For Dr. Janie P. Brown, the trips back and forth to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (NCSHoF) meetings in Raleigh from her log cabin home in Northern Alamance County can take a good amount of time.
But the retired Elon University professor of physical education doesn’t mind the drive, especially when she can be a part of the induction process as a member of the Board of Directors.
This past summer, the NCSHoF inducted Susan Yow, leading Brown to reminisce on the memories of Susan’s playing days under her sister, Kay Yow, at then-Elon College.
And while some memories have faded over the years, there’s one event Brown couldn’t possibly forget — the June 3, 1974 women’s basketball game at Elon’s Alumni Memorial Gym between the U.S. Collegiate All-Stars and the Soviet Union national team.
“It’s a shame that no one seems to talk about that game, because that was a big deal,” Brown said.
Belk Library’s archives at Elon do not have anything about the game. The Burlington Times-News also has nothing about the game in its archives. Likewise for Elon’s athletic department, which just has a one-line mention of the game on its website’s history page.
But Brown still has the game program, some newspaper clippings and a picture. Combined with The Pendulum’s two-column, 30-line story on the game, there’s enough to uncover a hidden gem of a moment in Elon’s history.
Getting the game to Elon
The Soviet Union national women’s basketball team was coming to the United States for a tour of the country in 1974. The Soviets were to play five games against the national team of the United States, plus two additional regional games.
Larry Brown was, at the time, the coach of the American Basketball Association’s Carolina Cougars, who were playing in Raleigh at North Carolina State University’s Reynolds Coliseum.
According to a story from the time titled “‘Who The Devil is Elon College?’,” Brown talked to Amateur American Union (AAU) officials and suggested Elon as a host location for a regional game, as he had seen Kay Yow’s team win the state championship previously.
The AAU representative then talked to Kay Yow and asked if Elon would want to play the Russians.
“Kay said, ‘Oh, let me think about it,’” Brown said. “She called him back later and said, ‘Oh, I just don’t think my team can play them, but if you’ll let me choose a team from the area here, then we’ll be glad to play that game.’”
The AAU agreed with Kay Yow, and a game was born. She grabbed two other coaches from the area — Betty Westmoreland of Western Carolina University and Nora Lynn Finch of Peace College — and formed a team of players from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Hosting the Soviets
When the Soviet team arrived at Elon, they received a bus tour of Alamance County and Elon, visiting the school, the Alamance Battleground and downtown Burlington.
Afterward, Brown’s family hosted a cookout for both teams at her home on Truitt Drive. In the story that the Elon News Bureau sent to local newspapers, it was Brown’s idea to have the cookout.
Brown said the entire reason she was so involved was simple: She shared an office with Kay Yow.
“We fed them hamburgers and homemade ice cream, and I don’t know if they’d ever had homemade ice cream,” Brown said of the peculiarities of the Soviet women. “When they wanted water or soft drinks or tea, they didn’t want any ice in it. They wanted it all at room temperature. But they really ate the ice cream, and they enjoyed the hamburgers, too. They exchanged gifts and they sat around, and although they could not communicate, it was a wonderful event.”
The Russians also got a chance to swim in the pool at Elon, but there was one problem: They didn’t have any swim clothes. With current Elon mayor Jerry Tolley serving as guard, the Soviet women swam “in their birthday suits,” according to Tolley.
Tolley was then an assistant coach on the football team to Shirley “Red” Wilson, who was head coach and athletic director. Wilson said it was a major focus of his group to give the Soviet women the highest level of respect possible.
“We had to be sure that we could get the Russian situation properly done,” Wilson said. “We had to be sure that we didn’t do anything to offend any of the Russians, as well. We had to be sure we made them feel welcome, which we did. And we had a lot of fun watching them play, as well.”
As one final pregame story mentioned, 500 people came to the gym to watch the two teams practice the day before the big game. The article about the warm-ups noted that the USSR team was greeted with “warm applause” from the U.S. spectators.
The game wasn’t close
When Kay Yow got the roster of the Soviets, she could not trust her eyes.
“When we got the roster, their measurements were not in our measurements. Kay said, ‘Call the math department. We really need to know how tall she is.’ And of course, she was almost 7 feet.”
In what The Pendulum’s Lanna Peavy called “a slight smear,” the Russians ended up cruising to a 114-41 victory over the U.S. women. Led by 6-foot, 10-and-three-quarter-inch tall Ulyama Semenova, the Soviets outscored the Americans 53-13 in the first half and 61-28 in the second.
Jackie Meyers was finishing her senior year of high school and preparing to join the Yow sisters at Elon in fall 1974. From Eden — a town 45 minutes north of Elon — Meyers isn’t sure how she heard about the game, but had been following Elon for a number of years already.
Before the game, Meyers remembered the teams having an “Olympic-like ceremony,” where the teams exchanged gifts with each other. The visual differences between the teams were stunning to her.
“I was in awe of those women because they were so [much] bigger than us,” Meyers said. “There was one woman who was 7 feet tall. She wasn’t very fast, but she was so good.”
Wilson said he “absolutely” was in attendance, and said the gym was full “and then some.” But one thing about the game that stood out to him was how polite and friendly everyone was, despite it being in the middle of the Cold War.
“It was a very competitive game, and I don’t remember anything at all, but the they didn’t have fisticuffs or anything like that. They were very, very well-mannered, and you didn’t have to worry about anything going awry,” Wilson said. “The fans there were very quiet and mannerly, like they were supposed to be.”
Brown remembers a conversation she had with Kay Yow years after the game about the shift in attitude that occurred on the U.S. side.
“She said, ‘You know, you get in the middle of something sometimes, and you have this big goal, which was to win. Well, you finally realize you have to change your goals,’” Brown said. “She said, ‘At halftime, I told the girls I knew one thing: We were not going to get beat by 70 points.’ And of course, it was very close.”
Moving on and moving up
One thing that stood out to Finch after the game was the friendship that Kay Yow struck up with the manager, Lydia Alekseyeva.
“They hit it off,” Finch said. “Kay and the Soviet coach developed a tremendously respectful personal relationship from that. And they coached against each other after that in world championships.”
And for Brown — Elon’s first voting representative in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) — it was sheer luck that she was there during the beginning of women’s sports at Elon.
“I talk to classes at Elon very often about what it was like when I first came and the beginning of women’s athletics, and I’ve kept in touched with most of those women who played on those first teams,” Brown said. “I saw the first basketball game, the first volleyball game, the first softball game. I was just around for all of those. I just became a part of that.”
Wilson truly believes Elon was ahead of the curve on embracing women’s athletics, and sees today’s sports as nearly equal to the men.
“We saw how much the women’s sports had progressed, and look at them now,” Wilson said. “The really good women playing basketball now could beat the average man. That’s how good they are. They’re probably better free throw shooters than the men.”
Where are they now?
Wilson coached at Elon until 1976, and later was an administrator and head football coach at Duke University. He recently retired and moved back to Burlington in 2015. He turned 91 this past June.
Tolley has lived in Elon for the majority of his life since coming onto Wilson’s staff, becoming head coach after Wilson left and winning two NAIA National Championships. Tolley is now the Mayor of the Town of Elon and can be seen frequenting local businesses on most nights.
Kay Yow left Elon in 1975 to become the head coach of the NC State women’s basketball team. She coached at the school until her death in 2009 due to breast cancer. The impact she has had on the sport continues to shine through the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.
After spending 31 years with Kay Yow at NC State, Finch was named the senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2008 and continues to serve in that role today.
Meyers played at Elon under Kay Yow for one season and transferred with her to NC State, but then went back to Elon and finished her collegiate career with the Fighting Christians. She returned to the school as a women’s basketball and tennis coach, spending 10 years (1985-1994) in the role. She’s currently athletic director at Meredith College (a Division III school) and was inducted into the Elon Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
And lastly, Brown retired from Elon in 2005 after teaching for 39 years. She’s become well-renowned in Elon’s circles for her work in promoting women’s athletics, winning the Daniels-Danieley award in 1995 and the Elon Medallion in 2006. She moved out of the house on Truitt Drive to the log cabin in Northern Alamance County, but remains active in the NCSHoF, serving as president in 2014.
And all Brown wants is for this game to get talked about again.