April 15, 2024 

Raegan Pebley and the multigenerational legacy of the WBL

Sparks general manager embodies the transformative impact of a pioneering league

Early in his career, basketball enthusiast Ray Scott unexpectedly landed two coaching jobs in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) — first with the Dallas Diamonds during the 1979-80 season, then with the New Orleans Pride the following season. Though the specific appointments were unexpected, Scott finding himself in the right place at the right time was no coincidence. He proactively contacted both organizations because he saw what the nation’s first-ever women’s professional basketball league was doing and wanted to be involved.

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Scott lived in Texas when the WBL launched in 1978. He jokes that he didn’t care much for going out or partying back then, so he filled his spare time engaging with the local basketball community. He traveled frequently for work, and instead of posting up at the hotel bar, he’d play pickup at a local gym or find a game to watch at a local high school or college. On one such trip, he crossed paths with a woman who could really ball.

As Scott recalls to The Next, “I thought she was pretty good and could be in the WBL. When I got back to Dallas, I contacted the owner of the club and got her a tryout and she made it.”

That connection led to an ongoing relationship with the Dallas front office that ultimately led to a coaching opportunity for Scott. The Diamonds’ first head coach, Dean Weese, was brought on to offer some name recognition as a well-known figure in the Texas basketball scene. Weese joined the team following several successful seasons coaching the Wayland Baptist University Flying Queens. When Dallas underwent a change in ownership and relieved Weese of his coaching duties following a five-game losing streak, the team called upon Scott to finish out the season. 

The following year Scott remained with the Diamonds as Greg Williams took over as head coach. But part way through the year, Scott’s day job took him to New Orleans. He wanted to continue coaching and supporting the league so he got in touch with the Pride, who brought him on as an assistant. One month into the season, Butch van Breda Kolff, the Pride’s head coach, had accrued six technical fouls, $725 in fines and one ejection for his behavior on the sidelines. With six games remaining in the season, the Pride’s management — fed up with van Breda Kolff’s unrelenting, combative stylings — suspended him for his unpaid fines and promoted Scott to lead the team for the final half a dozen games. 

Ray Scott chose the women’s game because he believes it’s the most pure form of the game. His coaching experiences with the WBL allowed him to develop a special relationship with the game — one that persists to this day.

“It’s just fundamentally sound basketball. It’s always been that way, and even more so now,” Scott told The Next.

A multigenerational passion

At both of his stops in the WBL, Scott proactively pursued his desire to participate in what the WBL was building. He didn’t make enough money for coaching to supplant his full-time job, but his family sensed which pursuit brought the most satisfaction. In particular, his daughter, Raegan Pebley (née Scott) took an interest in her father’s passion, developing her own love of basketball along the way.

“I’d see him coming and going to his practices and games with just joy in comparison to going and doing his job that helped pay for food on our table,” Pebley told The Next. “And that left a significant impression on me — that I wanted to do what was going to bring joy to me and, very similar to my dad, that was being involved with the game that was helping lead women and helping them chase the best version of themselves.”

Pebley’s passion translated to a career in basketball. She went to play at the University of Colorado and was selected in the inaugural WNBA draft. After two years playing professionally, she moved on to Division I coaching, which she did from 2003-2023. Her combined record of 283-268 across stints at Utah State, Fresno State and TCU includes conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances. Pebley also worked as a television analyst for the Dallas Wings from 2016-2023. In January, she was named general manager of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.

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The WBL locker rooms in which Pebley spent some of her childhood influenced the professional that she is today as GM of the Sparks. Rather than fixating on Xs and Os, her father Ray Scott focused on “trying to establish a culture where there might not have been one.” He worked to ease the discomfort of existing on a new team in a young league by setting an example of hard work and mutual support.

“I [fought] like the dickens to give my players the best I could,” he said. “And sometimes it worked out. And sometimes it didn’t. But you owe it to them to do your best. You expect them to give their best. So in return, you have to do the same.”

Establishing a team culture is crucial but, for a new league, establishing a strong fanbase with a positive culture is just as critical. Scott knew the game should be an entertaining product and while certain in-game strategies might lead to wins, winning wasn’t everything. One of Scott’s guiding principles then and now is, “You have to entertain the fans or they’re not going to come and enjoy themselves.”

But marketing the product on the court only truly works if the product itself is high quality. The play on the floor held up its end of the bargain. The Scott family made a point to bring as many people as possible to games. Scott’s wife Sandi remembers how the women of the WBL impressed the newcomers. Converting new fans was light work once their butts hit the seats.

“One comment that was almost universal was that people had no idea how well the women played and how interesting the game was,” Sandi told The Next.

But at times the games suffered from substandard officiating. The referees liked to prepare a nice home-cooked meal for the fans in attendance. On one particularly gluttonous evening, five players from the New Orleans Pride fouled out, leaving only four healthy players eligible to finish the game. Scott spoke to his team about playing the remaining five minutes shorthanded, but together they decided to send a message. Their caliber of play deserved an equal caliber of officiating.

“The refs had fouled all my players out but four,” Scott recalls. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous. Something’s gotta be done.’ So we walked off.”

Who gets to be the face?

Shoddy officiating is just one example of the WBL team owners’ skewed priorities. They saw value in women’s basketball but chose to market the game in a way that drew focus away from the action and narratives unfolding on the court. Instead, they led with the players’ physical appearances. Dallas brought in a professional stylist and “held a marathon hair-styling session” prior to the team’s first game and hired big-name coaches from elsewhere in basketball who failed to even finish a season. Then when the teams didn’t immediately turn a profit, many folded — demonstrating the owners’ lack of commitment and misguided understanding of how to grow a league.

But instead of centering the players’ abilities or securing capable officials to support the game’s integrity, they attempted to pump up the game’s image superficially.

“They were wanting to go into the locker room and film [to make it look] as if [the players] were taking a shower,” Scott said. “I wouldn’t agree to that at all.” 

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The marketing of women’s sports leagues has changed a lot in the decades since the WBL unfolded, but not without growing pains. On a recent episode of the podcast Pablo Torre Finds Out, WNBA alum Sue Bird and her fiancé, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, speak about their experiences as rising stars in relatively new leagues. Though Bird and Rapinoe are both open about their sexualities now, that was not the case when Bird was initially drafted into the WNBA in 2002.

Bird remembers the messaging to her at age 21 was that, “to have success from a marketing standpoint, is to really sell this like, straight, girl next door [image].” That was the only option. And players felt a responsibility to pursue that option even if it felt fake, disingenuous and irrelevant to their goals as athletes.

“This is the only way that you’re gonna get marketed. So you can either be here or not,” Rapinoe added, underscoring the pressure to play along. “Do you want to help the league grow? Or do you not? And that’s an impossible situation.”

In recent years, Pebley feels that emotional connection to the fans and the community around the women’s game has buoyed its growth.

“Women’s basketball feels authentic because of the people that are a part of it. They feel relatable; they’re approachable,” Pebley told The Next. “They’re regular people who love a sport and want to honor that sport and treat it with a lot of care. People are attached to it, they’re excited about it, they believe in it. Because they love the people that are a part of it and the culture that we’ve created around women’s basketball.”

‘Decades of hard work’

As a child, Pebley got to pal around with the Dallas Diamonds’ top draft pick, Nancy Lieberman. Pebley remembers sitting cross-legged in the locker room, surrounded by elite athletes and, though she was quite young at the time, those memories provided a rosy glow as she dreamed about her own future. But what stood out to her wasn’t strength, speed or a jump shot.

“You could just see like, ‘Oh man, these are friends and this is fun.’ Getting to see them compete, but also getting to see them just connect and spend time with each other that way,” Pebley said.

Later in life, when Pebley had grown into a bonafide basketball player herself as a forward for the Colorado Buffaloes she reconnected with Lieberman, who frequently drew the assignment to call games in Colorado as a broadcaster. The two remain periodically in contact to this day, their bond born in the WBL persisting over several decades.

The Scott family understood that a professional women’s league offered women a community and as Sandi Scott describes it, “A chance to feel accepted as capable and confident.”

And as the game has continued to grow in the years since the WBL, Sandi Scott views basketball as a beacon that, “helps women know that there’s a little more equality coming — more and more every day.”

Not only did the WBL offer new experiences for women, the league offered a space for women to have those experiences on their own terms and in their own unique way — by playing a pure form of basketball and connecting with fans through their passion for the game and for each other. 

It’s been said a lot lately that women’s basketball is having a “moment” and that over the last few years, it’s experienced a sudden spike in growth. For some, it feels like the rise in popularity of the women’s game sprouted up from nowhere. But Scott and the caretakers of the women’s game have made it their life’s work to cultivate its tradition and pass it along to future generations. So the response to those who feel like this moment arrived with the same swiftness as Caitlin Clark pulling up from the logo?

“I think that’s naive,” says Pebley. “Because there’s been decades of hard work of chipping away at this type of growth.”

Written by Kiri Oler

Kiri Oler has been a contributor to The Next as a news and feature writer since December 2022.

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