By Robby Howard Robert
Mildred Ball grew up in Gary dribbling basketballs, digging volleyballs and drilling softballs.
By fourth grade, she knew she wanted to be an athlete.
But she never had the chance to play sports for Roosevelt.
Ball graduated from Gary Roosevelt High School in 1953 -- 19 years before June 23, 1972, a date remembered now as having changed the lives of millions of female athletes across the country.
Forty years ago today, Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh's bill, Title IX, was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. The legislation requires all schools that receive federal funding to create equal opportunities for males and females in all school activities, including sports.
"It changed everything for women as far as athletics are concerned," said Ball, who took her love of athletics to the IHSAA, where she served as an assistant commissioner from 1977 to 1997.
Before Title IX was passed, 294,015 girls played high school sports nationally. The most recent data from the National Federation of State High Schools Association shows that 3.17 million girls competed in 2010-11.
"Title IX has brought about great change over the last four decades," said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville. "This crucial legislation laid the foundation for athletic equality and gender parity by allowing women to succeed in the classroom and on the playing field."
Ball said Bayh told her he never expected Title IX to have the influence on athletics it has had.
"It's just a wonderful, fabulous thing," Ball said. "Women had not had that opportunity for teamwork and setting goals and learning how to work with other people. All of those things you learn from participating."
Girls didn't have any school teams during Ball's time in high school, just an intramural program called the Girls Athletic Association.
Gymnastics and volleyball were the first girls' sports recognized by the IHSAA in 1972-73. The region was well represented in the first gymnastics state final with Portage finishing as runner-up under Bev Reynolds. Portage won the title in 1975.
Also in 1975, the second season of girls' swimming, Betty Leibert coached Munster to its first of three consecutive state championships.
Two years later in the second season of IHSAA girls' basketball, Roberta DeKemper led East Chicago Roosevelt to a state championship. In 1979, it won another title.
Greg Kirby saw the transition from rec teams to competitive girls' basketball teams firsthand. He took over as the boys basketball coach at Portage in 1978, three years after the IHSAA added girls basketball.
"When they first started, these girls had no fundamental backgrounds, no coaching, no practices to relate to in terms of basketball," Kirby said. "I think the ground work, the basis for continued improvement, was certainly established in those early days."
Kirby left the Portage program in 1987. But in 1990, the girls basketball head coaching job opened at Valparaiso and his wife told him to apply, despite him never having had any interest in girls' basketball growing up simply because "it didn't exist."
"I didn't really know what I was getting into, I don't think, because even then I didn't have a good feeling for the level of play of girls basketball," he said.
Kirby went on to coach 16 years at Valparaiso from 1990 through 2006, with a 324-58 record, finishing as state runner-up twice and being named the 1996 Indiana Coach of the Year by the Girls Sports Association.
"When I came to Valparaiso in 1990, they were pretty good players," he said. "They were pretty skilled. I don't think 10 years earlier in 1980 they were nearly as skilled as they were in 1990."
He believes that the attitude of girls basketball in Northwest Indiana changed when the level of play improved and teams such as the 1982 Valparaiso team (state runner-up) and '84 and '85 Crown Point teams (both state champions) achieved success.
He now sees girls and boys basketball on equal footing in Indiana.
Ball, who was among the first women to take on an executive role at the state level in high school sports, doesn't think it's quite equal yet.
"I think it will be a while before that happens," she said of equality for women across all sports. "It's getting there. Money-wise, it's not there. Facility-wise, it's not there yet. But it's coming."
Ball was inducted into the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998 for the work she did with officials during her 20 years with the IHSAA. The mental attitude award in gymnastics also is named in her honor.
Even though she never had a chance to play competitively, she's thankful for her role with the IHSAA that enabled her to help other young girls have the opportunity to compete now.
"You'll never believe how many speeches I have given in which I have said that I was just born too early," she said. "I really did get an opportunity to play, I just didn't have a ball or racquet in my hand. I got to participate in another way. It's better than not participating at all, right?"