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Trailblazer remembers Australia’s first international basketball tour

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The Hunter region’s Melva Hancock has stories to tell that most of us could not even fathom. 

The 90-year-old is a trailblazer for women’s sport after leading the way as part of Australia’s first basketball team to leave the country. 

In 1957, Melva and the Opals travelled across the Pacific Ocean to Brazil for the Basketball World Championships. 

The trip there was quite the journey, they had to raise the funds on their own, so she would walk the streets of Newcastle collecting donations and selling raffle tickets for a television. 

“It was the trip of a lifetime, I can honestly say that no team chosen after us had the experiences that we had,” she said.

First-up, they went to New Zealand and then they were on a ship for four weeks to Panama City.

What followed was a journey to Haiti, where they all bought their first pair of thongs, and Venezuela before finally making it to Brazil. 

“To travel back in those days there were no planes to fly between Australia and South America,” Melva said.

“To do it, we had to stop at a lot of places by ship.” 

Despite a few hiccups, including a police arrest for two of the women who were accused of prostitution in Venezuela, Melva said it was an incredible experience. 

“When we finally got to Venezuela the fella at the Scandinavian Airways Service (SAS) asked if we would like to go and have a look around the university and we all said yes apart from two and that’s where they got caught up in the police business for prostitution,” she explained.

“We ended up at the police station and I looked at the fella there and he said: ‘ah, another lot of prostitutes’ and I said: ‘in your dreams but I am sorry to tell you mate those two girls are basketball players, we are the Australian Women’s Basketball Team on the way to Rio, when we get out of here we are waiting on our flight, if you let them put their blazers on you’ll see they are dressed the same as us’.” 

She added, with a laugh, that once the girls put on their jackets they’d realised their mistake. 

When the team finally made it to Rio De Janeiro, they had five weeks to prepare for the tournament.

The Opals’ first match against Russia caused a stir though.

The opposing team nearly refused to play due to a little bit of visible lace under the Australian uniform.

It sparked a discussion worldwide and when the team stopped in Miami on the way home, they were asked to recreate what happened.

“Oddly, it gave us an introduction to so many places during the weeks we went through America and Canada,” she told the Newcastle Weekly.

While they placed 10th overall, after claiming victories against Cuba and Peru, Melva said they were not there to win. 

“The best thing we ever said was that we were there to learn,” she added. 

“That’s the biggest phrase we said during the trip because everyone was so kind and helpful after we said it.” 

A highlight for Melva was taking part in a sporting women parade. 

“We had to decide if we were going to be serious or wave during the parade,” she said.

“So we gave them a wave to make their day and we were walking around giving the royal wave and the noise was absolutely fantastic.

“I said to one of the others: ‘Can you see what’s happening behind us, whatever it is they’re getting a good ovation’.

“We turned around and saw that we were the only ones in the arena, they were cheering us and from then on whenever we played we had a crowd that cheered us.”

When the women returned to Australia, Melva said it was hard to go back to normal.

“When we got home it was c’est la vie, we had to return to our different states,” she said.

If you are wondering how it all started, Melva embraced the sport during high school.

“One day all the girls went off to watch the boys play basketball on the sand and this particular day we were in the surf at Nobbys and the boys took us right around to the hole near the baths,” she said.

“One of the smart alec’s yelled out ‘shark’ and they thought they would find all the girls splattering around needing help but to their great disdain the girls beat every one of them to the beach.

“From that day on they said we could be a part of the surf club and that’s how I came to get into the action of basketball.

“Even though you cannot dribble at the beach you can still shoot at the basket.” 

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