By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
Here’s a great trivia question for college basketball junkies: In the history of Kentucky basketball, who is the school’s all-time leading scorer?
Even the most ardent Big Blue fans might miss this one. Those fans would throw out several names: Dan Issel, Kenny Walker, Jack Givens, Tony Delk, or maybe even Jamal Mashburn. While all of those players were All-Americans and all-time great players in the blue and white, none of them are the correct answer to the question. The career scoring leader at Kentucky is actually Valerie Still.
While Issel (2,138 points), Walker (2,080), Givens (2,038), Delk (1,890) and Mashburn (1,843) are legends in Kentucky history, none of them can match Still, who scored 2,763 points during her unparalleled career in Lexington, which spanned from 1979-83. For good measure, Still is also the school’s all-time leading rebounder, with 1,525 boards in her career.
Still grew up in Camden, N.J. and sports were a part of her everyday life. “I had four older brothers that I hung out with and all of my brothers were athletes,” Still says. “We played all kinds of sports. Camden is always ranked in the top five (nationally) as far as dangerous, crime-filled cities, so we basically played sports and played outside.”
“We had a basketball court right across the street,” Still says. “Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson (both future Louisville Cardinals) played there. There were a ton of real talented athletes that came out of Camden.”
One of Still’s brothers, Art, played high school football in Camden and eventually signed to play collegiately at Kentucky. Art Still ended up being an All-American defensive end for the Wildcats, and later was the second overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft. Art went on to an 11-year career in the NFL, and was an All-Pro for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Valerie Still developed into an outstanding high school basketball player, and because of the Kentucky connection through her brother, there was little doubt where she would go to college.
“I went because Art went,” Still says. “Art loved UK so much. We had visited a few times, and basically, we were just Wildcats.”
“Coaches from other teams didn’t even recruit me,” she says. “Teresa Grentz at Rutgers said ‘Val, we didn’t bother because we knew you were going to UK. It was like fate.”
Still didn’t know exactly what she was getting into when she arrived in Lexington. “I didn’t even know about Kentucky basketball, men or women,” she says. “All we knew was that they had a pretty good football team at the time, because Art was on it. We thought it was a football school,” she says with a chuckle.
In the fall of 1979, Still embarked on what would be a record-breaking career. She led Kentucky in scoring all four years of her career. When she scored her 1,599th point as a junior, she passed Pam Browning to become the leading scorer in Kentucky women’s basketball history.
“Pam was in that first group when they brought the program back (in 1974), and she was just inducted into the UK Hall of Fame this September,” Still says. “When I came in, you knew Pam Browning if you knew women’s basketball. She was a pretty special athlete.”
“Passing Pam was pretty significant for me,” Still says. “When I came to UK, one of the things I liked doing was, I’d take a look at the media guides and I’d look in the back and see who had the records, and she (Browning) had all of the records. And I thought it would be kind of nice if I could get my name in there.”
Not only did Still get her name in the record books, she shattered nearly all of the women’s basketball records at Kentucky. In addition to points and rebounds in a career, she holds school records for points in a game (42), rebounds in a game (27), field goals made in a career (1,118) and free throws made in a career (527), just to mention a few.
As she started to place her names among the greatest women’s basketball players in Kentucky history, Still accomplished something that most people probably didn’t expect.
In a game against Miami (Ohio) on December 5, 1982, Still scored her 2,139th career point, passing Issel as Kentucky’s all-time scoring leader, man or woman.
When asked what she remembered about the moment, Still says, “Not a lot. I think when you’re young and doing things, I was sort of limited in my knowledge. I was just doing something that I loved doing, and something incredible happened.”
Still grabbed headlines both locally and nationally by accomplishing the feat. “It was a pretty big deal,” she says. “I remember there was a Sports Illustrated article about it. Paul Harvey also did a piece on me on ‘The Rest of the Story.’ It was about ‘Shorty Still’, the girl basketball player from UK that passed all the men. When you make Paul Harvey, that’s pretty impressive. I didn’t even understand the importance of that until I pulled the tape out two or three years ago and said ‘wow!’, it was pretty big!”
Still led Kentucky to its first SEC championship in 1982, and the ‘Cats also played in the very first NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Kentucky made it to the Elite Eight that season, as far as any UK women’s team has ever advanced in the tournament.
While Still was enjoying a spectacular career, not everything was rosy. “One of the issues was, back then, was that men’s basketball ruled everything. So, there were still some stereotypes (about women). We were still not embraced like the men were.”
“We had to break a lot of stereotypes,” Still continues. “We had a great group that came in with Patty Jo Hedges, Lea Wise and Lori Edington. We were just so good and persistent about what we were doing that they had to embrace us.”
Even with the legislation of Title IX, there was still some resistance. “I remember the ‘lunch crew’ would come in and play pickup games, and it was all men,” says Still. “I remember the first day we came in wanting to play pickup games with them, and we had to gain some respect. And we did eventually gain it because we went on to do what we did there.”
Still thinks Title IX is a good thing, but is also lacking in some areas. “It was needed, much like all of the other civil rights legislation against any types of discrimination, whether it’s gender, race, sex, religion or whatever,” Still says. “. At some point in time, you have to have legislation. I’m a firm believer that you can’t change social issues with legislation, it takes social movements. The fact that women insisted on playing sports and they weren’t going to let anyone deter them, they kept playing even though people were looking down on them was a big deal. That’s what really changed society’s view about women participating. Of course, the legislation of Title IX did help.”
“We’ve seen the participation numbers increase (since Title IX), and that was going to happen anyway,” Still continues. “It wasn’t just Title IX, women were breaking those barriers anyway. I think the main thing now that Title IX needs to address is this decline of women in positions of leadership, whether it’s coaching, athletic directors, trainers or whatever. You don’t see many. So that is the issue that something has to be done about.”
After leaving Kentucky, Still went to Italy and played in the Italian Professional League, where she played 11 seasons and was a very popular athlete. She even had her own television show, “Still Basket”, while in Italy.
Still returned to the United States and became a charter member of the American Basketball League for Women (ABL), playing for the Columbus Quest. Her run of success continued, as she won back-to-back championships. She was named MVP of the championship series in both 1997 and 1998. After winning her second straight championship series MVP award, Still was nominated for the Women Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year in 1998.
After the ABL folded, Still joined the Washington Mystics of the WNBA, where she played one season. “I had torn up my knee, and I knew my time was coming to an end,” Still says. At that point, she decided to coach in the WNBA for two years, then she left the world of professional basketball.
After leaving professional sports, Still embarked on another journey, one that she didn’t see coming in the beginning.
“I began a process of trying to figure out who I am, and I think a lot of athletes go through that,” she says. “You’ve been an athlete for so long, that’s what everybody identifies you with. And that’s not who you really are.”
“I went through this whole period of transition, I went through my divorce, I was raising my son and I was just trying to figure out who I was,” Still says.
And that’s when she made a discovery that has changed her life forever.
“I came across some research that my sister had done on my family history,” says Still. “I found out that I was directly related to William Still, who was called the ‘Father of the Underground Railroad’. I found a book that he had written and published in 1872.”
William Still, who was born free in New Jersey during the period of slavery in America, was an abolitionist and coordinated the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves free the South and escape to the North, where they could become free.
“My uncle (William) was the secretary for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and it was the biggest one in the country,” Valerie says. “All of the slaves that would escape would eventually come through his office. Since he was the secretary, he would document who they were.”
William Still worked with some of the biggest names in the Anti-Slavery movement. Names such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Charles Sumner.
William Still knew that the work he was doing was very important. “Once the Civil War started, he had to hide all of those documents, and he kept those documents because he knew the slaves would want their families to find them,” Valerie says. “He documented everything and once the Civil War was over, he ended up publishing a book, and it’s over 800 pages. I was just amazed that I had this history.”
Valerie then realized that she needed, and wanted, to embrace her family history. “After hearing this, I started to figure out who I am,” she says. “Most people know me as this basketball player at UK, and here I have this incredible history that’s way more important than any basketball record.”
Valerie decided to record this family history and share it with others. “I had written some things and done some presentations and I went to my son’s school and the kids loved it,” she says. “I ended up writing a couple of volumes of what I think will be 15 to 20 volumes of this children’s series. The first one was released in February.”
“It’s been quite the experience because it’s a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness and empowerment and most people know me as this basketball player, and that’s not even who I am,” she says. “That (basketball) is part of what I’ve done, but I’ve got this rich history that I want people to know about. When you know your own history, it’s easier for you to know who you are.”
Still now makes her home in Lawrence, Kan., where she lives with her son Aaron, who is a rising basketball star himself. Still is protective of her son, because she knows the expectations that come with being her son. “Everybody thinks he should play with what I’ve done and what my former husband (ex-UK center Rob Lock) has done,” she says. “What I want him to do is find his passion.”
Still’s passion has evolved from an All-American basketball player at Kentucky, to an author who continues to discover her family’s amazing history.