Marianne Stanley is a walking history book. Make that a dribbling history book, on women’s basketball. She was there at beginning of NCAA college ball and now she is trying to cap a legendary career by bringing a WNBA championship to Indianapolis with the Fever.
The early chapters are crammed with feats that girls and women playing ball today would not believe, or recognize, and the last pages of this volume remain blank because they not only haven’t been written, they haven’t played out yet.
As the NCAA women’s basketball championship of 2021 was decided Sunday night in a showdown between Stanford and Arizona, Stanley could rekindle memories of the sport from the days not only before Title IX, but before the NCAA even conducted a woman basketball championship.
Stanley’s achievements in basketball go back to when the most famous college team was not UConn or Tennessee, but a tiny school in Pennsylvania called Immaculata College (since promoted to University) and when the governing body of women’s sports was the largely forgotten AIAW — the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
In those early 1970s days, Stanley, soon to begin her second season at the helm of the Indiana Fever, represented a team termed “The Mighty Macs.” They were so good and so important to women’s basketball that there is a movie of the same name.
The religious school’s core group of fans were nuns and Stanley, the point guard, said it was quite the intimidating scene when the black-and-white clad nuns trooped to their seats as a group.
“I distinctly remember them walking into the games and our opponents’ faces,” Stanley said recently, “They were dressed in full habit, the full deal, single file. They would sit in the front row. The (foes’) eyes got real big. They would think, ‘They got God on their side.'”
Didn’t really need Him, though, because the Macs were so good.
Immaculata, Old Dominion, the next great power, Nancy Lieberman, the woman for whom the best point guard trophy in college basketball is named, are all associated with Stanley. It was not all Immaculata, but the Macs were her foundation.
Now it is the Fever. The 5-foot-6 point Stanley still has the fever, the fever for the game, the fever to win and now she wants the Fever to win.
She took over the pro franchise reins at the end of November of 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading and became one of those coaches who had to learn how to guide a sports team remotely, through Zoom communication on computers and then by hanging out in a bubble environment.
Only a few weeks ago, Stanley said she didn’t have her permanent Fever office set up yet. That went to the heart of the uniqueness of the last year in American life and American sport.
Stanley is a basketball/coaching lifer. Coaching since about 10 minutes after she finished playing college basketball. She has a name in the sport, especially with long memories, but the 20-somethings she coaches now seem to know little about her background.
They know she is an authority figure who was part of a staff that won a WNBA title.
“I’m not walking around holding my resume,” Stanley said.
She probably should be, to help her players do research on women’s basketball lore.
Stanley was hired to transform a recently struggling team into a title team. This is Indiana, where basketball is as much queen as king, the sport that matters most. The Fever originated in 2000, the league in 1997. The Fever won the 2012 WNBA crown and have made the playoffs 13 times, but not lately.
It was supposed to be a start-fresh experience with Stanley, but the scheduled start to the 2020 season was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then the entire league was installed in a Bradenton, Florida bubble playing just 22 games. The Fever finished 6-16. Not satisfactory to Stanley.
Since February, the Fever have been wheeling and dealing on the free agent market like real estate investors and the April 15 annual player draft approaches. The season opener has not been announced, but speculation is it might be in May.
“We had glimpses of what we can be and what we want to be,” Stanley said of last season. “We have a good core group of people.”
Illustrating the setbacks the Fever coped with beyond trying to stay active from afar on social justice issues as the Black Lives Movement roiled the country, and COVID periodically infected players, was the truncated season of No. 1 draft pick Lauren Cox from Baylor.
Cox, selected third overall, who deals with Type I diabetes in daily life anyway, saw her season delayed because she caught the virus. She joined teammates in Florida late, then also got hurt near the end of the season. The 6-foot-4 power forward made it into only 14 games.
Cox turns 23 on April 23. At 66, Stanley is old enough to be her grandmother. She is two generations older on the calendar and Cox has no idea how many light years on the basketball continuum.
Immaculata? Does Cox know the legend of Immaculata and her coach’s connection?
“I don’t much about that,” Cox said.
She knows Stanley has been around the WNBA as a coach with the Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty, and the Washington Mystics when the D.C. team won a championship.
When Stanley finally has all of her work space set up, some memorabilia on display might start a conversation. Fever players will find out about Immaculata if they spend time in her office.
Women’s basketball was held back
Women’s sports were not universally respected in the 1970s.
Speaking of grandmothers, relatives of current-day college players may never have had the chance to play competitively at all, in high school or college.
“A lot of young ladies then didn’t have a team at all,” Stanley said. “I was just fortunate to go to Immaculata.”
Few remember the so-called “girls” game into the 1970s. Teams on the court were six to a side, not five, with just three players permitted to cross half-court on offense.
It is not completely clear a half century later, but apparently the theory was that females did not have the stamina to constantly run up and down the court.
Before the NCAA decided to build basketball into its women’s cornerstone sport, the AIAW was founded in 1971, growing out of a commission studying the need for expanded opportunities for women in sport.
One of the first great success stories was Immaculata College nears Philadelphia. In 1971, it was suggested the college start a woman’s basketball team. A woman named Cathy Rush was hired to start the program.
The movie, “The Mighty Macs,” portrays the school as being on the brink of bankruptcy and with puritanical and restrictive notions of women in athletics. Mother St. John, played by Ellyn Burstyn, says, “Are you suggesting the girls will be athletes?”
Well, yes, Rush and others, said. It was a new day. Chauvinism is rampant throughout the story, with such comments made about Rush as, “She already has a husband. Why would she want to coach?”
The film focuses on the team’s first season, stretching the truth some to make dramatic points. Immaculata was an immediate sensation, playing in six straight AIAW Final Fours starting in 1972 and winning three straight national championships between 1972 and 1975.
Stanley was a high school star at Archbishop Prendergast High in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania and enrolled at West Chester State, a local power at the time. Stanley thus missed out on the first Immaculata crown, but was a key player on the next two.
Immaculata, with Stanley in the lineup, competed in the first nationally televised women’s college game on Jan. 26, 1975, the Macs beating Maryland, 80-48. Less than a month later, Feb. 22, Immaculata, with Stanley, played in the first women’s game in Madison Square Garden and defeated Queens College.
The institutional memory of those glory days runs strong at Immaculata, now competing in NCAA Division III. The Macs field 24 sports for men and women, including Esports. The school wasn’t even co-ed when the team was winning those chamiponships.
Patty Canterino, Immaculata’s vice president of student development and undergraduate admissions, spent 15 years as women’s basketball coach and is the school’s wins leader with 185. She remembers Stanley in her playing days.
“Marianne was legendary at the high school level,” Canterino said. “She played so differently than anyone played at the time. She could handle the ball like no one else.”
The early Macs established a lasting legacy.
“Usually, when I was recruiting,” Canterino said of her years removed from the titles, “the kids didn’t know about it, but their parents did. It was my job as a coach to educate them. The nuns idolized them. They still do.”
Part of the movie is accurate, but Canterino said the film telescoped some incidents and took liberties with accuracy, though it is fundamentally true. Immaculata’s basketball team made a name for the school and over time there were visits to the White House and receipt of other such invitations like the Madison Square Garden game.
“We would never have had these opportunities except for Immaculata basketball,” Canterino said.
The Immaculata teams that won those championships, from coach Kathy Rush, to Stanley and others who became prominent coaches like Rene Portland and Thersa Grentz, were enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Stanley, a two-time All-American for Immaculata, is currently a finalist as an individual with the class to be announced May 16.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Stanley’s basketball pedigree is that she began high level coaching so young. In 1977, she became head coach at Old Dominion.
“I started as a head coach, if you can believe it,” Stanley said, “at 23 years old. I had it in my blood.”
Stanley steered the Lady Monarchs between 1977 and 1987. They won the women’s NIT in 1978 and two straight AIAW titles in 1979 and 1980. The 1984-85 team won the NCAA final. Overall, Stanley was 268-59, an 82 percent winning percentage, at Old Dominion.
A member of that school’s Sports Hall of Fame, Stanley is still touted on the school website where an item reads, “While fans may talk about Tennessee, Connecticut and Stanford today, but it was Old Dominion and Marianne Stanley that laid the foundation for women’s basketball success.”
Lieberman was player of the year twice for Old Dominion. Anne Donovan, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was a 6-foot-8 center for the Monarchs. SAnother All-American was Danish native Inge Nissen. They all played for Stanley and were part of title teams.
Lieberman, Donovan, Nissen and Stanley are all members of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
How good was Lieberman? “Nancy was the face of the game,” Stanley once said. “She was a relentless competitor, always seeking to improve.”
The same was said of Stanley, who also became a coaching pioneer in the battle for equal pay for women. When she led a turn-around of the University of Southern California program and was offered far less money for her next contract than the men’s coach she refused to sign, was fired, filed a sex discimination lawsuit and became a cause celebre in women’s basketball.
She had difficulty finding her next head job and spent retirement savings on legal fees before bouncing back. Fellow coaches supported her, with one-time Immaculata teammate Rene Portland of Penn State saying other schools should boycott scheduling USC.
Since 2000, except for a few seasons as an assistant at Rutgers, Stanley has been affiliated with the WNBA.
When the Fever announced her hire, general manager Tamika Catchings said, “Stanley is hands down one of the most decorated and experienced coaches in the WNBA. The thing that excites me most is her ability to see and teach the game.”
For starters, she can teach Fever players where she has been. Stanley joked, “You’ve got to brush up on your history.”
Fever fans will know Indiana is on the path to big things in the WNBA, that Marianne Stanley is building another winner, when blocks of seats at Bankers Life Fieldhouse are being reserved for nuns.