Former Auburn University basketball star Ruthie Bolton (1967- ) is one of the pioneers of women’s professional basketball. Bolton played guard on three conference championship teams at Auburn, competed with several European professional teams, and became one of the starting players in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the United States when it debuted in 1997. She became one of the first stars of the WNBA, playing eight years with the Sacramento Monarchs, and was a member of two U.S. Olympic gold-medal teams.
Alice Ruth Bolton and her twin brother Ray were born in McLain, Mississippi, on May 25, 1967. She is one of 20 children born to the Reverend Linwood Bolton and his wife Leola. Raised in rural Mississippi, Bolton and her siblings shared chores, sports, and their Baptist faith. At McLain High School, Ruthie played in the shadow of older sister Mae Ola, who was recruited to Auburn in 1984.
Ruthie Bolton at Auburn In 1986, Ruthie followed her sister to Auburn. Ruthie and teammates Mae Ola, Vicki Orr, and Carolyn Jones led Auburn to great success in women’s basketball. Auburn’s record during her four years was 119-13, including four NCAA tournament teams, three Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships, and two trips to the NCAA final four. Bolton achieved numerous honors, including second team All-SEC in 1989, All-Final Four in 1988, and All-Academic SEC in 1988 and 1989. She graduated in 1989 with a degree in exercise physiology. She also was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve at this time, serving until 2000. At Auburn, Bolton shares the record for games played and is on the top-ten career lists for assists and steals. During her collegiate career, Bolton scored 1,176 points, putting her in 19th place on the Auburn career scoring list. In February 2001, Auburn retired Bolton’s jersey, along with those of teammates Vickie Orr and Carolyn Jones.
Bolton married Mark Holifield in 1991 and is often known as Ruthie Bolton-Holifield. (They divorced in 2002 with no children.) Bolton began a professional basketball career in Europe because no women’s professional basketball league existed at that time in the United States. She played in Sweden in 1991, Hungary in 1992 (where she was the first American woman to play professionally), Italy from 1993 until 1995, and finally Turkey in 1996. In 1995-96, Bolton played on the U.S. Women’s National Team that achieved a perfect 60-0 record, a feat unmatched in all of basketball. She was also a key player on the U.S. women’s team that won the World Championship in 1998. Perhaps her greatest recognition, however, came from her role as a member of two U.S. Olympic teams. Although Bolton failed to qualify for the 1992 squad, she set an Olympic record for the most three-pointers in a game for the U.S. team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. Bolton and her teammates again won gold medals at the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia.
Capitalizing upon the success of the women’s Olympic team, the American Basketball League (ABL) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) introduced professional women’s basketball to the United States in 1996 and 1997, respectively. When the WNBA began play in 1997, Ruthie joined the Sacramento Monarchs, one of eight league teams competing with the ABL. Backed by the NBA, the WNBA survived, but the ABL folded in December 1998, a few games into its third season.
Bolton was Sacramento’s first marquee player, a two-time All-Star (1997, 2001) and first-team All-WNBA (1997, 1999). During her eight-year WNBA career, Bolton averaged 10 points per game. After a career-threatening knee injury in 1998, repaired by former Olympic speed-skater and orthopedic surgeon Eric Heiden, Bolton returned to the Monarchs in 1999, starting in all but one game. She again made the All-Star team and was named first-team All-WNBA. After the 2000 season, Bolton’s playing time and productivity declined as she became a role player off the bench. After the 2004 season, Bolton left the team but not her adopted hometown of Sacramento, where she conducted basketball clinics, speaking engagements, and community work as the team’s Fan and Team Relations Manager. Her number 6 jersey was retired by the Monarchs in 2005.
In 2004, Bolton became head women’s coach at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California, and since 2006 has been head coach at Vacaville Christian High School in Vacaville, California. She also travels around the country presenting her “Aim High” youth program to empower young athletes and is active in American Center Sports Diplomacy program, an international relations initiative run by the U.S. Department of State that conducts sports clinics for young people worldwide. She has also released a gospel music CD, developed a line of clothing under the label RUWEAR, and started the nonprofit Ruthie Bolton Foundation to help motivate teens and student athletes in the greater Sacramento area. In 2012, she published The Ride of a Lifetime: The Making of Mighty Ruthie, which chronicles her early basketball career at Auburn, and in 2018, she self-published From Pain to Peace, an autobiographical account of her experiences with domestic violence and recovering from trauma.
In June 2011, Bolton was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in May 2014 she was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.