Commentary

Dunn led way for today's generation

Lin Dunn to be inducted into Women's Basketball HOF on Saturday (ESPN3, 7 ET)

Originally Published: May 14, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

There are two kinds of vision, of course. The kind that lets you see what's in front of you, and the kind that lets you imagine what you hope will one day be there.

Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn always has had both, going back to her youth in Tennessee in the 1950s and '60s. Even then, Dunn had a passion for sports and could see strategy and tactics as a natural-born coach. But she also saw what wasn't there: enough opportunities and support for girls and women in athletics.

When Dunn is inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee, as part of a class of six, the honor will be a testament to Dunn's determination to make the real world line up better with the possibilities she always imagined.

[+] EnlargeLin Dunn
AP Photo/Evan VucciAfter winning the 2012 WNBA title, Lin Dunn and the Fever were honored at the White House.

When Dunn was growing up, Tennessee was one of a relatively small number of states with at least some basketball infrastructure for girls and women. Tennessee had six-on-six girls' basketball (mostly in smaller and more rural high schools) and some very strong-willed, forward-thinking coaches and administrators at the college level. One of them was Bettye Giles. She was hired at Tennessee Martin as a physical education instructor in 1952 and became women's athletic director at the college where eventual Tennessee coach Pat Summitt would play from 1970 to 1974.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, though, just as college students nationwide were becoming activists about numerous causes, led by the Vietnam War, Giles found she had a "rabble-rouser" of sorts in the UT Martin athletic department.

There was this young woman who refused to accept the status quo for female athletes, because it wasn't even second-class citizenship then. It was something even less than that. She didn't believe that it had to stay that way, and she kept letting Giles know that.

"One of the people that drove me the craziest was Lin Dunn," Giles said when reflecting on her career a couple of years ago. "She was as competitive and bullheaded as Pat was."

Dunn was five years older than Summitt, and also a Tennessee native. During Dunn's time at UT Martin from 1965 to 1969, there was a real push against the code of ethics that was followed by most collegiate physical education departments at the time. The code held that if women participated in sports, it was best they stay "intramural." Varsity sports that were truly intercollegiate and competitive were seen as both too strenuous and too "masculine" for college women.

Dunn saw all that for the complete nonsense it was, and frankly so did Giles. But the older woman was more diplomatic, if you will, about the process of challenging the status quo. Dunn had less tolerance for slow-moving change. When something is ridiculous, you call it out and fix it, right?

"People were quizzing me, saying, 'Why can't we have a real basketball team?'" Giles said. "Lin was at the forefront of that. She couldn't understand it and didn't think it was right. Lin was also a great athlete."

But Dunn's options were limited after she graduated. Dunn became a college coach right around the time that turned into a real occupation for women. She started at Austin Peay in nearby Clarksburg, Tennessee. She moved on to coach collegiately at Mississippi, Miami and Purdue.

At each of those places, Dunn moved the needle forward, pushing women's college basketball closer to where it is now. Her best and worst days came at Purdue, where she led the Boilermakers to the Women's Final Four in 1994, but was fired after a dispute with the athletic director in 1996. It was then that Dunn had to dust herself off and re-evaluate her career and her life. But the timing was in her favor: Women's professional basketball was starting in the United States, first with the ABL, then with the WNBA.

Dunn went out west to pursue the pro game, starting with the ABL's Portland Power, then moving to the WNBA's Seattle Storm. But it was her shift closer to home -- as assistant, then head coach -- with the Indiana Fever in 2004 that would provide her a real sense of a professional "home" where she could finish her career. And it's where she at last won a championship, with the Fever's magical run through the 2012 WNBA playoffs.

There had to be pioneer-types like [Dunn] who kept saying "Why?" and "Why not?" and "When?" over and over, and didn't get discouraged when the answers were lacking or condescending or just plain stupid.

Dunn will turn over the Fever's head coaching reins to assistant Stephanie White after this WNBA season ends. Their connection goes all the way back to when Dunn recruited White, the Indiana schoolgirl superstar, to Purdue.

That handoff will be both real and symbolic. The women of Dunn's generation are in the midst of concluding their coaching/administrative careers, or have already done so. How do you wrap up all they've meant to women's college sports? You really can't. Like most trailblazers, they cleared more ground, fought more battles, persevered through more heartache, overcame more disappointments and faced down more bias and unfairness than even they know. When you're doing that every day for so many years, it just becomes routine.

But they can also take time now to really examine what they did and feel the sense of pride that can come only after a lot has been overcome.

When Dunn was entering college, almost nothing that's taken for granted now in women's collegiate athletics even existed. Most people didn't even think it could or should exist.

There had to be pioneer-types like her who kept saying "Why?" and "Why not?" and "When?" over and over, and didn't get discouraged when the answers were lacking or condescending or just plain stupid. They had to be able to get angry without losing their heads. They learned to appreciate the little things, because sometimes that's all they had to appreciate.

Dunn turned 67 in May. She will compete the rest of this summer to try to win another title for Indiana. And even though she will step away from coaching, you just know she is not heading off to a rocker on a porch staring at the sunset. She'll find new challenges and contribute in different ways.

True visionaries are like that. They never stop looking for what everybody else will one day be grateful that someone could foresee.

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

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.