August 7, 2022
How Molly (Bolin) Kazmer re-shaped perceptions of the woman athlete
WBL trailblazer confronted sexism in many forms
Molly (Bolin) Kazmer recalls her high school basketball playing days in packed gymnasiums. In her home state of Iowa, where the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union was created in 1925, girls basketball was a popular attraction at high schools throughout the state.
“I grew up in a little town in Iowa and girls’ high school basketball was always widely accepted since 1925, they formed the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union,” Kazmer said. “So we had our own branded game, which we played six-on-six, which was hugely popular, and in packed gyms.”
Even if they had tried, Molly would be hard for Iowans to ignore. She was unstoppable on the court.
“I became a star in the state of Iowa with my height. I set, scoring records, averaged 55 points a game. I scored 83 once,” Kazmer said.
That’s right. Kazmer averaged 55 points per game as a senior at Moravia High School in Moravia, Iowa. As a 17-year-old, she was selected to participate in the final tryouts of the 1976 U.S. women’s basketball Olympic team. After her high school graduation in 1975, Molly went on to play five-on-five ball at Grand View College (now Grand View University), a small Lutheran College in Des Moines.
Through high school and college, Kazmer recalls being celebrated as a basketball player first.
“With this long story history of girls basketball in the state of Iowa, nobody–society–nobody thought any less, these girls are any less feminine by playing that sport. It was widely acceptable,” Kazmer said.
The original eight franchises of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) were the Iowa Cornets, New Jersey Gems, Milwaukee Does, Chicago Hustle, Minnesota Fillies, Dayton Rockettes, New York Stars and Houston Angels.
In 1978, Kazmer became the first player to sign with the WBL, joining her home team, the Iowa Cornets. The Cornets were led by general manager Rod Lein, who coached Kazmer in college at Grand View College. The team was financed by George Nissen, owner of the Cedar Rapids-based Nissen Corp and, famously, the inventor of the trampoline.
Building on the solid foundation of girls’ high school basketball in Iowa, the Cornets franchise hoped to establish itself as a popular force in the budding league.
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In the early days of the WBL, Kazmer and her peers in the league were navigating what it meant to be a professional women’s basketball player in a country that had never before had a professional option for women to play the game.
“Here we are being celebrated as basketball players in college, and nobody said anything about [it]. So then I get recruited to the Iowa Cornets, right out of that — I still had two years of college eligibility left, when I went pro,” Kazmer told The Next. “And so the first year, we’re all just trying to try to find our footing and establish, what does it mean to be professional? What’s the difference? How do we carry ourselves? How do we present ourselves to the public? We were the first to do that. So of course, we felt that weight on our shoulders of how we are going to define that as players.”
From the inception of the franchise, Kazmer was featured in posters, commercials and other promotional materials to market the Cornets to a national audience.
In the context of the latter stages of the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1970s, a women’s professional basketball league was met with mixed reviews from a largely male sports audience.
“So the first year of the Cornets, we’re starting to get a more national exposure, there’s, there’s, there’s a little bit of just comments out there that were sort of sexism of these guys, ‘they can’t play the men’s game,’ or ‘they look, they try to look and act like the guys,’ some of that stuff was going around. The vision that people had of a female basketball player was always, we were trying to be like guys — it was a very tomboyish, a boyish look.”
For many viewers, Molly didn’t fit the image of what they believed a women’s basketball player to look like. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and traditionally-feminine appearance challenged perceptions of what a woman baller looks like.
With increased exposure came opportunities for Kazmer to make some money off the basketball court. Kazmer made a base salary of $6,000 in her first season as a Cornet; however, the team paid her an additional 50% of that salary ($3,000) to star in a film called Dribble, the brainchild of millionaire investor George Nissen.
“I signed [with the Iowa Cornets] at the end of June 1978. And then that summer they filmed, we filmed the movie. So I worked off mostly behind the scenes and props and makeup and all that stuff. So I was paid the same as the other main players in the movie. So I had already been promised a part. But the director thought I clashed with his dumb blonde or something,” Kazmer said. “He thought we looked too much alike. And so he decided not to make me one of the main characters, which at the time, I was devastated. And later, I’m so grateful that happens.”
In the days of the Iowa Cornets, it was rare for film or action photography to cover any part of the women’s game. In the absence of action photos, Kazmer and the Cornets decided to hire a photographer to capture still-frame photos of the team. These photos were to be used to promote the Cornets to a wide audience who would hopefully show up to watch the games.
“I took pictures in my uniform. And I tried this and I tried that. And one of them…. of course, the Farrah Fawcett poster was selling a million copies and, and I was like, ‘Hey, I should do something kinda like that.’ Just see what happens. So it was just an idea. And then when the prints came out, I picked out one [in] my uniform and one just sitting down in a tank top and shorts with my ball. And shoes and all that, sitting there. And oh, my gosh, you would have thought that I posed nude it created such a ripple effect. People were freaking out.”
On one hand, the posters were a huge hit. Other teams around the league asked for copies of the posters to sell in their local markets and even had their players begin to pose in similar photos. Kazmer started a mail-order business, charging three dollars per poster to supplement her WBL salary.
On the other hand, some in the feminist movement viewed the photos as exploitative of women.
“All of a sudden I have women who are fighting for equality. We’re only a few years into Title IX, who are very offended feeling that now all of a sudden the league is promoting the sexism,” Kazmer said. “But the truth was sexism permeated society. And the league didn’t create it. The league was just trying to follow along what it seemed like society was looking for be successful.”
The woman athlete
Kazmer played her third WBL season, which would turn out to be the league’s final, in California with the San Francisco Pioneers. After the season ended, Molly returned to her Iowa home with her husband Dennie and son Damien. The couple had different goals for their next steps. Molly had been living in California and was interested in staying there, while Dennie wanted to remain in Iowa.
What followed was a custody battle between Dennie and Molly that caught the attention of the small town of Moravia, Iowa. Dennie’s lawyers would proceed to go through Molly’s basketball schedule in an attempt to demonstrate that she had left her family to be on the road. The lawyers also introduced a photo of Molly in a swimsuit in an attempt to discredit her as a fit parent. During the custody battle, Molly turned down an opportunity to play professional ball in Italy. In the local courts, Dennie was granted full custody of Damien. Molly was allowed to have custody of Damien for two months of the year.
“Without the WBL, I was working a construction job making only about five dollars an hour, as it was the first job offered and I took it, later becoming a painting contractor for 10 years,” Kazmer told The Next. “All the while trying to get a basketball career going again because I knew women’s pro basketball could make it. After multiple trips while the [court] case was postponed ‘indefinitely’ once, I made it to the end of about three or four days of hearings, and the final ruling by the judge was pretty much word for word from the opposing lawyer making his case for the father. I later found out that lawyer and the judge in my case were fishing buddies. So while they tried to make my case about my pro basketball career, it was really over before it started.”
Eventually, Molly would take the case to the Iowa Supreme Court, where the lower court’s decision was overridden and the couple was granted joint custody of their son Damien. Molly was awarded physical custody during the school year.
“It became a ‘precedent-setting case’ in the law books because the judge allowed the divorce with joint custody without specifying physical custody and the Supreme Court wanted to make sure that did not happen again,” Kazmer said.
In her custody battle, both Molly’s status as a woman athlete and photographs of her were weaponized to attempt to discredit her fitness to parent. In addition to sexism permeating into her personal, home life, Kazmer also felt that she was taken less seriously by peers in the women’s basketball community after her time in the WBL. Despite her success on the court, which included breaking scoring records that stand to this day and winning co-MVP with Ann Meyers Drysdale in the league’s second season, people still criticized or distanced themselves from Molly because of the posters.
“As Title IX stepped into more action into the 80s, early 80s. And, and teams like USC and Cheryl Miller began to rise, the 1984 Olympic team started getting a lot more attention,” Kazmer told The Next. “During that period of time, when the [WBL] first folded, I went into sports marketing. I was, I was attending sporting goods shows and going to the Final Fours and working the exhibit halls and stuff. And, and I remember interacting with a lot of the college coaches in those early years [after] the league folded, and they didn’t give me the time of day. I mean, no respect whatsoever, because of the posters.”
“And even today, there’ll be a story that comes out and said, ‘Yeah, she was remembered more for her posters than her jump shot.'”
Kazmer didn’t allow the negative attention to get in the way of her passion for the game, however.
“After winning custody, I was unable to play pro overseas, but I did resume my pro basketball career, played in an Olympic tour and did a commercial with Larry Bird in 1984 followed by another shot at a pro league, the [Women’s American Basketball Association] WABA,” Kazmer told The Next.
The WABA would last one season, and Kazmer was involved in trying to jumpstart two more professional women’s basketball leagues in the United States. She hosted basketball camps around the country and dominated in men’s rec leagues when there was no professional women’s option. She is rightfully celebrated as a heroine in her hometown of Moravia, Iowa.
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Today, in 2022, women athletes still fight to be taken seriously in a male-dominated sports industry.
Kazmer acknowledges that “some things have changed, and some things haven’t” as it relates to sexism in women’s sports. According to her, social media is a tool for women athletes to control their own narratives.
“Social media has influenced people’s perspectives on female athletes, no question about it,” Kazmer said. “But the difference is, is that the players themselves get to control what they put out on social media for the most part, yeah, and how they want to present themselves and how they want to market themselves.”
The ability to market oneself and the recent college athletics legislation that allows college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL) has opened up the doors for women athletes to make more money off of endorsements and brand deals. These opportunities were stripped from Kazmer when the WBL folded in 1981, three years after its inception.
“For me, unfortunately, I was on my way. I was on the path. I was getting endorsements and everything and boom, it just it and it’s abruptly we didn’t have any closure,” Kazmer told The Next. “Because the last letter we got from the WBL in 1981 said that they were restructuring and they would be in contact and they were getting a new commissioner and getting new ownerships. And they’d be back and then just nothing.”
The legacy of the WBL doesn’t end, however, when the league folded in 1981. Far from it.
Some of the first bearers of the weight of sexism in women’s sports were the trailblazing players in the WBL, including Molly Kazmer. These women set out to define for the very first time how a professional women’s basketball league would fit into a national sports landscape.
While some may view each women’s professional basketball league that came before the 26-year-old WNBA as a “failed” league, it is more accurate to think about them as foundational leagues. Each time women dared to lace up their sneakers and play professional basketball, starting with the WBL, they were not only showcasing their incredible talent and athleticism but also chipping away at and re-shaping perceptions of what it means to be a woman in sport.