By the time Marsha Lake’s daughter was 6 years old, her mother could describe her as “one big muscle.”
Shea Ralph was born rambunctious, endlessly energetic and with a devilish competitive streak that meant mom put her in as many sports as she could handle, plus dance and piano, which didn’t stick.
When sometime in the mid-80s their local North Carolina YMCA started offering girls’ basketball, Lake was elated. She loved the sport, and besides, it was too convenient to pass up — the gym sat right behind Fayetteville Tech, where Lake taught math.
“I dropped her off and when I come back the guy running it goes, ‘She’s really, really good,'” Lake said, her vowels bowing with a Southern twang. “And I just look at him and I go, ‘Well. Ella She ought to be.'”
Ralph, who decades after her rec-league introduction to basketball is entering her second year as the head coach of the Vanderbilt women’s team, came by her talent naturally.
Her mother was among a generation of pioneers in women’s basketball. A small-town girl who stretched to 6 feet tall in the seventh grade, Lake played at North Carolina from 1971-1975. Her career de ella straddled the passage of Title IX, the law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex at schools that receive federal funding. She was the Tar Heels’ first female all-American and played on the national team that was a precursor to today’s dominant Team USA.
She also passed down a legacy.
One way to trace progress in the 50 years since Title IX was enacted on June 23, 1972, is through Lake and Ralph’s family tree.
Title IX is mutable. The law itself has expanded and contracted in its political application. As a cause, it has evolved as each generation passes its stewardship to the next.
Lake, 68, rode to games with her teammates packed into the back of station wagons and was denied the basic resources — including having enough basketballs for every woman on the team — that were standard for the men’s team.
Ralph, 44, attended UConn on scholarship and was given free basketball shoes and meals as a member of the country’s top-rated women’s program. At Vanderbilt, where the Commodores have Candice Storey Lee, the first Black female athletic director in the SEC’s history, as an advocate, her team lives even better. Ralph’s players fly charter to games, have mental performance coaches and nutritionists, same as the men.
“My relationship with Title IX, I have gratitude and appreciation for it because I know without it, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Ralph said. “But I also know that we’re not even close to where we need to be. For me, there’s also this fire that it’s created inside of me that wants to make me continue to push, and for what? For equality.”
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Ralph’s definition of equality differs from what her mother was working toward in the 1970s.
When Title IX passed early in Lake’s college career, its effects were not immediate. She arrived on campus at the end of each summer to a different coach — whichever physical education teacher drew the shortest straw at the back-to-school meeting — and she often knew more about the game than her ella instructor. The women’s team had no access to a locker room and no sweatsuits for warm-ups.
Lake never complained about the conditions. She simply told the truth, including when a broadcaster from a TV station in Durham came for a report on the differences between the men’s and women’s teams.
It earned her a stern lecture from North Carolina’s athletic director. Yet soon after, there were enough basketballs for Lake and all her teammates of her.
“I’ve never been a feminist, I was just happy to play basketball. I didn’t ruffle feathers. But I didn’t say anything that wasn’t right, and then things started getting better,” Lake said. “It was slow. A lot wasn’t fixed in those years before I graduated. But it makes me feel good that maybe I played just a little teeny role in dusting up enough feathers that somebody listened.”
Lake’s influence wasn’t confined to Chapel Hill. As a member of the 1973 team that traveled to Moscow for the World University Games, she was a part of Team USA’s first foray into women’s basketball.
There, she played alongside an edgy, 5-foot-10 forward who would become a lifelong friend: Pat Summit, “always intense, always serious,” Lake said. Years after Lake graduated from North Carolina, she sewed up her playing career and had a teenage daughter with basketball skill that was garnering serious buzz around the state, she called Summit to ask for her professional opinion on Ralph.
The legendary Tennessee coach was, by then, practiced in smoothing out the expectations of overly eager parents. Summit told Lake every mom and dad who spent their weekends driving carpool to AAU games felt the same way: Their daughter was the reincarnation of Dr. Naismith himself. Why should Lake’s kid be any different?
“Yeah, Pat,” Lake sighed, “but you know me. And you know I know what I’m talking about.”
Summit relented and invited Ralph to attend one of her summer basketball camps, where she provided her mother right and “won every award imaginable,” Lake said. Summit only asked one thing in exchange — her old teammate of hers had to come and work the session.
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Ralph was a hotly recruited All-American in high school whose heart was set on Tennessee until it wasn’t. She won a national title in 2000 as team captain with the Lady Vols’ greatest rival, UConn, then added six more to her resume of her as an assistant coach.
Before she began coaching, Ralph’s entire life was playing basketball. But she didn’t know who she was as a person until five ACL injuries derailed her plans for a professional playing career and she spent time alone, away from the game. Then she found coaching.
Stepping into a mentorship role felt like oiled gears sliding into place.
“The reason that I coach is because of so much more than basketball,” Ralph said. “I had people — and there were definitely women — but there weren’t enough to show me the way. And if we want to keep creating avenues for young women to grow into confident people that can be a positive impact on our society in every way and embrace that and push the envelope, then we have to have more women in leadership roles.”
If Ralph felt a dearth of female mentorship after growing up with the rare gift of a college basketball-playing mother, Summit in her ear and two dozen coaches in-between on her side, how must other woman feel?
Ralph’s interpretation of equality as it relates to Title IX is creating more opportunities for women, then — and this is the critical part — nurturing them in their roles. Basketball opened unimaginable opportunities for her mother de ella and in turn, for Ralph. That’s why the coach purposefully has a staff composed of mostly women. She said she works hard not to micromanage and to let people grow on their own while providing support.
It’s an opportunity she doesn’t take lightly. Women coaches helm only 42.3% of all Division I women’s teams during the 2019-2020 season, according to Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. Like her mother, Ralph wants to leave a mark.
“As a wife and a mother, there were plenty of times along the way — plenty — that I came this close to quitting. This close, because I didn’t feel like I had the support,” Ralph said. “If I don’t do a good job in my role, then that’s one less woman that I can impact. I want to be the one to make a stamp on it. I want to be the one to create that legacy that will provide my 4-year-old daughter the opportunity she may not have had if I hadn’t been brave enough to take this on.”