Nissen gets her time in spotlight
Former ODU power forward among six inducted into Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
There's a picture of Old Dominion women's basketball that you've likely seen; it shows three of the school's legendary players. Nancy Lieberman is in front. Behind her, almost a whole head taller, is Anne Donovan. These are two Hall of Famers that most folks who follow women's hoops know, even if they never actually got to see them play.
I first saw that picture in the early 1990s when I moved to Virginia and started going to ODU women's games. It hung in the old ODU Fieldhouse. Over the years, I had seen the photo so many times that I really thought I knew it by heart, if you will. I could see in my mind the exact expressions on the faces of Lieberman and Donovan, whom I've spoken to countless times for stories.
And then, earlier this year, it hit me: What about that third woman, the one behind Donovan?
That's Inge Nissen, another standout from ODU's two AIAW title teams. A longtime assistant coach to Cindy Russo at Florida International. A part of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2012 that will be inducted this weekend, which also includes Dawn Staley, Nikki McCray, Pamela McGee, Nancy Fahey and Robin Roberts.
Sure, I knew all that. But did I really know that much about Nissen? Who was that player peering over Donovan's shoulder in that photo?
"Inge Nissen is one of the best power forwards to play the game," said her former coach at ODU, Marianne Stanley. "She was one of the first Europeans to come to America to play women's basketball. She was 6-5, fluid. Played with power and finesse."
Stanley, now an assistant with the Washington Mystics, compares Nissen, who is from Denmark, to a current player such as Belgium's Ann Wauters, a former No. 1 WNBA draft pick now with Seattle.
"Sometimes, the European players get that rap of being soft, but Inge was NOT soft," Stanley said. "She could dish it out as well as take it. Very highly skilled, and she was really her own person, too."
Of course she was. Nissen traveled all over Europe playing from the time she was a teenager. Russo, then an assistant at ODU, reached out to her to come to the United States.
"There wasn't a whole lot of development when I was in Denmark; we practiced once a week," Nissen said. "Then I spent two years in France, where I basically was the dummy on the block, when I first got there. I was just tall, and I could run. I learned a lot of skills in France. But the physical play that was beneficial to me was learned on the playground in Norfolk."
Suddenly, I had a whole new image of Nissen in my mind. Not just that historically significant but static shot of her with Lieberman and Donovan. Now, I envisioned this tall Danish woman venturing out on the asphalt courts of the American South in the 1970s, ready to prove her mettle against male playground warriors.
Inge Nissen is one of the best power forwards to play the game. She was one of the first Europeans to come to America to play women's basketball. She was 6-5, fluid. Played with power and finesse.” -- Marianne Stanley, Inge's coach at Old Dominion
"We played a lot of pickup ball at ODU," Nissen said. "But then there'd be times when there was no one in the gym. So we'd take a ride around town and see what was available.
"Initially, I'd go with a couple of guys I knew from ODU. But it evolved to where the guys on the playground knew me, and then they kind of protected me a little bit when some new guys would come. Because they might be -- shall we say -- jerks? Like, 'What's the chick doing here?'
"There were a lot of guys that were really cool and did look out for me. I could go pretty much anywhere in the city and play. And those guys became big supporters of the team."
One night in December 1979, it seemed that all the folks in Norfolk -- yeah, even the jerks -- were fully behind the ODU women. That was for a game at Scope Arena against the Russian national team when the Cold War was quite frigid and the collective U.S. psyche was in need of a boost.
American hostages had been taken the month before in Iran. The Soviet Union was soon to invade Afghanistan, which would lead to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The Soviets had won the first Olympic women's basketball competition in 1976, and for many years, had been a seemingly unbeatable juggernaut in the sport. Nissen wasn't an American, but she was just as jazzed about playing Russia as her U.S. teammates were. Further, she had experience that many of them didn't have, because she'd faced the Russians while she'd competed in Europe.
"I was so hyperexcited for that game," Nissen said. "It was right during finals, and who could even study? Anytime you drove anywhere, you'd hear about it on the radio: ODU vs. Russia.
"I remember walking into Scope and saying, 'Wow, we sold this place out.' It gave you chills. We played so hard that night. We got into a little foul trouble, and that cost us. But we really felt we had a good chance at beating them, and if a few things had gone differently, I think we could have."
Women's Hall of Fame
The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame's 14th induction class includes:
Nancy Fahey, Washington Univ. (coach)
Nikki McCray, Tennessee (player)
Pamela McGee, Southern Cal (player)
Inge Nissen, Old Dominion (player)
Robin Roberts, ESPN/ABC (contributor)
Dawn Staley, Virginia (player)
Nissen finished her ODU career in 1980 with 2,647 points and 1,459 rebounds, both of which now rank second in program history. Then, she spent a season with Chicago in the short-lived WBL. After that, it was back to play in France for two years, followed by 4 ½ in Italy. Then, she'd reached a point physically where she had to stop playing. Russo tried to lure her into coaching, but that required some persuasion.
"It took a couple of years until Cindy talked me into it," said Nissen, who joined the FIU staff in 1989. "I didn't think that was anything I'd be interested in. But it's turned out to be quite satisfying."
She doesn't get back to Denmark often since her parents have passed away. There are a few things about her home country that she sometimes misses and believes can't really be found anywhere except there.
"But not anything I can't live without," she said. "I guess you can say I like living here in the United States."
As for her women's hoops Hall of Fame induction, Nissen doesn't begrudge the fact that Lieberman and Donovan were part of the first large class inducted in 1999. To the contrary, she thinks her entry to the Hall is a reflection of the amazing program ODU had in her day.
"When you have a special team that plays with you and for you," she said, "it's just a different scenario. I look back and know that really was a very special team."
But then she mirthfully tells a story of how some of her FIU players responded to evidence of her "glory days" at ODU.
"I had this game vs. Texas from my senior year that Anne Donovan had sent me on VHS," Nissen said. "My husband got it transferred to a DVD. I was sitting in my office one day watching it, and a couple of the kids from the team walked in. And I'm like, 'Come over here and see my team from college.'
"So they watch it, and they're like, 'There's no boxing out! Look at that! What was that?' And I say, 'OK, get the heck out of my office.'"
Nissen laughs recounting that; she acknowledges that as legitimately good as ODU was then, women's basketball has improved dramatically overall.
"Obviously, the game has evolved a lot," Nissen said. "That was from 1979. What is that, like 70 years ago?"
Now when I see that photo of those three great ODU players, I'll really notice the woman in the back, too. I'll think of her sense of humor and sense of adventure. It's fitting that this weekend's honor is helping to give us a more complete picture of Inge Nissen, Hall of Famer.