History-making HBCU in Pennsylvania gets long-overdue recognition in women's basketball

The 1981-82 Cheyney University women's basketball team is among the latest inductees into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Friday, April 26, 2024
Cheyney University gets long-overdue recognition in women's basketball
History-making HBCU in Pennsylvania gets long-overdue recognition in women's basketball

CHEYNEY, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- With record-breaking viewership and ticket sales for college and WNBA games, it's safe to say that women's basketball is having a moment -- one that's long overdue.

The 1981-82 Cheyney University women's basketball team is getting its long-overdue credit as well. The local HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) made history when it played in the first-ever NACC women's national championship game.

On Saturday, the team is among the latest inductees into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. The Cheyney team will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as the "Trailblazer of the Game."

Before two of the team members received their honors, they sat down for an exclusive interview with Action News Race and Culture Reporter TaRhonda Thomas on the campus where their history-making season was the stuff of legends.

"We learned more about life in this building than we learned about basketball," said Debra Walker as she walked in front of Cope Hall with her former teammate Yolanda Laney.

Cope Hall was where the team played its games. The game they played in Norfolk, Virginia on March 28, 1982, though, made history. Louisiana Tech versus Cheyney University -- it was the nation's first HBCU and the first and only HBCU to ever play in an NCAA Division 1 Championship game.

"Many will say that what these women did will never be done again," said Kyle Adams, a Cheyney alum, who is now one of the team's biggest advocates. She's determined to have their story told.

It was a team stacked with All-Americans, but not with athletic scholarships.

In her first coaching job, Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer made sure players had everything they needed, and not just for basketball.

"Right before we played a game, she always had a life lesson, a speech, prepared for us," said Walker

It was so that players could hold their heads high even when others doubted the tiny Pennsylvania HBCU.

"We knew we belonged there," said Laney. "What it was is they didn't expect us to be there, or they didn't want to see this small HBCU get there past all the giants."

The small school defied all the odds, packing the stands at a time when many other women's teams weren't getting as much support. They even outdid the men with the size of their crowds.

"We had double-headers, the gym [was] packed," said Keith Johnson, a former Cheyney basketball player and current Cheyney men's basketball coach. "We'd say, 'Yeah we coming up to a packed house. The game was over, all the Maryland fans leave!'"

For decades, their home court held the story, but now Cope Hall is being torn down.

"Wow. It's sad for real," said Walker as she looked at the construction fence around the building right before its scheduled demolition began.

The building is being torn down to make way for a new athletic complex and maybe a new legacy.

"They have the audacity to dream and hope that one day they can restore this program," said Walker of the current players who now serve as her inspiration.

As for that 1982 game, it didn't go Cheyney's way. Louisiana Tech won the NCAA's first women's championship basketball game 76-62. But it turned out that no one on campus cared.

"I realized the impact we made when we got back to campus and the whole student body was out there waiting for us," recalled Laney.

Because from the moment the 1982 Cheyney Lady Wolves stepped on the court, they'd already won. The team sealed the moment with not just a memory but a place in history.

"Life goes on," said Walker. "History remains."