Faith and Hoops

Religion, court skills and good timing propelled Nancy Rutter Huerd into many firsts of women’s basketball
Sunday, January 2, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:56 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

When Nancy Rutter Huerd started her basketball career at a lonely basketball hoop in the middle of a farming field in northeast Missouri, she knew hard work and faith in God would take her places. She just didn’t know where or how far.

It was the late 1960s, and there was no such thing as the WNBA or Title IX or even 5-on-5 women’s basketball. Girls played 6-on-6 in gym class, or maybe in junior high and high school if they were lucky. The closest thing to a professional women’s basketball league was the All American Redheads, who played from 1936-86. They dyed their hair red, wore full makeup on the court and traveled the country defeating men’s teams in the style of the Harlem Globetrotters.

It would have been difficult for Huerd to imagine she would play in the first girls basketball state championship in Missouri or on the first varsity women’s basketball team at MU, receive one of the first women’s athletic scholarships the university offered or play in the first professional women’s basketball league. As she practiced free throws at that country hoop, Huerd might not have known things would change, but she knew her faith would see her through whatever lay ahead.

In 2004, Huerd uses that faith, as well as her experiences on the basketball court, to help relate to student athletes and guide them on their journey through athletics and with God. She lives in St. Paul, Minn., and speaks to student athletes as part of the Student Venture organization, a subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ that focuses on high school students.

“When I played, my relationship with God gave me purpose and gave me strength to do my best,” Huerd said. “I think it’s just part of who I am and my job. I’m doing what I’m called to do.”

Whether it is a case of divine intervention or blind luck, Huerd managed to be in the right places at the right times throughout her career. As she matured as a player, Missouri women’s basketball grew along with her.

“A lot of the progress of women’s basketball happened in my era,” Huerd said. “I really feel like in my playing career I was kind of on the beginnings of everything.”

When Huerd started playing competitively in junior high in 1969, Missouri girls played “Iowa style” — 6-on-6 basketball. This meant three players played offense and three played defense, with neither side allowed to cross the half-court line or dribble for an extended period.

During Huerd’s eighth- and ninth-grade years, her school began the transition to the men’s5-on-5 style. The teams switched to two defenders, two offensive players and two “rovers” who played full court. By the time she reached high school in 1971, the rover was gone and the girls played 5-on-5.

Huerd said she, too, needed to evolve before she was ready to be competitive. She started playing because her family was involved in athletics. Her father played football for MU, her mother played basketball, and her two older brothers and younger sister also participated.

Huerd said when she began to play, she thought she could coast on her genetic gifts.

“I was tall, and I thought I could just walk out there and be good,” she said. “I was kind of standing around. I think I realized when I first started playing that I had to work a little harder. I started getting better, so I started working a little harder.”

Huerd worked hard, but mostly on her own or with the help of her family and a few coaches. There were no basketball camps for girls when Huerd began high school at South Shelby in Shelbina, and there were no club teams. She considers herself lucky to have lived in northeastern Missouri and to have attended a high school that had a girls team.

“I don’t think a lot of southern Missouri schools even had teams,” Huerd said.

She said South Shelby had a good team and a knowledgeable coach, Carl Keller, who coached boys and girls. Her junior year, Huerd led South Shelby to the first state tournament in 1973, where the team finished second. There was only one division. The Cardinals returned to the tournament for Huerd’s senior year.

By the time Huerd was looking at colleges, MU had decided to set up its first official women’s basketball team. Huerd said she had wanted to go to MU because, like athletics, it was a Rutter family tradition. Her grandparents and parents and a brother had gone there. MU did not award athletic scholarships to women, but Huerd received an academic scholarship.

Her first year as a Tiger — or “Cager” as women athletes were then known — Huerd was disappointed. The team got to play at the Hearnes Center, but it didn’t have a locker room. The players changed in the women’s public restroom into uniforms they shared with the volleyball team. The women’s athletic teams had to share a trainer with the men’s teams. MU rarely traveled and mostly played Missouri teams.

“Our program just wasn’t much,” Huerd said. “It was to me, almost a step backwards from what I had in high school.”

The lack of facilities, equipment and funding weren’t the only things plaguing the team. They also suffered as a result of the limited opportunities for younger girls to play ball.

“We were kind of a ragtag team, I guess,” Huerd said. “We had some good players, but we had some that just didn’t have much experience.”

When Huerd began her sophomore year, Title IX had taken effect and things changed for the better. Huerd received one of the first six athletic scholarships MU offered to women playing basketball, and her younger sister, Melinda, received another. Joann Rutherford began her 23-year tenure as head coach.

“That’s the first year we started building our team,” Huerd said. “We finally got locker rooms and scholarships and traveled more. Coach Rutherford really started to build things up.”

As the program improved, so did Huerd, especially in the areas of the game that exemplify hard work. She is third in career rebounding averages at MU, with 8.8 rebounds per game. Her junior year she pulled down 356 rebounds, giving her the second-most rebounds for a single season. Huerd also holds the record for most free throws made in a season for her junior year, 211, and she is tied with Renee Kelly for the most career free throws made, 481.

“She was a very hard-working individual, a very good student — very loyal, worked hard,” Rutherford said. “She was great to start building a program around.”

Her junior year was also the first year MU went to the national tournament. While watching players including Lusia Harris and Debbie Brock, then legends in the sport, Huerd said, her eyes were opened to the possibilities of women’s basketball. The games were never televised, and it was one of the first opportunities she had to see these players in action.

“You’d heard about all these good players and different people, and you actually got to see them play,” Huerd said. “It was just exciting to see them play. It was the first time you got an overall overview of women’s basketball.”

As Huerd’s perspective on women’s basketball was expanding, her worldview was as well. During the summer of 1977, between her junior and senior years, Huerd joined the organization Athletes in Action and played on its women’s basketball team.

The goal of Athletes in Action, affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, is to spread the message of Jesus through sports. It was one of the first times Huerd was able to connect her two passions. Through Athletes in Action, she traveled all over Europe, playing club teams and doing missionary work at halftime.

“We would sing, talk and talk about our personal relationship with God,” Huerd said. “A lot of times we’d talk to people afterwards and interact with the other team.”

Years later, Huerd would again travel with Athletes in Action, this time as a coach. The team traveled to China and other areas of Southeast Asia. She said her experiences with Athletes in Action and her later missionary trips with Student Venture helped expose her to other cultures.

“You learn a lot about yourself,” Huerd said. “We’re kind of comfortable. People were just so nice and very spiritually hungry. They wanted to talk, and they wanted to practice their English. They very much wanted to talk to American students.”

When Huerd returned from Europe, she served as co-captain of the MU squad and once again helped lead her team to the national tournament. As her college career was wrapping up, Huerd had several options for her future. Originally, she had planned to teach home economics and coach basketball, but that changed when a group of male entrepreneurs decided to start a professional women’s basketball league, the WBL. The WBL had a draft in summer 1978, just after Huerd graduated from MU. She decided to seize the opportunity.

“It was sort of a natural progression to try it,” Huerd said.

She and MU teammate Suzanne Alt tried out for the Iowa Cornets, one of eight franchises in the fledgling league. They were both accepted on the team.

Huerd and Alt moved in together and started playing with the Cornets. Huerd said life in the WBL was a difficult adjustment.

“It was a lot different than college,” Huerd said. “It was a different game. It was more fast-paced, and it was a business.”

The financial motivations of the league were made clear to Huerd on several occasions. She recalls finding out from a phone call in the middle of the night that Alt had been traded to New York. The next morning, she had to watch her longtime teammate and friend board the plane.

There were positive aspects for Huerd — traveling the country, signing autographs and playing a game she loved. But adjusting to the lifestyle was not Huerd’s only difficulty in the WBL.

“I didn’t start that much in the pros,” Huerd said. “I had good playing time, but I was coming off the bench. I’d always started and been one of the better players. It was a different experience learning how to play off the bench and support the other players.”

Huerd left the league in 1980, a year before it folded, and began teaching home economics and coaching basketball, volleyball and track at Fort Zumwalt High School in O’Fallon. She was eventually promoted to head basketball coach.

“I think I actually enjoyed being the assistant better because I enjoy teaching the kids the game and the interaction with the kids,” Huerd said. “I think when you’re head coach you have to deal with a lot more. When I was an assistant coach, I could really just concentrate on teaching the game and some of the fundamentals of playing.”

As Huerd continued coaching and teaching, she also started donating her time to Student Venture. She shared her athletic and spiritual experiences with high school students and decided that was what she wanted to do.

“I really felt called to do it,” Huerd said. “Instead of doing it in my extra time, I felt like I should do it full time. I felt like God was calling me to do it, and I saw a great need in high school students.”

In 1987, Huerd quit her teaching job and began working at Student Venture full time . She led Bible studies and discussion groups, along with her work with student athletes.

“I know in the work I do now that I can relate to kids who do athletics,” Huerd said. “A lot of kids do athletics at some point in their life, and I think it helps me relate to it because I’ve gone through it and I know what pressures there are.”

It was through Student Venture that she met Steve Huerd.They married in 1990 and have two sons — Jonathan, 9, and Matthew, 6. Both boys enjoy sports, and Matthew likes to shoot hoops with his mom in their driveway before the bus comes. Huerd said that Jonathan doesn’t like basketball but would like to be a professional baseball player.

Huerd said the boys keep her busy, but she does catch an occasional WNBA game on television.

“It’s exciting to watch the WNBA and see them play and see how much they can do,” Huerd said. “They’re so much better than we were.”

Huerd credits the advent of basketball camps and increased opportunities for girls to play for the improvement in their skills. She said she is glad that women who want to play professional basketball encounter fewer obstacles, but she hopes they don’t take it for granted.

“That opportunity hasn’t always been there,” Huerd said. “People were pioneers before that that have brought them the opportunity. It’s something that’s taken many years. We’ve tried it when we were right out of college, but I don’t think business-wise it was done properly. They could have made a few better decisions. I don’t know if we were quite ready for it.”

When Huerd talks to the athletes through Student Venture, she assures them that hard work and faith can take them to new heights, from a farm field in Missouri to a basketball court in China. Huerd left that basketball hoop on the farm in Shelbina behind, but the game that started her journey is still with her.

“Even though I don’t play as much, I still dream basketball.”

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