May 11, 2022 

Book Excerpt: Long before the WNBA, Gail Tatterson was one of the short-lived WBL’s top players

Tatterson led the WBL in field goal percentage in 1978-79 with a 64.6% clip

From HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL ON MARYLAND’S EASTERN SHORE: A SHORE HOOPS HISTORY. Copyright © 2022 by Mitchell Northam. On sale now in e-book, paperback and hardback.

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It was the spring of 1978, and Gail Tatterson had just completed her first season on the job as a graduate assistant coach under Shirley Duncan for the women’s basketball team at Eastern Kentucky University. She had also earned her master’s degree in physical education. So when Tatterson was hired at EKU, Duncan told the student newspaper, the Eastern Progress, that Tatterson would “be a welcomed addition and will contribute a lot of character to the team.”

A year prior, when Tatterson ended her decorated career in college basketball at Salisbury State College, she figured her playing days on the hardwood were over. There was no professional basketball league for women in the United States in 1977. So going overseas to pursue a career in hoops in a foreign land didn’t seem like an option for the 6’2 girl who grew up on a 300-acre family farm in Snow Hill on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Tatterson’s father had died in 1975, so she felt responsible to provide for her mother and siblings. She estimated a teaching salary could do that, and she also thought coaching could keep her close to the game she loved so much.

Tatterson was a supremely talented basketball player. She led Snow Hill High School to an appearance in the state final in 1973 and then became one of the best players ever at Salisbury State. She was molded by Brenda Jones, Snow Hill’s no-nonsense coach, who recognized Tatterson’s talents quickly and aimed to toughen her up.

“Gail was so tall. I put boys on her at practice and she would complain about people being all over her,” Jones says. “I said to her, ‘If you can’t take it, sit down and just shut up.’ If you’re a great player and somebody can get into your head, it messes your game up.”

After that moment, few ever rattled the 6’2 forward. As a member of the She Gulls (yes, the Salisbury women’s basketball team went by that nickname back then in a blatantly sexist way), Tatterson was often unstoppable. Newspaper reports at the time cited her as having a vertical jump of 24 inches and she was the first women’s basketball player at Salisbury to score more than 1,000 points in her career.

She averaged about 14 points per game and with her on the team, the Gulls proved to be a difficult out, even when facing opponents from the big-time college ranks. On Feb. 3, 1976, Tatterson poured in 32 points and 17 rebounds in a one-point loss to the Maryland Terrapins. “Gail played a beautiful game,” Salisbury head coach Mariuna Morrison told the Salisbury Daily Times after the game.

Terps’ head coach Chris Weller was well-prepared for Salisbury the following season, taking a 78-41 victory, but Tatterson still finished with 18 points and nine boards. Weeks later, on Feb. 13, 1977, Tatterson led the Gulls to a 63-47 win over Villanova with 30 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks and three assists. She wasn’t widely known then, but Tatterson was often the top player on any court she stepped on, no matter the opponent. As a senior at Salisbury, she averaged 20.7 points and 16.2 rebounds per game while shooting 57.7% from the floor.

But something happened near the end of Tatterson’s year as a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky that got her attention.

A man from Ohio, Bill Bryne, had a crazy idea: he was going to start a women’s professional basketball league. And he would call it just that: The WPBL – before later dropping the P for a short, sweet and simple WBL acronym. According to Karra Porter’s informative book on the short-lived league, “Mad Seasons,” Byrne was a man who had gone from operating a sporting goods store in Columbus, Ohio, to being the director of player personnel for the Chicago Fire of the gone-in-a-flash World Football League, to being the founder of the American Professional Slo-Pitch League.

What made him qualified to start and run a league for women’s basketball, the first of its kind? Nothing, really. He was just the first with the gumption to try and do it.

When Byrne began laying the groundwork for the WBL, women had been playing full-court five-on-five basketball for less than a decade. And women’s basketball had just made its debut at the Olympics a year prior, in 1976, in Montreal. Still, he believed a pro league could work. On Oct. 11, 1977, Byrne’s new venture was incorporated as a non-profit organization in Ohio. Three months later, an advertisement for the league ran in the Wall Street Journal to attract investors and potential team owners. It declared the league would play its first campaign across the 1978-79 season. According to Porter’s book, the cost for a franchise was a $50,000 entry fee and about $250,000 in annual expenses.

Tatterson didn’t think much of the WBL – much less pursuing a career in it – when she first heard of it. But a friend of hers from Eastern Kentucky, Rich Bruer, mailed her a copy of the league’s first draft class. Tatterson glanced over the list and noticed several familiar names. The players drafted were not only those she had played against in college but also many that she had bested. “I was approached by a man from New Jersey who was looking for players and he asked me to come and try out, so that’s what I did,” Tatterson said. “If they could make the draft, I could make it as a walk-on.”

Bruer, who lived in Little Silver, New Jersey, put Tatterson in touch with the owner of the state’s WBL franchise, the New Jersey Gems. So, Tatterson tried out for the Gems that August impressed their coaching staff. She gave an interview to the Salisbury Daily Times in September and said, “I told them if the money was right, I’d sign. The Gems’ management says the money won’t be great.”

The money wound up being good enough, apparently. On Oct. 31, Tatterson agreed to a one-year deal with the Gems worth $6,000, making her the first woman from the Eastern Shore to sign a professional basketball contract. Tatterson would joke years later that she was “highly paid,” making about a grand above the league minimum.

Tatterson and Jo-Ellen Bistromowitz, a Montclair State product who played professionally in Germany and Belgium, were the first two players ever signed by the Gems. The team was coached by Don Kennedy, who had previously coached the men’s team at Saint Peter’s University to 323 wins and five NIT appearances across 22 seasons. Each WBL team would play a 34-game regular season in its inaugural year, with 17 games at home and 17 on the road. The Gems played its games at the Thomas Dunn Sports Center in Elizabeth, where single-game general admission tickets were as low as $3 and where 1,924 people attended the first-ever professional women’s basketball game held in New Jersey on Sunday, Dec. 17, 1978.

The Gems lost 123-120 to the visiting Chicago Hustle, coached by Doug Bruno. Tatterson had 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in her professional debut, and her family made the 254-mile trek north to see it. “I don’t want this to sound as if I’m bragging, but Gail’s performance was brilliant,” her brother Don told Rick Cullen of the Daily Times.

Don was bragging, but it was absolutely warranted. Two months later, Tatterson earned the league’s Player of the Week honors after dropping 44 points and 18 rebounds on the Hustle to snap a six-game losing skid for the Gems.

The girl from Snow Hill quickly turned into one of the WBL’s top players and one that scribes would turn to when they wanted a blunt and matter-of-fact assessment of the league. When the Washington Post dispatched Thomas Boswell to write a lengthy feature on the league, he sought out Tatterson to find the answer to the question: What’s the goal of the WBL? She replied: “When the New York bookies carry a line on our games, then we’ve arrived.”

The WBL sort of made up its own rules as it went along in its inaugural season. The league used a ball made by Wilson but was two inches smaller than the ones used by the NBA. The lanes on the court were also cut down to 12 feet from 16 feet, and man-to-man defense was mandatory. Where the league did try to emulate its men’s counterpart was in time: the WBL debuted with a 24-second shot clock and 12-minute quarters. A story from Michael Farber in the Hackensack Record at the time claimed that portions of the WBL rulebook were simply photocopied over from the NBA’s.

And the league didn’t exactly provide ideal conditions for its players as far as lodging, travel and arenas went. Salaries per player that first season ranged from $5,000 to $15,000. That might seem low – it was – but team owners were still trying to pinch pennies and cut corners in every way they could.

Often, as reported by Boswell and dozens of other scribes at the time, players often slept three to four players in a motel room and they dressed for the game at the motel, then jammed themselves and all of their stuff into a pair of rented station wagons to go play games officiated by high school referees in gyms that were often so frigid that players covered up with towels on the bench. “Even after playing four or five minutes, we were still cold,” Tatterson once told the Passaic Herald-News.

Byrne told Boswell, “Someday, when we’re in our rocking chairs and girls are making $100,000 a year, we’ll laugh about these struggling times.” Nobody was amused then and no one is chuckling now. WBL players often washed their own uniforms and taped their own ankles. According to a New York Times story from Jane Gross, when a 15-seat bus full of New York Stars broke down in Chicago in January 1980, players and coaches walked the next five blocks to play a game at DePaul University. Players received just $16 to $21 per day for expenses for road games.

Even the league’s first all-star game was a bit half-assed. It was announced that it would be played just 12 days before it happened, and Tatterson was one of the selections on the east team. The game was played at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, which is under the main historic arena. “There’s a little gym there – The Little Garden – that was attached to it and we played in there,” she said years later. 

The Felt Forum has a low 20-foot ceiling, which is not ideal for basketball. Still, around 3,000 fans attended the thrown-together exhibition, which ended with the East winning 112-99, a score that was displayed on a borrowed scoreboard from a high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey. According to the News of Paterson, New Jersey, uniforms for the game arrived just a few hours before tip-off. At an after-party following the game, players had to buy their own drinks, Tatterson told the Daily Times, but she also said: “I’ve never had so much fun playing a basketball game. The officiating must’ve been good because I don’t remember anything about it.”

The Gems missed the WBL’s first playoffs but ended their inaugural campaign with a victory, besting the Milwaukee Does 163-161 in triple-overtime behind Tatterson’s 32 points. The Gems ended the season with a 9-25 record, but Tatterson was by-far their top player. She led the team in scoring and rebounding with averages of 20.9 points and 10.3 boards per game. She made the league’s All-Pro team and was fifth in the WBL in scoring and seventh in rebounding.

And Tatterson set one mark that season that still stands as a record as of this writing, one that epitomizes the fearlessness and roughness of the farm-raised girl from Snow Hill. In the 1978-79 season, Tatterson committed 179 personal fouls, about five per game. Since then, only one women’s professional basketball player has tied that record: Yolanda Griffith, who fouled just as much while playing for the ABL’s Chicago Condors in 1998. The WNBA record is 143, set by Cheryl Ford in 2005.

Tatterson also led the WBL in field goal percentage in 1978-79 with a 64.6% clip. As of this writing, that mark would be the seventh-best all-time for a single-season record in WNBA history.

Said longtime Wicomico High School boys head coach Butch Waller: “Gail was a heck of a player.”

Entering her second season in the WBL, Tatterson was well known as a center who was scrappy on defense and skillful on offense. She was a free agent and highly sought-after and wound-up landing with the New York Stars. The Stars were 19-15 the season before and it seemed like they’d be better in year two. But the San Francisco Pioneers handed the Stars a loss in the season-opener, beating them 97-95 at the Felt Forum. Tatterson had 10 points in her Big Apple debut. “We played a couple of games before the Knicks, and it was cool except we had to be done two hours before their game started, but the TV people wouldn’t wait for us,” Tatterson recalled years later. As of this writing, the Felt Forum is known as the Hulu Theater.

In its second season, it was clear that the WBL was unstable, to say the least. According to Gross’ story in the New York Times, the owners of the Stars claimed they lost $350,000 in their first season and were losing $25,000 per night playing at Madison Square Garden. It’s unclear what exactly the Stars’ owners were paying for at MSG, considering the environment was far from extravagant. The New York Daily News noted that the Stars’ locker room was “about the size of a subway change booth with one sink… and little else.”

One of the things the WBL lacked early on was real star power and recognizable names nationwide. Many of the top college players at the time – like Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski and Tara Heiss – didn’t enter the league right away because they wanted to preserve their amateur status for the 1980 Olympics. Byrne was also targeting those games, telling Boswell that the league would “take off” after the USA women won gold.

Unfortunately, the Americans – along with Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, China and Argentina – boycotted the 1980 games held in Moscow. So, there wasn’t a team full of Americans for a mass audience to get excited about basketball and all of those players held off entering the league for nothing, forfeiting stardom and paychecks along the way.

Tatterson averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds per game for the Stars in 1979-80, but the franchise folded after the season. She rejoined the Gems for the 1980-81 season and received more than double what she made her first season in New Jersey, with a salary of $13,000. But three months into the season, Tatterson was waived by the Gems as the league continued to hemorrhage money. By the summer of 1981, the WBL ceased to exist.

“It was difficult for management – and it was shaky – to meet some payrolls. It was only a matter of time before the league would cave in,” Tatterson told Cullen of the Daily Times. “It was fun. I have no regrets. Perhaps I’m owed some money.”

She later told Eric Magill of the Daily Times: “There was a sadness when it was over, but we didn’t expect it to last after the first year… It meant a chance for us to be in the first women’s pro league. A lot of the girls said that. We knew there would never be another first like that, and our names were all on that list.”

The WBL may have had a short life, but it blazed a trail for what came after it. And Tatterson – from tiny Snow Hill – was part of paving the way for future leagues, like the WNBA, which is still running strong since playing its first game in 1997.

“I had a great time in the league,” Tatterson – then going by her married name, Gladding – told me in 2016. “We wanted to be the WNBA.”

From HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL ON MARYLAND’S EASTERN SHORE: A SHORE HOOPS HISTORY. Copyright © 2022 by Mitchell Northam. On sale now in e-book, paperback and hardback.

Written by Mitchell Northam

1 Comment

  1. Jo-Ellen Bistromowitz Mesa on March 28, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    I played with Gail on the NJ Gems, Jo-Ellen Bistromowitz, and this is a great recognition of Gail! I am looking for a contact at the Women’s Sports Foundation and/or other Title IX historic collections, since I wrote 3 short stories past year (with pics) about Title IX development/opportunities in the North East, Mid Atlantic region (NJ,PA,CN,NY), in the early to mid-1970s, pre WBL. I also included my experiences playing in the European leagues at the time. My colleague explained that last year during March madness with the women teams, organizations were starting to collect the early historic challenges.

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