INDIANAPOLIS – A few years ago, I noticed a woman shooting baskets in between sessions at the girls high school basketball state finals.
I looked up over my laptop, taking a short break to watch her. Writer’s block, probably. She made five, six, seven shots in a row. She was short, maybe 5-2, and in her 60s. But that jump shot. She’d spin the ball back to herself and right into that jumper.
Year after year, I’d watch her go through this routine. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, I had to ask her: Who taught you how to shoot so well?
“As a kid, I’d watch guys shoot jump shots,” Trudy Bernath said. “I spent a lot of time in my driveway, just trying to coordinate jumping and shooting at the same time. So, I pretty much taught myself.”
A good teacher, I said. Next question: Who are you, Trudy Bernath?
Bernath is an usher at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. She’s done it since 1999. She also keeps the scorebook for the Indiana Fever. Her husband, Bob Bernath, has been a statistician with the Pacers since the beginning, in 1967.
On Saturday afternoon, Trudy was in her customary spot: in the first row between section 14 and 15 on the lower level. After Wood Memorial wrapped up its first high school girls state championship with a win in the Class A game over Union City, there was no one more thankful than Trudy.
Bernath doesn’t have a connection to Wood Memorial. But she’d watched the Wood Memorial students grab a handful of trash bags and clean up their section before heading back to Oakland City to celebrate the title.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Bernath said. “I’ve never even seen adults do that before.”
Trudy, 69, appreciates the little things. Maybe because she didn’t have many opportunities as an athlete, a product of the times in the 1960s. She grew up in California, mostly in the cattle country of Paso Robles halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was cattle country then, wine country now.
“My brother’s friend’s family had a ranch and we’d work our tails off out there,” Trudy said. “We’d help them change irrigation pipes, but we’d have the best time, too.”
Her family, originally from Indianapolis, moved back when Bernath (her maiden name was Smith) was going into her junior year of high school. She went to Northwest, which was a brand-new school when she started there in 1963. Trudy loved sports, but opportunities were limited for girls.
It would be another decade before girls sports were offered by the Indiana High School Athletic Association. In the 1960s, there was the loosely configured Indiana League of High School Girls Athletic Association (known as the GAA), but not all schools were included and only a smattering of sports were offered.
So Trudy’s only real chance to play basketball was in gym class.
“It was six players (on a team),” she said. “Two guards, two forwards and two rovers. The forwards and guards couldn’t go past midcourt. The rovers could go full court, but could only dribble three times. But that was only gym class. We never played in any real games.”
Basketball was fun. But it wasn’t Trudy’s favorite sport.
For several years after high school, Trudy played with some of the best amateur softball teams in the area. Her husband was her coach from 1966-75. They married in 1967.
“I got married twice in 1967,” Bob Bernath joked. “To Trudy in April and to the Pacers in October. I’m coming up on 50 years with both.”
In 1980, then-IUPUI softball coach Nick Kellum recruited Trudy Bernath. She was 32 at the time, married with two children (daughter Sherry and son Todd). Sherry was 11 when Trudy started playing at IUPUI, closer in age to her mom’s teammates than she was.
“Everybody was about 15 years younger than me,” she said. “I had two kids. I was kind of the mother figure. I had some of the (softball) parents come to me and say, ‘Keep an eye on my daughter.’ So that was kind of my role, too.”
Trudy was a star pitcher at IUPUI, earning second-team NAIA All-American honors in 1983 and leading the Metros to two national tournament appearances. She holds nearly all of the career pitching records at IUPUI and was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1995.
Sherry (married name Whitaker) followed in her footsteps, pitching at Ben Davis and the University of Indianapolis. She also is an usher at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and joined her mom on Saturday afternoon to shoot baskets in between sessions. Bob, 78, watched on an iPad nearby as Sherry’s daughter, Ashley Whitaker, played in a softball tournament game for Saint Joseph’s College.
“They are all better than I was,” said Bob, a longtime volunteer assistant for Tabernacle Presbyterian Church sports programs.
Trudy watched the games on Saturday with interest. She doesn’t follow the teams religiously, but does enough research to know a little bit about each team going into the finals.
I asked her if she felt like she could have played at this level if she’d had the chance in the 1960s.
“We didn’t have the weight training or facilities like they have now,” she said. “When I went to IUPUI, that was the first time I did weights. It would have been interesting to see. I know when I started pitching, I’d never had pitching lessons. You taught yourself. You’d learn where to pitch the ball on your own. You figured it out. I think that’s different than today.”
As the clock ticked down to the start of the Class 3A game between North Harrison and South Bend St. Joseph, Trudy took her usual spot in the front row. A women’s sports pioneer in Section 14, watching a generation of girls enjoy an opportunity she never had.
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleNeddenriep.