If you’re thinking Brittney Griner forget about it.
Ora Mae Washington (b. 1898-d. 1971) was without a doubt the greatest woman basketball player ever and possibly the greatest female athlete of our times.
Remember all the hype that surrounded women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, the 6′-8″ phenom, after she annihilated the collegiate competition while a “student-athlete” at Baylor? The projected storyline after the 2013 WNBA draft was basically how many opponents would be posterized by the All-Star Break. By all accounts, Griner has certainly lived up to the hype. In her debut game on May 27, 2013, Griner flipped at least two wigs and become just the third WNBA player to dunk and first to do it twice in one game.
ESPN even attempted to boost ratings by plugging an April 2013 article titled, “Could Brittney Griner play in NBA?” This was serious talk folks, and many including Mark Cuban thought seriously about selecting Griner in the NBA draft. But for all the hype, Griner averaged a respectable 17.3 p.p.g. over a six year career. What is interesting is the consensus thinking among pundits that no woman would ever play in the NBA in our lifetime. But what if I tell you this already happened? Well not exactly the NBA, but by most reasonable standards close enough. You see this person played before the NBA was created in 1946. She played at a time when racial segregation was the law and social custom of American life.
This woman was so good that I am convinced that she would be as high as a second-round NBA draft pick. Yes, a woman that good. The athlete I speak of was Ora Mae Washington of the Philadelphia Tribune of the Professional Women’s Basketball Association. Washington was, without a doubt, the greatest female Cager (A term used for early basketball players that used to play in cages…literally) of her generation (1930s) and every generation since. I dare say that her accomplishments on the court won’t be matched anytime soon.
Like the monster Grendel, Washington didn’t just dominate the competition she annihilated the competition. For ten years (1930-40) Washington was the Black women’s basketball league’s leading scorer. She played center for the Philadelphia Tribune sponsored a team for 18 years, losing only six games, all of which were to men’s teams. According to blackfivesblog.com, the “Tribune Girls” won 11 straight Women’s Colored Basketball World’s Championships, which meant, with no reasonable objection, that her women’s team was the best in the world. African American newspaper advertisements sensationalized Washington not merely as one of best female players in the world, but as one of “the best Colored players in the world.”
Washington was born in Germantown, now a suburb of Philadelphia. Barred mainly from competing with whites due to racist Jim Crow laws black athletes, like Washington and their sponsors formed leagues of their own. The competition was plentiful as games could be found throughout black America. Sponsored All Black Teams, excluded from playing with whites, would be the seed for current NBA. Many of those early African American women pioneers not only played for the love of the game but as a means to deflate pseudo-scientific theories of black physical and mental inferiority. Each game, each win, was not just a win or a loss, it was a repudiation, a vindication if you will. Each game mattered.
Throughout her career, Washington played the Center position for the Germantown Hornets and then the Tribunes teams. The black-owned Philadelphia Tribune newspaper sponsored the women’s team at a time when black-owned news organizations were mainstays of the black community. With the help of men that rode the were employed for railroad companies as Pullman Sleeping Car Porters news of black athletic accomplishments spread along thousands of miles of railway, from New York to Atlanta, from New Orleans to Washington during the 1930s. Washington and others like her became household names in African American communities.
To better appreciate Washington’s accomplishments, it should be understood that the 1930s was a decade marked by deeply ingrained racial strife. The South was ruled under the vice of racial laws and social customs that forced blacks, no matter how well off, into a system that relegated them to second-class citizenship and maintained white supremacy. Further, the Great Depression that began in the 1930s tore deeply into both black and white communities bringing out the best and worst in both communities. The Scottsboro Boys case is an example of the racial hatred and hysteria that dominated much of the South and other areas of the country during the Depression. Washington’s domination on the court was such that the games in which she played were seen as excursions away from everyday problems of poverty, joblessness, and racism. Advertisements tag lines “They make you forget the Depression” were common. This is the milieu that Ora Mae Washington, a tall, long, and athletic woman made rags of the competition and managed to entertain the problems of Great Depression communities away for 48 minutes.
If her complete domination of the cage is not evidence enough of Washington’s athletic prowess, take the nine consecutive singles tennis championships she won between 1929 and 1937, and twelve straight doubles championships with partner Lula Ballard, also from Philadelphia, from 1925 onwards. Playing in the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA), Washington never had the opportunity to test her skills against reigning world woman’s champion Helen Wills Moody, who refused to play her because Washington was Black. No African-American woman would play in the United States National Lawn Tennis Association until Althea Gibson broke the color barrier in 1950. Althea Gibson was a two-sport athlete that dominated women’s professional tennis including winning two Wimbledon’s. However, neither she nor the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias ever accomplished much at the professional level. Washington dominated day in and day out for a decade.
For all of her accomplishments on the court, Ora Mae Washington is not in the Professional Basketball Hall of Fame. I think the time is now for her, and the inclusion of other Black Five greats, into the Basketball Hall of Fame.