Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
This is the second of two Guru-written biographies for the induction program of Thursday night's Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame ceremonies. Some very small pieces of it did not make the final cut due to space limitations but after this was sent a later insert was added with Marilyn noting she got her mental toughness from her mom and another influential person was Temple's Tina Sloan Green, the first black female lacrosse coach.
By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
Local women’s basketball great Marilyn Stephens has stood the test of time over three decades with her tremendous statistical numbers at Temple that have been unchallenged since her 1984 graduation as the Owls’ all-time scorer with 2,196 points and rebounder at 1,516.
And so tonight she earns another honor that is timeless as a member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame adding to her previous accolade as a 1989 inductee into the Big Five Hall of Fame.
“I always knew my mom was a great player because basketball has always been talked around the house but I didn’t get to really appreciate how good she was until she the first time she showed me her highlight film,” says Stephens daughter Adashia Franklyn who is following in her mother’s footsteps as a standout entering her junior season but at Temple’s rival Saint Joseph’s.
Giving grace to God, Stephens says she was “a late boomer,” laughed at by teammates in the eighth grade at Gillespie Junior High when she first hit the hardwood but in just a few years later she was earning applause for her acquired prowess.
“I was part of the starting six,” Stephens recalled recently. “I would start the game to win the tap because I could jump but I was the first player to be subbed out.”
At Gillespie, a hall monitor noticing Stephen’s height at 6-0 suggested she see the basketball coach and when “Mrs. Bush” said to raise her hands and saw they reached above the door, she immediately proclaimed, “you made the team.”
Playing defense was easy standing in the lane with her hands up, but what drew the laughter on the offensive end was Stephens, not knowing the rules, standing in the lane for more than three seconds, shooting at the wrong basket and running with the ball without dribbling after catching a pass.
But Stephens was determined to learn and she began to make progress in the 10th grade under coach Ina Newman at Gratz High averaging two points a game, though she says “I was still shy and lacked basketball confidence.”
By Stephen’s junior year at Gratz, she averaged 15 points and by the time she was a senior she was a national high school all-American prospect averaging 25 points and 28 rebounds and graduated as a three time all-public, all-state honoree.
“Marilyn was the only girl playing against the guys and she was tremendous,” says Sonny Hill of her performances in his future league in the summer and she also played against guys at the Sonny Hill/John Chaney camps.
Earning the outstanding rebounder of the week at camp made Stephens feel “unstoppable,” and she credits Hill and Chaney for “stressing the importance of fundamentals, respect, a good education and family.”
Stephens also played for the locally-based national powerhouse Philadelphia Belles AAU program and eventually she landed at Temple, but not necessarily by any great recruiting ploy by then-Owls coach Andy McGovern.
No, the first time she walked into McGonigle Hall to play a game in the Hill programs, the trophy cases and Hall of Fame paintings on the wall from the Owls’ success under Harry Litwack made Temple the school of her dreams.
“People kept asking me why I wanted to go there, but they never gave me a reason not to go,” Stephens said and added that with no women stars to be role models for her in her youth, she was enamored of James Worthy.
McGovern was succeeded by Linda Hill MacDonald as coach early in Stephens’ collegiate career and she recalls her star who also had 342 blocked shots, most in Owls’ women’s history, was first team all-Big Five her four years, and was both Big Five and Atlantic 10 player of the year in 1983 and 1984.
Stephens’ senior year also saw her as the only women’s player in the nation in the top 15 for rebounding and scoring most of the way.
“From the first day of practice in her freshman year, it was very apparent that Marilyn Stephens was a very special basketball player,” says Hill-MacDonald. “ Her talent was easy to assess, but it was Marilyn's work ethic that set her apart from most other players.
“ It was not unusual for Marilyn to attend practice with the Temple men's team after finishing practice with her teammates. She was always trying to improve her skills and knowledge as a player. It was an honor and privilege to coach Marilyn for four years and it was very rewarding to have the opportunity to bring her into the coaching profession as an assistant coach at her Alma Mater.”
She is the only Temple basketball female to have her jersey retired and her #33 is hung in the Liacouras Center.
"I never had fear doing that, just like I never had any fear when playing with the guys in my younger days,” Stephens says.
Had there been a WNBA in 1984, Stephens, a Kodak All-American along with Cheyney and University City grad Yolanda Laney, would have been a first round pick.
She did go on to play professionally in Spain and Italy.
Some other honors Stephens has received is Temple and the Atlantic 10 Legends Halls of Fame, Black Women in Sport Philadelphia Legends, one of the top 100 Philadelphia Athletes of the Century, while the Simon Gratz High School Alumni Incorporation and the Phoenix Legends Award is given in her honor.