HANES TEAM

File photo uncredited -- 07/29/11 -- A picture of the 1953 Hanes Hosiery national AAU basketball championship team as seen at the Hanes Hosiery Community Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., Friday July 29, 2011. W0813_hanes_aau 02

Winston-Salem has seen its share of dominant basketball teams over the years. Among them, the 1995 ACC champion Demon Deacons, led by All American Randolph Childress, and the 1967 NCAA champion WSSU Rams, led by Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. But the most consistently dominant team in Winston-Salem’s history wasn’t affiliated with any local colleges. It was instead comprised of local factory workers—female factory workers.

We’re talking about the Hanes Hosiery Women’s Basketball team, owners of an unrivaled 102-game winning streak. With standouts Eckie Jordan and Eunies Futch leading the way, the team won a string of national titles back in the early 1950s. This is their story:

 

Big E and Little E

While men’s college basketball is an obsession in North Carolina, women’s basketball never seems to generate the same amount of buzz. It didn’t use to be that way, though—especially in Winston-Salem. Women found sporting opportunities in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 30 years before Title IX legislation was passed in 1972 and 40 years before the NCAA began sponsoring women’s basketball. They played on semi-pro teams with business sponsors.

Hanes Hosiery was one of those early corporate sponsors. The company had basketball and softball teams for women who were also employed throughout the mill. And the teams they fielded were good—historically good—especially the basketball team.

Led by Coach Virgil Yow, Hanes Hosiery played against Southern textile and industrial teams in tournaments and small colleges that had women’s teams. They made the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel headlines seemingly every day, with the team’s two stars—Jordan and Futch—right in the thick of it.

The pair became nationally known after helping lead the Pan American women’s team to a gold medal in 1955, the first year women were allowed to compete. They also gained notoriety in softball, leading Hanes to two national titles. Their excellence in athletics earned them countless awards and inductions into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

I interviewed Jordan and Futch years ago after seeing The Road to Respect, a 1997 PBS documentary about the early pioneers of women’s basketball. Both women were featured prominently in the film. At the time, both had retired from Hanes and were hospital volunteers and active in their church. Although it had been years since either of them had dribbled a basketball, their love for the sport never waned. They regularly watched college and professional games on TV, both men’s and women’s.

I initially interviewed them to write a story for a local women’s magazine about the record-setting winning streak. But the more I learned about them and what they accomplished, the more I wanted to write about them as people. Their lifelong friendship was what really intrigued me, especially since they were such an unlikely pair on the surface.

Futch, who hailed from Jacksonville, Florida, stood 6-feet-2-inches tall. She was quiet and reserved.

Jordan, a native of Pelzer, South Carolina, was a full foot shorter at 5-foot-2. She was boisterous and lively.

Their bond was sealed on the basketball court when both came to Hanes Hosiery in the 1940s. The teammates got along so well that they became roommates, earning the nicknames “Little E” and “Big E.”

Futch (Big E) played center, leading the team in rebounding and blocks, thanks to her towering frame. Jordan handled point guard duties, dazzling with her playmaking skills and lethal outside shot. Upon seeing her play, a sportswriter in Missouri called Jordan a “mighty mite who could give the Harlem Globetrotters a lesson in ball handling and heady play.”

All the players worked day jobs at Hanes Hosiery, Futch and Jordan included. They practiced after work each afternoon and on Saturday mornings.

“Our team was melded over time,” Jordan said during our interview. “Just playing together that long made us confident that we could win against anyone.”

And win they did.

The team began its string of national titles in 1951 on the way to compiling a record 102-game winning streak that ended in the 1953-54 season. Futch and Jordan were the only team members to play in all 102 games.

“When we did get beat, we all cried, because we were proud of that long streak,” Jordan said. “Big girls cry, too.”

 

An Enduring Legacy

Hanes Hosiery disbanded its women’s team after the 1954 season. AAU was fading out at the time, and more and more colleges were fielding women’s basketball teams. But the greatness of those championship squads lives on, both in the record books and in the eyes of their admirers.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of their last national title. Most of the surviving women are in their mid-80s. Futch passed away in 2005 at age 76. Jordan died just last year in South Carolina, where she returned after Futch’s passing. Neither woman ever married, and neither had any regrets. “I was meant to play basketball, and no man was ever going to tell me I couldn’t,” Futch told me.

The women took a lot of pride in the legacy they left on the court. They were proud that, in their own way, they had helped blaze a trail for other female athletes to have all sorts of opportunities today.

They were also proud to call each other best friend.

“We were just very compatible,” Jordan said. “Eunie was a very special person. We hit it off right off the bat, and I couldn’t have had a better friend.”

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