March 13, 2010

Making history, but just wanting to play ball

— Jim Bouton wanted an interview with Cyndi Meserve. So did most of the New York City media that crowded into a small college gym that night in 1974. A teenaged girl from Livermore Falls was about to make history.

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, December 3, 2008... Scarborough resident Cyndi Bona holds the distinction of being the first female to play in a men's college basketball game, back in 1974 at Pratt Institute in NYC.

The problem for Bouton, the former New York Yankees pitcher and local ABC-TV sports anchor was this: He wanted access to Meserve in the locker room. That's where Meserve's college basketball coach drew the line.

No, said Tony Missere, at age 25 the youngest college coach in New York City. He had tried to prepare his freshman player for the attention he knew was coming. He tried to prepare himself.

''This was so new for all of us,'' said Missere. ''A woman playing men's basketball? Our first dilemma was finding a uniform she could wear.''

Two years after President Nixon signed the Title IX legislation that assured women equal opportunties to play competitive sports, Cyndi Meserve Bona entered a game for Pratt Institute, a Brooklyn school better known for its designers and artists. She became the first woman to play for an NCAA men's basketball team.

Not that she knew it at the time. In her mind she was neither pioneer nor activist. Her place wasn't on the front lines of women's liberation.

''I wanted to play basketball,'' said Bona. ''I love the game.''

She lives in Scarborough with her husband, Lou, and their daughter Brittany, a 6-foot-1 freshman basketball player at Scarborough High. Only in the last year or so did Brittany ask to see the scrapbook that details a time so long ago in her mother's past.

In the early 1970s, Maine had moved past the six-girl, half-court zone basketball that was still played in states like New York. The Livermore Falls girls, coached by Byron Bean, played the game well.

''My mother didn't want me spending time playing basketball,'' said Bona. ''My father put a hoop up in our driveway.''

Which was hard dirt and rutted. Bona didn't mind. So the ball sometimes didn't bounce true. It honed her reflexes. The hoop never moved and that's what mattered. She was 5-foot-8, which meant she played near the basket.

Girls' teams didn't play for state championships until the winter of 1975, the year after Bona left for college. There were no scholarship offers. She applied to the University of Maine. A teacher urged her to look at Pratt.

Bona never made a campus visit. Her father died during her junior year in high school and money was tight. Bona worked three jobs sometimes, determined to earn the money that would get her through her freshman year.

Her mother drove her to Brooklyn, saw the depressed Bedford-Stuyvesant section that bordered part of the Pratt campus and wondered if she should leave without her daughter.

''I'll be OK,'' said Bona.

Six weeks later she saw a notice for a basketball meeting. She went, not knowing Pratt didn't have a women's team.

''Here comes this blond girl,'' said Missere. ''I thought she was interested in cheerleading.'' He told her that meeting was the next day.

No, said Bona, who in fact was a cheerleader during football season at Livermore Falls. She looked around the room. She was the only female but not the shortest person. ''I told (Missere) I wanted to play basketball.'' She heard bits of laughter behind her.

Bona got the green light to try out. She started her conditioning runs and was told to stay away from the Bedford-Stuyvesant area. Male students stood at places along her route to see she was safe. Bona hadn't asked for favors.

She made the team. ''I took her seriously,'' said Missere. ''She was one of 15.''

Pratt's first game was at Baruch College in Manhattan. The media was out in force. Fans chanted: ''Put the girl in.'' She got into the game and almost immediately went after a loose ball. News photographers caught the moment with the New York Post running a large photo of Bona and a Baruch player on the court, both with their hands on the ball.

''It was a jump ball,'' said Richard Lebenson, an assistant coach for Pratt. ''The other kid nearly jumped through the roof. He was determined Cyndi was not going to outjump him. I don't think he wanted to face his teammates if she did.

''Cyndi was a smart player. She was competent. She had some nice spin moves. I told her she was Earl Monroe but in slow motion. I know her teammates respected her.''

She made the ''CBS Evening News'' with Walter Cronkite for 20 seconds. Back in Livermore Falls, Connie Meserve's phone didn't stop ringing. ''I may have told my mom I went out for basketball but I don't think I told her a lot,'' said Bona. ''This was news to anyone who knew me.

''It was crazy. I got orchids from Rome, lots of letters. I got marriage proposals, too.''

She was invited on ''To Tell the Truth,'' where panelists guessed which of three guests are telling the truth about themselves. ''They had a tall, blond beauty queen and a very, very athletic looking girl with me. I was the one who looked pretty ordinary. Tom Poston was the only one to guess I was the basketball player.''

It was rare when someone from the media wasn't on the Pratt campus to interview her. Missere, who now teaches sports management courses and chairs that program at St. John's University, remembers her as trying so hard to be just another player. ''She did whatever I asked of the others. She did the piggyback drills, carrying a teammate on her back. She ran five flights of stairs.''

Yes, there were concessions. On the road she frequently had to dress in a woman's restroom. Teammates apologized after they let loose with profanities.

Pratt, a Division III school, was 5-17 that season, Missere's second. Later he would take the Cannoneers into the postseason. But without Bona.

At 5-8 she was better suited for the guard position on a men's team. Her prior experience as a frontcourt player in high school didn't help. She was 9 of 9 from the foul line and Missere used trickery, asking a poorer foul shooter to fake an injury to send Bona to the line.

It wasn't enough. She weighed her time on the court against her studies in fashion design and made the decision to not go out for the team again.

She got married, gave birth to her first daughter, Melissa Troiano, who is a lawyer in Washington. Twelve years later and remarried, she had Brittany. She also rediscovered basketball. She's part of the successful senior women's teams coached by Deb Smith at the South Portland Community Center. She returns to Pratt frequently to play in alumni games. Current men's coach Mike Chapman wants her to come back to speak to Pratt's student-athletes in the spring.

Lately, thanks to the Internet and John Molina's work as historian of women's basketball, Bona's story is being heard again.

''I think she's a movie script,'' said Molina. ''She was the example of a new era.''

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

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