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By Alexis Morgan
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Growing up in west Los Angeles, Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale lived a few doors down from a little girl. Every time Fizdale and his friends would play basketball, the little girl tagged along. Fizdale recalls how she always tried to play with boys who were bigger, stronger and faster than her.

They tried to tell her she couldn’t play with them, but she wouldn’t accept “No” for an answer.

Fizdale eventually left Los Angeles to attend college at the University of San Diego. By the time he came back home, that little girl turned out to be the best player in the state of California and one of the best players in the country.

“She was taller than me. She was better than me,” Fizdale recalls. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. She was posting me up now, this little girl, and we’re lucky enough to have her here today.”

That little girl was Tina Thompson, one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game.

Thompson, along with WNBA stars Swin Cash, Allison Feaster and Track and Field Olympic gold medalist Rochelle Stevens, recently joined Fizdale and his wife, Natasha, for the First Annual Girls Summit hosted by the Memphis Grizzlies.

More than 300 female middle and high school students from Shelby County Schools descended upon FedExForum for two days in early April to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of Title IX. Passed in 1972, the Title IX law mandated male and female students receive equitable treatment and benefits, including athletic scholarships.

The first day of the summit, hosted by the Grizzlies, the National Civil Rights Museum and the Women’s Foundation of the Mid-South, gave young women the opportunity to participate in hands-on demonstrations of basketball, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, rugby and track and field conducted by former professional athletes and college coaches from the University of Memphis.

“First of all, our mission with the Grizzlies is to provide youth with a voice, with an empowered voice,” said Diane Terrell, Vice President of Community Engagement for the Grizzlies. “With the anniversary of Title IX, we found an opportunity to focus on girls, which we don’t do nearly enough, and help build that sense of confidence and empowerment for them.”

The secondary goal, Terrell said, was to introduce kids from underserved communities to alternative urban sports because “those are the sports where the scholarship money is.”

Terrell added that most youth in Memphis focus on basketball and volleyball but very few students compete in rugby, lacrosse, soccer and track and field.

“We try to tell them that it doesn’t matter what sports you play, there’s opportunity at every level, not just Division I,” said Cash, former four-time WNBA All-Star and three-time champion. “We’re here today to celebrate all sports and to tell kids they can be whatever they want to be, play whatever sport you want to play.”

In addition to learning and participating in break out sports sessions, the girls at the Summit were also able to network with former professional athletes, coaches and Grizzlies’ employees.

“They talk about having mentors in your life and not everyone gets to have a mentor,” Natasha Fizdale passionately said. “We have some incredible athletes, I mean stars of their field over here, that are available to these girls today.”

Natasha Fizdale was the mastermind behind the Girls Summit and used her contacts, including calling and inviting Thompson, her husband’s childhood friend, to help bring this event together.

The motivation is twofold.

“One, because I’m a woman and I care about this stuff and I want my future children to live in a world where this kind of stuff is just the norm,” Natasha Fizdale said. “And two, because it’s just important for people who have the platform to do events like these to help push change.”

View Girl’s Summit Photos

The Fizdales had been in the public eye for weeks drumming up support and awareness of Title IX’s impact on the sports culture.

“The Grizzlies are a very progressive team,” Natasha Fizdale continued. “It was the 45th Anniversary of Title IX and its Women’s History Month. It just made perfect sense to bring this together and also to show the world that the Memphis Grizzlies want to support and empower young girls and women.”

A second day of the Girls Summit programs included a panel discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum, a performance at halftime of the Grizzlies’ March 31 home win against Dallas and a moment to honor Feaster, Thompson and Stevens.

For women like Cash, Thompson and the other guests, Title IX was essential to their success.

“My family could not afford for me to go to college and Title IX being in place gave me an opportunity to get a basketball scholarship,” Cash said. “I went to the University of Connecticut on a basketball scholarship and was able to get my bachelor’s degree and a minor in Women’s Studies. I’m just really excited to continue to give back. I think it’s very important as women who have benefited from Title IX that we get to give back to our youth.”

Gender equality in education and athletics has come a long way, but there’s still a few shortcomings, said Rhodes College Title IX Coordinator Tiffany Cox.

“It’s important that we continue to push under Title IX because we still have some inequities in education and athletics where girls aren’t as involved as boys are,” Cox said. “Girls still lag behind in S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, so it’s important to keep making progress and strides in those areas.”

Cox is thankful an NBA team is giving Title IX a platform.

“It says a lot that a team like the Grizzlies, which is a male basketball team, could take the time and the effort to say, ‘You know what? We see the value and the importance in women and girls and we want to encourage them to continue to play and develop themselves,’” Cox said. “As an NBA team dominated by men, to take time out and make that effort speaks volumes.”

For the Grizzlies’ coach and Thompson, the Girls Summit and its message have come full circle. Thompson smiled as she remembered growing up with David Fizdale in Los Angeles.

“He was kind of one of those guys that gave me a lot of trouble when I was younger, just being a little girl wanting to play basketball,” said Thompsons, a four-time WNBA champion, nine-time All-Star and league career scoring leader.

Natasha Fizdale didn’t mind mentioning how Thompson’s accomplishments far exceed many of those of the young boys that once picked on her, including a certain NBA coach.

“I’m extremely proud of him,” Thompson said of David Fizdale. “But to share in the moment like this, giving back and creating an opportunity and an avenue for little girls, is awesome.”

At the Girls Summit, Thompson was the perfect example of why all the other little girls should never take “no” for an answer.

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