January 17, 2022 

Remembering Queens College and WBL legend Althea Gwyn

Queens College hooper saw the potential of women's professional basketball

The history of women’s basketball is filled with names and stories and legacies that didn’t become household names. Without these founders of the game, the sport we know today would not be the same.

Althea Gwyn, who passed away on Jan. 9, 2022, is one of those founders.

Gwyn played high school ball at Amityville High School on Long Island before enrolling in the Queen’s College women’s basketball program in Queens, NY. In her freshman year, Gwyn played in the first-ever women’s collegiate basketball game at Madison Square Garden. Her talented Queens College squad faced off against perennial favorite Immaculata College on Feb. 22, 1975, in front of a crowd of 11,969 spectators.

A 2013 inductee into the Queens College Athletics Hall of Fame, Gwyn was named an All-American following the 1977-78 season. As a college player, she twice led the nation in rebounding.

Hall-of-Famer Ann Meyers-Drysdale recalls when she first played a scrimmage against Gwyn and Queens College in Poughkeepsie, NY as a member of Team USA.

“She was an intense player. She played hard,” Meyers-Drysdale told The Next. “She was imposing and intimidating, but there was also a sense that she was having fun out there. She really enjoyed the game.”

Pro hoop dreams

The Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) tipped off in 1978 as the first professional women’s basketball league in the United States. The league emerged at the tail end of a decade that included the landmark passage of Title IX (1972) and the debut of women’s basketball as an Olympic sport at the 1976 Summer Olympics.

Gwyn renounced her eligibility for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team tryouts in favor of joining the new professional sports league. In July 1978, Gwyn was drafted by her home-state New York Stars.

“Pro ball is just as important as the Olympics,” Gwyn declared.

Gwyn played for the Stars and the New England Gulls during her tenure with the league. As a member of the league looking to locate women’s basketball to a more elevated profile, Gwyn fought hard both on and off the court.

As a member of the Gulls, Gwyn and her teammates refused to play in protest of not getting paid by team ownership. Althea and teammates ran off the court protesting “no pay, no play.” The Gulls franchise would eventually fold when the franchise could not meet players’ basic demands for payment. She not only transformed the game with her physical, intimidating post presence. But also with her willingness to advocate for labor rights for the woman athlete.

A legacy

Before ESPN regularly aired women’s basketball, and nearly two decades before the WNBA, hoopers like Althea constructed the foundation of women’s basketball. Gwyn and other top players in her era navigated through the sport’s trials and tribulations as well as its unprecedented heights in the 1970s. Despite their tremendous impact on the game, players from this era aren’t often recognized.

“Althea Gwyn’s not talked about…I don’t really hear any of the announcers talk about some of the players from the ’70s. You know, Cheryl Miller or Pam or Paula McGee or which guards were great from that era,” Meyers-Drysdale said.

Althea had an invaluable impact on the legacy of women’s collegiate and professional basketball in the United States. For these accomplishments, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame recognized Althea as a Trailblazer of the Game in 2018. Following her passing earlier this month, the women’s basketball community celebrates her life and innumerable contributions to the game we love.

Written by Tee Baker

4 Comments

  1. Cardte Hicks on January 17, 2022 at 7:31 pm

    As a former professional player in Europe and the the USA WBL, I have been a close friend and a teammate in All Star games with “our gentle giant “ Althea Gwyn. A true hero of the NJ Fire Department and our hero in Women’s professional basketball league. With a broken heart I will never forget you Thea. None of us will. RIP my sister of the game we love until we meet again above the rim in the sky💕

  2. Valerie Moore on January 19, 2022 at 12:42 am

    Hey Thea!!! You flying high with the Angels now. I still remember our talks when we trying to find ourselves. Miss you and so sorry we lost contact with each other. May God bless you with a great transition to your next stop. Praying for you and your family.

  3. Bob Lamm on January 19, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    I taught at Queens College in the mid 1970s. That’s where I first saw and fell in love with women’s basketball, thanks to the great teams of their pioneering coach Lucille Kyvallos. I saw their stars: Althea Gwyn, Gail Marquis (a member of the first U.S. women’s basketball team in 1976), Donna Orender (the former commissioner of the WNBA), and Debbie Mason. I saw Althea and the others play for Queens in 1975, with 12,000 fans, in the first-ever women’s basketball game at Madison Square Garden. How lucky I was to see Althea and the others on the court and to see Lucille coaching them.

  4. Susan Summons on May 23, 2022 at 11:29 am

    As a former WBL Professional player and 3rd round draft pick for the WBL New Jersey Gems, I witnessed first hand Thea’s impact on the history of both the Women’s professional basketball and the collegiate game. Althea and I were teammates, playing for the WBL New Englands Gulls. She was our center and I was the point guard with Chris Critelli on the wing and that was a squad. Thea’s game was epic and is apart of the mortar as so many former WBL Pro Legends that helped to build the WNBA what is is today. A giant with a gentle spirit will be missed by the game, her friends and family. 🌹

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