by Chuck Gordon
After progressing steadily from matching the neighborhood boys hit for hit in backyard baseball to striking them out on the Little League diamond, to “roving” up and down the high school basketball court and finally leading a hoops team as the de facto point guard and spark plug at Wingate Junior College, Cindy Lowery James ’73 suddenly found herself on a blustery tennis court high in the mountains. She could hit a little but “wasn’t anything fabulous,” and here she was traveling to Boone with the Catawba College team to take on Appalachian State.
“I had on light-blue warmup pants and a light-blue tennis dress, and a jacket,” she says. “So I looked good.”
Then came the match. “I remember we warmed up and then I won the first game and she won the next 12,” James says with a chuckle. “I mean, she beat me like a drum.”
Her opponent might have figured out pretty quickly that James’s backhand was suspect, but the Bulldog hall-of-famer still takes the loss in stride, five decades later. She was just happy to get to play another sport.
Having to field an inexperienced player on a college tennis team might not seem like progress, but that’s exactly what it represented in 1974. It meant that opportunities were finally opening up for female athletes. Today, Wingate offers 14 sports for women – three more than for men – but that’s 14 more than in the 1960s. Back then, girls like James, who might have been a fill-in on the tennis court but was a dynamo in basketball and softball, would have been encouraged to try out for cheerleading or told where intramural sign-ups were being held. As youngsters, many were denied their requests to play Little League baseball, though by the mid-1970s they were finding more avenues open for them to hone their athletic skills.
James grew up playing all manner of sports with her cousins and the rest of the kids in her neighborhood near Wingate Elementary. She was a quintessential tomboy, eschewing dolls in favor of a glove and a bat.
“Where most girls weren’t practicing that much, she always had a baseball or basketball in her hand,” her cousin John Lowery says. “When we were playing, you wanted to be on her team, or you wanted her on your team.”
James was fortunate in some respects. She and two other local girls were permitted to play Little League (there were no girls softball leagues at the time), and they held their own. “I played shortstop, and I pitched a little bit,” James says. “When I struck a couple of boys out, that got me some points.
“It was in my genes, I guess,” she adds. “I just enjoyed it. When we saw the boys were playing baseball, we wanted to play too. I don’t remember – and there could have been people who pitched a fit about it and Mama and Daddy didn’t tell me – but I don’t think so, because we could play. We were competitive players who could hold our own. It wasn’t like we were out there being a thorn in the bush.”
"We were competitive players who could hold our own. It wasn’t like we were out there being a thorn in the bush.”
James played basketball at Wingate Elementary, practicing outside on a court lined off with a hose clamped to the dirt floor by Coke-bottle caps. But, since they were girls, there were restrictions: For instance, they could dribble only five times before they were required to pass. By the time she got to Forest Hills High School, James and the rest of the Yellow Jackets were playing six-on-six, with only two players on each team allowed to cross halfcourt (two stayed on defense all the time; two stayed on offense). James was one of the all-court rovers.
James adapted to each change in rules adopted to account for the “weaker sex,” just grateful for the chance to play. She says she feels lucky to have come along when she did. Even in the pre-Title IX era, she was encouraged to play sports. James’s mother had wanted to play basketball back in the 1940s, but an illness scared her parents off. “She never did play, because they thought she would get sick or it was too hard on women,” James says. James’s mom and dad had no problem with their daughter breaking a sweat on the court and in the field.
At Forest Hills, she led a standout basketball team that one year recorded an undefeated regular season and regularly drew big crowds. She was tough and fearless, driving into the paint with abandon and finishing off her shot with a leg kick. Games were generally low scoring (often in the high-20s and low-30s), but in one game James scored 23 points – 17 of them from the free-throw line.
“She used her smarts to overcome any lack of speed there was,” Lowery says. “I’m not saying she was slow, but it wasn’t like she was a speed demon. That’s the thing about knowing the game. She was able to get in position. One thing that makes a real player is they understand the game a little bit, and she understood it.”
The team was athletic but not as organized as teams are today. “We scrimmaged, and we’d shoot free throws, and the coach tried to teach us stuff,” James says. “But it was never, ‘Get in the game and run so-and-so and so-and-so.’”
At Wingate, things were marginally better. Wingate restarted its women’s basketball program in 1971-72 – the year James enrolled – though calling it a program might be giving it too much credit.
“We didn’t have any scholarships for basketball,” says Steve Poston, who coached the team for two seasons beginning in 1972-73, James’s sophomore year. “It was just whoever showed up. Luckily, Cindy James was one of them. Without her, I don’t know if we would have even had women’s basketball.”
Players provided their own shoes, and their practices were relegated to the now-torn-down McIntyre Gym, a matchbox of a facility that housed a court about two-thirds of the way to regulation size. The men practiced in the much more spacious Sanders-Sikes (also now merely a memory), where both teams played their games.
“In McIntyre, the farthest you’d ever have to pass it was from here to that table,” James says, motioning a few feet away. “Then you’d get on the real floor and it was 10 times wider and felt like 50 times longer. It was like you’d run forever.”
Because Wingate had no conference affiliation for women’s basketball, Poston had to schedule all the games himself, calling up Anderson and Brevard and Queens to try to fix a date. “I arranged the schedule. I ordered the uniforms. I drove the bus,” he says.
He did a lot for the team but still feels somewhat guilty. “The truth of the matter is, I’m a little embarrassed now thinking back on it how little we did for them,” says Poston, who, as Wingate’s athletic director for two decades starting in 2002, helped establish six new women’s sports at the school. “We didn’t do a very good job with it, let’s put it that way. We got better.”
No stats exist from that era, and when James was inducted into the Wingate Sports Hall of Fame, in 2006, she had to supply a photo of her playing at Forest Hills, because no one could locate any pictures of her taking the court for Wingate.
After two mostly successful years at Wingate, James went on to help Catawba College win the Class B state championship in 1974, competing against teams such as Davidson and N.C. State. She also played softball and tennis at Catawba. Competing in three sports was her idea of heaven.
“I guess that’s when I started realizing, You know, this is what guys have been able to do for a long, long time,” she says. “The kids who are here now, they don’t realize, because it’s all they’ve ever known.”
There’s still a lot of work to do. WNBA players’ salaries are solid but nowhere near the astronomical figures made by NBA players. The Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi was the highest-paid WNBA player during the 2022 season, making $228,000. Meanwhile, another Phoenix professional basketball player, Suns backup center Jock Landale (ever heard of him?), is making $1.5 million this year. The largest salary in the NBA belongs to Stephen Curry, who will make a whopping $48 million this year (210 times Taurasi’s salary). Many WNBA players supplement their income by playing overseas in the offseason.
There might be room for improvement, but James is fully aware of how much progress has been made. She sees WNBA stars making six-figure salaries and the U.S. women’s national soccer team winning their battle for equal pay – and selling out 70,000-seat stadiums – and she smiles.
“I don’t think I will live to see the equal, even-steven, and I don’t know if it will ever get there, but if you think about where it was and where it is now, it’s like this,” she says, holding her hands far apart. “You can’t go from one extreme to the other. It’s really good that it is where it is, but I would like to see it get even better.
“We have a woman vice president, so it’s coming.”