Lost But Not Forgotten #24
The Number 3 University of Oregon women’s basketball team marches to the PAC-12 tournament Friday. Team star Sabrina Ionesco’s basketball IQ resembles another great, Bev Smith. Smith, a two-time All-American, was so successful the U of O retired her number 24, in 1982. Now that number is on another player’s uniform, forward Ruthy Hebard.
It’s Friday night at the University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena - and it’s a sellout crowd. The fans are cheering wildly because the women’s basketball team just won the PAC-12 title.
It’s alumni weekend, and down at the edge of the court a handful of women remember playing basketball for the U of O, in the 1980s -- Among them is a true star… Bev Smith.
Bev still moves like an athlete. Today, she is dressed in casual chic athletic clothing. When she played for the Ducks, she wore number 24. She was so good, the U of O retired her number - the first time they’d done that for a female player.
I ask the women if they remember the day Bev’s number was retired.
Teammate: “It was retired her senior year.”
Bev loves the feeling of team. She started playing basketball because her sister did.
Smith: “My sister was four years older and I used to go watch her play. And I just loved it because I loved the camaraderie she had with her teammates.”
Bev was so good at basketball she made Canada’s national team while still in high school in British Columbia. Bev followed her sister to the University of Oregon.
“They offered me a full-ride scholarship, which is one of the first-ever offered.” Says Smith.
That was in 1978, Women’s athletics was still an afterthought at the UO.
The men’s team rode in charter buses, while the women carpooled. The men had fancy uniforms.
Smith: We had Phys Ed issued cotton shirts with cotton shorts that were so starched with detergent that we would get chub rub.
Chub rub was team lingo for a burning hot rash from their stiff uniforms. Comfort was more important to Bev than what number she wore.
Smith: Back then you didn't even think about wanting a number. And in my opinion, you make that number special.
Over Bev’s four-year career as a Duck, she was the first woman to score over 2,000 points, and that’s before there was a three-point line. She got over 1,000 rebounds and had over 400 assists. She was also an All-American player for two consecutive years. I called Bev’s college coach Elwin Heiny.
Heiny: I think she’s very comparable in so many ways to Sabrina. And to me, that’s a compliment to Sabrina.
Sabrina Ionescu is the current star women’s basketball player at the U of O. She is the first college basketball player female or male to get a career-high for points, rebounds, and assists.
Bev was a trailblazer for her time, just like Sabrina is now. That’s why the U of O retired Bev’s jersey after her senior season.
Heiny: We had a big ceremony. I think her mother was there too and of course her sister. Even her national coach from Canada came down. It was a great event and I think very earned.
Bev’s jersey was hung in a showcase, in 1982, at the entrance to MacCourt, then U of O’s premier arena. Her jersey was next to Ron Lee’s, a great male player whose number was retired 6 years earlier. But when that arena was replaced, the showcase, and the jersey - disappeared.
Smith: As they moved out of Mac Court it just kind of got put in a box somewhere. they had no idea that 24 had been retired. It just didn't get passed down.
Not at all. Even the U of O Hall of Fame, where both Ron Lee and Bev Smith were inducted in 1992 says his number was retired, but nothing about hers.
Number 24 is now back in play, on forward Ruthy Hebard.
Smith: So when Ruthy was playing in number 24 a couple of my friends said, Hey, I thought your number 24 was retired and I was like, Well, yeah.
Bev reached out to her old coach to verify.
Smith: Hey, was the number retired? Just so I’m clear with everyone.
Heiny: Sure it is. Don’t you remember?
Smith: So slowly this got back to Kelly and the University of Oregon Kelly was like OH MY GOD!
Kelly Graves is the U of O women’s basketball coach. Bev went to a women’s practice where coach Kelly explains the dilemma to the team. U of O produced a video about the meeting.
[Kelly Graves] Bev Smith’s number has been retired. K, number 24. We didn’t know that [awkward laughter], we didn’t know that and there is a really pretty good player here that also wears number 24. [Sabrina] awkward.[Laughter]
That was team leader, Sabrina Inosecu nailing it. Awkward indeed. The video concludes with a mutual agreement between Bev and Ruthy Hebard.
Smith: I think we came to a really good compromise that she would wear it for the rest of her career and then we would officially retire it in her name and my name.
It was an unusual solution for an unusual problem. But one thing is sure, Bev’s number will go back into retirement. I asked Ruthy what it meant to borrow/share? the retired number with one of the best?
Hebard: I think when people hear 24 they’ll think of Bev Smith and hopefully me. And I just know it’s going to be something special down the line.
The women’s Duck basketball team is now in playoffs. When the number 24 is put back in retirement, it’s likely Sabrina’s number 20 will join it.
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