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Vella Price, an IU employee for over 30 years, takes pride in being a women’s basketball pioneer

Feb. 22, 2017

As she sits at a desk working on her computer, quietly crunching numbers, processing data requests and pulling together workforce reports, you might not realize that Vella Jo Price, computer coordinator and data manager in IU’s Office of Affirmative Action, is a trailblazer. 

Vella Price playing basketball

Vella Jo Price plays during a game for IU women's basketball. She was on the team from 1973 to 1976. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IU ARCHIVES

Price has been an IU employee for 32 years. Before that, she was an IU student, the first person in her family to attend college. While she studied recreation at IU from 1972 to 1976, she was a guard on the IU women’s basketball team and a shortstop for IU women’s softball. As an athlete, she was known by her middle name, “Jo.”

Price played during the Indiana women's basketball team’s greatest era and was led by IU’s first women’s basketball head coach Bea Gorton.

Price helped the Hoosiers reach the 1973 Final Four and 1974 Elite Eight during the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament. At the time, the AIAW functioned for female athletes like the NCAA did for men’s college sports.

Basketball wasn’t an option for female students at IU until 1971, and being a Hoosier athlete during those early years of the women’s basketball team is a point of pride for Price.

“It’s nice sometimes to be called ‘a pioneer,’” Price said.

Her experience as a female athlete was much different than it is for women who participate in college sports today. 

During her time as a basketball and softball player, Price got the sense that many people felt women’s teams were made up of “just girls playing sports.”

There were no scholarships offered for female athletes, and Price wore the same uniform for basketball as she did for softball. Her coaches were often students themselves, working as unpaid graduate assistants. 

Members of IU women's basketball team from 1971 to 1974.

Members of IU women's basketball team from 1971 to 1974 gathered for a photo during a celebration at Simon-Skodjt Assembly Hall in 2014. | PHOTO BY MIKE DICKBERND, IU ATHLETICS

During the AIAW basketball tournament, Price’s team rode to the tournament in a van driven by their coach and sometimes played back-to-back games with a men’s-size basketball. In one case, they competed in two games in 24 hours. While they slept in the locker rooms between games, their coach hurried out to wash their uniforms.

“We bought our own mitts and shoes for softball,” she said. “You played because you wanted to play. There wasn’t anything given to you.” 

The competition was still fierce in those days.

Price played with standouts like Debbie Oing, a guard for IU who became head coach of the women’s basketball team at Iowa State University. Tara VanDerveer, who was also one of Price’s teammates, later became head coach of the Stanford women’s basketball team. As head coach of the USA women’s national basketball team in 1996 Olympics, VanDerveer led the team to win a gold medal.

Price was among some of those former women’s basketball players and coaches celebrated by IU Athletics when a red-and-white banner honoring the 1973 Final Four team was raised to the rafters of Simon-Skjodt Assembly Hall in 2014.

“We really took pride in playing for IU,” Price said. “It was very nice being able to be honored for something.” Her family came to the event, and her father bought his first IU hat.

Price continues to play sports. She bowls regularly and plays softball.

“I still get out there everyone once in a while,” she said. “We’re not as fast as we were.”

These days sports aren’t about the competition for Price. Instead, they are a chance to gather with friends and have fun.  

To this day, Price says she identifies with IU more as an alma mater than a workplace, but she’s not in any hurry to retire. 

“They haven’t made me mad yet,” she said with a laugh.

Find out more about early women's basketball history at IU online.

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