October 14, 2023 

Aptly named, professional women’s basketball in Bay Area began with Pioneers

The legacy of the the San Francisco Pioneers

In a statement on Oct. 5, the WNBA announced that the first new franchise to join the league since 2008 has found a home in the Bay Area. The unnamed Bay Area team, owned and operated by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, will begin play in the 2025 season and compete at the Chase Center in San Francisco.

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“The Bay Area is the perfect market for a WNBA team, and we are thrilled this opportunity has finally come to fruition,” Warriors co-executive chairman CEO Joe Lacob said in the statement. “We have been interested in a WNBA franchise for several years, due in part to the rich history of women’s basketball in the Bay Area, and believe now is the ideal time to execute that vision and build upon the legacy. The WNBA continues to solidify itself as the preeminent women’s professional basketball league, and we look forward to supporting the best women’s basketball players in the world and our team starting in 2025.”

History suggests that the Bay Area is a good choice for a WNBA team. Another northern California city, Sacramento, was home to an original WNBA franchise, the Monarchs, from 1997-2009. The Monarchs brought Sacramento its only professional sports championship in 2005. The San Jose Lasers of the now-defunct American Basketball League (ABL), which existed from 1996-1998, were a professional women’s basketball franchise, also owned by current Warriors CEO Lacob.

The Monarchs and Lasers represent important stepping stones in the history of women’s basketball in northern California. They were not, however, the first professional women’s basketball teams to find a home there. Aptly named, the San Francisco Pioneers of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) were the Bay Area’s original franchise.

Elizabeth Galloway-McQuitter, former WBL player and current president of Legends of the Ball, Inc., works alongside other former WBL players to promote the historical relevance of the country’s second-longest-running professional women’s basketball league (1978-1981). Despite the landmark nature of the WBL, Galloway-McQuitter believes that the league is often omitted in discussions about the history of American women’s basketball.

“The multiple trailblazers of Title IX, the AIAW and the WBL, the first women’s professional basketball league in the United States, broke through a new set of barriers,” Elizabeth said in a statement shared with The Next. “The WBL featured the best players of the time … We are confronted time and time again with the omissions and inaccuracies … each time adding to the agony of a pioneering group of women whose accomplishments deserve so much more.”

“With the recent announcement of the WNBA adding a team in San Francisco, we are confronted with one more omission… the WBL as the first pro league, and the Pioneers as the first women’s professional basketball team in San Francisco.”

Members of the WBL's San Francisco Pioneers are pictured in their sky blue, yellow and white warm-up uniforms while posing on a city trolley.
The 1979-80 season media guide for the San Francisco Pioneers featured the team in their warm-up uniforms posing for a photo on a city trolley. (Photo provided by Elizabeth Galloway-McQuitter)

Joining the WBL starting in the league’s second (1979-1980), the Pioneers were an expansion franchise acquired by stockbroker Marshall Geller and his partners, including actors Alan Alda and Mike Connors. As part of the second WBL draft in 1979, the Pioneers drafted Cal Poly Pomona standout Musiette McKinney.

“I was a local kid that came from the local high school, that went to Cal Poly Pomona … [the day I got drafted], everything changed,” McKinney told The Next.

The Pioneers capitalized on strong grassroots high school and college programs in California and started a team in San Francisco featuring standouts from around the state.

“I got up [to San Francisco] and to be honest all the Pioneers were former people that competed against one another — my roommate was [UCLA alum] Anita Ortega … Cal Poly Pomona would play Stanford, would play San Francisco State, San Jose … not only that, [the] AIAW would host events [in California]. So I feel like the groundwork [was laid] to continue to have teams,” McKinney said.

McKinney and Ortega laced up for the Pioneers for the franchise’s first WBL season in 1979-80. The Pioneers finished that season 18-18, advancing to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champions, the New York Stars. Ortega wrapped up the season fourth in points per game with 24.1 points per game. Geller was named owner of the year and the Pioneers finished the season near the top of the league in attendance at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium.

In a black and white photo, San Francisco Pioneers teammates Cindy Haugejorde, Molly (Bolin) Kazmer and Cardte Hicks pose for a photograph in the team warm-up uniforms. They are posing against a backgroup of a boat and are seemingly kneeling on a boat dock.
Three San Francisco Pioneers participated in the 1981 WBL All-Star Game. From left to right,  Cindy Haugejorde, Molly (Bolin) Kazmer and Cardte Hicks pose for a photograph in the team warm-up uniforms. (Photo provided by Elizabeth Galloway-McQuitter)

Two months into the team’s second and final season, Geller fired then-head coach Frank LaPorte, hiring former NBA player Dean Meminger in his place. Meminger was available for the coaching role following a coach of the year season leading the New York Stars to the 1980 WBL title. The Stars went out of business following that title season, and Meminger took over the Pioneers coaching role.

Also during the 1980-81 season, sharp-shooter Molly (Bolin) Kazmer joined the team for a partial season, balancing her obligations with the newly-formed Ladies Professional Basketball Association. The Pioneers struggled towards a 14-22 finish that season, missing playoff contention.

The league folded after the Pioneers’ second season, folding alongside the WBL itself. McKinney still feels the sting of a career that ended too soon when the WBL folded in 1981, ending her professional basketball career.

“I remember going to [an end-of-season banquet] … and then the next day Anita [Ortega] and I got up and we packed our things and we moved back to Southern California … as we were packing our things, you just had [a] feeling — we didn’t know [if] we were coming back,” McKinney said.

After her professional basketball career ended, McKinney returned to Cal Poly Pomona to finish classes for her degree. Today, she is a program coordinator at UNLV’s Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach. She is a tireless advocate for her students and talks with them often about her experiences with the Pioneers.

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Since the Pioneers folded, the success of the three-time national champion Stanford women’s basketball — under the direction of Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in the history of the sport, Tara VanDerveer — has sustained the Bay Area’s women’s basketball legacy. Stanford alum — including players like Jennifer Azzi, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, and 2021 national champion Haley Jones — have shaped and are re-shaping the landscape of women’s basketball. Starting in 2025, a professional team of the world’s most elite players will compete all summer, just under 40 miles north of Stanford’s campus.

As the WNBA gets ready to relaunch professional women’s basketball in the Bay Area, it does so within the larger context of the area’s rich women’s basketball history and tradition. It does so because of players like Musiette McKinney and Anita Ortega, pioneers both on and off the court who shaped the game as we know it today. McKinney now welcomes the opportunity to be part of the future of Bay Area professional sports, through the WNBA’s newest franchise.

“We are waiting on some type of reunion in San Francisco,” McKinney said. “We want to be introduced to the city before the Golden State team because we never said goodbye to them… this is special for me.”

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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