How The Sport Has Changed

National Girls and Women In Sports Day began in 1987 as a day to remember Olympic volleyball player Flo Hyman for her athletic achievements and her work to assure equality for women's sports. It has evolved into a day that acknowledges the past while recognizing current sports achievements, the positive influence of sports participation and the continuing struggle for equality and access for women in sports. In celebration of the 26th annual day on Feb. 1st, we’ve focused on Sun assistant coach Bernadette Mattox and her experience with the game throughout her career.

It really just takes a spark. A spark that burns into a fire that becomes your life. For Sun assistant coach Bernadette Mattox, that spark was watching her cousin play at Spring City High School in Tennessee. Her cousin had broken the scoring record for her age group, and that put the idea in Mattox’s head that maybe she could also play basketball.

“I didn’t start playing until seventh grade,” Mattox explained. “I thought, ‘My cousin, she’s pretty good. I can do this.’”

However, the basketball that Mattox began playing differed greatly from the game that she is currently coaching. At that time, she played what was called six-on-six basketball, which typically looked like two separate three-on-three games played on the same court. Three guards from one team defended against three forwards from the other at each end, and no one could cross half court.

That was her spark. But a spark can’t grow into a fire without kindling, and for Mattox, that kindling was watching Walt Frazier play for the New York Knicks. The way Frazier, a seven-time NBA All-Star, played fascinated Mattox.

“I was intrigued with Walt Frazier and I wanted to do everything he could do,” Mattox said. “I liked him because he would just cut people up with passes. They would knock him down and push him, and he would never retaliate. He would just come back and score on them. I thought, ‘That’s how you do it.’ My cousin got me started, but Walt Frazier, he’s the real reason that I continued to play basketball because I was really intrigued with him.”

Mattox not only continued to play basketball, she excelled at the sport. After graduating from high school, Mattox continued her basketball career at Roane State Community College, a two-year college in Harriman, Tenn. She followed her coach there, Andy Landers, to the University of Georgia.

“When I took the job at Georgia, that was a no-brainer,” Landers said. “The first person I recruited to go with me was Bernadette. I was convinced that if I could get the job, and if I could talk her into going there with me, we’d have a shot at winning. She was just that good. She could carry a program.”

In just two years in Athens, Mattox made a distinct impact on the program. She became the Lady Bulldogs’ first player to earn All-American and Academic All-American honors and still ranks among the program’s top 10 in career assists and steals. After her playing days were over, she stayed with Landers and the Lady Bulldog program as an assistant coach for five years, where she continued to impact the team in a number of ways.

Said Landers, “I affectionately refer to her as the First Lady of Georgia Basketball, because that’s what she is. This was a program that had never won, and when she came there, we won immediately. The second year, we won the NIT. She got us off on the right foot. As a player, she was the best recruiter that I’ve ever had. As an assistant coach, she was effective in every way. As a recruiter, she helped get a lot of great players to Georgia. But also, she was a great peacemaker and really handled things off the court very, very well. I am confident when I say Georgia Basketball would not be what it is today had it not been for her.”

Throughout her career, the flame that is her love of basketball has continued to burn bright. Mattox has seen a great deal of evolution in the game, something that greatly excites her to this day. “The evolvement of women’s basketball has taken the game to a whole different dimension since I started playing,” she said. “To watch that evolvement, and be a part of that evolvement, to be able to see that through the decades, that’s remarkable. When I started, women weren’t allowed to cross the half court line and now they’re dunking. It’s a great evolvement.”

One of those changes is women having the opportunity to play with the men, something that would have been unheard of when Mattox began playing. “Before, you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that, and now, girls are playing with guys. That started when I was in college. You started playing with the guys, so girls started emulating the guys. That has changed the game.”

That is not the only thing that has changed in the game since she graduated from Georgia. Mattox blazed a trail herself, becoming the first female to serve as a Division I assistant for a men’s program when she spent four years in that role at the University of Kentucky under head coach Rick Pitino. Having been a player and a coach of both men and women, Mattox has seen first-hand the differences, and similarities, between the two genders in the game.

“Obviously it comes down to stronger, quicker, faster,” she explained. “The men jump higher, especially around the rim. But, I’ve found that both men and women love the game. They put their heart and soul into it; they are going to do all of the things that they need to get better. They love it, they enjoy it, and all of those aspects of the game are the same. The difference is the quickness, the strength above the rim. I think women, just because they don’t have the quickness and the strength to go above the rim, they are a bit more fundamental when it comes to throwing a bounce pass instead of a lob dunk.”

Mattox has seen a number of changes in the game of basketball since her spark for the game was lit, and one of those was the inception of Title IX in 1972. Just beginning her basketball career, it was brought to Mattox’s attention at the time. But she wasn’t totally aware of exactly what it entailed and had no idea the impact it would have on either her career, or, more importantly, sports for women in this country.

“We can’t see 40 years ahead, so I wasn’t truly aware of it then,” Mattox said. “But you are glad you had the same opportunities to do the same things as the guys. To be given the opportunity was good. It was good for girls to be able to get to participate in those same programs.”

For Mattox, the future continues to look bright. She is entering her 10th season as an assistant for the Sun, and the flame, her love of the game, continues to burn just as hot as when she started. It’s not just her flame, though. It is the flame of the game, which she sees continuing to get better and better as time goes on.

“I think the game is going to get faster, quicker, and more above the rim for women, just like everything else that you see, getting better and better,” Mattox said. “I would never have thought when I was playing three-on-three that we would eventually be playing five-on-five and now we have the same rules as the guys. It’s been a great evolvement.”