NYU ALumni & Friends Connect

March 15, 2019

Written by: Emma Gyorgy (GSAS ‘20)  

Wisconsin Eau-Claire was holding an eleven point lead over the Violets with six minutes on the clock. The situation looked dire, but NYU had a game to win, and a few points wouldn’t get in the way of their goal. This game, held in Coles Sports Center on a Saturday night in March of 1997, was no ordinary game. The NYU women’s basketball team was competing for the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III championship, and if they won, it would be the first NCAA DIII championship title in the history of athletics at the University. The Violets, led by coach Janice Quinn, had a stellar 29–1 season under their belts. As they ran down the court, they followed in the footsteps of players who built the legacy of women’s basketball at NYU.

While the university was founded in 1831, women students first appeared on campus in the 1870s in the graduate and law schools. Washington Square College was founded in 1913, and women were among the students of the first class, although women would not live on the University Heights campus until 1959. As soon as women arrived at NYU, they joined existing extracurricular groups and began forming their own organizations. Women’s athletics were first established in 1923 with the creation of a basketball team.

Invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, basketball was first introduced to college women the following year by a gymnastics instructor at Smith College. It wasn’t long before the game spread across the country. The 1926 Album, the yearbook of Washington Square College, states that “the year 1924 marked the inauguration of the first women’s Athletic Association in New York University.”

While women’s basketball at NYU is almost a century old, the game the Violets played in 1923 didn’t look much like the sport of today.

College instructors altered the rules in order to prevent students from being masculinized by the sport. Players were required to stay inside their designated one-third of the court, and were prohibited from stealing the ball. By the time women started playing basketball at NYU, widely-used rules called for six players on each side of the court, and tied scores were accepted in order to reduce the emphasis on winning. NYU basketball players were also subjected to playing in skirted uniforms on and off through the 1950s. Maintaining students’ femininity was a requirement if they were going to play basketball.

Involvement in the women’s basketball program waned intermittently over the years. The “Girls Athletics” page in the 1957 Album states that “the girls at WSC do not show too much enthusiasm for athletics...girls’ athletics do not amount to much.” Perhaps the diminished enthusiasm was due to the lack of respect imparted to the sport. It was common for yearbooks throughout the 1940s and 1950s to feature men’s basketball in four-page spreads, while all of women’s athletics were confined to one page, sometimes just a single paragraph. Title IX was passed in 1972, and once NYU rebounded from the economic hardships of the 1970s, a renewed commitment to women’s sports was reflected in the team’s success. The Violets ended their 1988 season with a University Athletic Association title, in a tie with two other schools.

While the history of women’s basketball at NYU is long and complicated, the 1997 Violets were probably not contemplating their predecessors when co-captain Marsha Harris (CAS ‘98, MED ‘02) won the championship game with a layup in the final seconds. The team became the first NCAA Division III national champions in the history of the university, and their success became a shining chapter in the much longer story of women’s basketball at NYU.