Medill Prof. honors high school basketball team’s legacy in new book


Photo courtesy Melissa Isaacson

The Illinois state champion 1979 Niles West women’s basketball team.

Charlotte Walsh, Reporter

When Medill prof. Melissa “Missy” Isaacson sat down to write a new book about her high school basketball team, her first interview was with Becky Tuecke. During the team’s historic run to become state champions in 1979, rumors had spread that Tuecke lived in the wrong district to attend the school — something Isaacson always feared would get the team disqualified. When she sat down with Tuecke 25 years after the victory, she asked why she went to Niles West High School instead of Niles East.

“She said, ‘Missy, you didn’t know?’” Isaacson said. “I said no, and she goes, ‘Missy, basketball saved me.’”

Isaacson explained that Tuecke’s mother was an alcoholic, so her father begged the Niles West school board to let his daughter attend the school to play basketball, as Niles East did not have a women’s team and he wanted a positive outlet for her. As Isaacson continued reporting, similar stories began emerging from members of the championship team, and this phrase — “basketball saved me” — became a mantra, informing the rest of Isaacson’s book “State: A Triumph, a Team, a Transformation.”

“I realized all the things I didn’t know at the time — it was almost a secret what was happening in your teammates’, your friends’, even your best friends’, even your neighbors’ houses.” Isaacson said. “The process of the reporting and me finding out all of these things made me realize how much bigger it was than just a game to us.”

“State,” published in August, tells the story of how the 1979 Niles West women’s basketball team won the Illinois state championship. This victory came only a few years after Title IX was enacted, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational programs. The audiobook comes out in November, with Isaacson narrating.

On Friday, Isaacson will present the book at a panel held at the McCormick Foundation Center with opening remarks from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Alongside her at the panel will be former teammate Connie Erickson Brown (Communication ’84) and Amy Eshleman, Lightfoot’s wife and a member of the first-ever Illinois girls’ basketball state champions, the 1977 Sterling High School “Golden Girls.”

Isaacson said she and her teammates had always been tomboys, but before Title IX, they were relegated to cheer on the sidelines. So in 1974, when they came in as freshmen, they were determined to make it onto the newly formed women’s teams.

But as detailed in the book, the road to the championship was not easy. They still faced discrimination — teammate Shirley Cohen Katz said they received a much smaller gym compared to the men’s team. They would voluntarily practice extra hours around 5 a.m. before school, and as they became state championship contenders, they kicked the boys out of the larger gym and had hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fans watching their games.

Katz herself was transformed by the writing of “State.” She graduated from Niles West in 1978, one year before the team won the state championship. Katz said she was always upset she didn’t participate in that game, as she had worked so hard to build the team from the ground up.

But Katz added that “State” reminds her of how influential her time on the team was. Since its publishing, Katz has partaken in book signings and was even invited on the TODAY Show alongside the championship team.

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Twitter: @charwalsh_