In Moscow for the World University Games in 1973, Marsha Lake wore a floppy tennis cap. Clasped to the hat were various pins she had traded for with athletes from other competing countries.
Before each game, Lake and her U.S. basketball teammates faced opposing squads — France, Mexico, Bulgaria, Romania, Cuba and the USSR — on the court, similar to how teams line up for the national anthem. Rosters were announced, then players exchanged pins with their opponents. While attending other sporting events, Lake acquired more pins from different countries, trading away every last one of her U.S. pins.
She returned to college at North Carolina from the Soviet Union with a silver medal and her assortment of keepsake pins. The next Christmas, Lake’s parents had the mementos professionally framed as a gift. It’s since hung in every house in which Lake and her family lived and become part of family lore.
Years later, Lake’s daughter Shea grew up seeing these keepsakes and hearing about Lake’s trip to Moscow, the cafeteria fare and the 7-foot Russian center she jumped against. Shea might have learned that Lake’s first plane ride was to Iowa to join the 60-plus women at the initial tryouts. She might have heard about Lake running to the dorm pay phone to collect call her parents when she made the final roster after another month of workouts in Boston. Or how coming home from Russia, she couldn’t recline her seat because she was in front of Tom Burleson, the men’s team’s 7-3 center.
But Shea Ralph didn’t realize how unusual these stories were until friends started coming over and asking about the silver medal. Or when she didn’t see any other moms coaching or playing ball with their daughters. In their hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., Lake became friends with journalists and others in the local basketball community. Ralph attended a basketball camp with one of her mom’s former World University Games teammates — Pat Summitt.
Ralph’s understanding that her mom was really, really good at the sport was an incremental education. “I started to understand how different my mom was because she was always the only woman,” Ralph said. “I was excited about that and took pride in it.”
Though Ralph learned how talented and rare Lake was, the historic significance of her mother’s Moscow experience didn’t sink in until later. The World University Games was only the eighth international event with women’s basketball and the first time the U.S. participated, serving as a precursor to the introduction of the sport at the 1976 Olympics.
“As I grew older and I was able to have some perspective, really starting to appreciate what she did and how she did it, it became kind of the forefront of some of the things that I did,” said Ralph, a star at UConn who is now Vanderbilt’s head coach. “And understanding she paved a path for me, but also created opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had maybe if she weren’t my mom.”
Lake arrived at North Carolina in 1971, one year before Title IX was passed, and played through 1975. Though she knew opportunities for women were changing, she was more focused on getting through college and playing basketball. But a local TV sports reporter asked her to speak about Title IX for a story and what it was like at North Carolina.
She described the discrepancies between her women’s team and the men’s. As a result, the athletic director summoned her to a meeting. Lake explained she was simply stating the truth, and soon things started changing. The team finally was supplied with enough basketballs for practice. Players got warmup uniforms, and the women’s team could use the men’s team bus to travel to away games … when the men weren’t using it. She only flew once to an event in Texas during her college career and that wasn’t until her senior year. There, Lake faced off against some of the best players in the country, including some former World University Games teammates.
Her No. 44 jersey was eventually retired at North Carolina, but she never wore a uniform again for high-level competition. When she finished college as UNC’s first female All-American, there were no post-graduation playing opportunities for women. She became an educator — a Ph.D. math professor at Eastern Florida State College who will be retiring in August after 44 years of teaching — and raised a family.
But it was a different world for her daughter. Ralph was born in 1978 and became a gifted athlete in her own right, lettering in soccer, cross-country and track in high school and setting multiple state basketball records. She chose UConn over playing at her mom’s alma mater or for Summitt, Lake’s former teammate, at Tennessee. Ralph won a national championship in 2000 as part of a college career littered with accomplishments before it ended with an injury, and she started her coaching career at Pittsburgh in 2003. Ralph had a completely different college experience than her mom’s. She traveled around the country for games, often flying. Even the catered pregame meal was a sign of progress. She also had opportunities awaiting after college. (She was drafted by the Starzz of the WNBA but didn’t play because of she was injured.)
“There was so few possibilities back then,” Lake said. “When I graduated from college, there was not anywhere for me to go and play. Nowhere. There was no WNBA. There was nothing. No overseas. That was it. I was done. So (the World University Games) was a big deal back then. And then all of a sudden, things started happening as I got older. And then I had a child and things started happening to benefit her. And then when she got to college, look at all it was happening for her that never happened for me. So quite a difference between those two college experiences.”
Lake reminiscing about her sports experiences illustrated the often-subtle differences that were taking place in the wake of Title IX becoming law – and how much more needed to change.
“While we’ve come really, really far, it’s not nearly far enough yet,” Ralph said. “There’s so much further we can go. And so now the torch has been handed off to me. That’s what my mom was doing. She was handing the torch to me and making sure that I understood and respected the past, appreciated the present, but still strive to make the future better for the young women, young children, my daughter, my niece, my players that came behind me. It’s an important responsibility and it’s one that I’m really happy that I have and that I cherish.”
Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Storey Lee and Ralph were in the same basketball class (1996), and Lee knew of Ralph’s high school accolades. Both were invited to tryouts for a basketball event in Colorado Springs the summer before their senior years of high school, and Lee – a standout from Alabama who later played at Vanderbilt – was just happy to be invited.
Lee was cut in the first round. On an elevator, with the doors closing, an arm popped in to halt them. In came a clearly upset Ralph. Recognizing who it was, Lee turned to her only for Ralph to fume, “Can you believe they cut me?” They were both waived but processing the news very differently.
After Lee hired Ralph as Vanderbilt’s women’s basketball coach in 2021, she relayed the story. Though Ralph had tried to block out the memory, they shared a laugh.
“She goes, ‘Oh my god, like, that was you? All I remember is just being so mad and I vowed in that moment that I would never get cut from a team again,” Lee said. “And she’s like, ‘And I never did.’”
It’s a full circle moment that the athletic director often recounts to recruits. But she also uses it to illustrate why Ralph was the first person she talked to about the opening. Lee saw Ralph as the ultimate competitor, which others confirmed to Lee during the hiring process.
“She’s relentless,” Lee said. “She loves the game. She’s a great person. She loves developing young people. She’s family oriented. She was a perfect fit for what we have at Vanderbilt. … Really, it was clear at 16. But it was certainly clear last year when I was hiring her.”
Back in college, Ralph had to ask teammate Paige Sauer to explain Title IX after hearing her talk about it. Though it’s topical again today, especially prescient as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Ralph didn’t hear much about the landmark law until she started coaching. At her first job in Pittsburgh, Ralph’s boss Agnus Berenato made it a priority to talk about gender equality.
Title IX created opportunity but that isn’t enough for Ralph. She wants to make sure she’s using that opportunity to learn, educate and work in the space that those before created for her.
Ralph became a head coach at Vanderbilt after 13 seasons as an assistant at UConn. Besides everything the basketball side of the position offered, Ralph relished the chance to continue mentoring and empowering young women, including the opportunity to support mothers in the basketball community.
“The best thing that I can do is appreciate and respect and honor the opportunity that I have, and I worked my butt off for it,” Ralph said. “But there were plenty of people who worked harder than me that never got an opportunity to be a head coach. They’re probably better than me and more qualified. I’m a female leader. I’m a head coach at a Power 5 university as a woman. I’m a mom and a wife. And so I can not only do a great job at what my job actually is, but I have the opportunity to show our players and whoever else is watching that you can do all of those things, and then maybe if I do them really well, my hope is that it creates more opportunity for those that come behind me.”
Last season, she led Vanderbilt to its first postseason appearance since 2014 as the Commodores advanced to the third round of the WNIT with a promising squad. But being mom of her soon-to-be 4-year-old daughter, Maysen, has created a different level of motivation for Ralph.
“I just want to do the job the right way so that when the torch is passed to my daughter, she’s ready,” Ralph said. “She’s prepared. She’s confident. She feels like I can do this. And then she’s gonna pass the torch to her daughter, hopefully.”
Vanderbilt embraced Maysen, who joins her mom at work in the mornings before school twice a week. When someone asks who her mom is, Maysen has said, “Coach Ralph.” During a weekend practice in December, Maysen was on the opposite end of the court as her mom instructed players on the other. Suddenly, the manager with Maysen whooped and hollered, and everyone turned to the commotion. Maysen had just made her first basket. Everyone in the gym kept an eye on Maysen until she made another basket, and cheers erupted.
“Seeing her grow into that role and the confidence that she uses to operate on a daily basis is inspiring, and I’m happy that our daughter gets to see that most importantly,” said Tom Garrick, Ralph’s husband who is Vanderbilt’s associate coach. “Our daughter gets to see her mom run a program. She doesn’t know that she’s looking at that right now. But she’s soaking it all in and she’ll get the value of that experience as she grows older.”
Maysen has spent plenty of time with nearby family and her grandmother, Lake. She’ll be with the family during the July recruiting period.
With playing experience and behind-the-scenes perspective for so many years now, Lake hopes when Maysen is older, progress has continued and there won’t be issues like the one at the 2021 NCAA Tournament after women’s players highlighted gender inequality. Lake couldn’t believe that nearly 50 years after Title IX passed, players were still in positions similar to hers as a college player.
“I’m hoping that when Maysen’s in high school playing that Title IX is just something that’s in the history books that people know as a law,” Lake said. “But it’s not addressed all the time whenever anything happens, because nothing happens anymore. There (won’t be) any inequities. They fixed it.”
(Top photo of Shea Ralph: Courtesy of Vanderbilt University)