Women’s Final Four: Cheyney State basketball’s lost history

Four days before Selection Sunday, one of college basketball’s most hallowed halls lies almost entirely dormant. Only a single person, Tammy A. Bagby, the director of athletics at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, is inside working in her office, a mere chest pass from the entrance to the arena floor. On this sleepy Wednesday in mid-March, the gym’s retractable bleachers are pushed in. A few Wilson basketballs are scattered across the court, while a chalkboard and equipment for shooting drills sit nestled in one corner. Three banners hang on the opposite end, remnants of a time when Alfred Cope Hall was home to dominant men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Among the signs is one honoring the school’s 1978 men’s NCAA Division II championship, though it’s slumping ever so slightly thanks to a missing zip-tie at the top. Another banner, placed just to its right, lists the successes of the women’s program. Chief among them is finishing as the runner-up at the ’82 women’s NCAA Division I tournament, the first time the competition had taken place.

Cope Hall is likely the most historic building in the sport that you’ve never heard of. Built in 1961, there are plenty of modern-day high school facilities with better physical amenities. Still, Cheyney, the oldest HBCU in the United States, and its Cope Hall were once home to two basketball trailblazers: John Chaney and C. Vivian Stringer. Both were on campus together at what was then known as Cheyney State College. Only three universities—UConn, North Carolina and Cheyney—have had future Naismith Hall of Fame men’s and women’s basketball head coaches employed at the same time. And the energy that used to course through the arena’s veins, “You can compare it to Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke,” says Debra Walker, a forward on the ’82 team. “It wasn’t a matter of winning in Cope Hall. It was how much are we gonna win by.”