In 1977, Jeanne Eggart Helfer was like every other student-athlete on the campus of Washington State – except for one glaring caveat.
And no, it wasn’t her signature bobbing pigtails, but an athletic scholarship that she secured to go to WSU.
Athletic scholarships had been commonplace in American colleges since 1952, but WSU did not offer them to women until 1977, when Eggart Helfer’s play – in conjunction with the passing of Title IX in 1972 – demanded the endowment.
Eggart Helfer earned the first scholarship for a female athlete in WSU history after former men’s basketball coach George Raveling stressed that she was deserving of a scholarship.
On Thursday, the 50th anniversary of Title IX – Eggart Helfer was inducted into the first Hooptown Hall of Fame at the Hooptown USA Courts.
She was joined alongside the man who helped secure her WSU scholarship, Raveling.
Raveling paid for the scholarship out of his men’s basketball budget, making a stand and taking a chance on a four-sport athlete from Walla Walla who led the Blue Devils to a 56-6 record, three top-three state finishes and an All-American award her senior season.
On the topic of Walla Walla, Eggart Helfer said it was ahead of its time. She played sports since she was 3 and joined organized sports around the fifth grade.
“To go to Washington State and to see how far behind they were, and to look at Spokane in those early years and how far they were behind, I just felt extremely blessed,” she said.
A summer basketball camp – Cougar Cage – led by Raveling while Eggart Helfer was a burgeoning star in Walla Walla, was all he needed to see that she was deserving of that scholarship opportunity.
During her time at WSU, Eggart Helfer became the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer with a total of 1,967 points, a record that stood until 2020 when Borislava Hristova broke the 38-year-old record.
She was a first-team all-conference selection four times and all-regional pick three times. As a sophomore, she set the WSU record for javelin with a throw of 178 feet, 3 inches. That led her to take a redshirt season from basketball between her sophomore and junior seasons to chase a spot on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
A fourth-place finish meant she was one spot shy of a trip to Russia for the Olympics.
Eggart Helfer was a pioneer in every definition of the word, but when she first joined her teammates in Pullman, there was an active lawsuit against the university regarding the alleged breaching of Title IX protections.
Women’s basketball players said, for example, they had no place to practice and when they had access to the gym, they couldn’t get the lights on.
The women approached Eggart Helfer to sign on for the lawsuit.
“I chose not to do it,” she said. “I came under a little criticism for that. I know that they wanted me to be kind of a face of that. And it wasn’t that I was against the cause.”
Because of Raveling’s personal intervention in her athletic journey, Eggart Helfer wasn’t comfortable in going against her mentor and the university that gave her an opportunity that was never an option before.
Eight years later, the suit was victorious as changes began to occur at WSU.
“They had to start making some steps toward providing opportunities for women,” Eggart Helfer said. “And shortly after that, they started getting scholarships. And I don’t know how long it took to make it completely even, but it always takes some time.”
Even so, Eggart Helfer secured a degree from her athletic scholarship that she has used for 40 years, which included teaching and coaching at Clarkston High School, Mead and Mt. Spokane.
Her time at Mead was her most successful, finishing in the top four at state eight times, including three state titles in 1990, 1992 and 1996.
When the Mead School District added a second high school in 1997, Eggart Helfer took her talents north to start the girls basketball program for the Wildcats.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” she said. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I never thought it would be that hard, either.”
She said she has seen Spokane grow from a fledgling basketball community in the early 1970s to a full-blown basketball powerhouse.
A lot of that is in part to the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ rise to prominence, but also to Hoopfest’s meteoric growth since its inception in 1990 to its world-record size.
“I just think it’s a great statement about our city,” she said. “And one I’m extremely proud to be a part of, because you just beam with excitement when you start thinking about basketball in Spokane, because I don’t know if there’s a bigger basketball town than Spokane.”
As Eggart Helfer gets inducted into another hall of fame, there are a few things for which she wants to be remembered.
“First and foremost, I want them to know that I believe very strongly Jesus Christ had a plan in my life and I hope that I was faithful in walking that path in the way that he wanted me to walk,” she said.
“Secondly, I hope I did it humbly. I respected the games I played and my opponents – that was really important to me. … As an athlete, I hope I did the game proud.”
George Raveling – He reignited basketball in the Palouse in the 1970s as the affable head coach helped fill Beasley Coliseum. Hired in 1972, the first Black coach in the Pac-12 history, finished with 167 wins in 11 seasons and produced six NBA players including Craig Ehlo.
Bobby Jack Sumler – The first Hoopfest player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Sumler was essentially the blacktop star in Spokane, dominating the courts with his special flair.
“This is a great honor, not just for me, but for my kids and my family,” he said. “Who would have thought a little boy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, would have such an impact on this community?” he said.
Sumler received the loudest ovation when he was introduced, reinforcing his status in the minds of Spokane.
1999 Gonzaga men’s basketball – A Sweet 16 tip-in that will forever be etched into the minds of Bulldogs fans also dictated the now 20-plus years of Zag domination.
The head coach of that team, Dan Monson, was at the induction on Thursday, much to the surprise of his 1999 players in attendance.
“I would say in my career, my biggest regret is that ’99 team happened in my second year, because for 23 years since then, I’ve tried to match the type of team and competitive players that I had that year and I don’t think that is ever going to happen,” Monson said.
“They changed the culture, not just for Gonzaga basketball for the time, but also so the city of Spokane.”
John Stockton – A craftsman on the ball, Stockton still holds the NBA record for most career assists and steals.
The brightest basketball star Spokane has produced was a dominant force in Utah playing beside Karl Malone.
Current Bulldog Anton Watson introduced Stockton with a video message.
“John was one of the biggest mentors in my life growing up. He saw me in AAU in eighth grade and he asked me to come play for his team,” Watson said. “He has always pushed me to be a better person and a better player.”
Rick Betts and Jerry Schmidt – This hall of fame wouldn’t exist without the two men who created and founded Hoopfest.
Schmidt said he and Betts were like Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft. Not so much the billionaire status, but with how they worked with each other and grew the organization together. When Schmidt stepped down, as Gates did, Betts was there to carry the organization forward, like Allen did.
“To this day, after all these years, I’m most proud that I can look out on hundreds of Hoopfest courts on the street of Spokane and see thousands of participants – especially the special Olympian athletes – enjoying the game and the smiles on their faces made all of our hard work on this incredible journey worth it,” Schmidt said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.