It was a very different world in women’s basketball that sweltering August day in 1970, two years before the adoption of Title IX, as I made my way across the Austin campus to what was then simply called the Women’s Gym to try out for the University of Texas women’s basketball team.
My “recruitment” process had consisted of a mimeographed notice tacked to the Kinsolving Dormitory bulletin board announcing team tryouts. That and a friend who asked, “Are you going? I’ll try out if you do.”
I’d played a bit of basketball in high school, but thanks to an injury, it had been well over a year since I’d laced up my high tops. Still, I wasn’t worried much about trying to make the team as a walk-on.
In the first place, very little was at stake. There were no athletic scholarships up for grabs. It would be another three years before Lynn Genesko became the first woman to receive a college athletic scholarship, in swimming, from the University of Miami. A year later, in 1974, Ann Meyers received what is widely believed to be the first full tuition scholarship in women’s basketball from UCLA. Texas first began offering athletic scholarships to women on a limited basis the same year. By then I had graduated.
Neither was there a career in the pros to dream of. True, there were a handful of barnstorming women’s show teams – like the Texas Cow Girls, the Harlem Chicks, the All-American Red-Heads – that reached their heyday in the 60s. Denise Long had made history a year earlier by becoming the first woman ever drafted into the NBA, taken by the San Francisco Warriors as their No. 13 pick in the 1969 draft.
Long worked out with the Warriors, but never played for them. The AAU sponsored post-collegiate club play for women, but there was no organized professional women’s basketball league at that time, and no sense that a woman could earn a living playing pro basketball.
Instead, we played for the love of the game; for the thrill of competition; for the satisfaction of hearing the squeak of our high tops echoing in the gym, the staccato of leather balls hitting the wooden floor or swishing through the nets; for the joy of finishing a workout sweaty and exhausted; for the camaraderie of our sisters on the team.
The dozen or so upperclasswomen and handful of my fellow freshmen who gathered that day in the small, steamy Women’s Gym didn’t look much like most NCAA women’s teams today. At 5-10 I was one of the tallest women on the court – tall enough to play the defensive post position. Today, I’d be on the short side at the point. The team didn’t get its first six-footer until the 1975-76 season, when 6-2 Retha Swindell joined the squad.
For another, there wasn’t an African-American player on the squad. At the time, UT was nominally integrated. The U.S. Supreme Court forced the university to open its doors to African-American students in the law school and graduate programs which were not offered in the state’s all-black colleges; the regents desegregated the undergraduate programs in 1956. But that applied to academics, not to housing or athletics. Students of color remained a tiny minority on campus. It took a lawsuit filed in 1961 before the school ended its policy of segregated housing, and another decade still before true integration in the Texas athletic programs became the norm.
The ban on black students playing varsity sports was officially lifted in 1963, but there was still considerable resistance to the integration of the school’s athletic programs. Julius Whittier did not become the first African-American to letter in a varsity sport at Texas until 1970, the same year I arrived. The only black player on the Longhorn football roster, Whittier struggled to find a teammate who would room with him and was ostracized by many of his teammates. But he opened the door to talented students of color not only in football, but also in other sports. Larry Robinson helped break the color barrier on the men’s varsity basketball team in 1971.
Most who are familiar with the history of women in sports have heard the stories of how before Title IX, women’s basketball teams would hold bake sales and car washes to raise funds to travel to games, how they would cut expenses by camping out in sleeping bags in the gym of the team they were playing, how coaches would be responsible not only for the Xs and Os, but also for washing the uniforms and driving the team to its games.
All that was true at Texas and more. And it was reflected in something today’s players would quickly have quickly noticed upon entering the women’s gym – it’s size. The gym was way too small to accommodate a regular full-court game. What’s more, we shared the gym for practices with the women’s badminton team occupying one half of the court, while the basketball squad used the other side.
That worked okay when I first arrived, since the women were still playing under split-court rules. In the 1960s, when I first played the game, each team fielded six players – three guards and three forwards, with each group prohibited from crossing over the half-court line. By 1970 when I arrived at Texas, the rule had been modified somewhat, with one of the guards and one of the forwards – designated as “rovers” – allowed to travel the full length of the court, while the other two guards were confined to the defensive end of the court and the other two forwards were to restricted to the offensive end.
Thus, we really only needed half the court for practices until 1971, when women’s basketball at the college level adopted a version of the men’s full-court game. (Texas high schools would continue to play the split-court game for another eight years.) That rules change had more immediate impact on me personally than did Title IX, essentially putting the kibosh on my short-lived and rather undistinguished intercollegiate basketball “career.”
The sad fact of the matter was, I was an above-average defender and a mighty good rebounder, but I had never really learned to shoot the ball well under collegiate-level defensive pressure. I didn’t have to, since as a defensive post, I couldn’t cross the centerline to the offensive side of the court.
Sure, I could drop in a lay-up if I managed to get by my defender, and I could net a mid-range jumper from behind a screen. But put a pestering guard in my path, and the results were not pretty. And truth be told, I wasn’t a reliable ball-handler either. I’d learned the game when women were allowed to take only three dribbles before they were required to pass the ball or shoot it. That rule changed in ’68 to today’s unlimited dribble, but it didn’t matter much while we were still playing the split-court game. My job was to get the ball back and look for the outlet pass. Thanks to the notion that women were too frail for the full-court game, I’d learned only half the skills I needed to compete.
But while I transitioned to intramural games and rec leagues, I maintained my lifelong love of the sport, first as a fan and later as a sports reporter.
Still, the split-court rules were not the sole reason for the Lilliputian size of the gym. It was that way by design, thanks to the woman who oversaw its construction and for whom it was later named: Anna Hiss.
Hiss, who served as director of physical training for women at UT for 36 years, was an interesting character. In some respects, she was a pioneer. Her own promotion to that rank in the gender-biased culture of that era was no small accomplishment. Hiss made two years of physical education mandatory for every "co-ed," as the women on campus were called at the time, and worked tirelessly to acquire resources for women's athletics, raising $400,000 for construction the women’s gym and surrounding tennis courts and playing fields and establishing a vital intramural sports and physical education program for women that included a variety of activities from tennis and golf to archery, swimming, posture and interpretive dance.
At the same time, like her mentor, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, one of the early heads of the Girl Scouts of America and one of the founders of the National Amateur Athletic Foundation, Hiss was adamantly opposed to team sports and intercollegiate competition for women. Both Hiss and Hoover also actively campaigned against the inclusion of women’s sports in the Olympics, with partial success – though female Olympians competed in individual sports, the U.S. did not field its first Olympic women’s basketball team until 1976.
The 1904 University of Texas women's basketball team. Eleanore Norvell organized the first women's basketball game at the University of Texas on January 13, 1900, six years before a men's team was started. Eunice Aden (top row, second from left) played for the 1903 team, served as manager of the 1904 team, became coach in 1905, and went on to become the school's director of women's physical education in 1911. (Photo courtesy UT Athletics)
Basketball had been played by women as a team sport at Texas since 1900, when, just nine years after James Naismith invented the sport and six years before Texas organized its first men’s team, Eleanore Norvell organized the first women’s game at UT. Evidently, the women at that time couldn’t shoot much better than I could, since after 40 minutes of play, the final score of that game was just 3-2!
Be that as it may, the sport took hold and grew. Eunice Aden, captain of the team in 1903, went on to become the team's manager and coach, and later the school's director of physical education in 1911. Relatively little is known about the game in that era, because Aden destroyed her records so her successor could start with a clean slate when Aden left in 1921 to run a girls' summer camp. But thanks to the research of Richard Pennington, who exhaustively chronicled the history of both men's and women's basketball for his book Longhorn Hoops, we do know that a group of women "all-stars" were selected from among the best basketball players in the school's interclass intramural competitions and, with Norvell as their first coach, represented the University of Texas basketball team inter-collegiately from 1903-1921. Though it was on a limited basis -– tucked away behind tall fences where the men could not see them, women were allowed to play other colleges but could only hold home games; they were not allowed to travel off-campus for games during that period. They were, however, acknowledged in the student newspaper and yearbook as the "varsity team," and players were awarded letter sweaters and blankets honoring their participation.
But the sport took a huge step backward at UT in 1921 when Hiss took over. Fearing what she and many women's physical educators of her time saw as the evil effects of competition, and particularly the corrupting and anti-democratic tendencies in intercollegiate men's sports, Hiss banned inter-collegiate competition for women in all sports. Moreover, though Hiss had played basketball while at Boston's Sargent School of Physical Education -- and evidently, played it well, once scoring 56 points in a single game -- she took particular aim at women's basketball, disbanding the school-sponsored women’s basketball team, dropping the University Interscholastic League's sponsorship of state tournaments for high school girls, and assuming leadership positions in multiple organizations that made it their mission to squelch the popularity of basketball and competitive women's sports in general. Still, though Hiss is considered by historians to have "killed" women's basketball, the sport was not so much dead as forced underground. Women continued to play basketball on an intramural basis in events sponsored by campus sororities, as well as by off-campus organizations such as the YWCA and the AAU.
When Hiss obtained approval for the construction of the women’s gym, she made sure it was designed to reinforce her views on the appropriate limitations on women’s sports. While considered a model facility by many at the time, the gym was deliberately designed to be too small to host a full-court basketball game. The sidelines abutted the walls, discouraging such "rowdyism" as dashing out of bounds after loose balls, and had no room for spectators (men continued to be banned from watching the women play during the Hiss era); the pool was similarly too short for Olympic-level competition.
Though Hiss stepped down in 1957, many of the restrictions she put in place continued to limit the progress of women’s basketball for more than a decade after her departure.
Texas Women's Basketball Team 1967. In 1967, Mary Neikirk (front row, right), a freshman from Iowa, circulated a petition seeking to reestablish an intercollegiate women's basketball team. The team was re-established, but denied varsity status until the 1974-75 season, after Title IX was enacted. (Photo courtesy UT Athletics)
Finally, in 1967, Mary Neikirk, a freshman phys-ed major from Iowa, where a vibrant girls' basketball program had been playing under the full-court "boys' rules" for years, organized a petition drive, pressing the university to re-establish a school sponsored women’s basketball team. The University of Texas Sports Association (UTSA), which was later folded into the university’s athletics department, agreed to add women’s basketball. But not as a varsity sport.
Rather, the women’s team operated much like any other school club. A graduate student and P.E. instructor, June Walker, agreed to become the first coach of a University of Texas intercollegiate women's basketball team in nearly 50 years, working on a part-time basis with no additional compensation. (By the time I arrived, Coach Walker had left, replaced by June Dalton, the daughter of a men's basketball coach, whose primary athletic interest was in fencing.)
The UTSA provided the team a budget of $100 per year. Practicing just twice a week, women could once again compete inter-collegiately, and even travel off-campus to games, provided we could borrow enough cars and raise the money to get there. Players made their own uniforms, complete with "lady-like" skirts, which they shared with the women's volleyball team. Still, at times even the players' best efforts to supplement their meager budget would not be enough. For example, the 1972 team, coached by Barbara Hansen, who had replaced Dalton, performed well enough to qualify for the regional tournament conducted by the newly-founded Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW. But the team's money had run out, and with it, their season.
The switch to the “boys’ rules” in 1971 created another predicament, in that the Women’s Gym was not large enough to accommodate full-court practices and games. That sent the team scrambling to find a new home. For a year, they were consigned to a corner of the annex to the men's gym.
In the meantime, another change was taking place, one whose significance we did not realize at the time. On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX, a section of the Education Amendments of 1972. Like the Equal Rights Amendment, which was reported out of Congress for ratification by the states the same year, Title IX was short and to the point:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity.”
Many of the players on the team were unaware of Title IX when it was first adopted; of those who were aware, most supported it, but not because we realized that it would have any effect on the conditions of women’s basketball. Some of the players were classic sorority girls, more concerned with who would be elected a Bluebonnet Belle than with political issues of any sort. Others were avid "jocks," who also weren't particularly interested in political issues, though they might have been, had any of us realized at the time Title IX's implications for women's sports.
Others were activists. We were a generation who had come of age during the Civil Rights movement, the anti-War movement, and the women’s liberation movement. But at the time, even in the women's movement, most of the focus was on reproductive freedom and equal pay, not athletics. If a piece of legislation prohibited discrimination it sounded good to us, but most of us weren’t really thinking about the law’s application to the playing field.
The emphasis, even by the bill’s primary congressional sponsors, Congresswoman Patsy Mink and Senator Birch Bayh, was on its impact on discriminatory admissions and hiring practices at federally funded universities. In many ways, the bill was viewed as a stopgap measure – a way to achieve in the short term at least part of the progress we hoped would result if we could ever get the Equal Rights Amendment out of Congress and ratified.
I can count on one hand the number of women professors I had during my college career. Many law schools, medical schools and graduate programs refused to admit women, believing their education would be wasted when the female student inevitably gave up her career to pursue marriage and a family.
“We are all familiar with the stereotype of women as pretty things who go to college to find a husband, go on to graduate school because they want a more interesting husband, and finally marry, have children, and never work again,” said Bayh as he argued for the adoption of Title IX on the Senate floor. "The desire of many schools not to waste a 'man's place' on a woman stems from such stereotyped notions. But the facts absolutely contradict these myths about the 'weaker sex' and it is time to change our operating assumptions.”
"While the impact of this amendment would be far-reaching," Bayh continued,"it is not a panacea. It is, however, an important first step in the effort to provide for the women of America something that is rightfully theirs—an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want, and to apply those skills with the knowledge that they will have a fair chance to secure the jobs of their choice with equal pay for equal work.”
Very little mention was made of the legislation’s application to women’s sports.
Change would come, but it was not automatic, nor was it universally supported. Schools had been given a six-year period within which to bring themselves into compliance with the new law, during which the Department of Health, Education & Welfare was to promulgate regulations governing how Title IX would be implemented and enforced. It was only as preliminary drafts of those regulations began dribbling out of Washington that the implications of Title IX for women’s athletics became more clear.
Over the summer of 1973, a number of university committees were working behind the scenes, making recommendations as to how the school's athletics programs should be reorganized in light of Title IX. The debate centered around whether women's athletics should be its own department or part of a single men's and women's athletics department, how much funding it should receive, and where that funding should come from. The most controversial aspect of that debate was whether women's sports should receive a share of the revenue from football, which for years had been subsidizing men's basketball and other men's varsity sports. At the time, the entire women's intercollegiate athletic program operated on an annual budget of $1,625, which they hoped to increase to $7,125 for the following year. After studying women's athletic programs at other schools, Betty Thompson, the women's athletic director at the time, reported to the university president that it would take between $84,550 and $94,850 to run a proper women's athletics program. The sum she requested represented less than the football program's annual phone bill, and even the $450,000 requested by the more aggressive report of a task force of the Committee on the Status of Women and Minorities was only a miniscule share of the men's athletic budget. But the proposals awakened a sleeping giant.
To understand the power and influence wielded by Longhorn football coach and athletic director Darrell Royal, one needs to recognize that football was – and still is -- king in Austin. A popular joke at the time had St. Peter guiding a new arrival at the Pearly Gates on a tour of heaven's football stadium. "Who's the guy over there on the sidelines in the orange jacket and cowboy hat, yelling at everybody and telling them what to do?" asked the new resident. "Oh, that's God," came St. Peter's punch line. "He just thinks he's Darrell Royal."
Royal was president of the American Football Coaches Association and once he realized it might lead to women's sports taking a cut of his football gate receipts, a more strident opponent of Title IX would have been hard to find. Royal famously told President Gerald Ford, a former college football player himself, “Title IX might be the death of big-time college football.”
J. Neils Thompson, chairman of the UT Athletics Council, echoed Royal's sentiment: "Intercollegiate athletics, as we know them, will be gone in five to 10 years," he predicted.
Royal, Thompson and many like them viewed Title IX’s application to athletics as a zero sum came in which every advancement in women’s sports would come at the expense of the popular, revenue-producing men’s sports like football. Royal’s views got widespread publicity, setting off a firestorm of resentment on campus and creating a backlash against women’s sports and the athletes who played them.
Royal found an ally in the NCAA, which at the time governed men’s but not women’s sports. Seeing the law as a threat to men’s sports, the NCAA raised funds to block implementation of the legislation in the athletics arena, arguing that application of the legislation to college athletics departments because those departments themselves did not receive federal funding. When that strategy failed, the NCAA, taking note of the growth of women’s sports, displaced the AIAW as the governing body for women’s collegiate athletics, ultimately adopting the principle of gender equity in sports.
By 1974 Royal had persuaded the state’s senior senator, John Tower, to sponsor proposed amendments to Title IX that would have exempted revenue-producing sports such men’s football and basketball from compliance. Fortunately for Lady Longhorns and others, the Tower Amendment was rejected and the less restrictive Javits Amendment, stating that HEW’s regulations “must include reasonable provisions considering the nature of particular sports,” was adopted in its stead.
But while all of these battles were winding their way through Congress, HEW, and the courts, change was already quietly underway at the University of Texas. Rod Page, a former assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Houston who had refereed one of the games played by the Texas women's team in 1973, took over as coach of the team when Hansen left at the end of the season. Taking a part-time job that no one else wanted, for so little money it could barely be called pay, Page became the University's first African-American athletics coach.
Thanks to Page's friendship with Longhorn men's basketball coach Leon Black, the women were moved out of the annex where they had been playing and practicing in 1973, and into Gregory Gymnasium, the home of the men’s team since 1931. A small contingent of band members and cheerleaders performed at the women’s games for the first time, and Black was also persuaded to offer the women's team some of his supplies and equipment, as well as the services of the men's trainers. Though the 1974 team managed just a 7-11 record, the opportunity to play in Gregory Gymnasium, often as a preliminary to the men's games, raised awareness of women's basketball on campus and served as an inspiration to the players, who for the first time, were competing before more than a handful of spectators.
The 1974-75 season was a landmark year. Beginning in the fall semester of 1974 women's basketball, along with six other women's club sports that had been sponsored by the UTSA, returned to its former status as a varsity sport. While many other schools waited for HEW's promulgation of final rules implementing Title IX, and others waited even longer -- until they were sued for noncompliance -- Texas went ahead and began the process of creating a program that would win the Texas AIAW's Babe Didriksen Award for the best overall women's athletic department every year from 1975 to 1982.
With its new status, the women's basketball team also received a handful of partial scholarships, as well as a budget slated to increase by 800 percent over the next four years. Page drilled the team in conditioning and fundamentals, and the first varsity Longhorns women's basketball of the new era improved its record to 17-10, advancing to the state AIAW tournament. Although Texas quickly fell to the consolation bracket, losing, 51-75, to Baylor, their appearance was remarkable in that they flew to the tournament, rather than rounding up their own carpool.
In 1975, the University hired Donna Lopiano, who as a child was struck by a car while playing baseball in the street because she was refused the right to join the local Little League, as the school’s women’s athletics director. Lopiano was the polar opposite of Anna Hiss when it came to a belief in the merits of athletic competition. A multi sport athlete and nine-time All-American at four different positions in softball, she had participated in 23 national championship tournaments in softball, basketball, volleyball and field hockey.
How Lopiano made it through her hiring interview with Royal remains a mystery. She would become an articulate advocate of Title IX throughout her 17-year tenure and would later head the Women's Sports Foundation. Just three weeks after being hired, Lopiano was nearly fired after she obtained a copy of Royal’s 30-page, multimillion-dollar budget for men’s athletics and testified before a Senate subcommittee conducting hearings on the Tower Amendment, on the disparity between Royal's budget and her own one-page budget allotting just $70,000 for all of the school’s women’s athletics programs. Of that, $20,000 represented Lopiano's salary, and just $10,000 was earmarked for women’s athletics scholarships. While two-thirds of the male athletes at UT were there on athletic scholarships, only one-in-15 of the female athletes were by then receiving even partial scholarship assistance. Moreover, there were 21 men filling coaching positions, virtually all of them on a full-time basis, while there were only seven female coaches on staff, every one of them part-time.
With some deft political maneuvering, Lopiano, survived the threat to her new job and established the goal of having “every Longhorn women's team in the top 10 and at least one national title within five years.”
One of her first steps toward achieving that goal was the hiring Coach Jody Conradt. The hiring was not without controversy. Page, who had recruited the team's first African-American player, 6-2 post Retha Swindell, had again improved on the previous year's record, as the Lady Longhorns finished the 1975-76 season at 21-7. They returned to the state AIAW tournament, where they finished in fifth place.
Page declined an offer to stay on as an assistant to Conradt, and many of his players were distressed at the dismissal of the coach who had taken them on when no one else wanted the job, found them their first decent place to practice and play, and led them through the transition to varsity status.
At the same time, Lopiano was under the microscope, expected to produce immediate results, with many privately hoping for her to fail. While firing the school's only African-American coach, and one who had invested so much of himself in developing the women's basketball program, seemed, at the very least, insensitive to the racial overtones, It was natural for her to want to put her own person in the job with so much at stake.
Conradt, who had produced solid results at UT-Arlington, was Lopiano's person. Tackling the issue head on, Conradt met with the players, including the outgoing seniors, from Page's last team, asking them to keep an open mind.
Swindell, who had been recruited by Page, stayed with the program under Conradt, giving the new coach the benefit of the doubt. She, too, had learned the game in the split-court game, but would go on to finish her career in 1977-78 as a team captain and the program's first All-American (along with teammate Linda Waggoner) of the pre-NCAA era.
Arriving for the 1975-76 as the school's first full-time women's coach, Conradt coached both women’s basketball and women’s volleyball for her first two years on the job. She put together a competitive, 46-game schedule, taking a team that had never previously traveled out-of-state to the East Coast, where they took on some of the best teams in women's basketball. The Lady Longhorns returned from their road trip with the team's first national ranking -- No. 14 -- in one of the first women’s top-25 basketball polls organized by Mel Greenberg in what would later become the AP poll. They finished the season with a 36-10 record, a third-place finish at the state AIAW tournament, and a trip to the AIAW regionals.
It was an auspicious beginning for the new varsity program, but no one -- except, perhaps, Lopiano -- could imagine at the time what the future would bring.
"The people at the University of Texas are making a commitment to go first class and give the women whatever it takes to be the best," Lopiano told Greenberg.
Conradt gives instruction to Kamie Ehtridge during the 1986 national championship game against USC. The Longhorns went 34-0 that season and won the national championship. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas)
It would take some time for Texas to play catch up with schools elsewhere that had not undergone the basketball Dark Ages that characterized the Hiss era, but the landscape of women's sports, both at the University of Texas and across the nation, would never be the same after the adoption of Title IX. Over her more than 20 years at Texas, Conradt would turn the Lady Longhorns into a women’s basketball dynasty, ranked in the AP’s top-10 in all but one year from 1979 through 1990, with two No. 1 finishes in the national rankings (1984 and 1985), and a national championship in 1986, with the first perfect record (34-0) of the NCAA era.
Conradt would become the first women's college coach to achieve 600 victories the the Longhorns toppled Creighton on December 13, 1992; she was also first to the 700 mark. And though Texas would suffer a downturn in the latter years of Conradt's storied career, by the time of her retirement in 2007 after 31 years at the helm of Texas, her 900 career victories, and overall record of 900-306 (783-245 in Austin) were second only to the record assembled by Tennessee's Pat Summitt, a career that secured Conradt's induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
An exceptional recruiter, Conradt would sign All-Americans Edwina Brown, Clarissa Davis, Kamie Ehtridge, Andrea Lloyd and Annette Smith to a program that over the years has ranked as one of the Top 10 in the country for the number of All-America honors received. She would send many of those players, as well as Nell Fortner, Edna Campbell, Fran Harris and others on to careers as coaches and players in the ABL and the WNBA.
Together with Lupiano, Conradt would also turn women's basketball into the first revenue-producing women's sport at Texas, and with success came more greater resources, not only for basketball but for other women's sports as well.
If any of us who gathered in the women's gym on that sweltering day in 1970 could have imagined that level of success for Texas women's basketball, no one had the audacity to mention it. We could not even begin to dream then, at a time when the AIAW had yet to organize its first national championship game and the NCAA still wanted no part of women’s sports, of a day when thousands of women would play intercollegiate sports on scholarship, when women would compete in a nationally televised Final Four where tickets were so highly sought after the right to buy them would be assigned by lottery a year or more in advance, where they would play before crowds in the tens of thousands packed to the rafters in professional arenas, with college bands and cheerleaders there to boost them on, where they would make a living playing as pros in a women's league. But one simple sentence called Title IX, proclaiming equality as the law of the land, has made those dreams and more a reality.
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