They held bake sales, peddled candles and candy, did whatever they could to raise money, and yet they — or their parents — still had to pay some of the expenses of their cause. But then pioneers usually chart their own course, and this would be no different.
Judi Warren and her teammates from Warsaw High School won Indiana’s first high school state tournament for girls’ basketball in 1976. They traveled to the finals at Hinkle Fieldhouse in a camper. Yes, a camper, loaned by a local optometrist and driven by their coach. The girls all piled in, as cozy as could be, and headed off for Indianapolis, seat belts be damned in what promised to be a wild adventure. Only a stagecoach would have been more appropriate.
Their 57-52 victory over Bloomfield in the championship game is as relevant to Indiana’s high school basketball heritage as Milan’s championship in 1954 or the Attucks championships in 1955 and ’56. Milan set the standard for the small, rural school taking on the bigger schools. Attucks set the standard for urban dominance, overcoming odds of its own as the first all-black school to win a state title. Two decades later, Warsaw established the template for future girls’ champions.
Just as Milan had Bobby Plump and Attucks had Oscar Robertson, Warsaw had Judi Warren. She, too, was the perfect trailblazer, a charismatic and dedicated spokesperson for the cause of girls getting to play competitive basketball and be taken seriously as athletes. She became Indiana’s first Miss Basketball, went on to play at Franklin College, and then coached at three high schools, always representing the ideals of the game.
Warren will be honored at the next Hickory Night, when the Pacers play Denver at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday. It won’t be the first time she’s been recognized for her accomplishments at a Pacers’ game — or at a Pacers’ game against Denver, for that matter. One month after Warsaw won its state championship, the team was honored at a game against the Nuggets at Market Square Arena. Warren was brought onto the court as the “celebrity shooter” between periods.
It made her uncomfortable, but not for the obvious reason of having to step onto a court and shoot in street clothes.
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“I don’t remember if I hit any or air-balled them,” she says. “I just remember standing and seeing all those people.
“It’s hard to take individual recognition for a team game.”
That was the uncomfortable part, which remains the foundation of Warsaw’s championship and Warren’s career. They had star players like any other championship team, but also a special chemistry. Sophomore Chanda Kline, voted Miss Basketball two years after Warren, led the scoring in the championship game with 19 points, but it was Warren who stole headlines and hearts. Described in the Indianapolis Star’s article as Kline’s “tireless 5-1 running mate,” Warren finished with 17 points and broke a deadlocked game with five free throws in the final minute of the final game.
It was more than her stats, though. Warren played the game with a boundless joy and enthusiasm that projected both innocence and a strong-willed determination to win. She even won the respect of veteran sportswriters. One might think that first girls’ tournament would not have been treated as seriously as the boys’ tournament, which dated back to 1911. But it was, at least in the Star. Other than one cutesy headline – “Sugar And Spice And Warsaw Was Nice” – the male staff writers heaped praise on the Warsaw girls, with no sniggering references to their sex or their talents.
Bob Collins, the Star’s lead sports columnist, had been a champion of both the Milan and Attucks groundbreaking teams, and remained so for the Warsaw girls.
“It was good, exciting basketball,” he wrote after their state championship victory. “Please note that I did not say good ‘girls’ basketball.”
Collins and other media members found the girls’ attitude toward the game to be refreshing. They — the girls, not the media — led their fans in “We’re No. 1” cheers during timeouts, hugged and waved to fans during quarter breaks, and applauded a cheerleader for executing a flip.
“No one was trying to be cool or sophisticated,” the Star’s lead news-side columnist, Thomas Keating, wrote. “Instead, they just smiled and laughed and played the game with an exuberance and enjoyment not seen in a long time.”
Warren, who contributed 31 points and 19 assists in the two “final four” games of the tournament, was the prototype of that approach, with her charisma and hustle. Keating pointed out that as she stood at the foul line with 20 seconds left in the championship game, she “grabbed her hair in both hands and shook it like … well, like a girl overwhelmed by where she was.”
She should have been. Growing up, she couldn’t have dreamed of playing for a state championship in front of 9,100 people at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The crowds for Warsaw’s games had gradually increased from the regular season through the early rounds of the tournament, but the reality of what awaited them in Indianapolis was beyond comprehension — after all, there was no precedent.
“It was just like the movie (Hoosiers)” Warren recalls. “You walk in there and it’s like ‘Wow, this place is massive!’ Then to walk out on the floor and see all those people in the stands and all those people from Warsaw waving the orange hankies, it was amazing.
“But once the game starts, it’s the game. You’re so focused, you don’t recognize that.”
Warren, who retired from teaching four years ago, and from coaching 17 years ago, had no inspiration other than her love of playing the game while growing up in Claypool, eight miles south of Warsaw. She had a brother, eight years older, who played with his friends on the goal attached to the garage in their side yard. She watched them, and chased after the ball if it rolled away. When their games were finished they might show her a thing or two, but mostly she played by herself when the court was empty.
Throw the ball off the chimney, fake out the bush, drive and shoot. That kind of thing.
She had no great women’s players to emulate, at least none she could watch on television, and there was no girls’ program at school other than intramurals. She went to the boys’ games, like nearly everyone else in town, and that certainly left an impression, but attendance for the girls’ games was limited to friends and family.
Warsaw, though, was advanced for the time, offering an intramural program for the girls as early as the third grade and games against other schools in junior high and high school as part of the Girls Athletic Association program. But then, in a stroke of fortunate timing for Warren and other girls of the Class of ’76, the Indiana High School Athletic Association made girls basketball a varsity sport before her senior season.
That, however, presented a sudden budgeting headache for athletic directors, who had to find funding for another program that hadn’t produced revenue. At Warsaw, the school paid for their uniforms, bus rides to away games and whatever was required to host a home game, but Ike Tallman, Warsaw’s athletic director and boys’ coach, wouldn’t or couldn’t provide money for anything else. So, the girls ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the way to their road games, and raised their own money for any “luxuries.” Such as their shoes. Their warmups were on loan from the boys’ track team.
They also had to wait until after the freshman and varsity boys’ teams finished practice to use the gymnasium. That 7-9 p.m. time slot was a major inconvenience for some of the girls who lived far from school. Warren, for one, watched the boys’ varsity practice, then walked across the street to get something to eat at the dairy bar, then returned for practice. By the time she got home, it was time for bed.
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She and a teammate met with Tallman to lobby for a share of the desirable practice times. He told them the boys’ program paid the bills, and until the girls could draw enough fans to be self-sufficient, they would have to settle for scraps.
The state championship changed that. The Warsaw girls arrived home about midnight after winning the state championship. As they neared town on Highway 15, cars were lined up along the roadside, some with kids standing on top of them, most with their horns honking madly. Everyone gathered for a pep rally at the gymnasium, with many of the younger kids wearing pajamas.
When Tallman stepped to the microphone to congratulate the team, he pointed out the girls had finally packed the gymnasium and it was time to sit down and talk about giving them more equal treatment. The following year, the girls’ team was given the prime practice time slot immediately after school ended two days a week.
“That probably meant as much to us as winning the state tournament,” Warren says. “It was something that would make a difference for the next teams.”
With more resources and exposure, the girls’ game has grown exponentially since Warsaw won the first state championship. Girls already had been motivated to play basketball, but the enthusiasm Warren and her teammates generated kicked it into a higher gear. As a player at Franklin and then a coach, she has been able to witness every step of the progress.
“We weren’t very good,” she says. “I go back and watch that game film and say, “What kind of defense was that?
“You look at this year’s tournament, they’re all so talented. It used to be you had three or four really good players and then it dropped off pretty quickly. Now they put subs in and they don’t give up a whole lot. Just the strength and physical-ness of it … They still need to work more on block-outs and passing — passing is a lost art — but the shooting technique and ballhandling … it’s impressive to watch them play.”
It all had to start somewhere, though. Warsaw was as good a place as any. And Warren was the perfect player to lead the journey.
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