Sachem's Nicole Kaczmarski was the first girls basketball player to...

Sachem's Nicole Kaczmarski was the first girls basketball player to pack gymnasiums all across Long Island. (File photo, 1999) Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

Forty years ago, high school sports for girls were an afterthought - maybe even less than that. Then came the Title IX legislation that changed everything.

It took a while before many people, including mothers and fathers, began to understand that girls not only could play sports but excel at levels far beyond anyone's imagination.

They had to shed previous cultural stereotypes. Heck, girls basketball used to be a half-court game, called six a side. They'd play three girls on offense and three on defense and the rules wouldn't allow the players to cross the midcourt line. The reasoning: Girls might collapse from the stamina demands.

It's almost incomprehensible. You look at it now in 2010 and say, "What were these people thinking?"

Here we are, 40 winters later, and girls basketball on Long Island is booming. It seems as if every time we turn around, another big-time female player has emerged.

The first wave began with Nicole Kaczmarski of Holbrook and Sue Bird of Syosset in the 1990s. It was the skill set of Kaczmarski that changed the way we look at the sport. She was the first girl to draw huge crowds wherever she played. Bird, who had an even greater career, went on to lead the University of Connecticut to a national championship, won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA and became the first selection in the WNBA draft in 2003 before winning a WNBA title with the Seattle Storm.

Bird transferred from Syosset to Christ the King High School, but she still was well known on Long Island.

Kaczmarski, on the other hand, became an icon. No matter when or where she played, fans had to arrive early to get a seat. She could go left or right, she could dribble through her legs and she could hit a reverse layup. Her jump shot was what legends are made of. In other words, she did all the things girls weren't supposed to be able to do in 1970.

"Kaz'' set the bar for others to follow. There was Bethany LeSueur of Garden City, who shattered Kaczmarski's career scoring record. And Commack's Samantha Prahalis, who many likened to Kaczmarski. Known as "Sammy," Prahalis now stars at Ohio State, where she was named Big Ten freshman of the year in 2009 and was second in the nation in assists as a sophomore.

Now the spotlight burns brightly on North Babylon's Bria Hartley, who is headed to UConn after a brilliant five years on her high school team.

There were earlier prototypes such as Hempstead's Lisa Smith and Center Moriches' Sue Wicks in the 1980s, but hardly anyone noticed. Most people still were locked into the idea that the only kind of sports that could be exciting involved boys.

Welcome to the new world as girls sports continue to blossom.

Sue Bird

Syosset (1994-96), Christ the King (1996-98), UConn (1998-2002), Seattle (WNBA)

Bird is the most decorated female player to come off Long Island. She was phenomenal at every level, beginning as a playmaking freshman in high school. Syosset's sophomore sensation would have gotten more attention on Long Island but she elected to transfer to Queens power Christ the King.

With Bird at point guard, Christ the King was undefeated for two years, and she earned the state player of the year award as a senior. She went on to further stardom as the point guard on the University of Connecticut's national championship team in 2002. The Huskies were 39-0 in 2001-02 and Bird won the Wade Trophy and Naismith Award as college player of the year.

The Seattle Storm selected Bird with the first overall pick of the 2002 WNBA draft and she quickly became a Western Conference All-Star. Her exceptional speed and ballhandling ability helped the Storm win its first WNBA title in 2004. Bird is one of seven women to win an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA championship and a WNBA title.

Nicole Kaczmarski

Sachem (1994-95, 1996-99), Longwood (1995-96), UCLA (1999-2000)

Because of Kaczmarski, Long Island was turned on to girls basketball. She was a four-time winner of the Charles H. Clark Award given to Suffolk's top player. As a senior, she was named Gatorade national player of the year, USA Today All-American and state Class A player of the year and was a Street & Smith and Parade magazine All-American selection.

Kaczmarski led Sachem to the state public schools Class A title as an eighth-grader, then began an odyssey of transferring among three high schools. Her presence had a major impact in Suffolk's Class A playoff picture. Kaczmarski, known as "Kaz," drew standing-room-only crowds, scored a then-Long Island-record 2,583 points and was the subject of a feature film documentary ("Kaz . . . Running Down a Dream") that chronicled recruitment of women college players. As a freshman at UCLA, she suffered a severe foot injury but earned All-Pac-10 Rookie team honors. At a tryout camp for a U.S. national team, she ruptured the plantar fascia in her left foot. After a two-year break, she was drafted by the Liberty of the WNBA in 2003, but her foot never truly healed, and she retired.

Samantha Prahalis

Commack (2002-08), Ohio State (2008-present)

Prahalis was the most flamboyant of Long Island's finest players. The McDonald's All-American was an emotional leader and played at a frenetic pace. She was the most scrutinized of our top five because of the comparisons to Nicole Kaczmarski and the great ones who came before her.

Prahalis had a fabulous six-year high school career, scoring 2,373 points - second-most in Suffolk history. She was no stranger to the triple-double in high school, amazing considering she is only 5-7.

The electric playmaker scored 50 points in one game and was a two-time winner of the Charles H. Clark Award as Newsday's top Suffolk player.

Prahalis drew crowds that enjoyed her flair for ballhandling, passing and shooting. She was the Gatorade state Class AA player of the year as a senior and went on to Ohio State, where she was Big Ten freshman of the year in 2009. This season she was a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation's top point guard and was an honorable mention All-American.

Bethany LeSueur

Garden City (1996-2001), Virginia (2001-02), Georgetown (2003-06)

LeSueur is Long Island's all-time leading scorer with 3,157 points and ranks as the state's No. 2 all-time scorer.

She certainly brought attention to Nassau girls basketball, but she didn't bring the crowds the way Nicole Kaczmarski packed the gyms. LeSueur was the lunch-bucket, blue-collar-type player who earned the respect of peers and teammates.

She was named Miss New York Basketball as a senior and was a two-time Gatorade state player of the year. She garnered Newsday's Charles H. Clark Award three times as Nassau's top player. She led Garden City to three Nassau Class B championships and a 121-12 career record.

LeSueur's contribution came in her pursuit of Kaczmarski's scoring record - one that fueled great attention as she attacked the milestone the way she drove to the basket.

Bria Hartley

North Babylon (2005-10), Connecticut (Fall, 2010)

Four years ago, Bria Hartley was projected by many to be the next great player on Long Island, and she didn't disappoint. She earned the Miss New York Basketball award as a senior and was the Gatorade state player of the year the past two years.

Hartley broke Long Island's single-game scoring record in a playoff performance that won't soon be forgotten when she scored 51 points in an exciting 72-69 loss to Sachem East in the Suffolk Class AA final.

She finished her career with 1,978 points, averaging 28.8 points per game as a senior. Her ballhandling and shooting range made her a threat to score at will. Only the sportsmanship of her coach kept the total numbers down.

She directed a North Babylon team that had six players in ninth grade or younger and became a coach of sorts on the court. The three-sport star is a role model and can't wait to take her game to the next level at UConn.

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