One roundabout trip for a trophy

Updated: September 21, 2006, 11:47 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

A half-century ago, the U.S. women's basketball team won two World Championship trophies … and had one heck of a time bringing them back from South America. If the stories I've heard and read are all true, this is what happened.

World Championship Trophy
Mechelle VoepelThe 62-pound 1957 World Championship Trophy gathered dust -- first at a New York airport and then at an AAU office -- before being delivered to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

The first World Championship was in 1953 in Santiago, Chile. The American team -- which was made up of players from Nashville Business College and Iowa Wesleyan College -- won the title.

However, the trophy was so absurdly large and heavy that it couldn't even fit on the plane. And so the team had to leave it there.

Four years later, the World Championship made its first of now four appearances in Brazil. And Team USA won again. That year, there were three women from greater Kansas City on the team, and another from nearby St. Joseph, Mo.

One of my Kansas City Star colleagues, Kent Pulliam, did a story before the 1996 Olympics, and he talked with these women about their World Championship experience so long ago. Women's basketball didn't debut at the Olympics until 1976; the World Championship was the biggest contest they had.

The Americans beat the Soviet Union in the '57 championship game, and a headline in a Brazilian newspaper the next day read (roughly translated): "Twelve girls avenged the 'Sputnik.'"

Sputnik was the Soviet-launched satellite that symbolically marked the frenzied beginning of the USA-USSR space race. Sputnik I went up Oct. 4, 1957, and the U.S. women won their gold over the Soviets later that month.

Anyway, this time the trophy size was only slightly less ridiculous; the K.C. crew said it weighed 62 pounds (it might well be more). It did make the plane ride home. But when the team arrived back in New York from Brazil, the additional weight they brought from the souvenirs in their luggage and this behemoth trophy added up to an extra $713 -- which nobody had.

One of the K.C.-based players, Lucille Davidson, kept a diary of the trip and shared this for Kent's story: "No one from AAU was there to meet us … We were there for several hours until a Pan Am officer released the players' luggage. But they held the trophy."

So apparently it just stayed in New York for a while; then somehow it was sent to an AAU office in Indiana. There, it gathered dust for years. And because of the shape and design of the bronze ball atop it, a lot of people just glanced at it and assumed it was … a soccer trophy. (Obviously, the word "basquetebol" on it escaped them.)

There is a happy ending, though. It eventually was properly identified, and then sent to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. Which is very nice, considering what it meant to these women who won it.

Back then, they wore those satiny uniforms, with belts, and canvas shoes, of course. Almost no one but their families and some friends had any idea what they were doing in Brazil. The 1950s were a "backlash" decade in terms of girls' and women's team sports -- many high schools that had basketball at the start of the 1950s actually got rid of it and didn't bring it back until the 1970s.

Yet women and girls who really wanted to play basketball then still found places to do that. And this is what Lucille Davidson wrote in her diary about winning that 1957 championship:

"When the final whistle blew, we all went crazy … don't think a single girl didn't admit it was the biggest thrill of a lifetime."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.