Patricia Ferguson’s success on the basketball court can’t be chalked up to the fact that everyone believed in her abilities.
The person who inspired her to first step on a basketball court at 11 years old was a boy outside of a gym in Detroit who told her that she couldn’t play with him and his friends because she was a girl.
“So I told that little boy, I said, ‘You listen. I’m gonna come back here next year and I’m taking your place,'” Ferguson says.
But even after proving her talent to the boys playing outside of the Kronk gym, Ferguson still was frequently passed over in favor of the taller boys.
A decade and a half later, a recruiter for the U.S. women’s national team told her the only advantage another qualifier had over her was measurable not in skill, but in the 5 inches taller she stood. And again, Ferguson was passed over.
“I will never forget that day,” she says.
Today, the 76-year-old Medford resident is one of the best basketball players in her age group ― and she brings home the medals to prove it.
Ferguson recently returned with gold at the end of October from the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, unofficially considered the “Olympics for seniors.”
More than 2,700 athletes competed this year from across the globe. Ferguson, with two other Michigan Spirits teammates, won the women’s three-on-three tournament. Because the older categories didn’t attract enough competitors to form actual draws, the Spirits ended up competing two age groups lower ― facing women 10 to 15 years their junior.
“We beat ‘em anyway,” Ferguson says as she flashes the new gold medal.
She’s somewhat reluctant to display her uniform or the vast array of her medals that occupy three different spots inside the house, but she gives in to the prodding of her roommate Heidi Ansell.
Ansell doesn’t hesitate to bring up Ferguson’s accomplishments. The women have known each other for more than 30 years. They met in the ‘70s when Ferguson was coaching women’s basketball at Clarion State College (now Clarion University of Pennsylvania), a time both women would describe as a stressful period.
“She wasn’t meant to be a teacher or coach,” Ansell, a retired nurse, says of her roommate and former partner of eight years. “She’s meant to be a participant.”
Ferguson says she prefers to inspire people by doing rather than teaching.
"I'm hoping it will entice people to do some of the things I've done so they can enjoy life more," she says about her own story.
She still remembers the name of the high school counselor who told her during her senior year she was not a candidate for college. She went into the Army instead.
Beginning in 1959, Ferguson was stationed at Presidio base in San Francisco. She honed her skills playing basketball against players from other bases, so that by the time she was ready to leave the Army in 1965, she was eligible to apply for basketball scholarships and had connections to help her get one. She entered West Chester State College (now West Chester University) later that year.
She played under legendary college coach Carol Eckman, in whose name the premier leadership award for women's basketball coaches is given. Ferguson graduated in 1969, the year West Chester College not only hosted the first intercollegiate women's basketball national championships, but won it, too — going undefeated for the season. This was before women had opportunities to play professionally, however; the first attempt at a professional women's basketball league wouldn't come for another nine years.
Ferguson went into law enforcement, completing the Los Angeles Sheriff's Academy training. After that was a stint working for Fed-Ex, where she worked until her retirement.
She joined Ansell, with whom she had remained close after their romantic relationship had ended, in Jacksonville. She built her house to make accommodations for her younger brother, who planned to live with her. Within a few months, however, he had moved out and then Ansell came to fill the extra room in his place.
"We're each other's chosen family," Ansell says of her friend. Occasionally, Ansell will accompany Ferguson to a competition for support.
Ferguson says her competition days are far from over. Despite almost 2,400 miles between her and her current teammates on the Michigan Spirits, she says it takes only a few days of practicing with them to get "acclimated."
The team has a qualifying tournament for the next national championships in April. Ferguson works out twice a week with a trainer, walks daily and watches her diet. She's looking for another win.
“I’m talking to people all the time who say, ‘How can you do that?’ ” Ferguson says. “And I say, you just make up in your mind that that’s what you’re going to do and you do it.”
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.