By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

If only old black and white photos could talk.

In particular, it’s a photo of the 1940 Austinville girls basketball team that holds secrets. What was basketball like for these young ladies just one year before the beginning of World War II?

Standing to the right in front of coach H.R. Leeman, who was also the school’s principal, is Kathleen McRight. She starred as a 5-foot-8 center on Austinville teams that won five straight Morgan County Tournament championships from 1937-1941.

McRight graduated from Austinville in 1941. She later married James P. Slaten. Their daughters are Miria Upton and Joan Olinger.

After high school, Kathleen McRight Slaten used her athletic talents to become a competitive bowler, who continued to compete into her 90s

When Slaten passed away at age 99 in 2020, she had seen girls basketball in Alabama grow from a slow-paced, half-court game into a fast-paced, full-court game today.

Slaten is being inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 6.

“Mother was a humble person, who did not brag about her accomplishments,” Upton said. “We’ve learned more about what she did after her death. She saved a lot of things over 99 years.”

Among the things Slaten saved was a black letterman’s “A” from 1941. There’s a necklace with a small ball shaped like a basketball that has “Champions” stamped across the front.

Austinville basketball is probably most noted for boys state championship teams in 1953, 1957, 1958 and 1959. Not much is known about girls basketball at Austinville in the 1930s and 1940s. Besides black and white photos, there’s not much in the way of records. The number of trophies sitting on the floor in front of the 1940 team suggests that the program had a good trophy collection.

The uniforms probably aren’t like what most people would think for 1940. The shorts stop well above the knees. The tops have sleeves that stop well above the elbows.

Many of the girls do have last names familiar to the area. There’s Irene Braswell up front kneeling and holding the basketball. Behind her are Amanda Sapp, Corean Vinson, Sarah Mitchell, Pauline McDonald and McRight. On the back row its Elizabeth McCulloch, Ruth Coffey, Alice Pepper, Christine Barron and Mary Wade.

“My mother’s family came to Austinville from Mount Hope,” Upton said. “It was an athletic family. Her uncle Ralph McRight played football at Alabama and played in the (1931) Rose Bowl.”

Upton has her mother’s Austinville yearbook from 1941. There is a page devoted to the girls basketball team with a team photo and a schedule with results. The 12-game schedule featured opponents like Union Hill, Priceville, Falkville, Moulton, Town Creek and Trinity.

Austinville beat Priceville, 29-6 and 37-14. Town Creek swept Austinville, 34-24 and 24-15. The county tournament was played at Hartselle. Austinville won the championship by beating Decatur, 34-16, and then Trinity, 29-19. It was a 12-2 championship season.

It’s quite an accomplishment for a school that started as a one-room log cabin in 1902. Stories show that it didn’t become a high school until 1931.

After Austinville became part of the City of Decatur, the high school closed in 1959 and students went to Decatur High until Austin High on Danville Road opened in 1962. Austinville Elementary sits today where the original school was built.

Basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891 at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. The idea was to create an indoor sport for the winter months.

The women’s version came a year later in 1892. It was created by Senda Berenson, a physical education director at Smith College in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts. She had seen Naismith’s game and thought it could work for females, too.

Because vigorous exercise was considered by many to be unhealthy for females, the initial version of the game for women was different from the men’s game. For starters the court was divided into three equal zones.

There were zones at each end of the floor and one zone in the middle. Players had to stay in their assigned zone. Each team could have up to three players in each zone.

The first girls games at Smith College featured players wearing bloomers.  The only body parts allowed to be exposed where the head and hands. No men were allowed to attend the games.

The game evolved quickly in those early years. In 1908 it was a foul to touch a ball held by another player. Double teaming the player with the ball was also a foul. Dribbling was outlawed in 1910 and then brought back in 1913. The three-zone game changed to a two-zone game in 1938, but players still could not move from zone to zone.

The game grew in Morgan County. The late Charles Riley published a book in 2015 on girls basketball in Morgan County called “Remember the Girls.” The book features photos of teams at Morgan County High in 1916, Albany Central in Decatur in 1921 and Falkville in 1925.

Girls basketball in Alabama flourished until 1947 when the state school board decided for a variety of reasons, including that the game was not “ladylike,” to discontinue the sport.

The sport took a timeout for 25 years.  Thousands of young ladies like Slaten’s daughters were deprived of the opportunity to play basketball.

It wasn’t until the Title IX ruling in 1972 concerning fair and equal opportunity for both women and men that girls basketball returned to high schools in Alabama. The Alabama High School Athletic Association sponsored its first girls state championships in 1978 at Huntsville High.

Eventually, Alabama was one of the first states to have both boys and girls state championships played together at the same venue.

“One of Mother’s favorite things to do was go watch her grandkids and then her great grandkids play ball,” Upton said. “She and Daddy were ready to go anywhere, anytime to see one of them play.”

In fact, some of Slaten’s descendants are involved in area athletics to this day.

“I can remember being at basketball games and Mother would tell about when she played,” Upton said. “She talked about playing the half-court game and not being able to move from one end of the court to the other. It was hard to imagine that they actually played that way.”

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