Why you should care
Because Nera White, a demon on court but an ingenue off it, deserves to be a household name.
Some of the greatest athletes in history never got the attention or acclaim they deserved. In this series, The Unsung, OZY looks at some of the most talented sports figures in history who were underappreciated, overshadowed or forgotten.
An athlete who is not just great but truly dominant is a rare thing. And from Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth to Martina Navratilova, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan, they quickly become not just Hall of Famers in their respective sports but also household names, even icons. When it comes to women’s basketball, though, there is a Hall of Famer who is widely considered the greatest in her sport but whom most fans have probably never even heard of: Nera White.
Long before Diana Taurasi, Sheryl Swoopes or Cheryl Miller held sway on a basketball court, Nera White dominated women’s basketball during the 1950s and 1960s. Strong and fast, the 6-foot-1 forward could drive to the basket and soar for rebounds and had a deadly accurate 25-foot set shot. She is believed to have been among the first — man or woman — to develop a jump shot and a finger-roll layup. Her teammates insisted she could also dunk a basketball and take off from the free-throw lane Dr. J–style and lay the ball into the basket. “Did I have game?” White, who died in 2016, once reflected. “You know that move Jordan made on the Lakers, switching the ball from one hand to the other? I was doing that in the ’50s.”
White honed her skills dribbling around cow manure and lifting feed sacks.
Born in 1935 and raised on a farm near the small town of Lafayette, Kentucky, White was the oldest of seven children, and the biggest — she liked to joke that she “got the first milk.” White was a natural athlete who honed her skills dribbling around cow manure and lifting feed sacks. In high school, she once reportedly dribbled the ball for the entire fourth quarter (before the five- or 24-second rules) to keep it out of her opponents’ hands.
Initially, White studied to become a schoolteacher, but she was recruited to play for Nashville Business College, a state powerhouse, in 1954. It was her first trip ever to the big city. Legendary NBC coach John Head sent her a bus ticket with instructions for how to get to the college, but White was overwhelmed by Nashville’s bustling main bus station. “She was too terrified to follow Head’s instructions and sat down on a bench at the bus station, with her one suitcase,” says sportswriter Steve Marantz, who scored a rare interview with White in 1996 for The Sporting News. “She was on that bench when Head pulled up in his car, late in the evening, and gave her a lift.”
White was anything but terrified on the court. She carried an intense competitiveness beneath an often expressionless face. “I just don’t like to lose, so I go all out every game to prevent it,” White observed after she retired. And she did not do much losing. From 1955 to 1969, White played for an Amateur Athletic Union team sponsored by NBC that once won 91 of 92 consecutive games with her in the lineup. (Prior to the inception of NCAA women’s basketball in 1981 and the WNBA in 1997, the AAU was really the only option for female players after high school.) White led NBC to 10 national championships and was an AAU All-American 15 years in a row.
In 1957, the same year that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, White also led the U.S. women’s team in a Cold War superpower clash against the USSR in the final of the world championship (women’s basketball was not an Olympic sport at the time). The American women beat the Soviets in a nail-biter, 51-48, with the 21-year-old White serving as her team’s leading scorer and the tournament’s most valuable player.
Off the court, White and her teammates had an intense travel schedule during the season, and struggled to make ends meet during the off-season. But they were a tightly bonded group. White, who had no children, even adopted a teammate’s son and raised him herself. Life after basketball was similarly challenging. She worked an hourly job in a Nashville shop for years but was eventually laid off and had to return to working the family farm. Marantz remembers her as “candid and honest, with a memory for detail and narrative, and a wonderful homespun sense of humor.” She did not, however, look back fondly on her career. “What did it get me?” White lamented of her basketball days in her interview with Marantz. “Two worn-out knees. All for nothing. Dusty trophies.”
White played not for the adulation, but as she put it, “because I wanted to.” And she eventually earned far more than dusty trophies. She was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, crowned by The Sporting News as “the dominant women’s basketball player of her era” and never forgotten by those who played alongside or against her. “Nera White … is the greatest of all time,” Sue Gunter, a teammate of White’s and one of the game’s great coaches, once observed. “She could do things on the court that I thought were impossible.”