Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Smith College reach partnership in honoring legacy of pioneer Senda Berenson

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer

Published: 05-05-2023 4:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — For more than 130 years, Smith College has been the beating heart of women’s basketball.

The institution is widely known as the birthplace of the women’s game, and physical education teacher Senda Berenson is specifically credited with the creation of the women’s basketball game. Long before the WNBA and March Madness became the spectacle that they are today, the Smith College campus would pack into a gymnasium to watch their freshman and sophomore interclass game, an event second only to graduation in terms of excitement.

Last weekend, the school was able to witness another addition to Berenson’s legacy, as the newly named Berenson Trophy was presented to this year’s inductees to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Tennessee.

“Smith College has been a trailblazer, a pioneer. The college has stood for so many essential advances in the spirit of women taking leadership roles in every sector of the world, including sports…. we’re playing on sacred ground,” Smith basketball broadcaster and faculty member Sam Intrator said.

“It’s where that first collegiate basketball game happened… [Berenson] brought it there, and it’s just another example of Smith’s tremendous historical relevance in so many sectors, and I appreciate that it was worth honoring.”

Under a recently announced partnership between the Smith College and the Hall of Fame, the college will also serve as the presenting sponsor of the trophy, hoping to continue to spotlight Berenson’s importance to the game and the legacy of Smith students who have followed in her footsteps.

The trophy is a replica of a 17-foot bronze sculpture called The Berenson on display in the center of the Pat Summitt Rotunda at the Hall of Fame entrance in Knoxville, Tennessee. The sculpture, by artist Elizabeth MacQueen, depicts a player of the 1890s along with a player in a contemporary uniform and a young girl representing the future of the game.

The Hall of Fame approached Smith with the partnership idea, pitching Athletic Director Kristin Hughes and Vice President for College Relations and Communications Julia Yager. The trophy would be named after Berenson regardless of their answer — an honor for the college regardless — but Hughes and Yager wanted the sponsorship to be something that spoke to Smith’s mission as an institution.

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“For us, it seemed to make a lot of sense,” Yager said. “[First] because of Senda’s tenure here at Smith, second because Smith is a place where our students don’t have to choose between athletics and academics, and we wanted to reinforce that, and third because we thought it made sense from a recruitment standpoint, for more people to know Smith’s connection to basketball.”

With Yager as the lead negotiator, the partnership was sealed. The agreement came with some nice perks, like AD Hughes and the basketball staff being invited to the 2023 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. It was a quick turnaround — on April 28, the women’s basketball team was welcomed to Fenway Park to recognize the school’s first trip to the Division III Final Four in March, and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Player of the Year Morgan Morrison threw out the first pitch.

The coaching staff returned to campus around midnight, hopped on a plane to the Hall of Fame in Knoxville and got to mingle with some of the biggest names in women’s basketball over the weekend.

“We brought our basketball staff as a way to celebrate the great success that they had this past year and some of the events we were at, we were meeting legends in the game, people like Debbie Ryan and Donna Lopiano… Carolyn Peck,” Hughes explained. “Just to be around people like that, who have done so much certainly for the sport of basketball, but also in general in terms of women’s collegiate athletics, I think was really impactful for all of us. It’s an honor to be representing Smith always, but certainly within that context, a great honor.”

Hughes had one of the most important roles of the evening — she was the one to hand out the Berenson Trophy to the five new inductees. She also got the opportunity to speak a little bit about Berenson’s importance to the game and her connection to Smith.

“I was trying to kind of set the stage for how significant it was that she started a game like that in the late 1800s when most women were playing tennis or swimming, more individual sports,” Hughes said. “It was an interesting parallel — in some of the research I had done, there’s pictures of lines outside of Alumni Gym trying to get into the [basketball] game and it’s very ironic to me that that was where we started. And then thinking about this past season, when we had lines outside of Ainsworth Gym trying to get to the games — [I was thinking of] how cool it is to tie both ends together.”

The legacy that Berenson left behind has been continued by the athletic department and most especially the basketball staff and team, which have lifted the program to historic heights in recent years. Continuing to shine the spotlight on Berenson’s impact and Smith’s rich basketball history, while creating a legacy of their own, is a duty that the staff doesn’t take lightly.

“I think it’s a huge piece of our mission, and I think it’s a responsibility, right? We as a department, whether it’s coaches or admin, I think we have a responsibility to really live up to some of the historic standards that have been set before us,” Hughes said.

“If you think about when someone like Berenson started the game and the message that sent to the students that were here [and to] the greater community — that was probably just as important as the message that this year’s team sent to campus. The way that people identified with the team, the way that community came out to support this team… you cannot put a high enough value on what that does.”

Hannah Bevis can be reached at hbevis@gazettenet.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Bevis1.]]>