Debbie Freeman started blazing trails in the sports world the first time she ran onto a basketball court full of boys as a child in Jacksonville, N.C.
An affinity for competition stirred in her then that pushed her all the way through high school and on to a hall of fame, three-sport career at East Carolina. Along the way, all of the games, opponents, friends and foes are remembered in intricate detail by Freeman, who broke the color barrier as the first black starter and a dominant player in women’s basketball and volleyball, while also authoring an exemplary, pioneering career in track and field.
Although her dossier of dominance on the courts and in the throwing pits is extensive enough to read like an encyclopedia entry, attached to every one of those accomplishments and remembered in the same detail are each of the human interactions that went with them. Freeman’s past and, in some cases, ongoing relationships that formed because of her sports career built the backbone on which to rest her many awards and accolades.
“I think it was the sixth grade when I picked up a basketball for the first time,” said Freeman, whose prolific ECU hoops career was highlighted by being named the team MVP in 1976 and ‘77. “I didn’t know much about the game other than what I had seen on TV. I just picked the ball up one day and started with it, watched TV and learned the mechanics.”
Like much of the rest of her career, Freeman had a knack for figuring things out for herself, basketball included. Her ECU career in that sport included 1,570 points and 955 rebounds, and Freeman pulled in an ECU single-game record 26 rebounds against UNC Greensboro in 1977. A serious acumen for picking up small details from others and making them part of her own regimen helped her learn to dominate the backboard during games, even though she did not have a height advantage over many over her opponents.
“(Former ECU coach Catherine) Bolton taught me to go to the other side (of the floor) that the point guard didn’t go to, and they load up that other side and that’s what taught me to rebound on the weak side, because if the shot comes from one side, it’s going to come off on the other side,” said Freeman, who recalls in detail leaping over a taller Campbell player for a rebound tip-in basket that gave ECU the lead late in a game her first season.
She went on to average a double-double in her sophomore season, and she developed an immediate chemistry that year with newcomer and future fellow ECU hall of famer Rosie Thompson.
“We complemented each other because I liked to get the (defensive) rebound and run the court,” Freeman said of playing with Thompson.
Freeman began playing recreation ball in ninth grade, and to say her game blossomed quickly is an understatement. In fact, she contends some of the Jacksonville-area teams that formed then were among the best she played for in her career. She said she could have been part of a dominant Jacksonville High School team, but the school did not offer girls’ basketball at the time, so she forged her own path to the college level in whatever venues she could.
“I averaged as much as 44 points a game in a 24-minute game,” said Freeman, now retired and living in Florida, also noting her passion for the Pirates was also given life around that time. “I was inspired in my early years — middle school and junior high — by East Carolina student-teachers who would come in and student-teach and work with us. I just decided in about the eighth grade that I was going to East Carolina.”
Freeman said that motivation turned to laser-like focus beginning in ninth grade. She said she knew then that in order to land in Greenville after her senior year, she needed to make sure academics and athletics were her priorities.
She discovered her passion for the throwing events — namely the shot put and discus — when she began to compete in junior Olympics events around the same time. There, she landed four state titles and two regional titles in her age group. Ultimately, she finished 10th in the nation in the shot put her junior year in Ann Arbor, Mich.
It happened, as Freeman says, “with little or no training.”
“It was just brute strength,” said Freeman, who was formally inducted into the ECU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991 after she said she nominated herself. “I never really had big arms — you can look back at pictures of me from back then — I just prided myself on strength, courage and desire.”
After gaining more formal basketball experience at camps, Freeman arrived at ECU ready to jump right in and continue her progression in basketball. What she did not expect was to immediately be offered the chance to play volleyball, too.
Before she knew it, and to her genuine surprise, she was on the ECU volleyball team and admitted she had little experience in the sport before that.
“They gave me the biggest uniform, hemmed up about 4 inches on my shirt, shorts were down past my knees,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I only made this team because I can jump.’ My vertical (leap) was like 24 inches. But when we went and played the first match — it was a tri-match where you play two other teams — I was the only one who didn’t get to play. I thought, ‘Oh my God. I don’t like this.’”
But that’s where desire came back into the equation.
Freeman said she enlisted help from Bolton and from a man on campus actually known to her and others as Mr. Volleyball. After practices for basketball and volleyball, and even on weekends, Freeman worked on the finer points of her volleyball game.
She remembered putting on a camp at D.H. Conley High School around the same time when she said something just clicked, as it often seemed to in her sports career, and her game took off like never before. She started every match the rest of her ECU career. The end result was a four-year career as a starter during which she was named team MVP in 1977 and selected to the all-state squad.
“I worked my tail off to do it, but it got better,” Freeman said of volleyball. “It got bigger and better. I swore I’d never dive onto the floor (for a ball) until we played the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I hit the floor and did all that kind of stuff.”
Also foremost in her sports memories are her battles against the traditional in-state foes. Despite an up-and-down campaign for ECU basketball her sophomore year, ECU topped North Carolina by a single point in a typical big game for Freeman (30-plus points), and she recalls vividly when “everybody ran out of the stands and smothered me.”
She also fondly remembers her showdowns against coaching great Kay Yow and N.C. State, saying, “I just went blind against them” of her standout performances against the Wolfpack.
Freeman was a three-year letterwinner in track and field, was named the NCAIAW field events MVP in 1978 and was the NCAIAW champion in the shot put and discus. Perhaps just as important, she was a pioneering member of the track and field team’s transition from the club level to official team status. She was part of the first-ever NCAIAW championship meet at ECU her senior season. Freeman won the shot and discus events as had become custom during her time as a Pirate, and to this day, she says she simply found her own ways to dominate the events despite a lack of classic training.
“I never really knew how to throw it. I just armed it because I really didn’t know the technique for it,” Freeman said of her remarkable track and field career, noting she also used to watch the runners in the lane next to her during relay events to be sure what to do.