The Women of Troy is a must-watch for basketball fans. It’s a documentary on HBO that provides an insider’s look at the University of Southern California women’s basketball team in the early eighties, and its focal point is 6’2″ megastar Cheryl Miller.
The film is a rare chance to hear directly from the team that set a new standard for women’s hoops and forever changed the game. “Every time we stepped out on the court, we showcased a level of talent that everybody wanted to be a part of. We did our part to give these kids an opportunity to pursue a dream playing professional basketball.” said Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper.
Their dynamic style of play and the team’s competitive nature helped fuel the very first Olympic women’s basketball team, and later the WNBA as well. “Our team was kind of special. We were bridge players. We laid the bridge for the league, for the WNBA to come behind. We set a standard.” said Hall of Famer Pam McGee.
So today, we’ll dive into women’s basketball history with some of our favorite moments from the documentary including hearing directly from legends: Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, and more.
“This particular team changed basketball. The team was infused with athleticism and were fast-paced. Cheryl Miller’s story was so interesting — she was the trajectory of being the best player at the time. There are so many dramatic layers in the story.” recapped the film’s Director Alison Ellwood.
Part of the evolution of the women’s game is the way it’s played. “With men, they started to evolve [the game] on their own. With women, it was up to everybody else how they could play the game: not them.” said author Jackie MacMullan.
Initially, women’s basketball was limited to half-court play. “It was at that time, the powers to be thought that our girls couldn’t play a strenuous activity going full court up and down like the guys. When we started playing it was half court. You could not cross the center line.” said LA Tech women’s Head Coach Sonja Hogg. “It just took time, and persistence, and our young girls showing that we could play five on five.”
By 1971, the five-player, full-court game and the thirty-second shot clock was introduced to women’s basketball. A lot of things changed that helped grow the women’s game, but the most significant thing was Title IX in 1972: the law that cuts off federal funding to educational institutions that discriminate against women and minorities.
For college sports at the time, nothing was growing more rapidly than women’s college basketball. That popularity helped lead to the debut of the sport at the Olympics in 1976.
Women’s basketball reached a milestone in 1976 with its first Olympic competition. The team was stacked with talent including Lusia Harris, Ann Meyers Drysdale, and Nancy Lieberman. But before the US women could set their sights on an Olympic medal, they first had to qualify. At the Olympic Qualifying Tournament featuring nine teams in Hamilton, Canada, the US went 5-0 to earn the first qualifying spot.
Vice President of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, Ann Meyers Drysdale remembered, “In ’76, I’d been on the very first women’s Olympic team…and we won silver.” The final match-up of the tournament for the US was against the Soviet Union, and ended in a lopsided loss for the Americans, with the Soviets securing a 112-77 win.
“Annie was pretty unbelievable. I think she was almost four years older than me, and I remember going to my first try out camp. And I asked somebody, ‘Who’s the best player here?’ and they said, ‘Her’ pointing, and her was Ann Meyers.” said Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman.
Ann had a storybook career at UCLA, and was named to the All America basketball team four straight years – the only woman to do so. She later signed a contract with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, which some called a publicity stunt. “I know the media was very harsh. As much as it was a circus to them, it certainly wasn’t to me.” said Ann.
Despite the challenges the women faced with the media, their presence on TV inspired women everywhere. “I remember going out to the park that happened to be next door to my house and dreaming for the longest time of being Kyle Macy.” said broadcaster Doris Sable Burke. “I’d play out whatever game I saw on TV in my head, but I was always a guy. Until I saw Nancy Lieberman who was at Old Dominion at the time. That was the first time an athletic scholarship came into my mind because I heard the announcer say, ‘These women are on scholarship.’ It blew my mind.”
At that time, Louisiana Tech was the college that seemingly had it all figured out, and was helmed by Sonja Hogg a very Southern dynamo. “Then you see LA Tech. Every year, like a well oiled machine. They were legendary.” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma.
Louisiana Tech’s Lady Techsters set the tone, winning multiple women’s National Championships. And there was a brand associated with LA Tech back then. “We were the Louisiana Tech bulldogs. We all know that a female dog is called a bitch. But I just didn’t want bitch to be along with here come Coach Hogg and all her little woowhoo. I said OK we’re going to be called the Lady Techsters,” said Sonja.
The team wore a unique style of uniform with sleeves mandated by Sonja, despite the limitations on freedom of movement. “I wanted sleeves on those uniforms for reasons we probably both know: bra straps hanging and all of that. So I just thought that was very appropriate.” explained Sonja.
The first person in NCAA women’s basketball history to win a national championship as a player, assistant coach, and head coach, Kim Mulkey, a former LA Tech guard explained, “You just wanted to represent your school in a way that was classy.”
“She brought us a whole different dimension.” reflected Sonja about Kim. “She averaged over her high school career 38 points a game.”
The LA Tech squad played a very traditional style of hoops, focused on a half court offense. “Normally you’d have guards that can handle the ball. You’d have a wing player 5’11” or 6 feet, and you got a big post player. LA Tech was great at this. Tennessee was great at it. Get those post players, burry them in the lane, throw it in there, and just bully you and beat you.” said Geno.
“And then Cheryl came along and it was: this kid is as big as LA Tech’s post players, and she’s faster than all your guards, and she plays at the rim. So it was something that was unique to the game at that time.” he reflected.
“That’s probably the next evolution of college women’s basketball.” he posited. “So whatever was before, that’s not going to be good enough anymore.”
In 1982, 17-year old Cheryl Miller scored 105 points for her high school team in a game where the final score was 179 to 15. In her four years at Riverside Polytechnic High School she also dunked in one game and led her team to a 132-4 record that included 84 straight victories.
“I wasn’t just a showboat. I was very good at being a showboat.” said Cheryl, laughing. Cheryl quickly became the most sought-after high school girls athlete ever. She received letters from a couple hundred colleges. Her family even installed a special phone for calls from recruiters.
Comparing Cheryl to other great players, USC’s head coach Linda Sharp said, ”Carol Blazejowski was a great shooter but didn’t really have all the concepts of defense. Nancy Lieberman was a great passer and ball handler. Ann Meyers played both ends of the court and was a very solid team player. She had some of the same offensive skills as Cheryl, but wasn’t necessarily as flexible. I hope Ann doesn’t hate me for saying that, but I’d tell her if I saw her.”
Cheryl’s love for basketball began at an early age. “When I was 11 that’s really when everything broke loose. It was my brothers and I against the neighborhood, and it just really started from there.” said Cheryl.
“Between all of us, Cheryl and I are the closest in age, so we were always together.” said her brother and Hall of Famer Reggie Miller. “Which means we were always paired together. Either on the same team, but most of the time going against one another.”
“My relationship with Reggie, he was my best friend. We were just a year apart.” said Cheryl.
“Those one-on-one games, they were a learning curve for myself.” admitted Reggie. “She was predominantly the victor, and I was the one that was getting the beat down.”
“Iron sharpens iron, and that’s what we really did for each other.” recapped Cheryl.
“When I was being recruited, the biggest reasons that I decided to go to USC were Pam and Paula McGee.” said Cheryl about the 6’3″ twins and All Americans from Flint, Michigan.
“She verbaled to UCLA. And we went over and spent the night at her house.” said Pam McGee. “And we basically told her. I’m just going to keep it real with you, ‘You would probably be All American, you would be the number one player in the country. But you only got one problem: You’ll never win a Championship because you’ve gotta come through us. We number two in the country baby, we’re trying to do something special.'”
“And all of a sudden it just felt like something inching on me, and I’m looking at both Pam and Paula. And they said, ‘We got a proposition for you. You play two years with us. Or you play two years against us.'” said Cheryl.
“And she was like, ‘Y’all two are All Americans, how are all of us going to play together?’ and I said, ‘I’ve been playing with her [Paula] all my life. Your game on Monday, Paula’s game on Tuesday, my game on Wednesday. We trying to do something special.'” said Pam.
“I said where do I sign?” said Cheryl.
“Having Cheryl Miller on our team was a really special time. Because it was a new frontier for women’s basketball.” said USC teammate and former WNBA general manager of the Los Angeles Sparks Rhonda Windham.
“Well, there was a lot of hoopla around Cheryl. She was the number one recruit, she had scored over 100 points in a game.” said Cynthia. “There was always this friction slash competition between she and I. I think she had something to prove. And I definitely had a chip on my shoulder and felt like I had to prove not just to her but to everyone watching, ‘Hey, you know I’m kind of talented too.'” she continued.
“They called us the kind of showtime from Hollywood. We didn’t play that kind of southern basketball where you just keep pounding in the paint. We would run.” said Paula McGee.
“Pure competition every single day. Almost to the point where the games were easier than the practices.” said teammate Juliette Robinson.
“Cheryl is just one of the most competitive people I’ve ever seen in my life. Diving under the table. We’re like Cheryl this is practice!” said Cynthia. “I only knew how to play one way.” admitted Cheryl.
“There was definitely some friction. But there’s nothing better than playing with the most talented and gifted player ever to play women’s basketball.” said Cynthia.
“USC opened up a whole new world for me. But it was a constant tug of war for me, like I was a fish out of water. Like this is absolutely not the place that I was supposed to be. I just really longed for someone that understood me, someone that knew where I’d come from” said Cynthia, who grew up in Watts in LA.
However the support from her brother Ricky helped her to stay at it. “The letters from Ricky were special. They were my bro helping his little sis through this tough time. I was very very, close with Ricky. And for that person to say I could do it, well OK, I can actually do it. Because he knows where I came from. My childhood was tough. It’s tough as a kid to not know if you’re going to have a place to lay your head. We didn’t know sometimes where our next meal was coming from. I used to play pick up with Ricky on the blacktops at Locke High School. We were too poor to go places and enjoy stuff outside of Watts.”
This USC team was proudly black. And while the documentary doesn’t put the microscope on the history of race within women’s basketball, it does show some of the race-based challenges the Women of Troy faced at a preppy white university.
“I think that there was an issue with being Black at USC. African Americans outside of USC looked at us a little bit differently.” said Juliette.
“We were not only fighting issues with gender, we were also dealing with issues of race as well.” said Paula.
“And some of our alumni would say, ‘Oh but you’re different.'” said Pam. “‘Oh no, you’re different!’ I said, ‘No.’ There was a kind of idea that the African Americans in this community were different, than those of us who were at USC.”
“We were just as Black as they were. We just had a different experience. And we just were aware we had to carry ourselves a little bit differently.” said Juliette. “So the perception of us looked different. But it wasn’t. We were as Black as they were. We were just in an environment that was extremely new to us as well. But the beauty of all of that – when you don’t have something, when you’re hungry – we knew how to hustle! And we hustled…We went to work!” said Juliette.
The squad went on to become the first all-black starting five to participate in a women’s college basketball national championship game.
The USC team was ranked either number one in the country or number two throughout that year, as they jostled back and forth with LA Tech for the top spot. Having these two teams clash together undoubtedly helped women’s basketball.
“Getting a win on the road was tough in some of the places that we played in.” said Linda Sharp, head coach at USC. “I always took them to places so they could learn from it, they could compete at a high level. That would prepare us for the NCAA tournaments. So I would play a tough schedule.”
Their first big road trip was to LA Tech and then Tennessee. LA Tech invited them to play the first game in their new arena. The stadium in western Louisiana was packed, the crowd was loud and intimidating, and winning in that kind of environment was tough to do.
But USC won. “It felt so good, so good ruining their party.” said Cheryl. “And we were walking out, blowing kisses to the crowd, being booed and everything else.” That was the start of a hated rivalry.
The season culminated with the Women’s NCAA Championship between LA Tech and USC on April 3rd, 1983. The Lady Techsters were seeking their third straight championship. As for USC, if they didn’t win, they’d be a side note in history.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize when you get into the Championship game, and it was USC’s first Championship, there’s a lot of nerves.” said Ann Meyers Drysdale. “USC just couldn’t really get into it. They missed a lot of shots. Louisiana Tech, they’d been there.”
The first half was a half of frustration for USC. “I was nervous. I think we all were.” said Cheryl. Going into halftime, the Lady Techsters led 37-26.
However, in the locker room at the half, USC head coach Linda shared with the team that they were going to do something. They were going to do just one thing and it was going to turn the game around: they were going to press. Basically, she freed them up to play their style of hoops. As a result, Cheryl took over the game in the second half.
“I remember I hit a big shot in that game. And everyone expected Cheryl Miller or one of the McGee twins to take that shot but Coach Sharp called that play for me.” said Cynthia. But that wasn’t Cynthia’s only time to shine in the final.
Someone tapped the ball away from Kathy Doyle and went on a fast break. Cynthia ran back and took a charge from Kim Mulkey. Cheryl swept Cynthia up off the ground and was pumped up. “It was amazing because I felt closer to Cheryl then, then I’ve ever felt during my time at USC.” said Cynthia. “Cheryl was a well rounded player – she played on both sides of the ball offensively and defensively. So when she saw me do that, I felt good, I felt like I earned Cheryl Miller’s respect.”
USC won, dethroning the defending champions, and Cheryl ended her freshman year. She had 27 points and 9 rebounds in the game. “Man that was the best moment of my life.” she said.
She ended the season leading USC in scoring, with 20.4 points per game; in steals, 115 for the season, and in blocked shots, 79. The team went on to secure back-to-back national titles, winning again in 1984.
Since there were no professional options stateside, Cynthia went on to play pro ball in Italy for 10 years. Meanwhile the McGee sisters tried out for the Harlem Globetrotters. Later Paula went overseas. But Pam was kind of burned out, so she was doing some speaking for USC. However, when she saw how much money Paula was making she decided she needed to be overseas too.
After Cheryl’s senior year finished, she got into a pick up game with some football players and tore her ACL, which ended her basketball career. If it happened 10 years later, they’d have done a surgery and she’d have been back out there. “I probably would have played overseas. I probably would have gone and tried to extend my career.” said Cheryl.
But she was done at 22. “At 22, I was considered by everyone, the greatest player in women’s basketball. Had everything going for me. Until I got hurt. Until I was robbed of a precious gift that at times I took for granted. But I remember that great feeling of loss, and I remember feeling like a toothless lion that’s no longer at the top of the food chain.” said Cheryl.
However her basketball journey didn’t stop there. She was an integral part of the brand new WNBA in 1996. “1996 Women’s Olympic Team, because of them and the exposure and the way they played, it was a natural transition.” said Cheryl about the launch of the women’s professional league in the US. With the weight of the NBA behind it and the games on NBC, the league was set to take off. “To be able to coach the Phoenix Mercury in an inaugural season, it was awesome.” said Cheryl.
Cynthia Cooper soon took the league by storm in 1997, and earned the MVP title. She went on to win four WNBA Championships, and later became the first woman to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Get the full story and hear all the interviews by watching the documentary on HBO Max. Up next, read all about the Philadelphia Tribune Girls, a team that won eleven straight Women’s Colored Basketball World’s Championships, over 50 years before the Women of Troy.