The most famous blanket in Twin Cities sports started out with a humble purpose. When it was given to Vicky Nelson, it was meant to do what blankets usually do: keep someone’s legs warm.
Nelson often got chilly while watching Gophers women’s basketball games from the wheelchair area at Williams Arena. A group of fans who sat nearby bought the blanket — maroon and gold fleece, with Goldy Gopher in the middle — to keep her comfortable during the 2006-07 season. Touched by the gift, Nelson’s caregiver, Elvera Neuman, held up the blanket so everyone could see it.
And then …
“I ran about 10 feet, and people started applauding,” Neuman said. “So I just kept running.”
That spontaneous act became a Williams Arena institution. During the second half of every women’s basketball game, Neuman grabs the blanket and takes off, waving it and cheering as she runs in front of sections 115 through 117. She’s also taken her show next door in recent years, whenever she can get tickets to Gophers volleyball matches at the Sports Pavilion.
Neuman, 75, has been dubbed “The Blanket Lady” by the fans who cheer with her. Few of them know she used to do her running on the court. Long before Title IX, Neuman was a basketball pioneer, playing for 26 years with barnstorming women’s teams such as the Texas Cowgirls and Arkansas Gems.
She and her teammates once played as many as 160 games a year in cities and towns all over America. Though she’s a spectator now, Neuman — still known as “Peps” for her effervescence and her favorite soft drink — hasn’t lost her flair for showmanship, or her ability to make people stand up and applaud.
“I guess I took it and ran with it,” she said of her accidental fame. “I think people like my energy. But I have to give all the credit to Gopher Nation. That’s where my heart is, with the Gophers.”
A resident of Clearwater, Minn., Neuman is a mega-fan who painted her dining room and kitchen maroon and gold. Her home is decorated with furniture in the school colors and a Gophers rug, expressions of loyalty for a program that didn’t exist when she was growing up.
Neuman honed her basketball skills by shooting at the hoop on her parents’ barn, but she had no team to play for until her senior year at Eden Valley High School. In 1962, she led an effort to form a local chapter of the Girls Athletic Association, allowing Eden Valley to play a few games against area schools.
During Easter break that year, Neuman took a bus to Texas to try out for the Cowgirls. That kicked off nearly three decades of driving from Minnesota to Florida to California to New York to play basketball. Neuman and some teammates broke off to form their own team — “We knew we had the goods,” she said, “and we wanted to run our own show” — in the mid-1960s.
Like the Harlem Globetrotters, the Arkansas Gems blended good basketball with tricks and skits. The women’s barnstorming era began winding down as the women’s college game gained ground under Title IX.
“I have to say, I was envious at first of the women who were playing in college,” said Neuman, who retired in 1988. “They were so lucky to get to play. But I am ever so proud of what women’s basketball has become. I’m 200 percent behind all the players.”
She demonstrates that at every Gophers home game. Neuman makes one blanket run per game, usually during the first free throw by the opponent in the second half. At volleyball matches, the blanket comes out when a call is being reviewed.
Neuman’s basketball life has been celebrated by Eden Valley-Watkins High School, which named a gym after her, and in the 2016 book “Barnstorming America.” Though she never got a chance to play at Williams Arena, her Blanket Lady alter ego is now part of its lore.
“The first time they put me up on the big [scoreboard] screen, Vicky was like, ‘Look! You’re up there!’ ” she said. “We couldn’t believe it. But I eat it up. I guess I’m just a ham.”