Missy Isaacson: Shattering the Glass Backboard

By Gloria Kosir, Feature Editor

Melissa “Missy” Isaacson walks into the buzzing Niles West contest gym. Students engage in chatter about their days while walking up and down the bleachers. The squeak of gym shoes on the glossy gym floor sends her back to her high school days, where she and her team won the 1979 girls’ state basketball championship. Forty years later, Isaacson and her teammates are reliving the moment through her newly published book, “State.” Her book follows not only the journey to make it to the third ever girls’ state championship, but also the journey of gaining gender equality in sports.

“I think I always knew this was a good story. I think we knew it then. I think we had a sense that we were special… I knew that this had to be written and I had to be the one to do it, so after I wrote this column on our 25th anniversary, people responded to it and it was kind of just a matter of time before it became a book,” Isaacson said.

When Isaacson started writing this book, she knew that she didn’t want it to be a basic basketball story. While the story focuses on the state championship, it also highlights differences between the boys’ and girls’ sports teams, the bond of a high school team, and the general highs and lows of high school and life.

Isaacson was on the Niles West girls’ basketball team all four years of high school, 1975 until 1979. Girls’ teams were still new. The area that current West students know as the contest gym used to be called “the boys’ gym.” After Title IX was passed, things began to change.

Title IX is a federal law that ensures that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This promises that schools can’t exclude a girls’ sports team just because they’re girls.

Isaacson saw some of the changes that happened after Title IX, but there were still many differences between the boys’ and girls’ sports teams. Girls’ teams had to share uniforms with other girls’ teams, and they weren’t actual uniforms either. At first, the shirts just had a small number attached, without even the words “Niles West.” The shirts gradually got more suitable for a winning team as the years went on.

“I don’t know [what other teams went through] because I think we were all living in our own little world, but I think we were all aware that we were sharing warm-up suits and uniforms and that we were playing in the inferior gym,” Isaacson said. “But we were having so much fun and were so excited. Every second of practice was like, ‘I get to practice today?!'”

In 1979, Isaacson and her teammates brought the first place trophy to Niles West. It was handed to her team by their principal, Dr. Nicholas Mannos. Current PE teacher Rebecca Tuecke remembers it like it was yesterday.

“[The most memorable part was] winning state and holding up that trophy. There was a TV show back in our day, Ray Rayner, in the morning, and if you won state, you got to appear on it. So, it was a very cool experience being on the Ray Rayner show with your teammates, and it was an accomplishment, but when our principal, Dr. Nicholas Mannos, handed us a trophy down in Champaign, there was nothing better than that,” Tuecke said. She was a freshman on the team when they won state.

It was no surprise to Coach Gene Earl that the girls made it to state. They worked hard at every practice, and he loved coaching them.

“When I got there to coach, they were very talented. Very talented. They got along well, and they played together very well. They were so much more mature than the sophomore boys I’d been coaching. Two years of school, four or five years of maturity, and it was just amazing. They listened, they wanted to be coached, as opposed to some sophomore boys who would give me the idea that, ‘hey, I’ve been coached, I know it.’ They didn’t, they were very receptive to me after having a female teacher coach them for about three or four years, and they were very receptive of me, an older guy, and it was just fantastic to coach [them],” Earl said.

Isaacson knew that what she and her teammates had was special. Their bonds with one another are still strong, even 40 years after the championship. One former Niles West basketball player, Claudia Miscinski, remembers the camaraderie.

“[My experience on the Niles West girls’ basketball team] was a lot of fun. It was the most special bond I had. You know, all the teammates were my closest friends. That’s what I loved most about it. Playing basketball is great, too, but the bonds that we had with our other teammates was awesome,” Miscinski said. She played a few years after Isaacson did.

In Isaacson’s prologue, she wrote that basketball gave her and her team a sense of belonging.

“I think everything was all seen through the prism of basketball. If I didn’t have basketball, I would’ve been a little lost. I probably would’ve found something. I would’ve had friends. I was social, but I wouldn’t have that real place to go, where I really felt like I belonged and I loved to go to every day. The gym was that for me, and when I think of Niles West, I think of that gym more than anything. With all due respect to all of the other wonderful things that were there and all the wonderful teachers, I think of Mrs. Mulder, Mr. Schnurr, my teammates and the gym. That was happiness that was pure joy,” Isaacson said.