Minnesota’s first post-Title IX superstar in girls’ basketball gives a measure of gratitude to a high school janitor who, some 45 years ago, had the sense to leave the gym door propped open.
Janet Karvonen took it from there.
A self-described “rebellious teenager’’ from tiny New York Mills became a young activist for basketball, appearing on school board agendas at age 12. She became what she called “a pain in the neck’’ for the superintendent and board members.
Then-President Richard Nixon had signed Title IX legislation in 1972 that prohibited discrimination by gender of any federally funded education program.
On those school board agendas, “They put me last so I had to sit through two hours of the meeting before I could make my request for having open gym in the summer,” she recalled.
The teenager would leave her home, dribbling her basketball the entire eight blocks to the school. When she’d get there, custodian Arden Fosse “would prop the gym door open for me so I could work out,” she recalled.
Those workouts included developing her game with her offhand, which she strengthened at home by eating and brushing her teeth with her left hand. During shooting drills she wore a plastic head band with an extension of a cutout hand in front of her face, purchased via mail order.
“Arden would check on me, and just shake his head and laugh,” recalled Karvonen Montgomery, who added her husband’s name after they married.
Three years later in 1977, Karvonen led her school, from a small Finnish community, to the first of three consecutive Class A state championships in the two-class system with a one-point victory over Mayer Lutheran in the final. The Eagles’ bid for a four-peat came up short when they fell to Austin Pacelli in the 1980 state semifinals.
The common denominator was Karvonen, who concluded her prep career with 3,129 points, becoming the leading scorer (boys or girls) in state history. That record stood until 1997. She also set the state single-season scoring record for either gender with 845 points in her senior year.
Along the way she always was working on improving her game in a variety of ways. She did toe-raises as she walked up and down stairs to strengthen her legs as well as lie on her bed and shoot the ball at the ceiling to work on proper shooting form and touch. She ran 3 miles and jump roped 10 minutes five days a week, ran sprints three days a week and worked on her vertical jump on a Leaper machine.
“There weren’t a lot of girls working out and weight training like I was back then,’’ she recalled. “I think that made a big difference.”
Her family added a tennis/basketball court with lights after New York Mills won its first state championship. The end lines of the green court served as the free-throw line for basketball.
“I would be out there on the asphalt until 9 to 10 p.m. whenever I could,” she said. “I would have the ABBA tunes cranked.”
The 5-11 forward was Minnesota’s Miss Basketball and the U.S. girls’ basketball national player of the year in 1980. She played in the Parade All-American game in Monticello, N.Y. She went on to play for Old Dominion and, as a junior and senior, for Louisiana Tech, making Final Four appearances with both schools.
After getting a journalism degree, she returned to Minnesota and took a TV broadcasting job in Duluth. She has worked as an analyst on state tournament broadcasts, wrote freelance stories and still runs a basketball camp. Among the attendees as a young player was Lindsay Whalen, former WNBA star and now Gophers women’s basketball coach.
Karvonen Montgomery, who lives in North Oaks, recently stepped down as a pastor at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Shoreview.
The mother of four spent this past winter watching her youngest, John, complete his senior season playing basketball at Mounds View High School. Karvonen Montgomery said she named her youngest child after her brother John, who was “instrumental’’ in helping her see her future potential.
“He told me when I was in seventh grade,’’ she said, “that I could be the best basketball player in the state of Minnesota.”