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A hoops trailblazer

Eden Valley native honored for professional career, energetic support of EV-W athletics

It’s hard to keep a secret in a small town. Even harder when the secret is discussed at length during a school board meeting, and included in the minutes. But this secret was kept, for more than two weeks, and someone got the surprise of her life.

Jessie Jones Flaschenriem and Betsy Nordgaard came to the February Eden Valley-Watkins (EV-W) school board meeting to suggest naming the auxiliary gym at EV-W high school after Elvera “Peps” Neuman, partly because she was a local girl who had an illustrious professional basketball career, and also because she was such a die-hard fan of EV-W students and sports. The board agreed, but needed to find an appropriate date for the presentation, and all agreed to keep it quiet.

Peps is somewhat of a fixture at EV-W, especially at girls’ basketball games. She has rarely missed one in many years. Neuman graduated from Eden Valley High School in 1962, before consolidation, and long before high school basketball was a thing for girls. But she loved playing basketball, and practiced for long hours on the hoop attached to a shed on the family farm, five miles southwest of Eden Valley.

If there was a will, Peps found a way. She formed a GAA (Girls’ Athletic Association) chapter at EV-W to play basketball. There were no refs, only girls who knew a little about the game. Her senior year, they got an advisor, and they played exhibition games against other GAA chapters: Paynesville and Grove City. A snowstorm hit the day of one of those games. Her father, a practical, German farmer, wouldn’t let her drive the tractor to town. So she walked to the game. Five miles. In a snowstorm.

In January that school year, she saw a women’s traveling team, the Texas Cowgirls, play a men’s team at her high school. They offered tryouts, at their home base in Illinois, but she was afraid to ruin her perfect school attendance record. So she waited until Easter break and travelled to Illinois to demonstrate her talents for the Texas Cowgirls.

After graduation, she was picked up by a traveling softball team owned by the same people as the Cowgirls. They played mostly against men’s teams, and she pitched.

In October, she was back to Illinois to join the Cowgirls. She developed shin splints, running laps on the hard tile floor, and she was certain that would end her career. Resting up over Christmas vacation helped, and the rest is history.

“Peps” Neuman (seated) and her Arkansas Gems professional women’s basketball team

Two years later, in 1964, Neuman and three other Cowgirls formed their own team, the Shooting Stars-Arkansas Lassies. Ten years later, Neuman took over ownership of the team and renamed it the Arkansas Gems. She also served as booking agent for the team.

They traveled the country in a van, often playing men’s teams, and putting on a good show wherever they went. The Gems’ training camp was the Neuman farm, and practices were at the Eden Valley high school gym. Neuman moved her corporate office to Clearwater in 1977, but they still trained and practiced at the school in Eden Valley.

Neuman became known for her pregame half-court shots, over her head, with her back to the basket. She also did a halftime show, performing tricks like dribbling with her knees, ball spinning, and dribbling two basketballs around and through her legs.

During those days, as a rookie, she made a whopping $5 a game. Their travel was paid for, but not meals. Even so, she was able to save about $200 her first year. (At the time, she was quick to add, coffee was 10 cents and you could get a commercial for 50 cents).

Back then, women played by men’s rules: five-on-five, full-court, you had to have a jump ball every quarter, and had to shoot a free throw for every foul.

Converse provided their shoes, but she can’t remember if they were women’s shoes, or just smaller men’s shoes. Spaulding provided the basketballs, same size as the men’s. In return, Converse and Spaulding got sponsorship ads in their programs.

“All my life I’ve never done things for the money,” Neuman said, who spent 26 years in professional women’s basketball. It’s been her chief career. Since 1977, she has also been involved with outdoor amusement concessions, a small family show she explained. She also sells oak-framed pictures, and she’s a caretaker for her roommate.

Neuman and her four brothers still own the family farm between Eden Valley and Manannah. She takes pride in the fact that her tax dollars are still supporting the school, and she’s pleased to see students excel in both academics and sports.

To say that basketball is her life would be an understatement, to be sure.

Neuman has season tickets for women’s Gophers basketball. She’s known there as “the blanket lady,” running up and down the court with a Gophers blanket before each game for the past 10 or 12 years.

This week she is in Indianapolis for the Big 10. Later this month she will go to Dallas for a booksigning of Barnstorming America: Stories from the Pioneers of Women’s Basketball by John Molina. There she will reunite with other rookies from 1962, and she’s very much looking forward to that.

“I’m 72 with the mentality of 25,” she said. “I’m enjoying reliving my childhood!”

Neuman had an illustrious career. She scored more than 300,000 career points. As unfathomable as that may seem, she said it all added up playing 130 to 140 games a year for 26 years. (Keep in mind that that’s two points at a time; it was long before the three-point rule was introduced for women’s basketball.)

She remembered well the game they played at Mount Clemens near Detroit, in 1969. She scored 108 points herself in that game. “And we played against a good team,” she pointed out. “It was a night when everything went in, even when it shouldn’t have,” she added.

She’s thankful that she’s always had a great team around her. It’s not all about just her, she said.

Neuman didn’t set out to be a pioneer. “I didn’t know any better,” she said. “I’m reaping the rewards now,” she said. “It’s just ironic that it worked out.”

Neuman was dubbed “Peps” during the 1960s. While on the road playing ball, she drank a lot of Pepsi. Growing up on a farm, she explained, she didn’t like chlorinated city water. “I also had a lot of pep back then,” she added. That probably hasn’t changed much over the years.

The naming of the auxiliary gym (or “old gym”) at her alma mater was a total surprise to Neuman.

“There was nothing out of the ordinary that night,” Neuman said.

Elvera “Peps” Neuman was completely surprised by the announcement that the Auxiliary Gym at EV-W will be named in her honor. Staff photo by Anton Matua.

At halftime during the girls’ game on Feb. 24, Superintendent Mark Messman took to the court with the microphone. Messman summarized some of Neuman’s career as a professional women’s basketball player, and an esteemed alumna of EV-W.

Then he announced that, henceforth, the auxiliary gym, the very place where she played her last professional game, would be named the Peps Neuman Gymnasium.

The announcement got a standing ovation, even from the opposing fans that night, from Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (BBE).

A plaque will be installed on the wall next to one of the entrances to the gym, right next to a display case that has been set up with mementos of Neuman’s career. The display was moved and rearranged from its previous home in the hallway. That display, Neuman has often said, was the highlight of her entire basketball career: to be displayed at her school.

The big eagle inside the gym will be painted over by a nicer one, and in big letters “Peps Neuman Gymnasium.”

“I’ve always hoped to win the lottery,” she said, “so I could buy the school a new gym! But then the school went ahead and built one anyway a few years ago.”

The gym forever bearing her name was home to her GAA games in high school, and to some of her professional games. She also played basketball there during open gym, with the guys.

“I’m still on Cloud 9,” she said. “I can’t believe this dream has happened!” To all with a dream, Peps says this: “Dream it! Follow your dream. Prepare yourself. Do the hard work and, if God is willing, it’ll happen. Shoot for the moon! If you hit the stars, that’s okay too.”

Special thanks to the Tri-County News for sharing this story with the Sr. Perspective.

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