Women’s pro hoops eye success

by Michael Rand

Like a spurned lover or a stumbling alcoholic, professional women’s basketball is back, promising things will be different this time.
With memories of past leagues that have come and gone, two new attempts at women’s pro ball — the American Basketball League and a summer league sponsored by the National Basketball Association — are set to begin within the next year.
The word underneath the hoop, however, is that these new leagues are for real. They’ve undergone rehab and league executives have learned from past mistakes. And that’s not just coming from the leagues’ marketing directors, it’s coming from college coaches, players and potentially jaded cynics who have seen fly-by-night ventures of the 1980s fail.
Corporate sponsorship and solid planning — not to mention a deep talent pool — set the ABL and the women’s NBA apart from their failed cousins.
The two new leagues could finally give women’s basketball the niche in the pro sports world it has coveted for more than a decade. They could also seriously impact women’s basketball at the high school and college level.
Reasons for optimism
When Gophers women’s basketball coach Linda Hill-MacDonald first heard about the new leagues, she was not sure how to react.
“Initially, I was cautiously optimistic,” she said. “I could see that a lot of thought and research had gone into it. But because of the lack of success in the past, I was still skeptical.”
On Dec. 9, 1978, the Chicago Hustle defeated the Milwaukee Does in front of 7,824 fans at Milwaukee Arena. That contest was advertised as the first professional women’s basketball game in the United States.
The Milwaukee franchise of the Women’s Basketball League drew only 600 fans for its second home game, however, and the league folded after three seasons. Other leagues have tried and failed since then, the most recent was in 1991.
But Hill-MacDonald, who is also the president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, said her optimism grew and her skepticism receded as more details about the new leagues were announced. She cited the strong corporate sponsorship and growth of the college game as a main factors by which the new league has a good chance to succeed.
The eight-team ABL is set to tip off in October with a 40-game schedule. Thirty-six players — including Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley and several others from the U.S. National Team — have already signed to play in the league. Additionally, 550 hopefuls are battling this week at a tryout in Atlanta for the remaining 44 roster spots.
The women’s NBA is in more of a developmental stage, with games not planned to begin until next summer. The affiliation with the NBA, however, will go a long way toward launching the league.
The most telling sign that the ABL and women’s NBA are poised for a breakthrough is the increase in attendance at women’s college basketball games in recent years.
“With the growth of the game over the last four or five years, the timing is right,” Hill-MacDonald said. “In the past there was a lack of corporate dollars as well as bad timing. There was acceptance, but not widespread acceptance.”
In 1982 about 1 million fans attended women’s college basketball games. By 1996 that number quadrupled.
“This league will work because of the incredible rise in women’s college basketball attendance,” said Erik Hoard, an ABL representative. “The eight cities with franchises have strong women’s basketball backings.”
If the ABL is successful, Hoard said, the league may add four new teams in a few years. Considering Minneapolis was a huge success in hosting the Women’s Final Four in 1995, a future franchise in Minnesota may be a possibility.
Gophers women’s athletics director Chris Voelz said friends from the ABL and the women’s NBA have called her to check out the feasibility of a women’s team in the Twin Cities area.
“In time the Twin Cities could certainly be a hotbed for women’s sports opportunities,” Voelz said.
In addition to the general improvement in the quality of women’s basketball, the emergence of marketable stars in the sport has helped increase attendance and exposure.
Sheryl Swoopes, a former standout at Texas Tech, recently signed the first female shoe endorsement deal. Former UConn star Rebecca Lobo, whom the ABL hopes to sign to a contract in the near future, became a household name during the Huskies’ undefeated 1995 season.
In its purest form
As is the case with most fledgling sports, building a fan base will be critical if the new women’s pro leagues are to succeed. Women’s basketball has taken off at the college level. The key is getting fans to cross over to the pro games.
That may not be too difficult. Bob Brooks, a former girls basketball coach at Rochester Mayo, said he thinks the leagues will have good attendance.
Brooks, 59, said many people his age are turned off by modern-day professional sports. Women’s basketball, with its team-oriented style of play, appeals to those who remember how men’s basketball used to be played, he said.
“Most people my age either don’t go (to pro games) anymore or have cut back severely,” Brooks said. “There is a class of people who want to watch (basketball) in the form it was intended to be played.”
Hill-MacDonald agreed that the “sheer beauty” of women’s basketball will put people in the stands.
“It’s still played below the basket,” she said. “Basketball purists will find this an exciting game to go and watch.”
Success would befar-reaching
When Debbie Hunter played basketball for the Gophers from 1979-1983, the game was the same but the era was much different. There were no Rebecca Lobo’s. There were no household names in the public’s consciousness.
As a result, there were few options for talented women’s basketball players. Hunter ranks first on the Gophers all-time assist and steals list and is seventh in scoring. She was an honorable mention all-American in 1982 and a first team all-Big Ten member in 1983.
Still, she was faced with the realization that her playing career was probably over once she finished her time with the Gophers.
“You could go to Europe — that was it,” she said. “Players really didn’t think about going pro because it wasn’t part of the mindset.”
Hunter said she tried to latch on with a team overseas, but it was “too much of a hassle.”
These days, she’s the head women’s basketball coach and athletics director at Bethel College. She doesn’t consider it tragic that she never had a chance to play pro ball in the United States, but she does think she would have liked to have the chance.
“The toughest part was watching peers like Kevin McHale and Randy Breuer making a ton of money,” Hunter said. “It’s an opportunity that has long been denied women. I’m sure I would have toyed with the idea of playing professionally — I was still a kid.”
Hunter’s chance has passed, but for two recent Gophers’ athletes, the opportunity may have come just in the nick of time.
Carol Ann Shudlick, who graduated in 1994 as Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer, and Cara Pearson, a tenacious low-post scorer and rebounder who graduated in 1995, are both in Atlanta this week for the ABL tryouts.
By chance, the two were paired in the same group and will both begin their tryouts Thursday afternoon.
In a telephone conversation Tuesday night — less than 12 hours before a plane took her to Atlanta for the tryouts — Shudlick described her mixed emotions.
“You can’t help but be excited about an opportunity like this,” she said. “I’m not nervous, I’m anxious. I don’t know how I’m going to do. There are a lot of good players. Not every good player is going to make it. I just hope that I’m one of the lucky ones that does.”
Shudlick played in a pro league in Spain last season, so in a sense she’s already made it. But playing in a U.S. league would be much more gratifying, the 24-year-old said.
Like many women who go overseas to play basketball, Shudlick sometimes felt as if she were an outsider. She said that as soon as she heard about the tryouts for the ABL, she decided to take the chance.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said about playing in Spain. “Still, it was a bit frustrating. It’s a tough lifestyle. There’s a lot of downtime aside from playing basketball. I enjoyed it, but I’d love to do the same thing here that I did there.”
Likewise, Barb Shudlick, Carol Ann’s mom, said the excitement over her daughter’s opportunity to play was tempered because the two were an ocean apart.
Shudlick’s goal to play professionally in the United States is still within reach, but she wouldn’t have known it growing up. Although she played a decade later than Hunter, in a completely different era, playing in a women’s league was not an option.
If successful, there’s no doubt the new leagues will have an immediate impact on the players currently at or beyond the college level.
Because the ABL draft will only be for players who have used up their college eligibility, recent graduates will be the ones who benefit immediately. That also means the leagues will avoid the departure of underclassmen, which has become commonplace in the men’s game during the past few years.
The most enduring effect, however, could be on the younger generation.
Unlike Hunter and Shudlick’s generations, there could be an established league to give high school-aged players something to aim for beyond college basketball.
Voelz said she’s excited for younger players. But she’s also cautious that some — blinded by a chance at pro stardom — will finish their college eligibility without getting the education they need.
“It gives kids dreams,” Voelz said. “But I hope they won’t become fantasies. I would hope the little kids don’t grow up to think, `I’m going to be a mega-star. I don’t need to be educated.'”
Juniors Kelly and Coco Miller of Rochester Mayo, considered by many to be the best-ever perimeter players from Minnesota, could be among the future generation of pro players.
Bob Brooks, their former coach, called them the “best athletes he coached in 37 years” and said they have the capability to play professionally.
Is that something the Millers would consider?
“Definitely,” Kelly said. “We’d love to play professional basketball. That would be like a dream come true. We just love basketball. It would be so fun to play in a league like that.”
Kelly said she has had the possibility of playing professionally in the back of her mind for years, but it crept a little closer to the front when the new U.S. leagues were announced.
“I’ve thought about it since I was little,” she said. “When I was watching the NBA, I always thought it would be great if women got the chance to play.”