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How two Black women laid a foundation for Louisville women's basketball

Owens-Combs and Macklin were the first two Black women to earn scholarships and play for the Cardinals.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's Feb. 13, 2022 and time for another ranked showdown for No. 3 Louisville women's basketball. The 19th-ranked team in the country, another traditional power in Notre Dame, is paying a visit. 

"Our women's team, we're on the national stage," former Cardinal star Valerie Owens-Combs said. "It's just incredible."

It's also a game where the Cardinals are honoring Black History Month. And the first two Black women to earn scholarships and play for the program are in the KFC Yum! Center for it. 

"We were pioneers," Valerie Owens-Combs said. "I kind of feel like, wow, we started it all."

Owens-Combs is sitting courtside. She was the first Black woman to earn a full scholarship back in 1976. The first to earn any type of offer was Von Macklin in 1974, which was a partial scholarship. She is just at the other end of the floor in section 107 before making her way to the court to be recognized by the program as a trailblazer.

"You don't think about that," Von Macklin said when looking back at her time at UofL and the legacy she left. "You're trying to survive."

Both women were not too familiar with the area when they came to Louisville, Kentucky. Owens-Combs had moved around thanks to being in a military family while Macklin had spent a couple of years in community college in her hometown of Alexander City, Alabama.

"People were not friendly," Macklin said with a laugh. "I was from the country. In the country, everybody speaks to everybody. So I got rid of that real quick."

"People treated us different because they felt like we didn't even talk like we're from Louisville," Owens-Combs said. 

While they learned more about Louisville, they also picked up basketball. Growing up in the town where Russell Athletics started, Macklin's first job was sewing seams on t-shirts before eventually trying multiple things. After two years in junior college, Macklin began playing pickup basketball at various parks to become good enough to play in college and finish a degree.

Once she came to Louisville, Macklin called then head coach Becky Hudson about a possible scholarship. Hudson wasn't the official coach, as the program's first recorded season was in 1975, but she did lead a women's basketball team as assistant athletics director. 

"And the first question she asked me was, 'How tall are you,'" Macklin recalled. "Five-nine and a half. She hung up and I never heard anything from her again. I was still curious. I wanted to try out. So I called over and found out when tryouts were, went to tryouts, made the team and started every game after that."

Credit: Von Macklin

Of course, the adjustment to the game was still a little rough. Macklin remembers an early practice when players were instructed to do a weave drill, cutting behind and in front of one another while passing back and forth. She didn't perform it well, which led to a memorable moment.

"Everybody laughed at me," Macklin said. "That was hurtful, very hurtful. And I told myself then, 'They won't ever laugh at me again.' So that inspired me to get out and practice more and play a little more. And it paid off."

She'd go on to become a powerful center for the Cardinals. A natural rebounder, Macklin's season averages of 10.27 and 9.8 still stand as the second and third-highest marks in program history. While playing just two seasons, she credits her mother for inspiring her to push and get better, as Cherry Jenkins died from breast cancer during her senior season.

"Without her and her encouragement, I wouldn't have ever tried out at the University of Louisville," Macklin said. "She'd say, 'Don't give up. Don't let anyone else tell you who you are or what you can do. Because only you know what you can do.'"

It took Owens-Combs a bit to figure out what she could do on a basketball court as well. After moving to Louisville from Germany in 1973, her height stood out to many at Butler High School. The Bearettes' head coach at the time, Terry Hall, noticed the five-foot-nine Owens-Combs in jeans sitting in the stands at a junior varsity game.

"She came up to me and said, 'I'm going to put you in the game,'" Owens-Combs remembered. "So I got out of the stands, played a JV game and felt like I must have did something right. She put me on the varsity team after that."

RELATED: How Wes Unseld 'paved the way' for Louisville men's basketball

That was the beginning of a Hall-of-Fame career. The Butler star went on to become an All-State performer, leading her school to a state title after Kentucky held its first girls' state tournament in 30 years. She earned a nickname of "Artis" after being compared to Kentucky Colonels legend Artis Gilmore. 

"We were like instant celebrities after that," Owens-Combs said. "And then I realized that I could go places."

She wouldn't have to go far. After wrestling between playing basketball and following her father's Air Force footsteps, Owens-Combs followed Terry Hall, someone she considered a motherly figure, to Louisville as Hall became the first full-time Cardinal women's basketball head coach in 1975. 

Owens-Combs earned the first full scholarship in 1976 and went on to make more history at UofL, becoming the program's first 1,000-point scorer. She got to play for both of her high school coaches, as Peggy Fiehrer took over after Hall left. Fiehrer and Owens-Combs led Louisville to a Metro Conference Tournament title in 1980. 

"I'm just grateful for the timing," Owens-Combs said. "Had we not moved to Louisville and sports started getting really good for young ladies in high school, who knows what I would have done."

The timing also worked out for Owens-Combs to play for another woman she admired: Macklin. She actually joined Louisville as an assistant coach after being done playing. 

"I'm basically really following in her footsteps," Owens-Combs said of Macklin. "She paved the way."

Credit: Louisville Athletics

They started building a friendship, connecting with those outgoing personalities many didn't seem to connect with when they first got to Louisville. 

"She was nice, said hi whenever we met and that was a criteria," Macklin said with a laugh. "Of course, she had the whole basketball package."

"She was a great motivator and assistant coach," Owens-Combs said. 

"I appreciated her for being respectful, supportive and encouraging to me, as well as all the other coaches and the participants," Macklin said. 

The two became closer through the L-Club, which is a Louisville athletics social club for former athletes. Owens-Combs now works for the university as its Director of Development, Diversity Initiatives & Engagement. 

Macklin made more of an impact in Louisville as a coach and teacher, being named an ACC UNITE Award winner, which honors people "who have made an impact in the areas of racial and social justice." They often see each other when attending every Louisville women's basketball home game, bringing younger women along as well to watch.

"I invite them because they just need exposure," Macklin said. "I didn't have anyone to look up to when I started playing."

"Anytime you can uplift somebody that shows the interest in it, I think it goes a long way," Owens-Combs said.

A long way to producing more pioneers.

"I'm so proud of the girls now," Owens-Combs said. "And the sky's the limit for them."

"As I leave the Yum! Center, I have a certain path, the shortest path," Macklin said. "And that happens to be the area where Kianna Smith, plus three or four others were. I went through and we were playing UK. So I passed and gave her a fist. She looked at me and then raised her fist. That's really the highlight of my game-to-game participation."

Contact sports reporter Tyler Greever attgreever@whas11.com. Follow him on Twitter andFacebook.

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