“Did I have game?” Nera White once remarked. “You know that move Jordan made on the Lakers, switching the ball from one hand to the other? I was doing that in the ’50s.”
White, who dominated women’s basketball in the 1950s and 1960s and who was widely regarded as one of the best players in the history of the sport, died April 13 at a hospital in Gallatin, Tennessee. She was 80.
Her death was announced by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The cause was pneumonia, said her daughter-in-law, Brandy White.
White grew up on a Tennessee farm in a family of seven children and reached the height of 6-foot-1, she once quipped, because she “got the first milk.” Nearly two decades before Title IX opened collegiate athletics for women, she became a superstar on the amateur court.
From 1955 to 1969, White played for the team sponsored by the Nashville Business College, an Amateur Athletic Union powerhouse. As a center/forward, she helped the team claim 10 AAU national championships and was a 10-time MVP. She was an AAU All-American in 15 consecutive years and was MVP at the 1957 world championship in Rio de Janeiro, where the United States won the gold medal.
“She’s the only woman who can do everything — rebound, defense, handle the ball and score,” Harley Redin, the coach of the Hutcherson Flying Queens of Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, once remarked.
On the court, White was known for her stunning athleticism and steely resolve.
“Her expression was usually unemotional, whether in competition or not,” author Robert Ikard wrote in the volume “Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball.” “Ever lurking beneath her inscrutable demeanor was a reserve of skill and competitiveness that could be mustered in critical moments — the driving characteristic of a dominant athlete.”
A ‘rebounding machine’
She was known as an unselfish player, a smooth dribbler, a tough defender and, along with teammate Joan Crawford, one of the team’s “rebounding machines,” Ikard said in an interview.
She “thrilled fans with her soaring rebounds and drives to the basket,” Mark Stewart and Mike Kennedy wrote in the volume “Swish: The Quest for Basketball’s Perfect Shot. “She was a great scorer who had a deadly hook shot and an accurate 25-foot jump shot. Another of her specialties was sinking baskets from half-court. White also had amazing leaping ability. Every so often, she would rise to the rim and dunk the ball, bringing the crowd to its feet.”
Off the court, White and her teammates endured grueling travel schedules and poor pay, often cobbling together jobs in the offseason.
“I would be embarrassed to tell you how little we made,” White once told the Tennessean newspaper of Nashville. “They took advantage of us because of our love for basketball. I got to travel, which was worth a lot, but I didn’t get much else.”
She played on all-star teams that competed across Europe, including the Soviet Union, and in Latin America.
In a statement, John Doleva, president and chief executive of the basketball hall of fame, described her as a “trailblazer of the women’s game” who “paved the way for the generations of tremendous female athletes that have followed in her footsteps.”
A lifelong athlete
Nera Dyson White was born in Macon County, Tennessee, not far from the Kentucky border, Nov. 15, 1935. Her father played baseball as a boy but lost a leg after he slid into second base and developed an infection that required amputation, Ikard wrote. He later was a coach and a teacher. Her mother was a homemaker, and White helped raise her younger siblings.
She played basketball in high school, once reportedly dribbling the ball for the entirety of the fourth quarter to prevent the opposing team from scoring. She studied at Peabody College in Nashville, now part of Vanderbilt University, to become a schoolteacher but did not pursue a teaching certificate because of what was described as her shyness.
In the offseason and after her basketball career, White was a standout softball player. After retiring from softball in the mid-1980s, she returned to her family’s farm in Lafayette, Tennessee, where she grew tobacco, soy and wheat.
In 1992, she became one of the first women inducted into the Naismith hall of fame. She attributed the delay to a lack of interest in women’s sports.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Well, it wasn’t the right time.’ That’s the same thing they said to the black people,” White remarked. “When is the right time? When the white males decide it’s the right time for people that they discriminated against? I don’t have anything against white males, but I could almost say that they could take it and cram it.”
She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, the year it opened in Knoxville, Tennessee.
White was never married. Survivors include Jeff White, a son she adopted from a teammate, of Lafayette; a sister; a brother; and two granddaughters.
White rarely granted interviews but once, in an interview with the Tennessean, offered a glimpse of her competitive spirit. “I just don’t like to lose, so I go all out every game to prevent it,” she said. “If we do lose and I have gone all out to win, then I don’t have the loss on my conscience.”