Donna Murphy: It wasn’t easy as a female sports star in Kentucky just after Title IX

Donna Murphy is a basketball icon in the commonwealth.

Once Title IX brought girls’ basketball back as a sanctioned sport in Kentucky, Murphy was the breakout star of the re-inaugurated Kentucky Girls’ Sweet Sixteen in 1975 and the initial winner of the Kentucky Miss Basketball award in 1976.

In her first state tournament game in 1975, Murphy scored 42 points and had 23 rebounds to lead Newport past Russell 58-42 at Eastern Kentucky University’s McBrayer Arena.

“It was such a wonderful experience,” Murphy said of playing in the first sanctioned Kentucky Girls’ Basketball State Tournament since 1932. “To this day, I still remember things about it.”

Murphy was light years ahead of her time. She averaged 32 points and 22 rebounds as a junior at Newport, then came back to put up 35 points, 20 rebounds and six assists a game as a senior.

Hers has been a long basketball journey. Murphy starred in college at Morehead State (career totals of 2,059 points and 1,442 rebounds). She played one season in the ill-fated Women’s Professional Basketball League with the St. Louis Streak.

Her college coaching stops have included serving as an assistant coach at Kentucky, Florida, Memphis, Cincinnati and Morehead. Murphy started the women’s program at Asbury University and coached there 11 years. She was the head girls’ coach at both Bryan Station High School and Lexington Christian Academy, too.

Murphy, 64, is soon to retire after 37 years as a counselor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Murphy seemed a fitting choice with whom to discuss the arc of women’s sports in Kentucky from the 1970s until now (some answers are edited for brevity and/or clarity):

Question: I was 10 years old when my parents took me to that first, relaunched Girls’ Sweet Sixteen. The first game I saw was your 42-point showing against Russell. I’ve always wondered: Given that there really weren’t a lot of organized girls’ sports as you grew up, how did you get so good at basketball?

Murphy: “I played (basketball) with the boys. I lived in the projects. There was a basketball court in that area. I would go there and watch the fellas play.

“After they would leave, I would play and try to imitate them. I got to the point where I started really improving. I feel like I was gifted with natural ability to jump and run. So I picked up on things real quickly.

“So, the guys started choosing me to play with them because I would jump and rebound, then pass the ball. I kind of got tired of passing the ball all the time, so I had to develop my shooting form and ball-handling skills. And, before you know it, I was the one who was choosing the teams.”

Question: So Title IX passes, and girls’ teams come back to sanctioned Kentucky sports. Since you were so used to playing with the boys, what was that transition like?

Murphy: “The first organized (basketball) team I played on — I am using the word organized loosely — was at the junior high.

“Keep in mind, I had only played against the fellas and I had never really seen any girls play. . . . The person who was the PE teacher, she really didn’t know much about basketball at all. But she had us all get out on the court to have a jump ball.

“A lot of the girls, they had on street shoes. Some had skirts on, OK? I had my headband on. I had my wristbands on, my shorts and my gym shoes. (That so many of the other girls didn’t even know how to dress to play basketball) was very aggravating for me.

“I remember walking off the court, just sitting in the stands, very distraught. I remember my PE teacher, she came up to me . . . and she asked me why I left the court? I basically told her that they weren’t playing basketball.

“ . . . She said, ‘If you think you know so much, you get out there and coach them.’ So that’s what I did. Looking back on it, that was the debut of my coaching career.”

Donna Murphy gave instructions to Cara Johnson, left, and Kayla Yates during her coaching tenure at Lexington Christian Academy.
Donna Murphy gave instructions to Cara Johnson, left, and Kayla Yates during her coaching tenure at Lexington Christian Academy.

Question: What was it like for you in high school once you became established as the state’s best girls’ basketball player? In the infancy of girls’ sports, how did people react to you?

Murphy: “I had positive and negative experiences. I had some pretty negative experiences playing at different schools. There were some schools — I am not going to name names — you didn’t see a lot of diversity in their neighborhoods and their counties.

“Now, it’s different but when they would write stuff on our bus or they would call us ‘the N word.’ Or they would question my sexuality because they said I played like a man.

“You know, I was a kid. And grown men saying some pretty negative, derogatory things about my race, it scared the beans out of me. It hurt me. I never told my mother about any of that until much later in life.

“But, you know, it fired me up, too. I didn’t know how to address it other than just go play.”

Question: In high school, how was your girls’ team treated in relation to the boys’ basketball team?

Murphy: “They didn’t equate what we were doing at the same level as the guys. It might have been equivalent, but it wasn’t equal. We didn’t have everything the guys had when it came to having money, when it came to having equipment, when it came to being treated on an equal basis.

“Our team didn’t get the same recognition as the boys even though we were beating butt. I didn’t get the same recognition as the boys who were, for example, All-Region.

“The number one player in the (Ninth) Region, I remember, he got a trophy that stood, like, 3 or 4 feet off of the ground. It was almost as tall as him. They gave me a little bitty one, and I was the No. 1 (girls’) player in the region.

“I remember that distinctly because I thought it was funny.”

Question: If you could time travel, do you wish you could be a part of girls’/women’s sports now when they are so much more established?

Murphy: “I’ve thought about that. . . . I will say, those aren’t my feelings so much for high school. But it is for playing professionally after college.

“I ended up playing for the St. Louis Streak for one year. The league I played in, the WPBL, was the first women’s professional basketball league. Then there were a whole bunch of other leagues that popped up, but none stayed until the WNBA.

“I would have liked to have had a crack to play in a league like the WNBA. I’ll tell you, it’s difficult for me to watch those games because I’m thinking, ‘Doggone it, we could have been doing that back in the day.’

“But my time was then. This is their time now. I don’t have any kind of ill feelings or anything. But to see all these opportunities these young women have now, they have no idea whose shoulders they stand on. Or the shoulders I stood on.”

‘There was nowhere for a girl to go.’ How Title IX improved athletics across Kentucky.

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