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Anucha Browne: "Queen of the Wildcats"

Mike Deneen is InsideNU's historian. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeDeneen1.

The first line of Anucha Browne’s Wikipedia page was written in 2007, when she won a sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden. The sensational trial in the world’s media capital labeled her as “the woman that sued Isiah."  However, longtime Northwestern fans know that there is far more to her story. Browne was the greatest player in NU women’s basketball history, setting numerous records that continue to stand nearly 30 years after her graduation. Her legacy continues in today’s NU Athletic Department, where her daughter currently plays in the lacrosse program. 

Anucha’s story began in Brooklyn, New York, where she was one of six children born to Alfred and Alma Browne.  Alfred, an immigrant from Guyana, stressed education to his kids. He and Alma worked hard to afford private schooling for Anucha and her siblings.  Most of their children were not very interested in sports, but Anucha was the exception. As grade school kid, her favorite sport was figure skating; she spent many hours at the neighborhood rink. By the time she reached high school, she grew to 5-foot-10, and the basketball coach at St. Saviour High School convinced her to join the hoops team.

Already with good size, she worked hard to improve her shooting touch. Her talent was so strong that she spent much of her time playing against boys on local playgrounds. Browne quickly became a fine player, averaging over 25 points per game. At the insistence of her parents, she performed well in the classroom, too. Despite her athletic and academic skills, she was not initially recruited by the Wildcats. Her first contact with Northwestern came during a visit to see Vicki, her older sister who was attending NU at the time. Browne introduced herself to the coaching staff and played in a scrimmage.  Coaches were so impressed that she was immediately offered a scholarship. Browne accepted the offer, attracted to Northwestern by its strong mix of academics and athletics.

When Browne enrolled at Northwestern in fall of 1981, women’s basketball was just beginning to become mainstream.  The 1981-82 season was the first year that the Big Ten officially sponsored women’s basketball.  Although Big Ten schools fielded teams during the 1970s, there were no official league standings or conference championships recognized. 1981-82 was also the season the NCAA first sanctioned a women’s championship tournament.  Before 1981, women’s basketball was regulated by the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women), a group founded in 1971.

Browne joined a solid program that had a 22-12 record in 1980-81 under first year head coach Annette Lynch. During Brown’s freshman season (1982-83), the Wildcats had another strong campaign, going 21-8 with a 9-2 record.  Northwestern qualified for the first-ever NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, which at the time had only a 32-team field, but the Wildcats fell to North Carolina State in a first round game at Raleigh, North Carolina. Brown, who had grown to 6-foot-1 since high school, averaged 11.9 points per game that season, primarily off the bench.

Anucha adjusted very well to life at NU, spending much of her free time playing pickup basketball games at Patten Gymnasium.

“I have wonderful memories of playing at Patten Gym," she said. "It's the best old school gymnasium in America. I met many great friends there."

Just like in New York, she wasn’t afraid to play with the boys. In fact, it was at Patten Gym where she met Roy Sanders, her future husband, who, along with his brothers, was a regular player at Patten for years.

Browne became a full-time starter her sophomore year, and her scoring average rose to over 20 points per game.  In just her second season, she led the team in both scoring and rebounding.  For the first of three consecutive seasons, she would be named to the All-Big Ten team.  Northwestern finished third in the Big Ten that year with a 13-5 record, missing out on the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern regressed a bit more during the 1983-84 season, slipping to a 15-12 overall record and fifth place in the Big Ten. However, Browne continued to excel, averaging over 20 points and ten rebounds per game. She was named Big Ten Player of the Year, an accomplishment she would repeat the following year. The season was highlighted by an early non-conference matchup with the top-ranked USC Trojans at Welsh-Ryan Arena. USC featured two future Hall of Famers: future WNBA MVP and current USC coach Cynthia Cooper, and TNT basketball reporter Cheryl Miller, the older sister of Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller. To this day, Miller is considered one of the greatest players of all time. Browne more than held her own in the game, scoring 21 points and grabbing five steals in an overtime loss.

“That game against USC was my first NU game, and it was awesome,” remembers Northwestern alum and avid basketball fan Lynne Bey, a student at the time who attended the game.

The 1984-85 season, Browne’s senior campaign, was the first year at Northwestern for head coach Don Perrelli. He came to NU from St. John’s, where he had a record of 118-43 over five seasons and was named Big East Coach of the Year in 1983. Perrelli recruited Browne while at St. John’s. Browne took her game up another level, leading the nation with a 30.5 points per game average and being named a First Team All-American. The season highlight was a triumphant return to her hometown. Northwestern traveled to St. John’s Alumni Hall, where she scored 45 points in a 74-69 Wildcat victory. Thirty years later, that still stands as the single game scoring record for a Northwestern player. Browne scored 40 points three times her senior season (also against Northern Illinois and Minnesota), and those three games remain the top three single game scoring performances at NU.

Browne left her mark all over the Northwestern record book, setting numerous records. Among the records that she still holds are career scoring (2,307), career rebounds (951), and consecutive games scoring double figures (56). Despite her accomplishments, Browne was not well known beyond women’s basketball circles. Back in 1985, there was no Internet and far fewer cable channels (for example, there was only one ESPN!).  That meant far less exposure for women’s basketball, and very little coverage for Browne beyond campus outlets such as The Daily Northwestern or WNUR.

Despite the lack of mainstream media coverage, Browne and the Wildcats had a very loyal following. In fact, those fans provided the favorite memory of her career. After her final game, two fans gave her a folder of every stat during her career.

“They had come to every single home game and meticulously took stats” she recalls. “It was at that point that I truly understood the importance of fan/people appreciation. These two men were overjoyed to simply sit and watch me play for four straight years. And they never expected anything in return.”

She lost touch with those fans over the years, and is hoping to re-connect with them.  “They were amazing and I can't thank them enough for the simple lesson they taught me.”

If she graduated today, Browne would likely be a very high WNBA draft pick and play many years in the league. However, she graduated in 1985, more than a decade before the pro league’s launch. So, after completing a graduate degree at Florida State, she got a job in the “real world."  After a stint working at Kodak, she spent more than a decade at IBM serving as a junior executive handling sports-related marketing activities.  In 2000, she was hired by Madison Square Garden to serve as Knicks’ Vice President of Marketing.  Despite a very successful tenure, she was fired in 2006.  She successfully sued the company for sexual harassment, winning a judgment in 2007. The lawsuit, which involved Thomas — a Hall of Fame player — and one of the league’s iconic franchises, became a national headline. Her stand against sexual harassment has made her a hero to many people, and brought tremendous attention to the issue.

After a few years serving as Associate Athletic Director for the University at Buffalo Athletic Department, Browne was hired by the NCAA in August 2012 to serve as Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships. Her job is to oversee and manage the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for Divisions I, II, and III.

Despite her busy workload, Anucha has remained active in Wildcat basketball. Over the years she has addressed the team and been involved with fundraising.  She has consistently spoken fondly of her days at Northwestern, and expressed her appreciation for the mix of athletics and academics that NU offers.  Since her graduation, she has entered the NU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993 and was named NU Athlete of the Decade for the 1980s. Over the years, she has been prominently mentioned in every conversation about the greatest NU athletes of all time.  Just as Otto Graham is widely seen as “King of the Wildcats," Anucha is viewed as The Queen.

Her NU legacy took on a new dimension when her daughter, Spring Sanders, came to Northwestern in 2012.  Although she played three years of varsity high school basketball, Sanders made her name in lacrosse as a two time high school All-American at Nichols School in Williamsville, New York. Sanders was recruited by Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, and is currently a sophomore on the women’s lacrosse team.

“I'm proud that my daughter has the opportunity to enjoy the student athlete experience at Northwestern," Browne said. "She has so much potential as a leader and it has been a joy to watch her develop within Coach Amonte's program.”

Browne looks forward to watching her daughter develop.

“It has been so satisfying to watch her grow within the same athletic program that helped prepared me through some of the most important life lessons," she said. "Every parent wants a strong and resilient young woman. It’s so difficult to find leaders today. The student athlete experience under Kelly develops exactly that and I'm just proud of Spring.”

You can follow Anucha Browne on Twitter at @nukehoops.