By David L. Bristow
May 24, 2023
Fifty years ago the women’s basketball team of tiny John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo traveled to China for a series of games against the Chinese women’s national team–a story that combines international politics, changing attitudes towards women’s sports, and the effects of the Vietnam War on college education.
John F. Kennedy College was a for-profit school founded in 1965. In the pre-Title IX years, JFK was a pioneer in women’s athletics. Its softball team won the first three Women’s College World Series in 1969, 1970, and 1971. But in 1972 the softball team was excluded from the tournament by a rule change that punished the school for offering basketball scholarships to women. (Yes, you read that right.)
The JFK women’s basketball team, meanwhile, was invited to China after winning the national AAU championship two years in a row. They and an all-star men’s basketball team were to play the Chinese national teams as part of a larger diplomatic thaw between the US and Chinese governments.
It’s hard to overstate how strange it seemed at that time for American athletes to travel to China, which had isolated itself from the West following the Chinese Communist Revolution, and which was still in the midst of its chaotic and bloody Cultural Revolution under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Sports Illustrated covered the tour in its issue of July 2, 1973:
“The women from Wahoo came up against an astonishingly powerful team of stars from various physical-culture institutes around the country. The Patriettes, mostly pretty girls in their teens, were all but blasted off the floor by the rugged, quick Chinese team, a group of skilled veterans who averaged more than 27 years old.”
Despite losing their three games by 12 to 19 points each, the JFK players were treated like celebrities by the Chinese public, to whom basketball was second only to table tennis as a national sport.
Even with the international attention, the JFK women had a more local kind of diplomacy in mind:
“They had come to China in the rather desperate hope that this grand tour might somehow help rescue their school… [which] is facing at least a quarter-million-dollar deficit this year, and the dream was that a successful China trip and its attendant publicity might somehow trigger a new rush of students to Wahoo.”
JFK College had prospered during the Vietnam War, when enrollment was boosted by the combined effects of the Baby Boom and the military draft exemption for college students. By 1973 the college was in financial trouble. It closed two years later.
My thanks to John Irwin for sharing the SI article with me. Irwin’s own article, “‘The Old College Try’: Nebraska’s Ghost Colleges,” appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.
For further reading:
Read “Courting Time in Peking” via the Sports Illustrated Vault: https://vault.si.com/vault/1973/07/02/43206#&gid=ci0258bf94900726ef&pid=43206—016—image
Dirk Chatelain, “Still Spinnin’: A now-closed Wahoo college once had nation’s best women’s basketball team,” Omaha World-Herald, April 19, 2020. (Content requires a subscription.)