Constable: Longtime mayor, sports journalist recall 1979 girls basketball championship
In her 34 years of public service in the Northwest suburbs, Arlene Mulder is best known for being the very public and popular mayor of Arlington Heights from 1993 through 2013. In her 34 years as a sports journalist reporting on events ranging from Wimbledon to the Olympics, Melissa Isaacson is best remembered for her coverage of the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls.
But Mulder and Isaacson once were members of the same team, building something special and creating a bond and memories that have lasted more than 40 years. Isaacson, 57, now a faculty member at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, tells that story in her new book, "State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation," about the 1979 Niles West High School girls basketball team that won the state championship.
Mulder, 74, grew up in a generation where she could be on an Amateur Athletic Union record-setting 50-yard shuttle hurdle relay team, but her only chance to play basketball during her high school years in California was to drive to a nearby town and play in a league for adult women who worked for Bell Telephone. When the 1972 Title IX federal civil rights law opened the world of sports to female athletes in public schools, Mulder became the first coach of the girls basketball team at Niles West High School for the 1974-75 season. Isaacson first played under Mulder as a freshman in 1975-76.
"What stood out about this girl was her dedication," Mulder remembers. "She did it with every ounce of energy she had."
Sitting on opposite sides of the 1979 state championship trophy today in a gym built later at Niles West High School in Skokie, Isaacson nods in Mulder's direction and says, "There would be none of this without her."
In Illinois' first statewide girls basketball tournament in 1977, Niles West lost in supersectional play, as it did the next year.
Starter Isaacson saw her playing time reduced during her triumphant senior year.
Mulder retired from teaching and coaching that year as she was pregnant with her third child and was replaced as head coach by Gene Earl. Having never coached girls until that season, Earl later was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
With Niles West crushing East St. Louis Lincoln, and star player and future Olympian Jackie Joyner, in the 1979 championship game by a score of 63-47, Isaacson grabbed the ball as time ran out and heaved it into the rafters of the vast Assembly Hall in Champaign.
"I was sitting in the stands, holding my 8-month-old son, who had taken me away from that," Mulder says, acknowledging that she cried tears of joys for those girls she had coached, with no regrets about the decision she made. "It was wonderful to watch them lift that trophy. I learned so much from them. It was an experience that changed my life."
The relationship between coach and team began when her players, unable to get good practice time in the main gym used by the boys teams, voluntarily practiced at 5 in the morning. "These kids, they came in at 5 a.m., sweat bullets, took showers and got to their 7:05 classes," Mulder remembers.
Billy Schnurr, the varsity boys coach at Niles West, was impressed by the girls' dedication and willingly helped Mulder, who read books by legendary basketball coach John Wooden and wanted to learn.
"Billy Schnurr was our secret weapon," Mulder says, explaining how they coordinated their free periods so he could teach her how to run a crushing full-court press defense and move the ball on offense.
"And you taught him about motivation, leadership and instilling togetherness," Isaacson says of Mulder. "She was doing things as a 30-year-old coach ahead of her time."
Mulder, who taught PE and biology, made her players visualize success, close their eyes in meditation and write down their goals before every game. She made them run, do exercises to strengthen their legs, and eat healthy foods. She had them practice against boys.
While the team had some star players, Mulder insisted their success would come as a team.
"Every girl practices. Every girl runs. So why shouldn't everybody play?" Mulder says. "That's what a team sport is supposed to be. It wasn't about winning. It was the girls learning how to pass, play as a team and do their best."
Mulder was so committed to the team that her husband, Al, remembers how she left home for a 7 a.m. Saturday practice and didn't return until 8 p.m. because she had accompanied a girl with a concussion to the hospital. Working in the trade show business, Al Mulder would rush home from Chicago in time to pick up their kids from day care while his wife went to basketball practice.
Before every game, Isaacson would write a poem anonymously. Some were inspirational: "Spirit holds our team together, United we'll find success, But if that bond is ever broken, Our future is only a guess." Others were lighter: "Our most important game is the next one, In this case it's Maine East, We'll concentrate and make them run, Then we'll go to IHOP and feast."
Mulder "demanded greatness," Isaacson says. "She was a mother figure, but like no mother we had seen before."
She was athletic, feminine, could joke with the male coaches and win over people -- all skills she would use during her political career. She talked about being ladies off the court and athletes on it.
"On the court, she was about leaving every drop of sweat on the court," Isaacson remembers. "Intensity. That word was burned into our soul."
Taking full advantage of every practice moment, Mulder's insistence on working hard led players to jokingly refer to her as "Mean Arlene."
"We loved her," Isaacson says, smiling in Mulder's direction before adding, "but it wasn't like every day."
Isaacson's book gives an unflinching look at a team that grappled with problems off the court -- including alcoholic dads and moms, boyfriends, family deaths, divorce, self-image issues, and her own struggles, as both of her parents developed early onset dementia. In addition to receiving good reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Booklist, "State" also gets praise from former Bull and head coach of the Golden State Warriors Steve Kerr, tennis legend Billie Jean King, Olympic soccer star Julie Foudy and Olympic medalist and former nemesis Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
The success of female athletes in the wake of Title IX inspires. Their triumphs paved the way for others, says Dana Krilich, the first female athletic director at Niles West High School and the only woman holding that position in the Central Suburban League.
"We were females and we were athletes, and we had the willingness to work hard to be better at something," Mulder says. Married for 54 years, she and Al have three kids and seven grandkids.
Her book detailing her relationship with teammates and coaches and the trophy they won is "about so much more than basketball," Isaacson says. "It is not a history lesson, nor a treatise on Title IX. … Rather, it is about the sheer joy of getting our first uniforms, packing the same school gym where we were once not allowed to practice, and gaining access to life lessons previously only available to boys."