“What an Impact This Sport Has Had on My Life!”
Carthage native Peggy Pope Stapleton recently joined the elite number of outstanding women’s basketball players to be inducted in the Women’s Professional Basketball League Hall of Fame. The induction was held in Knoxville, Tennessee in June.
The league was the first professional women’s basketball league in the United States and is considered a trailblazer of the game. The WNBA did not begin until 10 years later in 1998. Formed by a group of determined women who wanted to continue playing after their college careers, the WBL lasted three seasons from 1978 to 1981 and featured eight teams during its inaugural season. The Houston Angels won the league championship the first year, with the New York Stars and the Nebraska Wranglers winning the remaining two seasons. Peggy was part of the league its last year, playing for the championship Wranglers.
Peggy was raised, the fifth oldest in a family of seven children, in her family’s homestead in the Pope Quarters area a few miles south of town on Highway 79. She says, “My dad had a very popular juke joint that everyone in the area came to, and I guess that’s how the name Pope Quarters was adopted.”
She graduated from CHS in 1976 and played basketball under the leadership of Coach Sandra Walker. “I didn’t make the seventh or eighth grade junior high team,” she says, “but I grew about three inches in the summer before high school and also developed a lot more confidence and determination. I played three games on the freshman team and was moved up to varsity. Basketball was my life; I really wasn’t involved in much of anything else. I knew it was my ticket to an education and even a career from an early age.”
She continues, “At that time, girls played half-court three-on-three rather than full court five-person teams, I presume because people thought girls didn’t have enough strength and stamina. But after Coach Walker recommended me to Coach Mary Ann Otwell at Panola College and I began playing for her, she made SURE we had LOTS of running up and down the full court and had PLENTY of strength and stamina!”
Indeed, the Fillies won back-to-back national championships the two years Peggy played at Panola College. Six team members received scholarships to Division One universities—Peggy and three others to Texas A&M, one to SFA, and one to Lamar University. She says, “This was right at the beginning of Title IX and of scholarships being offered to women to play in college, so my timing in terms of opportunity was great! I didn’t find out until years later that I was the first African American to play in A&M’s women’s program.”
Peggy was drafted directly from A&M to the WBL’s Nebraska Wranglers, along with her Panola College teammate Rosie Walker from SFA. “What a wonderful experience for us to play together on another championship team!” she says.
When the league disbanded, she moved to the Houston area to play in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), an organized league with teams in several U.S. cities, and also coach at Brookshire Royal High School in Katy. Three years later she was hired as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Rice University, where she stayed for three years. She then served as an assistant coach at the University of Houston for two years and was hired as head coach at Texas Southern University, where she stayed four years.
In 1987 her son Taylor was born, followed by second son Tavis in 1992, and she decided to leave the college ranks and return to high school coaching. Within a few years, she knew she did not want to remain in the city to raise them. She came home to Carthage for the summer to decide what she wanted to do next and enrolled the boys in CHS boys’ basketball coach Larry Bagley’s summer camp. The Carthage girls’ head coaching job was open, and he wanted her to take it. He set up an appointment for her to interview with the superintendent, and she never returned to Houston, remaining at CHS until her retirement in 2013.
During the same month she accepted the position at Carthage, she received a call from Greg Williams, who had been instrumental in her getting into college coaching at Rice. He was now coaching the WNBA Detroit Shock and offered her an assistant coaching position with the team. She visited with the Carthage superintendent about the possibility of doing double duty, and he agreed it would be good for her and also good public relations for the district, so she coached the high school team from September through April and stayed in Detroit to coach the professional team the remaining months.
Peggy says, “When the WNBA first started, I was in Houston at Texas Southern and was able to assist Van Chancellor, head coach of the Houston Comets, at his training camp. It was very special to see a new league form from a coach’s perspective rather than the player’s perspective I had in the first league. And now here I was, able to serve as an assistant coach for a pro team in Detroit. It was just amazing to me!”
Peggy was inducted into the Texas A&M Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Panola College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. At Panola she was voted an All-Conference and NJCAA All-American player. At A&M she held the record for all-time rebounder and most points scored in a season. She says she feels very honored now to be inducted into the WBL Hall of Fame as well. “I think it’s great after 20 years that the Hall of Fame is recognizing pioneers,” she says. “These were women who had to play sometimes without money, without rings, and without much media attention to help give birth to a women’s professional basketball league.”
Since retirement, Peggy has remained in her lovely home in Carthage. She travels with several retired friends every three months and plays golf twice a month, and she especially enjoys traveling to Houston to spend time with Taylor and his wife and two sons, and to Kansas City to visit Tavis. Taylor is a pipeline operator for Enterprise Oil and Gas, and Tavis, who played basketball at CHS and also at Bridgewater College in Virginia, is a coordinator with the AFL-CIO.
At home she is active in a women’s group started by her late sister, Glendell Chadwick, who was a diagnostician with CISD, a member of the Board of Directors at Panola College, and founder/owner of Knowledge Nook Day Care. She passed away in July of 2017 after a valiant struggle with breast cancer. Peggy says, “I was so privileged to be able to drive her every week for a year to her treatments. It was the worst journey, but also the best, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything because I believe that precious time spent with her made me a better person.”
The group is called the Ladies of Strength Social Club, and Peggy says, “It was Glenda’s baby, started from her desire to empower women. There are so many with no outreach and support for difficult things they are going through. Together we can vent and also encourage, motivate, and uplift each other. It’s called a social club because we enjoy travel outings and meeting together, but it also has a mental and spiritual dimension, with a book club and Bible study. We help students on move-in day at Panola College and also choose a young college woman for a scholarship, not just for a year but for however long she is in school. We support and mentor her in every way we can. It is such a joy to continue this wonderful dream of Glenda’s!”
Peggy is also working to get her real estate license, hoping to capitalize on the vast network of college coaches she knows to jumpstart her new career in real estate.
This lovely, poised, gracious lady, who has achieved so much success through her sport, insists that the thing she is proudest of is having been able to use her years of coaching and recruiting, and all her connections at the college level, to help high school girls get college scholarships. “I am so pleased to have contributed, to have given back, in this way. I had 16 athletes from Carthage High School receive scholarships to play at the college level, and that makes me very proud!”
She adds, “I was very fortunate to play and coach high at the school, college, and professional level during my career. What a huge impact this sport has had on my life since I first picked up a basketball!”