1976 Olympics, Canada is assured of being one of six teams to compete in women's basketball. "We're guaranteed of being sixth best in the world," says Jack Donohue, who coached the women on this trip. Donohue, who coached at Holy Cross and before that at New York City's Power Memorial High School during the Alcindor years, was hired to coach Canada's men's team in anticipation of the Olympics.
"I'd never coached women before," he says. "I got this team together and told them, 'I don't know much about women. I had a mother and I knew her pretty well. I was in love 48 times before I was 15. I have a wife and four daughters, but I don't know anything about women your age. I know basketball players, so I'll consider this as basketball, comma, women, not women's basketball.' "
The road to the five remaining spots in the Olympics is rough. Three teams will qualify from the 1975 World Championships and two more from a pre-Olympic tournament. As for the U.S., it must first devise a method for selecting a national team. If this is not decided soon, most of the current crop of college players will be out of organized competition. In which case it will be back to the cow pastures for Coach Nicodemus. But he will be there anyway trying to bring credit to JFK.