One was from Carthage and the other two were from the next county over in Center.
They all had to make transitions and go through changes early in their lives.
But as a result they all reached the top of their game and were trailblazers for those that followed them.
The trio — Peggy Pope, Retha Swindell and Debra K. Thomas — were the second group of speakers for the Excellent Teen Choice summer series at the Carthage High School Auditorium on “The Real Women of Basketball” on Tuesday.
They were all inducted into the National Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee last summer as members of the first women’s professional basketball leagues in he United States that eventually turned into the modern day WNBA.
A fourth member of the group, Rosie Walker, was unable to attend.
Pope’s basketball career both started and ended in Carthage, playing for the Lady Bulldogs — and after college and professional careers that included national titles, she returned to coach the Carthage Lady Bulldogs for 17 years before retiring.
Throughout her career, there were problems that had to be overcome — starting from the very beginning as she failed to make the team in both seventh and eighth grades.
Growing three inches before her freshman year to 5-foot, 10-inches tall helped her finally make the team.
“I was definitely disappointed, but I saw other girls who put in the work and made it,” she said.
High school girls in the mid-70s were still playing 3-on-3 basketball, and Pope was a guard. That meant she would get the ball to halfcourt and then get it to one of the forwards or center.
It also meant she rarely even took a shot.
That wasn’t a problem in high school, until she moved on to play for Panola College.
“The transition from high school’s 3-on-3 to college and 5-on-5 was tough,” she said. “I still played guard, but I had no idea how to shoot.”
She managed to overcome that and ended up playing on back-to-back national title teams with the Fillies. Time for another transition, this time with the Lady Aggies at Texas A&M.
“I had to learn all the aspects of the game,” Pope said. “But I had confidence in myself and in my game. The only hard part was I was leaving Carthage for the first time.”
Race came into the picture at that point as well.
“I was the first black to play basketball at Texas A&M,” she said. “I was welcomed by the other team members. But I had to set the bar for others who would come after me. I spent a lot of time excelling on the court and in the classroom — I didn’t want to be sent home.”
The Eyes of Texas
Swindell was from nearby Center, so beating Carthage was always one of their main goals.
“I didn’t start playing until I was a freshman (Center didn’t have junior high basketball then), and it was Carthage that made me the player I am,” Swindell said. “They beat us all three times when I was a freshman and it wasn’t until I was a sophomore that we finally beat them.”
Swindell also had to make the transition from the high school game of 3-on-3, where she had mostly played on the defensive end.
“I played all the time at home and played in a cow pasture,” she said. “I ended up being the first African-American to play at Texas. They didn’t have any athletic scholarships for women back then and I had to get an academic scholarship.”
She made the most of her time in Austin and was named to the UT Women’s Basketball Hall of Honor in 2001. She was the first UT player named to the USA Basketball national team, is UT’s all-time leader in rebounds with 1,759 and finished with 1,795 points.
Also from Center
Thomas, who was a few years ahead of the other two, also played her high school basketball at Center.
A coach’s decision ended up cementing her future in the Center program early on.
“I’d been told by the coach that I would be on the A team, until the day of the game and I was put on the B team,” Thomas said. “I scored 28 points and I was on the A team the rest of the time.”
Thomas was the first women’s basketball player to earn All-American honors at Panola.
She would finish her college career at Stephen F. Austin State University; she made the ABA Select team; was nominated for the Wade Trophy as the top women’s basketball player in the country, finishing in the top 10; and is No. 24 for SFA All-time scoring with 1,198 points, leading the team with 706 in the 1977-78 season.
On to the pros
The Women’s Basketball League lasted three seasons (1978-81) and Thomas was the first to go pro as she was drafted by the Iowa Cornets.
“I got a phone call from my cousin who told me I’d been drafted in the WBL,” she said. “It was two or three days later that the coach called me and told me about tryouts.
“While I was there trying out, they were making a movie with Pistol Pete Maravich called ‘Dribble.’ I got paid $200 for it. The big names in basketball didn’t play because of the Olympics.”
Swindell would get drafted by the Chicago Hustle a few years later, but she didn’t join the team until the season had already started.
“I didn’t join the team right away because I had to finish school first,” she said. “I still had to do my student teaching. It made it difficult because I got there late.
“But staying in school was a personal choice for me. We weren’t making a great deal of money, so I wanted to make sure I had my degree.”
Pope got drafted by the Minnesota Wolves, but never got to play for them.
“Finding out I had been drafted was really exciting,” she said. “But then Minnesota folded and I got on with the Nebraska Wranglers. Rosie Walker ended up being my teammate there.”
Pope would end her pro career with the Wranglers beating the Dallas Diamonds, who had star Nancy Lieberman as well as Swindell playing for them.
“We definitely played for the love of the game,” Pope said as there was still a big discrepancy between men’s and women’s salaries, with the women making about $15,000 a year. “We didn’t get paid for the championship game, but Dallas did. In fact we didn’t get our last three checks and we never got a championship ring.”
Swindell may have gotten the last laugh then, but all three of them would stay in the game as coaches at different levels.
Thomas probably said it best in summing up her time.
“I was just happy to play,” she said. “It was pretty easy money and I was getting to travel. I was living the best life.”