Celebrating Our Girls: The Women of LSU Basketball

I get it!

The media has to sell stories, and one of the easiest sells in sports is a “great white hope”. This season, Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes women’s basketball team became the latest great white hope. This is no disrespect to the incredible talent and showmanship of Clark, the precision of the team’s execution, or the masterful coaching of Lisa Bluder… I acknowledge all of those. That team had an amazing run.

However, after their semifinal win over defending national champions, South Carolina, a team comprised of Black girls with a Black woman coach, the narrative of the great white hope intensified and expanded into very specific misogynoir spewed directly at South Carolina, and more widely at Black girls and women. The predictable white objectification that masculinizes and criminalizes Black women athletes was once again projected on a group of young Black women at the height of their experience as student athletes. The South Carolina players were not even allowed to process losing just one game shy of repeating as National Champions with an undefeated season. Iowa’s win snapped South Carolina’s 42 game winning streak, and ended the careers of seniors like Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke who are likely to be drafted by the WNBA on April 10th. Instead of being allowed to process this moment, these young women had to maintain enough composure to defend themselves against dehumanizing attacks targeting their Black womanhood.

Coach Dawn Staley, who became just the second Black woman to lead her team to a national championship first in 2017, then again in 2022, gracefully, yet wearily addressed the comments made about her players’ character and appearance. When granted the opportunity, she praised her players’ for their resilience during the incredible roller coster the team has ridden since 2020 when COVID-19 prematurely ended what would’ve been their first championship run. The white media completely overlooked South Carolina’s accomplishments to heroize Caitlin Clark and her Hawkeye teammates as if they had slayed the Black demons from South Carolina in order to restore the purity (read whiteness) of women’s college basketball.

Two nights later, when LSU scored 102 points in their defeat over Iowa in the women’s national championship game, I was ready to celebrate Black girl magic and shout praises of these young women so loud that it drowned out ALL of the negativity that they had been subjected to for the entire season. Every player on the court that night for LSU was a Black girl: with Black names like Flau’Jae, Kateri, LaDazhia, Angel, Jasmine and Alexis; Black girl hair like bright blond locs and afros, 2-strand twists, buns with laid edges, long bundles and box braids; and most importantly, Black girl game like the no-look dimes, the pocketpicking on-ball defense, the off-the-dribble mid-range jumper, the defensive swat outta bounds that tells the offense they should’ve known better, the full court defense, the spot up 3-pointers…the emotion, the savvy, the aggression, the creativity, the sisterhood. They showed the world what Black girls can do. They showed out, and deserved to be centerstage, ALONE!!!

But, the white media refused to showcase these Black girls because white women’s self-esteem is to be protected at all times. Before the final buzzer sounded, television producers decided to show multiple shots of LSU star Angel Reese’s celebratory gestures in the direction of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Immediately, whites from famous media personalities to anonymous social media users were calling Reese classless, idiotic, thuggish, a poor sport, embarrassing etc. When Clark herself used the same hand gesture as her Iowa team defeated Louisville earlier in the tournament she was praised for her confidence and competitiveness. Black folks across social media immediately called out the misogynoir and responded in defense of Reese.  And this is how whiteness wins; by (as Toni Morrison reminded us) using racism as a distraction that keeps us from doing our work. Our work in that moment was to celebrate our girls! But instead, their shine was overshadowed by a desperate attempt to keep white womanhood centered in Women’s College Basketball by vilifying Black women to diminish their dominant performance and overall accomplishment.

I expect nothing less from whites, and their media outlets. All season, comments about LSU’s style of play, their demeanor, and their appearance were reminiscent of Don Imus’ “nappy headed hoes” comment about the 2007 Rutgers national championship runner-up women’s basketball team. That Rutgers team was coached by the legendary C. Vivian Stringer. For those that don’t know, Stringer is the only women’s coach to lead three different teams to the final four. She is also the only coach to lead an HBCU to the championship; Cheney State in 1982. Those of us who watch women’s college basketball, recognized Dawn Staley paying homage to that legacy by wearing a Cheney State jersey on the sidelines earlier this season. To make an even deeper connection, the third team that C. Vivian Stringer led to the Final Four was…the Iowa Hawkeyes, in 1993. With Black players like Laurie Arron from Detroit, Toni Foster from Chicago, Arneda Yarbrough from Racine, Tia Jackson from Maryland, and Antonia Macklin from Boston, Stringer’s Iowa team looked a lot different than the 2023 Hawkeyes.

I take a detour from the main point to include this history because there are plenty of amazing stories to about the 2023 Division I National Champion LSU women’s basketball team and their place within an amazing tradition of Black women in College Basketball. This is our history, it extends back to the early 1900s and the “Black Fives Era”, and we should invest in learning it. My point here is that, there is never a need to engage whiteness when we are talking about Black women’s success in Basketball. The Reese/Clark situation was a white ploy to rob our Black girls of their “One Shining Moment”, and it worked.

It’s not our fault. We got baited! We are hyper sensitive to misogynoir, and have been socialized through social media that our enemies deserve a response. In our efforts to defend Angel Reese against all of the social media attacks, we contributed to the erasure of LSUs success as a team.

What we fail to realize time and again, is that our energy and our attention are the fuel that feeds our enemies and starves us. Some of us, who know nothing, and care even less about women’s basketball, used the situation as a proxy to talk about other issues. The worst of us, only engaged in the conversation as an opportunity to boost their own social media platforms because the topic was trending. I chose to log off social media completely because I just wanted to talk about how the team balled out; I just wanted to celebrate these Black girls and their accomplishments…and we were talking about everything ELSE. 

When I wrote my dissertation in 2014 about Black women, college basketball and identity negotiation, I presented basketball as a unique space for Black women’s and girls empowerment. I wrote about how it fosters characteristics of strong work ethic, perseverance, sisterhood and self-confidence in players, how it provides space for Black girls and women to display the multitudes of Blackness; unbound by the constraints of whiteness, and how it brings our communities together to celebrate Black girls like few other youth activities. 

Watching this LSU team’s success was the manifestation of everything I knew to be true. The 2023 LSU women’s national basketball championship team deserves to be celebrated on its own. There are so many stories across that roster, across that campus, across the communities those young women come from and bring with them every time they step on the court. So I want to give them this bouquet of flowers!

So I’ll start with acknowledging a squad full of Ballers!!!

Most of us (now) know who Angel Reese (#10) is, because of the news stories all season, painting her as a poor sport, a bully, a prima donna, and all the other characteristics projected onto Black girls for being their full selves. Sadly these are the same projections that contribute to our girls being “Pushed out” out of schools for “disciplinary” reasons more than their white classmates. Aside from the false projections, Angel Reese is the truth! She is a fierce competitor, and one of the most skilled post players the game has seen; she gives me KG vibes when she steps on the court. The Maryland transfer set the NCAA record for most double doubles in a season with 34.  That is a record not likely to ever be broken.

Some of us may also know Flau’jae Johnson (#4), who was the SEC freshman of the year. She hit LSU’s first bucket of the championship game, a 3-pointer that set the tone for LSU’s performance. I am so happy for her success because I’ve been following her since first seeing her when she was on “The Rap Game”, a reality TV competition show for adolescent rap artists. Watching her on that show, I gained admiration for her creativity, her dedication, her drive to improve, her maturity, and her ability not to let extreme pressure take the fun out of what she loved. On the court she’s a crafty wing player with an impressive combination of athleticism and body control; like Jaylen Brown. She is not only a dynamic two-way perimeter player, she also has bars… and a recording contract with Roc Nation.

One name we may not know is Alexis Morris (#45) because she’s a silent assassin, but if you watched the game, you saw what it looks like for a point guard to take over the second half. After being on the bench for a large part of the first half due to foul trouble, Morris scored 19 of her 21 points in the second half. Mid range game like DeMar DeRozan, ice in her veins like vintage Zeke Thomas, and one of the most amazing and inspiring redemption stories in all of college sports. She started off as a freshman playing for Kim Mulkey at Baylor. After being dismissed from the team and transferring to Rutgers, and then Texas A&M, she reunited with Coach Mulkey at LSU to win a national championship.

The LSU team also had two graduate students that scored 20 points each in the championship game. LaDazhia Williams (#0) is a grad transfer from Florida, who started her career at South Carolina and then transferred to Mizzou where she earned her bachelors before joining the LSU team. She played nearly the whole game, scored 20 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and won the battle against Iowa post player Monica Czinano, who would foul out trying to compete.

And, of course the star of the show Jasmine Carson (#2), who led the team with 21 points; 15 of them on 3-pointers, including a buzzer beater at halftime. Carson, another grad transfer, completed her bachelors degree at West Virginia before transferring to LSU. When the first 3-pointer left her hands, I could tell she was a bucket. No hesitation, all confidence. Shooter’s form, shooter’s demeanor…It reminded me of when DeAngelo Russell asked if Jose Alvarado could shoot, and Alvarado calmly hit a 3-pointer and responded “yes I can shoot”.

If we aren’t going to talk about the way these girls balled out, what are we talking about?!

The team put up 102 points! That’s the most in the history of the NCAA Division 1 Women’s National Championship Game. Before the game, commentator and former player Rebecca Lobo chuckled and said the team would be lucky to score 80, but it was LSU that got the last laugh. 

LSU wasn’t picked to win, and a lot of people were waiting for them to fail to justify the misogynoir.  Despite having a 28-2 record, they were given a #3 seed; behind Indiana at 27-3 and Utah at 25-4. They didn’t complain about the unfair ranking or point out the obvious racialized message that the rankings sent, they just mapped out their championship journey. In the Semifinal game they were tested by #1 seeded Virginia Tech and passed after mounted an amazing comeback!  Going into the fourth quarter they were down nearly 10 points and went on a 15-0 run to take the lead with a steal and lay up by Flau’jae Johnson. In that game, Alexis Morris scored 27 points and Angel Reese ended with 24 points and 12 rebounds.

I could talk for hours about their tournament run alone, so it saddens me that we are allowing anyone to share the spotlight when these girls deserve all the attention for what they accomplished!?  

I know that some of us do not know Basketball enough to appreciate the performance, but there are better “interest” stories about the team that deserve to be highlighted more than a common gesture. While the media flooded outlets with the photo of Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, I prefer this one of Jasmine Carson and Flau’jae Johnson  

Not only does it capture the Black Girl Magic of the moment (notice Flau’Jae’s happiness for her teammate), but, it is also so fitting that they are both wearing the Kobe grinch 6s that were gifted to the team by Vanessa Bryant before the Final Four.

The grinch color-way was originally released in 2010 to draw parallels between Dr. Seuss’s grinch, who ruined Christmas for Whoville and Kobe Bryant, who ruined Christmas for his opponents a record 16 times during his career…like how LSU ruined the nations hopes for an Iowa victory. In addition to being grinch green, the sneakers are also the color of the green mamba snake and the shoe has a scaly texture; a nod to Kobe’s nickname “The Black Mamba”. LSU definitely embodied the mamba mentality with their national championship performance.

Another great story for this team is how this first championship has been a long time coming for LSU women’s basketball. The program had been to five previous Final Fours. They’d come so close, so many times and lost heartbreakers to legendary teams like Tennessee, Rutgers, Baylor and Duke. LSU has Hall Of Fame players among their alumni like olympians and WNBA championship teammates Simone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. This 2023 championship team stands the shoulders of generations of great Black women basketball players and that legacy should be celebrated! These young women are products of loving Black families and supportive Black communities! They are living proof of the unique power of basketball for Black girls that shapes winners on and off the court.

We definitely need to highlight the impact that these young women have on the culture! (Shout out to Slam Magazine for the Cover). They are leaders of a new era of college student athletes that understand their value. These young players are less likely to be exploited by plantation politics that have dominated college athletics by holding players hostage due to a process that used to required players to sit out a year if they transferred schools. Now, players are eligible to play, immediately when they step onto a new campus. So, when we look at LSUs 9 new players between freshmen and transfers, we are looking at players that came to win without compromising who they are. All season they defended attempts to belittle their character and diminish their abilities but they never wavered, they never backed down, the eloquently spoke their minds when asked, and beautifully let their play do the talking on the court. Across all sports, Black women basketball players have historically been the most active in social issues, they pour the most back into their communities, and extend their reach the farthest beyond the basketball court. This group of young women has adopted those traits early and become role models.

But, they are more than just amazing student athletes, they’re smart businesswomen, revolutionizing women’s college basketball. The entire team has NILs (Name, Image and Likeness) deals that allow them to generate revenue as a result of their on the court success and off the court persona! This is revolutionary because Division 1 basketball is the only college team sport where Black women comprise a majority of the student athletes. This year’s tournament set records for ratings and attendance largely due to the performance of teams like South Carolina and LSU. Despite being the best, Black women basketball players have been overshadowed by attempts to market white femininity to attract sponsorship and increase viewership. This LSU women’s team is showing young Black girls that love basketball that there are other ways to earn money through sports without dealing with the discrimination of institutional politics rooted in misogynoir. They are also sending a message to the nation that, they and Black players like them, are stars!

There is nothing more threatening to white femininity than confident Black girls; the kind that talk shit and back it up! There is nothing more necessary for Black liberation than taking whiteness out of the center of our Black lives; celebrating ourselves on our own terms.

What these young women are doing continues the amazing story of Black women and basketball by beginning a new chapter. What makes their chapter different from all previous ones, is that they, and we, have the opportunity to author their narrative and shape their legacy in the moment. The white media is trying desperately to downplay the significance of this moment, and Black opportunists grasping at straws for relevant connections because they are uninformed are missing the point. This accomplishment is so much more than a trend, it’s the dawn of a new day! So, if we choose to speak on it, let’s give LSU, those that came before them, and those coming behind them the love and respect they deserve.

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Dr. Charity Clay is a professor in Critical Race Sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana. She has an upcoming book focused on police terrorism against Black communities, as well as a podcast on how white supremacy benefits from Black protest. She can be found on her website www.urfavcharity.com and on Instagram @urfavcharity.