January 15, 2024 

Five decades on, basketball still guides former WBL player Tonyus Chavers

After playing for the Minnesota Fillies, Chavers now cheers on the Lynx

Tonyus Chavers was walking down the hallway as a seventh grader when her middle school’s basketball coach approached her and asked her if she played the sport. She was about 5’8 at the time but hadn’t played before. The coach brought her to the gym, put her on the block and showed her how to make a bank shot; “That was the beginning of things,” she told The Next.

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Chavers graduated high school in 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX and four years before the establishment of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) in 1978. Her high school didn’t start a girls’ basketball program until the year after she graduated, so she played “street ball with the guys like a lot of women from my generation,” she said. Two years after she graduated high school, Chavers found out LeMoyne–Owen College in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee was starting a women’s basketball program. Her friend encouraged her to try out.

“They’re giving full scholarships and you need to get off of these streets,” she recalls her friend telling her. “I wasn’t in a good place. I got caught up and was facing 3-10 years in [a] federal penitentiary for forgery at age 19.”

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After talking to LeMoyne–Owen head coach Virgie Broussard Pradia and working out for her, Chavers was offered a scholarship on the spot. When Chavers’ case was up in court, she went to her coach and admitted where her life was.

“I went back to her and I told her that I had made a really bad mistake and I’m gonna have to pay for it,” Chavers said. “But I didn’t want that scholarship to go to waste if someone else could use it, knowing that this was the first program for women at the college. And she basically told me ‘let me worry about that.’

“What I didn’t know until I went to court was that she had written a letter to the judge that was going to be hearing my case and explained to him that I had been offered a full scholarship to give me this opportunity. And as I stood before the judge and he started talking about her, I knew something was happening.”

The judge told her that she would get probation and that he wanted to see her name in the sports section. Over the next few years, Chavers’ name was right at home in the sports section of The Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Press-Scimitar. “That was literally the fork in the road in my life,” Chavers said.

She recalled the inaugural LeMoyne–Owen team of eight played just a handful of games and only half the team met the academic standards. “And I’ll never forget the headline in The Commercial Appeal saying the LeMoyne–Owen women don’t make the grades,” Chavers said. “And it was a bitter pill to swallow. I had to work really hard to get the C-average that I did end up getting at the time.”

As she found more success in the classroom, Chavers excelled on the court, improving from 19 points and 10 rebounds per game as a sophomore to 27 points and 17 rebounds per game as a junior, leading the Volunteer State Athletic Conference in scoring and rebounding that year.

During her junior year, her team was on a road trip to play Tupelo College when she and her roommate spotted the WBL team Iowa Cornets’ bus at a hotel down the street from theirs. “I remember telling my roommate — these women have to be pros if they have their own bus,” Chavers said.

The next morning the pair picked up a newspaper and found out the Iowa Cornets and the Chicago Hustle played a WBL exhibition game the night prior. A season later, Chavers called to tell her former roommate that she had ridden on the bus they’d seen. The St. Louis Streak was a WBL expansion team in 1979 and their coaches called different colleges, including Tennessee State. Though the schools were archrivals, the Tennessee State coach directed them to Chavers. She had just finished her junior year but decided to leave school to try out for the Streak. Her mother wanted her to stay in school and graduate. “I was like ‘no-no-no wait a minute. I gotta do this.’ I just feel like this opportunity is not gonna come again and I can’t let it pass me by. And so she understood,” Chavers said.

She played most of her first season in the league with St. Louis, before being traded to the Iowa Cornets late in the season. “The center for Iowa got hurt and they asked to trade for me…playing with Molly Bolin, I was like, ‘Yes, I’m there, give me a ticket,’” she said.

Chavers signed with the Minnesota Fillies for the 1980-1981 season, but eventually after missing a couple of paychecks she and her teammates knew something was coming. She had a dream that the team had a meeting at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in St. Paul where they practiced, and the owner and general manager were there to tell them the team was out of money. She knew she had to share the dream with her teammates and two weeks after having it, everything played out as it had in her dream.

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Though she played just two seasons of professional basketball, it changed the trajectory of Chavers’ life. “I hadn’t even thought about playing ball professionally, that wasn’t a dream for any of us, we didn’t see it coming, [we were] gonna miss that boat,” she said.

Chavers was hurt when the league ended and though 1976 Olympian Charlotte Lewis and others tried to convince her to play overseas, she wasn’t optimistic. “I was just angry and I’m like, ‘Basketball was born in America, I’m not traveling halfway around the world, why can’t we have [it], why can’t it stay?’” she said. “I was just upset. I was truly hurt.”

Though she had negative emotions after it folded, the WBL provided Chavers the opportunity to answer her own question: could she play against people she’d heard about like Ann Meyers, Lucy Harris and Nancy Lieberman? “They were all there, and I was able to compete. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re okay, you’re okay,’” she said. 

After the WBL folded Chavers was working at a Boys and Girls Club and coaching three teams, but she wouldn’t touch the ball. The kids she coached were perplexed but she told them, “I’m going to teach you what I know about this game. But this game and I have been in a relationship since I was 12; I love it, but right now we’re in a bad fight so I’m not touching it. And they thought I was crazy,” she recalled.

It wasn’t easy for her to coach without touching a basketball, but she didn’t want the fact she was done with the sport to keep her from teaching the next generation. “They just had to understand that you’re not gonna get a pass from your coach. Not gonna happen,” Chavers said.

She eventually realized she loved the sport more than she knew and after she took a year to sulk and complain, she was ready to return.

Around the same time the WBL folded, her path crossed with Kwame McDonald, who coached the local Summit-University Stars women’s basketball team with Steve Winfield. McDonald approached Chavers about playing on the team and was immediately shot down. “I looked him in his face and said, I’m never gonna play basketball again. And he was just like, ‘Okay.’ And he left me alone for a full calendar year,” she said.

After a year he asked her again and she was ready. She played on the team for 10 years and won seven state championships.

“We had a really, really nice team,” Chavers said. “…At one point, we had four coaches that was a part of our team. And so we really played for each other. It was the most unselfish group of women I had ever played with. Everybody literally wanted to see everybody else succeed. So it made it really, really easy and fun again, because I had lost the joy of it too, which was a big part of it. But to get the joy back of just playing, that was the best part of playing for the Stars.” 

Shaping the next generation

While she wasn’t getting paid by the Fillies, Chavers lost her car due to missed payments but she still decided to stay in Minneapolis. “I’m not leaving, cause I’m mad. I’m gonna get something from this,” she said. “So I ended up staying and eventually graduating from the University of Minnesota and starting my 30-year teaching career, so I got what I wanted from them.”

Finishing her degree wasn’t something Chavers’ mother thought her daughter would ever do, but with Coach McDonald’s encouragement, she was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. About eight years later McDonald, who over the years became a father figure for her, pushed Chavers to get a graduate degree which she did, from St. Mary’s University

During the mid-late 80s, Chavers was a junior varsity coach at Minneapolis North High School before returning to the team as a head coach from 1991-95. “We made a little bit of noise. I think the year before I started they went 5-15 and our first year together we went 15-5,” she said. “And the year after that we won the Twin Cities championship and the Minneapolis conference championship. So, I’d actually like to say too that I laid the foundation for my successors to win multiple championships. But it was fun work. And it was very rewarding because you never know who you’re going to cross paths with.”

In her last year at the helm, Chavers coached future WNBA first-round pick Tamara Moore. Moore played collegiately at Wisconsin and is the men’s basketball head coach at Mesabi Range College. Over the course of her career as an elementary school physical education teacher, she impacted many lives and won the Top Teacher Award from the local Fox affiliate in 2015. 

Reflecting on her life, Chavers knows basketball provided her with a pivotal shift in direction. She took those lessons and made sure to pass them on. “I had a really, really good [life after] Title IX that I know wouldn’t have been there for me,” she said. “I would share with my students through the years about choices. I didn’t necessarily get on the Title IX part of my history with them. They knew that I played in the league but they didn’t really know all of the background of it. But what I was trying to get them to understand is sometimes you can make a choice as a young person that would change the trajectory of your life.”

And I would always as I was sharing my story with them [say], ‘Now, do you think that I could have been your teacher if I had gone to prison for 3-10 years?’ [And] I would say ‘No’ because you can’t be a felon and have this job. So be careful about the choices you make [and] learn to make good choices … because I almost made a fatal one. [That] was a constant thread throughout my career that I shared with them. ‘Please practice making good choices because again, it can change a lot.’”

Basketball has taught Chavers quite a bit, including how to be a good teammate and take responsibility for her actions. Most importantly, though, it taught her about setting goals. “It’s one thing to talk about something but to actually go through the steps and see where you started from and be able to look back was the most I got from it,” she said. It was a lesson she shared with her students over the years, including how to set realistic goals, reach them and then move on to more ambitious ones.

When the WNBA’s Lynx came to Minneapolis, Chavers decided to give professional women’s basketball another try at the age of 43. When she called her mom, her mom told her that if she thought she could do it, she wanted to see her go for it. Having already played in a U.S. women’s professional basketball league, Chavers didn’t have any nerves and instead was just excited at the opportunity to play professional basketball in her country again.

One person she played with during the tryouts was the niece of University of Memphis star Betty Booker-Parks who played a few miles from Chavers from 1976-80. Chavers took her under her wing and repeatedly passed the ball to her 6’6 teammate for the night, not taking a shot for herself. The second night, Chavers decided she wasn’t passing the ball and started talking trash.

Though Chavers had a lot of fun during the tryout process, she didn’t make the team. She tore her meniscus the first night of tryouts but didn’t know it at the time because she was hyped up and full of adrenaline. After the surgery she ended up needing, she went to the Lynx’s home opener with a walker.

After tryouts, she was a Lynx fan, even traveling to a nearby town to witness the team’s logo reveal. She’s spent the seasons since watching the franchise grow before her eyes and reflected that watching the Lynx dynasty was amazing for her as a fan.

“I was there for those lean years,” she said. “And when you go through some lean years with a team, and then watching them put those pieces together? Man, I never had so much fun at basketball games either. Sometimes I just couldn’t even sit down…I remember, it was the second championship run. And we were in the finals of the Western Conference. And [there] was a couple of games where I just couldn’t even sit down.

“So I had found a spot at Target Center where I could stand up. And there was a level that was above my head. So I wasn’t standing in anybody’s way. I remember one night, one of the ushers looked at me, like he wanted to come over and talk to me about not being in my seat and somebody said just leave her alone. Just leave her alone. When I heard it, I was like good. They know I would be sitting down if I could.”

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As her love for the WNBA and the Lynx continues, Chavers reflects on her time in the WBL. “It was awesome,” she said. “But I had no idea what was really happening. We just sort of enjoyed the ride. We knew that we were the first ones to have this opportunity. So I think we put up with a lot of things knowing it was going to be better down the road. I guess when you’re at the beginning you can’t really rock the boat that much and we didn’t try to. But I think we all knew somewhere that we were laying the foundation for something that was going to be big. And now when I look at WNBA games, it just, it warms my heart every time.”

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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