Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
My Other Career, as a Basketball Player
The Colorado Xplosion played its last basketball game in December
--another major blow for women's sports in the U. S. of A.
To those who have been so engrossed in the adolescent activities going
on in Washington that they have missed the sports pages, the American
Basketball League threw in the towel the day before Christmas and
announced that it was folding and filing for bankruptcy. And for those
sports fans whose eyes are only on the Broncos, the ABL and the WNBA
(Women's National Basketball League) were the two women's professional
basketball leagues, barely two years old. Now there is only one.
The development of women's sports has been a rocky one. As a C. U.
athlete from the dark ages, I have watched it with more than average
interest. Less than a year after Dr. James A. Naismith invented the
game of basketball in 1891, an early day feminist, Senda Berenson
adapted his rules for a women's game and introduced it to her students
at Smith College. Her rules were much more "ladylike" than they are
now. When I played in the thirties, we had six member teams on a
three section court. It is nice to think that if she were sitting
courtside for one of today's games she would be delighted to see the
changes in the game and would be leading the cheering for her favorite
Through the years women playing in team sports remained second class
citizens. The occasional outstanding female athletes, like Helen Wills
in tennis, Patty Berg in golf and Babe Zaharias in everything, played
individual sports. It took governmental intervention and the growth of
the women's movement to give us a break. With Title IX, women's
athletic programs began to grow very slowly in high schools and
colleges. Eventually, fine women athletes started coming out of
colleges looking for a place to continue their athletic careers.
They had to look hard and far. Many basketball players joined pro teams
in Europe and Japan. Nancy Lieberman became the first woman to play
on a men's professional team in 1985.
Women's basketball gained prestige when American teams won Olympic gold
medals in Los Angeles in 1984, and in Seoul in1988. Then when the U. S.
women won the gold again in 1996 in Atlanta, enthusiasm was high enough
to support the formation of the two women's professional leagues.
But professional sports, both men's and women's are a money-making
business, and the ABL couldn't attract the dollars. They attracted top
players and paid high salaries, but their attendance figures just
weren't high enough. So three days before Christmas of their third
season, 56 fine women basketball players and their coaches were
suddenly out of work. It was a very sad day for women's sports.
The other league, the WNBA, is still going strong. It is bankrolled by
the NBA, which runs teams for a living. They have marketing, the
infrastructure and relationships with TV and sponsors. They also have
labor problems, but I hope that will not affect the women's league.
During the season, three WNBA games are broadcast each week on three
different networks, and for two years, I have been glued to my TV set
for most of them. My Phoenix kids have season tickets for the
Mercury, and have sent me programs and schedules. I even have an
autographed picture of Nancy Lieberman-Cline and a crimson Mercury tee
The future of women's professional basketball depends the ability of the
league to make money, and that means fans and advertising. It is a
different game from the men's. Not too many women are over seven feet
tall. I am prejudiced, but I think the women play a more entertaining
game, with more teamwork, more speed and lots more finesse.
One of my all time favorite Christmas gifts arrived this year from my
Phoenix family -- an official Phoenix Mercury basketball. It doesn't
bounce too well on carpet, but I can shut my eyes and pretend I'm still
20 and going for a 3-pointer.
Loss of the ABL is a major blow, but I'm glad that little girls who like
to play basketball still have something to look forward to.