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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

A note about March Madness. The night of the men's final, April 7 in San Antonio, 2008's class of inductees to the Basketball Hall of Fame will be announced. Along with the legendary, tall likes of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, a fairly short woman named Cathy Rush has been nominated, the lone woman for this year's class. Rush coached the first women's national championship college team back in 1972. That team, unlikely as it was, won the national title the next two years, too. Unlikely because Rush's school, an all-women's college just northwest of Philadelphia had a total of only 400 students. Immaculata College, founded in 1920, had a dual focus, academics and prayer. Athletics were not valued. They didn't even offer a physical education major. But when the enthusiastic 22-year old Cathy Rush accepted a $450 annual contract to coach basketball, a three-year moment in sports history swept the campus of Italian Renaissance design. Coach Rush's weekly paycheck may have been a measly $19.50, but what she brought to the small school on the outskirts of Philly was rich, indeed.

immaculata_nuns.jpg I remember the phenomenon of Immaculata very well. The nuns would pack the stands in their habits and bang aluminum barrels with wooden sticks as their players, none of them on scholarship, rocked the hoops world back in the day. There was a short tribute to Immaculata's championship teams on television the other day. Through the heavy grain of the old black-and-white highlight reel, you could see Marianne Stanley, Marianne Crawford at the time, dash under the basket, leap and twist in the air past three defenders, a la Allen Iverson, and finger-roll an outrageously dynamic, athletic lay-up. It's one of those convergences of coaching vision, talent on the floor, rousing school spirit, and some intangible fairy dust that took that little Catholic school Immaculata on a magic carpet ride. The ultimate irony was that Title IX passed into law at the exact same time that Immaculata hit their incredible stride. High school girls suddenly, and finally, had the chance for college scholarships and the high-powered programs that now command March Madness U Conn, Tennessee, Maryland — were born. Yet as those schools work their way toward the women's Final Four in Tampa next week, Cathy Rush will be headed to San Antonio, sparking memories of one of the most exciting team achievements in the history of sports. Of all sports, not only women's sports.

By the way, if you haven't yet gone out to experience the March Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells, put it on your must-do list for next year. Aside from the four Grand Slams, Indian Wells is the jewel event of the sport.

In comparison, the summer U.S. Open men-only and women-only series out here is lackluster. Each event draws one or two marquee players and if one of them drops out, which they often do, fans and sponsors alike are crestfallen. You're lucky if you catch one or maybe two hot matches over the course of a week. Indian Wells is conducted just like the Grand Slams. Two weeks. Men and women. Last week I went from match to match on the outside courts, able to observe the best in the world from very close up. Even the 16,000-seat main stadium lends itself to intimacy. And the tournament showcases the desert at its magnificent time of year. The wildflowers are in full bloom, the usual brown sand tenderly blanketed in a soft green velour. The courts are surrounded by the San Bernardino Mountains, lit at night, so close it's as if you could reach out and brush them with your palm. It's a class event and it's ours to claim and enjoy. It's done for this year but I'm telling you, if you can score a ticket next year, you won't be disappointed.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.


Banner image: Returning home in March 1974 from Manhattan, Kansas after defeating Mississippi College for their 3rd National Championship: Pictured are: Coach Cathy Rush (L) and college president, Sister Marie Antoine, IHM, (R) and various team members including Mary Scharff, Rene Muth (Portland), Theresa Shank (Grentz), and Marianne Crawford (Stanley).

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