A Mighty Heart

After two NCAA division titles, two Olympic gold medals and eight seasons as the Sacramento Monarchs’ original franchise player, Ruthie Bolton, aka “Mighty Ruthie,” faces down the biggest challenge of her life. And it isn’t on a basketball court.

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Portrait by Max Whittaker
 

RRuthie Bolton huddles her team of mostly middle school girls, who are about to go up against a team of mostly boys at a basketball camp inside a 24 Hour Fitness in Folsom.

“We’ve got to play smart,” she tells them in her deep, raspy voice. “They’re going to come out with a lot of ego.”

She’s right; they do. Boys that age have a lot of swagger and physical confidence. But here come Ruthie’s girls, who grew up in the WNBA era, and they’re up to the challenge.

When the teams take a break, Ruthie, 49, casually picks up one of her girls and tips her upside down. Now they all want to be picked up, and she obliges. The last girl she lofts easily in an overhead press and executes some reps, and it’s suddenly clear how she earned the nickname “Mighty Ruthie.”

“She’s the Michael Jordan of Sacramento,” says Ruthie’s big sister, MaeOla. That’s not really hyperbole. The Sacramento Monarchs retired her jersey in 2005, and Ruthie became officially ensconced as a local icon, not just an athlete, but a beloved role model and activist in the community. Ruthie lifts people up all the time, usually without the aid of her sculpted biceps.

Ruthie Bolton at Grant Union High School with students in her Aim High basketball camp in August (Photo by Max Whittaker)

What her fans are now learning, however, is that while this powerful woman was dominating the boards in the NCAA, the Olympic Games and the WNBA, she was also the silent victim of domestic violence. It’s a story she only recently decided to share publicly, most notably in a 2016 ESPN documentary, appropriately titled Mighty Ruthie, which premiered this past May.

Mighty Ruthie Bolton. Domestic violence. These two things can’t be uttered in the same breath—can they?

••••••

Before she was “mighty,” Ruthie Bolton was the 16th of 20 children born to Linwood and Leola Bolton, on a 22-acre farm in McLain, Mississippi, population 600. Linwood Bolton was a pastor, and life in such a small town revolved around church and family.

Ruthie was athletic and a tomboy from an early age—she was outside so much of the time she jokes now that she felt nightfall was God’s way of punishing her. “We grew up playing all kinds of sports,” she remembers. “I was always chosen for a team, not because I was so great, but because they didn’t want to play against me. I was always very physical.”

But Ruthie grew up in the shadow of her older sister MaeOla, who was the family basketball star. MaeOla was the finesse player, tall and lithe, and little Ruthie, just 5-foot-8 and all muscle, was a freight train. As high-school-aged girls they used to hang out at the college gym in nearby Hattiesburg and challenge older boys to pickup games—which they’d win handily.

MaeOla led the McLain High School girls’ basketball team—with a starting lineup consisting entirely of Bolton sisters and cousins—to a state championship in her senior year, after which she was heavily recruited, garnering over 30 scholarship offers. She chose Auburn University, which had gone so far as to fly her to campus on a private jet.

"What [Ruthie Bolton] achieved as the point guard for Team USA in the 1996 Olympics remains one of the single most impressive athletic performances I covered in more than 45 years of sportswriting. She scored, she distributed, she guarded, she got seemingly every loose ball, and she was the engine that enabled that U.S. team to win gold.” — sportswriter Rich Cleveland

After MaeOla left home, Ruthie led the high school team to a second state championship, and was fully expecting to be recruited by colleges as well, but the phone never rang. Not one school called. So Ruthie called Auburn. “I said, ‘Are you going to give me a chance?’ ” she remembers. Auburn told her they’d welcome a visit—and sent her a bus ticket.

“They put my sister on a private jet; I got on a bus,” she says with a wry snort, appreciating the irony in hindsight. “But I still got there.”

When Ruthie arrived, the basketball coaches told her she might as well go to community college instead, as she wasn’t likely to see any playing time until her junior year. Determined to prove them wrong, she enrolled at Auburn anyway, and set her sights on making the team. She also joined the ROTC, to further toughen herself up.

“I practiced with a different mentality,” Ruthie says. “I worked so hard there wouldn’t be any room for error. They could never say, ‘She’s just OK.’ I never wanted to be just OK. I wanted to be great.”

Defying all expectations, Ruthie wound up starting for the Auburn Lady Tigers as a freshman. The team had a 119-13 record during her years there, winning three Southeastern Conference titles and four NCAA tournaments, and making the NCAA finals twice, although a national championship eluded them. The Bolton sisters were local legends.

••••••

In her senior year at Auburn, Ruthie fell in love with a policeman named Mark whom she met at a convenience store when he stopped her to compliment her feats on the basketball court—by then, Ruthie Bolton was famous in town. She was flattered, and smitten.

As should now be clear, Ruthie never did anything by halves. She also hadn’t had much experience with romance. As MaeOla jokes, you couldn’t very well date in McLain, where a fair number of the population were first or second cousins. Nor would Linwood Bolton have allowed it. Their pastor father was strict, and apart from sporting events, the Bolton children weren’t really allowed to socialize outside of family and church circles.

Bolton (foreground) on the cover of Sports Illustrated in ’96Ruthie and Mark married in a civil ceremony in 1990, to the surprise of her family and friends. Was it an early warning sign that she didn’t include them in the ceremony? The relationship, Ruthie says, started out as highly romantic. The couple wrote each other love letters when they were apart and wore matching outfits when they were together. After Ruthie graduated she played overseas, so they were often separated, and the long absences seemed to intensify the couple’s emotions. For Mark, one of those emotions was jealousy.

He hit Ruthie for the first time three months into the marriage. She had been away at an officer training trip with the Army Reserves, an environment where she sometimes studied for exams with male colleagues, which caused mounting tension with Mark, who was upset by her interactions with other men. The two were sitting side by side, looking at an album of memorabilia, when something Ruthie said in the course of their casual conversation—it was trivial enough a comment that she doesn’t remember what it was—tipped Mark’s jealousy over the edge, and he slugged her in the face.

“Look what you made me do.” Ruthie was stunned, but not outraged. She accepted responsibility for the incident, in large part because she still harbored feelings of guilt over an abortion she had while the two were still dating, a painful episode Mark had refused to ever talk about. It was easy for Ruthie to believe that the violent outburst had been the result of these bottled-up emotions. And if there were a cause, there could be a cure. She could fix this.

So Ruthie stayed. And stayed, even though the situation did not improve. In fact, it got worse. Eventually a “good day” came to be defined as one in which her husband did not hit her.

“I kept thinking, ‘I’ll just work a little harder,’ because that’s what I was used to,” she says. “Work. Get results. My strength became my weakness.”

For a long time no one in Ruthie’s life, not even her siblings and her closest friends, knew what was happening at home. In part, no one ever suspected that Ruthie was being victimized because she was such a force of nature; she continued to display remarkable heroism and sportsmanship in an era when opportunities for women were hard to come by. It has been said by many that Ruthie’s exploits helped pave the way for the existence of the WNBA.

It is also true that she had to put up an unbelievable fight just to continue to play. In between playing for teams in Sweden, Hungary, Italy and Turkey between 1991 and 1996, spending a lot of time away from home, Ruthie played on the USA national team, which named her Player of the Year in 1991. But she failed to make the cut for the team that went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and when the 1995-96 team was forming—the one that would play in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta—Ruthie wasn’t even invited to try out. Just as she had when the college recruiters failed to turn up, Ruthie felt the sting of rejection.

Bolton fights for the ball during the gold medal game at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Her go-for-broke playing style helped USA defeat Brazil 111-87. (Photo by Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

1996 was a special year for women’s basketball. The men’s USA basketball team that dominated the 1992 Summer Olympics was the original Dream Team, the first in Olympic history to feature active NBA players after the International Basketball Federation changed its rules to allow professionals to participate. That team featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and nine other household names. Sports Illustrated called it “arguably the most dominant squad ever assembled in any sport.”

This is the backdrop against which, in a very deliberate effort, the USA women’s basketball team set out to create its very own Dream Team for the 1996 Olympics. Unlike other national teams—including the men’s—this team was not hastily assembled to make a quick global tour, play the Games and disband. What the coaches and players knew going in was that this bid for Olympic gold was a test balloon. If these women were able to generate a high level of public zeal, two leagues were poised to launch in the United States: the American Basketball League (ABL) and the NBA-affiliated Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA).

In 1995, 50 women were invited to compete for 25 berths on the Dream Team roster. Ruthie wasn’t one of them. The trials were technically “open,” meaning that players who hadn’t been invited could also show up to try to beat the odds, but this was very much a long shot. As she wrote in her 2012 autobiography, The Ride of a Lifetime: The Making of Mighty Ruthie, “the coaches had a preconceived notion of who should be on the team,” and Ruthie wasn’t what they had in mind.