Women’s basketball is growing fast. The WNBA, America’s top professional league, saw its TV ratings rise 19% in 2022 year over year. The league is celebrating their most viewed season in the 14 years on ESPN. On the college side, the NCAA rebranded the women’s tournament to match the men’s, changing it to March Madness and, In 2023, the title game will air live on ABC for the first time. Overall, people want women’s basketball.
In Columbus, Ohio, a love of the women’s game is nothing new. It’s been part of Central Ohio for over 100 years. From amateur to professional levels, athletes in Columbus have played basketball through adversity, war and an everchanging sports landscape to win and create champions. Here’s a brief history of Columbus’ place in the sport.
It wasn’t long after the 1891 invention of basketball that women were playing in Columbus. Early photos show the Central High School girls team posing for a photo in 1897, and facing off against other local schools through the early 1900s. In 1903, after beating East High School by a single point, Central turned down a rematch. East used space in The Columbus Evening Dispatch to make their request public.
Both Central and East competed for the city championship year in and year out. In 1905, East was the aggressor, with Central going so far as to claim that they couldn’t beat the East. On Dec. 16, 1905, Central overcame their own expectations, beating East 9-6 in a game the paper said missed many foul calls, calling it a “very rough game.”
A small example of a game sweeping the area. Amateur teams like Central and East would combine their best players from the city and compete against the collegiate level too. The Ohio State University, the school many think of when they hear Columbus, Ohio, took part in the competition in an early history that was ahead of its time in its own right.
Ohio State’s Infancy
The Scarlet & Gray started their basketball history decades before photos stopped being black and white. In 1899, the first published account of an Ohio State team was published in The Lantern. On Jan. 18, 1899, an intramural game between two physical education classes quickly turned into the Buckeyes involvement in the city tournament.
On Feb. 1, 1899, Ohio State lost 7-2 in their first public game. It was a rowdy crowd too, sounding more like a soccer game in the present, with yelling, spectators blowing horns and the waving of school colors.
The University was forward thinking in a time of prosperity in the United States. In 1898, the Ohio State University Armory and Gymnasium housed women’s basketball, men’s basketball and gymnastics. An aptly named building when it became housing for soldiers World War I.
Ohio State continued their women’s basketball team until 1907. Even though the team brought in a profit of $100 (roughly $3,000 today) in March of that year (not bad considering a fifteen-cent ticket for six games) the Buckeyes varsity team was shut down on Nov. 21, 1907. However, the university allowed players to earn a letter if they played intramural basketball.
Closing down Ohio State varsity basketball is one of many speed bumps women’s basketball players have had to overcome over the years. In Columbus, regardless of the challenges, players persevered.
High school and club teams of all ages continued to thrive, with a journalist in 1929 stating “girls’ games are as popular now, as boys.” Unfortunately, troubled leadership led Ohio high schools to take a drastic measure. In Apr. 1939, high schools voted 384 to 190 in favor of stopping girls’ basketball, but continuing with boys’ basketball.
Nevertheless, Columbus athletes kept playing.
Without the avenue of their local school, players gravitated towards the world of AAU basketball. AAU basketball, synonymous today with soon-to-be professional players, was a means for athletes to continue playing and competing in the sport they loved after school.
In Columbus, the J & K Shoes company put together a squad, including one employee from the Ohio Farm Bureau, that competed across the city. In 1942, three years after the high school ban, J & K won the Central Ohio AAU title and became the first team in Ohio to make the AAU National Championship tournament.
In 1948, high school basketball returned but with vastly different rules. Pundits applauded the changes as a means to reduce competitiveness and “mental and physical strain” that’s often romanticized in the men’s game. The game itself shifted, with Ohio adopting National Division of Girls’ and Women’s Sports standards, which didn’t allow unlimited dribbling of the ball and only forwards could score.
Even then, players kept going, with some schools abandoning the limited dribbling standards for the basketball more resembling today’s game.
The game continued on Ohio State’s campus too, although the team didn’t have a varsity women’s team again until 1965. A year before the Buckeyes return, students, faculty and former Olympians put on the Buckianna games, a sign of women’s sports returning to the spotlight.
A contest that featured all women, including officiating, public in attendance and local media coverage, featured gymnastics, rifle shooting, judo and of course basketball. Although it wasn’t the five-on-five game of today, they competed for a four-foot-high trophy that was actually a large Raggedy Ann doll with an apron listing the winners.
In 1965, Ohio State’s varsity team went 3-4, a decade before a formal Big Ten Tournament and 17 years before Big Ten regular season competition began. The first NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament kicked off in 1982 and the Buckeyes earned an automatic bid thanks to a Big Ten Championship.
Although Ohio State lost in the first round that year, they began setting a standard for the conference, winning seven out of the first 10 editions of Big Ten basketball’s regular season conference championship. Today, Ohio State owns 16 regular season conference titles, the most in Big Ten history.
After 36 years from the year schools voted to discontinued girls’ basketball, 1976 saw the introduction of the Ohio State Athletic Association’s girls’ basketball tournament. The annual tournament featuring all schools from around the state began in Columbus’ St. John’s Arena and, outside of one edition played in Akron, Columbus has been the permanent home of the games.
Drawing 3,000 people, Frankfort Adena beat Rocky River Lutheran West 37-35. Leading Frankfort was a standout performance by Ruth Ann Ater, scoring 22 points and only two from the foul line.
Since then, the OHSAA Girls’ Basketball Tournament has yielded a competitive environment. Across the multiple divisions of Ohio high school basketball, 57 schools have won at least one state championship. Only 32 teams have won multiple titles, with two Columbus-area schools winning seven times each: Columbus Africentric Early College and Pickerington High School Central.
Current WNBA players Kelsey Mitchell, Jantel Lavender and Natasha Howard have all played in Ohio’s capital during the OHSAA tournament. Another name on the list of Ohio pros is Hall of Famer Katie Smith.
Columbus National Champions
Ohio State is the largest but not the only NCAA school in greater Columbus. Central Ohio also features DII school Ohio Dominican and a pair of DIII schools in Otterbein and Capital.
After the Buckeyes made their first National Championship game in 1993, losing to Texas Tech behind 47 points from legend Sheryl Swoopes, the city claimed two straight national championships, courtesy of Capital University.
In 1993, led by head coach Dixie Jeffers, Capital lost in the DIII National Championship 71-63. Following the defeat, All-American Sandy Buddelmeyer, who amassed an impressive collegiate career of 2,248 points and 1,365 rebounds finished her final year of college eligibility. You’d think that meant Capital was ready for a rebuild. Not this time.
Capital dominated the first five games of the 1994 DIII tournament and won the championship 82-63. They did all this with only two seniors on the roster. In 1995, Capital repeated, this time in their own arena on Columbus’ east side, but made it much more interesting for spectators.
The Comets trailed in the semi-final by 11 points in the second half before going on a 13-0 run to take the lead and earn a spot in the final. Against University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Capital faced another double-digit deficit with 11 minutes remaining. Again, they overcame and completed the first undefeated season in NCAA DIII history.
Columbus on the Big Stage
The Columbus area didn’t stop winning championships with Capital. Smith, who left Ohio State owning most team records and a 1996 Big Ten Player of the Year honor, stayed in Columbus with the Columbus Quest, of the American Basketball League.
While the league lasted only two-plus seasons before financial issues forced it to fold, Smith led the Quest to two straight league titles. When the ABL ended, Smith moved to the WNBA where she earned seven All-Star appearances, two championships and a Finals MVP with the Detroit Shock.
Smith also took part in the 2018 NCAA Final Four, held in Columbus, Ohio, speaking to a crowd of 2,000 who participated in The Bounce event where children from around the city dribbled from Nationwide Arena to the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
What followed on the court is arguably the greatest Final Four in women’s basketball history.
All No. 1 seeds met to compete for the National Championship. In the semifinals, both games went to overtime. Mississippi State began the day defeating the University of Louisville 73-63. Then, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, led by current WNBA All-Stars Arike Ogunbowale and Jackie Young, beat the UConn Huskies 91-89.
It was impossible to think that any final could match the two semifinals, then Ogunbowale made a great case for the best final in NCAA basketball history.
On Apr. 1, 2018, Ogunbowale and Notre Dame were level with Mississippi State, 58-58. With three seconds left on the clock, the Fighting Irish inbounded and Ogunbowale, under pressure, shot a three while jumping sideways. When the ball went through the net, a sellout crowd erupted. See for yourself.
The weekend broke social media records for the NCAA – impressions, engagement and other social and web-based metrics. All created in Columbus.
This history lesson only skims the surface of a city that regardless of what’s happening in the world around it, women’s basketball is part of the conversation.
Note: This was written based heavily on Columbus Dispatch digital archive, as researched and provided by the Columbus Metropolitan Library.