It comes as no surprise that Yvonne Fleming (’94EE) is super smart; everyone knows that graduates of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering are smart. While her intelligence ensured that she would excel in the classroom, it is her athletic prowess and grit that are still remembered here at the school two decades later.
Fleming had enrolled at the NYU School of Engineering (then known as Polytechnic University) following a 4-year stint in the military. Back then, when she wasn’t jumping out of planes as an airborne paratrooper or fixing engines, transmissions, wiring, carburetors, generators, alternators, starters, and other items of that type as an Army mechanic, she could be found on the basketball court. An avid player, she had been a member of a gold-medal-winning team comprised of the 12 best female players in the entire U.S. Army.
She would play as a student too, she decided, but there was just one problem: at that time, the school lacked a women’s basketball team. She was, however, undeterred. She explains, “Anytime something seems daunting or frustrating, I just think to myself, ‘I’ve jumped out of planes. If I can do that, I can do anything.’”
Her only possible course of action seemed clear to her; Fleming approached Laddy Baldwin, the now-retired coach of the men’s team, and asked to try out. “What choice did I have? I wanted to play, and I believed I was good enough to play,” she says. “I’m very proud to have had the courage to step up like that and to have earned a place in the history of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering.” Tommy Guerin, the current head coach of the team, concurs. “It took a lot of pluck and determination on her part to do that,” he says. “She can consider herself a real trailblazer.”
Fleming proved herself during the try-out and was accepted onto the team only to face another hurdle: earning the esteem of her fellow players. “Some of them played very aggressively,” she recalls. “It was as though they were afraid that a girl might score against them, so they had to take extra pains not to let that happen. On the other end of the spectrum, there were some who were reluctant to even defend against me.” Even though those players quickly learned that it was not smart to avoid defending her, she did not like the assumed lack of respect they had shown. “I wanted to be treated like any other player,” she says.
As the season progressed, Fleming won the acceptance of her teammates and the admiration of spectators. It wasn’t always easy—at times there was nowhere for her to change but a chilly bathroom stall, and she remembers a particularly demoralizing experience when she was forced to sit out a game because the opposing players were Orthodox Jews who refused to be on the court with a woman, lest there be physical contact between them.
Still, there were thrilling moments, and the team once even got to play in Madison Square Garden. “I have been playing since I was about eight years old, and I still have the little trophy I won during a free-throw competition as a child,” she recalls. “In all those years, playing at the Garden and winning that first trophy are the highlights.”
She might not be the biggest star who’s ever played at the Garden, but Fleming is still considered something of a celebrity at the School of Engineering. Maureen Braziel, the now-retired athletic director, remembers Fleming’s grace and athleticism. “It wasn’t only basketball,” she recalls. “At the time I was coaching girls’ volleyball, and she played on that team too. She really helped us out and improved our record.” Braziel also remembers that Fleming’s military training came in handy on occasion. “At the time, the athletic facilities were over in Farmingdale, a long bus ride away,” she says. “Whenever we stopped, she made sure all the girls stayed organized and got back on the bus when they were supposed to.”
Basketball is still a part of Fleming’s life. When she is at her office in the Philippines, she plays on an all-male team at her company, Nowcom, and she never shies away from a pick-up game. “As long as I have a mean jump shot and a decent crossover I will play forever,” she explains.