There are lots of anecdotes in alumna Pat McKinzie-Lechault’s new book Home Sweet Hardwood that show how far female athletes have come since the 1960s. But it’s the one about the strength of a woman’s heart that jumps off the page.
It was the late 1960s, and legendary Illinois State women’s basketball coach Jill Hutchison M.S. ’69 was a grad student. As a national conversation about women’s equality in sports grew louder, Hutchison hooked up electrodes to female athletes for a game of 5-on-5 full court basketball to prove a point. Turns out, a woman’s heart won’t explode by running up and down a full court—another myth about female athletes debunked.
“It just shows how ridiculously behind the times we were for women in sports back then,” said McKinzie.
McKinzie would later join Hutchison’s team for four seasons (1975-79), becoming the first female student-athlete scholarship recipient in Illinois in the wake of the Title IX gender equity in education law. The Athletics Percy Family Hall of Fame inductee (1984) is seventh on ISU’s all-time career scoring list, and her 30 field goal attempts in a single game remains a program record.
McKinzie’s 191-page book, self-published earlier this year, chronicles her journey from high school to Illinois State to a professional career cut short by a car accident in Europe. It’s central theme—never give up—resonates largely because of McKinzie’s own status as a true Title IX pioneer.
She picked the right school at the right time. Illinois State was already ahead of the curve on women’s sports due to strong leaders like Hutchison and former athletics administrators Phoebe Scott, Laurie Mabry, and Linda Herman. McKinzie, whose grandfather coached Ronald Reagan on Eureka College’s football team, chose Illinois State after attending a rare girls basketball camp on campus.
“I fell in love with the ambience, and the enthusiasm (Hutchison) showed for the game and the type of person she was,” said McKinzie, a sociology major at ISU.
It was an exciting time to be a Redbird. McKinzie played alongside Olympian Charlotte Lewis, among other greats. But despite the progressive and successful program, the fight wasn’t over. The electrodes test was only a few years in the past, after all. In her book, McKinzie recalls being named a finalist for a national basketball award her senior year, only to be frustrated by its low profile.
“Being presented the most prestigious award in a back room, an award sponsored by sanitary napkins, was demeaning, a shameful reminder that women don’t count,” McKinzie writes.
After Illinois State, McKinzie was drafted in 1979 into the young Women’s Professional Basketball League, which folded quickly. She moved to Europe in 1980 and played professionally in France and Germany, before her playing career was cut short by injuries sustained in a serious car accident in February 1983.
But as that door closed, several others opened. McKinzie says the accident led her to writing and coaching, both of which she still does today.
McKinzie now teaches at one of the world’s largest and oldest international schools outside Geneva, Switzerland, where she and her husband live. McKinzie comes from a long line of teachers—her sisters were teachers and ISU alumnae too—and she says Illinois State’s “gladly we learn and teach” motto remains “imprinted in my brain.” McKinzie’s two children live in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where her daughter is a pediatrician and her son a teacher-in-training.
“I miss playing still, every day,” McKinzie said. “I still have dreams about it.”
As she looks around the world of sports, McKinzie says it’s “almost unbelievable” how far female athletes have come. There’s still room for growth, of course, but she observed the dramatic change herself when she took her 10-year-old son to a WNBA game soon after the league launched in 1997. After the game, she watched her son as he eagerly worked to get an autograph from WBNA player Teresa Edwards.
“I thought to myself, ‘We’ve made it,’” she said.
McKinzie will share her story during a speech at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in March 2014, just days before the campus hosts the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Final Four.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.