August 22, 2022
The journey and lasting impact of women’s basketball trailblazer Karen Logan
How a pre-Title IX athlete changed women's basketball forever
Well into the 1970s women played basketball with a standard 29.5-inch basketball, the same ball their male counterparts used.
Karen Logan saw an opportunity to change that.
“Almost all sports, with the exception of basketball, vary the size, weight and nature of the equipment to compensate for the physical size and anatomical differences of women,” said Karen Logan in the 2006 book Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women’s Professional Basketball League, 1978-1981. “These compensations are designed to [ensure] equal mobility for women within the same rule structure of each sport. Thus, by not handicapping female athletes with oversized, misfit equipment, the quality of the product is preserved.”
The WBL approached Logan before the league started in 1978 and asked if she would be a public-facing figure and help promote the league.
After she agreed to participate, she brought up her idea of designing a smaller ball.
“I think we can make this league really unique and we can improve the game,” she recalled in a conversation with The Next. “And they were all ears, they thought it was a great idea.”
She also presented the proposal to the AIAW and after they turned down the idea, she knew she had to go with the WBL.
“The rest is history because, not that many years later, [the ball] did get adopted, for the women’s collegiate game,” Logan said. “And then it went on to be in the Olympics, and now it’s worldwide. And now it’s — it’s used everywhere. It’s just the standard, better ball for women.”
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After seeing previous attempts at starting a women’s professional basketball league fail, Logan thought the WBL had the best chance to begin play and believed the league needed to present something unique.
“I wanted the WBL to have its own sort of signature, its own legacy,” Logan said. “And I’d been thinking about the need to modify the ball for years because it’s too big to handle. When I saw this, the WBL’s going to make it — if it’s going to have a chance, that was the time to do it. And Wilson Sporting Goods and the commissioner of the WBL were more than happy to try it.”
When working on the design of the smaller ball, Logan experimented with different sizes and weights, eventually settling on a size exactly in between the existing junior (27.5-inch ball) and the current regulation ball (29.5-inch ball). After settling on a 28.5-inch circumference Logan ensured the ball was proportionally lighter in comparison to the 29.5-inch ball.
“I think it really sharpened up the game, made it more efficient,” Logan said.
Elizabeth Galloway-McQuitter, president of Legends of the Ball, told The Next, “That ball revolutionized the game.”
She also noted that those that played in the WBL grew up playing with the 29.5-inch ball and had to adjust to the smaller ball.
“It didn’t take long, but what it did was — you couldn’t shoot all of a sudden if you couldn’t shoot before,” Galloway-McQuitter said. “But your range improved, your ball handling improved, your passing improved, the speed of the game improved. And that was the vision [Logan] saw.”
She later added, “And somebody else could have come up with it. But they didn’t. She did. And then Wilson produced it. Bill Byrne adopted it and we introduced it.”
Galloway-McQuitter, a defensive specialist nicknamed the “Bandit,” loved the new ball. “I loved stealing that ball, stripping it out of people’s hands, ripping it out of people’s hands,” she said.
Robin Tucker, former Iowa Cornets point guard, loved the smaller ball and told The Next, “What [Karen Logan] did really transformed the game.”
Tucker also noted that, while her shot range increased, there was an adjustment period. “At first, handling the smaller ball was, it was a little different,” she said. “The smaller [ball] could get away from you if you kind of did behind the back, between the legs kind of dribbling, but we became used to it.”
Molly (Bolin) Kazmer loved the smaller ball from the start; as a long-range shooter it increased her range and she was able to handle the ball better.
“All of a sudden, in my head, that basket opened way up,” Kazmer told the Next. “My confidence went way up for shooting.”
Not everyone in the WBL liked the smaller ball, including Marie Kocurek.
“That was a slap in the face,” Kocurek said in Mad Seasons. “Women don’t need consolations to make us play better. It was an insult when they gave us a smaller ball saying women need something smaller so they can handle it. That pissed me off.”
An athlete’s journey
Logan’s fingerprints were all over the development and lead up to the WBL. But her journey in sports started much earlier.
In 1967 Logan won a California junior tennis championship, despite not really wanting to be a tennis player.
“I just played because they had a team at my high school,” Logan said. “And so I did obviously very well, and the junior championship was just kind of a cherry on top. But I still didn’t really have a desire to further my career in tennis.”
“I guess the whole time I was thinking, ‘Well, I enjoy tennis. And I’m pretty good at it. But this is probably not good enough to actually go professional,” Logan said. “So it was, I guess it was just a way to compete and play in a sport when nothing else was available. But it wasn’t my passion.”
Logan attended Pepperdine University on an Athletic Achievement Grant and went on to train under the men’s track coaches, having run track in high school. She qualified for the Olympic trials in 1968 but pulled her hamstring prior to competing in the trials.
“It wasn’t my passion and … the whole time I was running track and playing tennis. I was playing pickup basketball games with the guys at Pepperdine and the men’s basketball team,” Logan said. “That’s really what I wanted to do. And they allowed me to play with them and play pickup games. And, so [I] always would go back to the sport that I loved.”
Gary Colson, the men’s head basketball coach at Pepperdine at the time, encouraged Logan to find a way to play basketball after her senior year of college. He knew the owner of the All American Redheads and passed on the contact information to her; she tried out and played on the team from 1971 to 1974.
The Redheads played what Logan called “entertainment basketball” adding, “there was some comedy to it, but — They. Could. Play.”
“They were the only public team out there that ever, ever got any notoriety,” Logan said. “I mean, there was no women’s professional basketball, college basketball was not that organized yet. And they toured the country.”
A 1974 Sports Illustrated article described Logan as “the finest athlete” on the Redheads and “easily the best of them, averaging 23 points a game and playing always with a fierce intensity.”
The article also compared her to an NBA legend. “Seeing Karen play, even against once-upon-a-time high school stars, is like seeing a work of art. Her moves remind one of Pete Maravich.”
In 1975 CBS began Challenge of The Sexes, and Logan was invited to play H-O-R-S-E against Jerry West. And won.
Shortly thereafter she came in second in the ABC show The Superstars and came in sixth in the 1976 season of the show.
Sometime after appearing on Challenge of The Sexes and The Superstars, Logan signed a two-year shoe deal with Nike. She was paid $3,500 a year and provided boxes of shoes to give away.
Throughout her high school, collegiate and post-collegiate years, Logan’s success in a variety of sports was clear. Having not played volleyball since she played “a bit” in high school, Logan’s future New Jersey Gems teammate and competitor on The Superstars, Mary Jo Peppler, offered to give Logan a “crash course” in volleyball. The lesson included passing and digging, so Logan could play on Peppler’s co-ed professional volleyball team in the International Volleyball Association. Logan played for two seasons.
Logan believes playing on the Redheads and her television appearances propelled her into the public eye.
“Anyone that was trying to put a league together at that point was contacting me,” Logan said.
She was thrilled about the opportunity the WBL gave her to keep playing and to have a career playing basketball. “There’s going to be a place to go. All these failed attempts, this is going to stick,” she said.
The WBL’s league office wanted Logan to sign with the Chicago Hustle because the league anticipated Chicago to be the strongest franchise with good crowds, and the franchise had solid financial backing.
The Hustle tasked Logan with helping them find other players for the team, including at UNLV, where she recruited Galloway-McQuitter.
Logan also helped design the team’s uniforms, serving as a player/coach, continued to work for the league and participated in what ultimately decided the franchise’s name.
The Hustle were originally set to be called the Skyline until one summer afternoon at the Navy Pier when Logan and Peppler challenged two men to a game of two-on-two. The matchup was filmed by a TV crew who, while on air, joked that the two men had been “hustled,” as Mad Seasons author Karra Porter wrote.
“That’s what I’d been doing my whole life,” Logan said in Mad Seasons. “When I was growing up, it was prove, prove, prove. Guys would be saying bad things about women, so you’d try to trick them into games and then blast them. And I figured we were in Chicago, and isn’t it known for its con artists and dealings? And then there was the idea of disco and dancing, which gets us to the beauty of movement.”
Logan told The Next, “I think what we talked about was the style of play that the franchise and Doug Bruno want to play, and that Hustle seemed to be the best name.”
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In addition to trying to balance her myriad responsibilities, something no one else in the league was dealing with, she broke her foot in a preseason game and had to scramble to get healthy enough to play in the team’s opening game, as the Hustle were pushing for it. The break was something that a doctor told her would take 10 to 11 months to heal and she only had three or four months before the season started.
As her recovery continued, Logan scored 20 points in a preseason game in Mississippi and the next day couldn’t walk.
“Had I not played in that preseason game maybe I would have made it to the opening one not so tentative,” Logan said.
She went on to play in the season-opener and while she was able to get up and down the court, she wasn’t able to play at the level the franchise had hoped she would.
“My primary goal all along was just to play,” Logan said. “I just wanted to play. But I got kind of swept up in the beginning in the administration, the organization, the promotion, all the sort of foundational things of putting that league together. And so yeah, it was a lot of hats to wear.”
She later noted. “I think that it was all well and good in the beginning because I really wanted this to succeed,” she said. “But it was — it ended up being a conflict of interest as it went along. I just couldn’t wear that many hats and still be in good terms with everybody.”
“I was just thinking this thing’s surely going to go. And they want my help. And I have some ideas,” she later added. “And yeah, but in the end, I mean, like, even being a player-assistant coach was a disaster. Because I mean, nobody does that. I mean, I want to play, but I’m also an assistant coach, well what if, what if the coach or I as [an] assistant decides I shouldn’t play? I’m going, ‘Wow, wait.’ I mean, and players would come to me with problems, I’m thinking, hey, go talk to the head coach, but I was an assistant coach. And it’s like, oh — there was just conflicts of interest springing up everywhere.”
While it was exciting for Logan in the beginning, she noted it “turned a corner where it was kind of a mess.”
A dream turned nightmare
Logan found it gratifying to be on the ground floor and given the opportunity by the league, the owners and the head coach, Doug Bruno, to have influence and input as well as the ability to promote the league like she and Peppler did at Navy Pier.
Her positive experiences made it even more confusing and devastating when it all fell apart for Logan. Despite her immense impact behind the scenes, Logan’s time in the WBL playing with the ball she designed and brought to life was short.
During her first season, due to her forward-facing role and the promotion she was doing, when players were unhappy or had problems, they contacted Logan. As problems began to surface, Logan thought to herself, ‘What can I do about this?’
“All I could tell them is, ‘Hey, if you don’t get paid, don’t play,’ but many of them didn’t want to lose their jobs,” she said.
An NFL Players Association (NFLPA) representative contacted her, because he recognized her as a face of the league, and told her the WBL needed a player’s association to protect players’ rights.
“I think they were interested in taking the WBL under their association umbrella,” Logan said. “Not sure why. He didn’t say why. You would think it might have been the NBA Players Association, but it wasn’t; it was the NFL.”
The representative asked Logan if she would be willing to talk to the players throughout the league about their interest in a players’ association. Despite not knowing how much influence she had, Logan agreed.
“I think word got back to management, got back to the league headquarters. I think that was within a very short time, that I started appearing as a threat to the league or a troublemaker,” Logan said. “I mean, it was fine when they used all my other ideas.”
During the 1978-79 season, Logan was traded to the New Jersey Gems where she finished the season. She hoped for a fresh start in New Jersey, and while things were better on the court, other issues arose.
“My foot was just about well, I’ll play well for them, you know, make a comeback, this will work,” Logan remembered thinking to herself. “And I did play quite well for them, they were very happy to have me there. But they ran out of money. So, again, this dream was slowly sort of spinning out into somewhat of a nightmare.”
The Gems wanted to renew her contract but after having not gotten paid everything she was owed she decided not to renew it. Instead, she contacted the expansion franchise in New Orleans, the Pride, which told her that they didn’t “want any trouble down here.”
She told the Pride she just wanted to play, trying to convince them she was more than the reputation that preceded her, and the team agreed. Shortly after she arrived in New Orleans and made the team, the NFLPA contacted her again noting there were even more problems in the league and again asked her to speak to other players in the new franchises.
On one weekend she had off, Logan traveled to Dallas to talk to players about a players association. Within a couple of weeks of getting back to New Orleans, Logan was let go, without being given a reason.
“I pretty much, pretty much figured out that players probably got scared, probably said something; who knows, but so I went home at that point,” she said.
As a social worker, Logan believes in cooperation, helping to raise people up and people working together, but said at its core, sports “can get ugly.”
After Wilson agreed to produce the smaller ball, Logan asked if she would need to secure rights to the ball, the company told her no and that it would take care of her.
“I would like to believe that sports had more loyalty to its players, to its people involved,” Logan said. “But I think they’re starting to develop more of a conscience. That’s always been a little bit of my conflict with sports.”
Logan put her trust in those she was collaborating with, and it backfired.
“I didn’t secure a lawyer. I didn’t patent it. I didn’t get rights, I really believed that they would handle that,” Logan said. She later added, “I guess I just trusted them to do the right thing and was naive enough not to know that that wasn’t going to be the case.”
According to Mad Seasons, after her tenure with the New Orleans Pride ended, Logan contacted a lawyer in New York to find out if she had rights to the smaller ball she designed. The lawyer told Logan “he could seek a temporary court order preventing league play with the ball until the issue was decided,” Porter wrote.
“He was willing to take the case, but he needed a $10,000 retainer,” Logan said. “I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have it.”
So she walked away.
“Is it in keeping with how sports work sometimes, the business world, the competitive world, is it in keeping? Yes, it is, it was,” Logan said. “Was it in keeping that Wilson said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of you.’ But they didn’t. While that was up to me to secure my rights, and I didn’t know that, could they have done the right thing and said, ‘Hey, this is your idea. We need to protect you. Let’s help you. Let’s help you, let’s get you a patent lawyer.’ They could have, right? They could have.”
Prior to the 1980-81 season Logan, a California native, reached out to the San Francisco Pioneers and asked if she could come and try out.
“This is like Groundhog’s Day over and over again. And they just said, no, no, this time it was no, you’re trouble. So that’s, that’s pretty much how I figured it out.” Logan said. “I became somewhat outspoken about the improprieties in the league. I mean, you know, hell I’d been on the ground floor trying to put this thing together. It seems like I wasn’t going to stop voicing what I thought was right, once it got going. … I played one year and probably a month into the second and that was, that was it.”
Logan paused before adding, “Career over. Went home.”
When she went home, Logan was in shock and felt betrayed and depressed, something that took years to recover from.
“How could that happen so fast?” Logan questions. “How can I be so, so relevant one minute, and so irrelevant the next? I guess that was my biggest up — that was the hardest thing to understand, how you could just go home a year later and be irrelevant.”
Logan was hired as a player/coach for the Tucson Storm of the Ladies’ Professional Basketball Association, but the team folded before a game was played. She played a few games for the New Mexico Energee in the same league before the league folded as well.
She then had to figure out what to do with the rest of her life and after holding odd jobs for a while, she coached Utah State’s women’s basketball program from 1982-84, went on to graduate school and became a psychotherapist. Logan has had her private practice for more than 35 years, a career she enjoys.
“But throughout all that time of finally getting to a career, a job, a good job. I didn’t, I didn’t watch basketball. I didn’t think about basketball,” she said. “I just left it back there. I just left it.”
Logan noted that many of the things that happened to her, wouldn’t happen today because of the changes that have occurred over the course of more than four decades. Now, players’ associations ensure players’ rights and the athletes are no longer negotiating contracts without an agent.
“There’s an evolution here, there’s a progression, and everything has to start somewhere. And the start-ups are a bit bumpy,” Logan said.
She later added, “That kind of stuff wouldn’t have, couldn’t happen now. And you know, just like with Title IX, it just changed the landscape. So I think you have to, when you get to my point in life, shift and look back and say, ‘of course, it’s an evolutionary process.’”
After her WBL career ended prematurely, Logan went on with her life “bitter” and “despairing” as she described.
“I felt like I’d really gotten used and exploited and been thrown away,” she said “So there were a lot of years after that, that I just sort of walked away from basketball and just put it away and dealt with it the best I could.”
Galloway-McQuitter contacted Logan a couple of years ago and convinced her to tell her story, something that has been a healing experience for Logan. It isn’t about the notoriety for Logan, but rather the processing through talking. As a counselor, she both believes in and has experienced the power of having people hear her story, which releases the pain associated with these memories.
“I didn’t realize how much I still held inside that I hadn’t processed, that I hadn’t let go of,” Logan said. “And so the last two years have been really good in terms of just coming to peace, coming to [a] resolution about the whole thing. But there were a lot of years that I was pretty depressed, pretty sad and pretty angry. And — but I don’t — don’t feel that way anymore.”
Logan felt the 2020 North Coast Journal article about her life titled “Born Too Soon” was aptly named, before possibly reconsidering.
“Everything has to start somewhere,” she said. “So you can say, you’re born too soon, you could have been a WNBA star. [And] you’re going well, ‘there wouldn’t be any WNBA had some of us not been born back then and put that together.’ So I think however you make peace with your place in history, your place in this whole scheme of things, is pretty important.”
This year, unlike many before, Logan makes the decision to click on a WNBA game while scrolling on her TV’s guide.
“And for the first time, I watched them and I watched the ball and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what you guys can do with that little ball.’”