What are the beginnings of college and prep basketball in Utah? They aren't likely what you might think. But the University of Utah women's basketball team has a legendary heritage, though it's obscure and intermittent.
Utah collegiate women not only started hoop play in the Beehive State in the late 1800s, but likely played some of the first public hoops — if not the first-ever such games — in the Western United States.
"University Basket-Ball. Girls Defeat the Boys in the First Open Game" was a May 16, 1897, headline in the Salt Lake Tribune.
The story reported that in the premiere game played on the new outdoor field at the University of Utah, the women's squad beat the men's team by a score of 8-6.
The women started timidly in the game, but soon took command, according to the story. The field was reported to be too dusty and soft "for pleasurable playing," though it had now been improved. The new playing field was on the north side of the campus and shaded by large willow trees in the afternoon.
The first report on women's basketball in the Deseret News was likely printed on Jan. 19, 1900, when the Lowell school girls team soundly defeated the Salt Lake High School girls team (forerunner to West High School), 16-2.
Apparently, boys didn't think basketball was a manly enough sport in the early years.
For example, back when BYU was Brigham Young Academy (before 1903), only women played hoops there. A photograph in the "Encyclopedia of Mormonism" in the sports entry shows the women's team that won the Brigham Young championship in 1900. The coach was a man and there were seven female players, all clad in long dresses.
The women of early basketball in Utah all played wearing very long and baggy dresses. An illustration in the April 18, 1897, Salt Lake Tribune also shows the University of Utah girls team wearing similar long dresses. That story referred to "basket-ball" as a "mild rival of football" and said that Utah State College in Logan, as well as Rowland Hall, the Mutual Improvement League (LDS Church sponsored team) and the YWCA had all organized girls hoops teams.
Several months later, in a June 4, 1897, Tribune report on "basket-ball," the drawings of girl players at the U. of U. showed more streamlined dresses (yet still very loose fitting) that only went to the knees.
That report also said that a public game by University of Utah and league teams was the "first contest of the kind ever played west of Chicago."
The U. of U. women's team won that game 8-3 over the Mutual Improvement League. Jean Hyde, captain and center of the U. team, led all scorers with four points. There was also some controversy in the game when Miss Hafen of the Mutual team tried to talk to one of the umpires about so many uncalled fouls for the opposing team. (The game featured two umpires and a referee.) She was warned that to do so again would result in a foul. (Strangely, the drawing of the referee also showed him carrying a long stick.) Coach of the U. of U. team was Elmer Qualtrough.
A Salt Lake Herald newspaper story of May 17, 1897, credited Miss Lucile Hewitt as being the U. of U. student who petitioned the Athletic Association at the school to let her women's team play, with co-education being a key concept in the early years of basketball teams.
That same story mentioned that one player had sustained a broken nose during basketball play, though the story characterized the game as "exercise, simple and pure, vigorous and real."
Privacy of women's basketball was also a key early concern, at least for prep play.2 comments on this story
"Basket-ball maidens. The elusive sphere chased behind closed doors" was a Nov. 6, 1897, headline in a Salt Lake Tribune report. The story said that the front doors of the market, where the Salt Lake High junior girls practiced, was locked, so that no males would see them play. And a sign on the door stated, "No spectators allowed," so that "their gyrations should not be observed by any odious males." (The girls team did have a male coach, though.)
Sadly, women's competitive basketball play didn't last long in the early years of the 20th century, partially because boys' play soon became very popular and pushed the girls aside. It was also likely that in that past era, some felt it inappropriate for girls and women to be playing so competitively. However, many decades later, with the advent of Title IX in the 1970s, girls and women's basketball teams in both high school and colleges eventually returned in force.