September 2, 2023
The story of the first Women’s Professional Basketball League draft
Ann Meyers, Rita Easterling, Lusia Harris and other women's basketball legends were selected in a groundbreaking draft in 1978
Some call it a first draft, some call it a rough draft, but no matter what you call it, first iterations are rarely perfect. But the initial attempt serves as a starting point, a foundation to build on. The Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL)’s first player draft in 1978 was a rough but necessary beginning.
The story behind the league’s introductory roster-building event suffers from poorly plotted narrative arcs, characters lacking commitment to the cause and settings treated as an afterthought. Though haphazardly hacked together, it didn’t need to be scrapped entirely. The components of a crowd-pleaser were there, setting the stage to start elevating professional women’s basketball.
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The WBL draft took place on July 18, 1978, in a conference room at the Essex House. Situated at the southern edge of Central Park, the hotel boasts a prime New York City location. It also has a storied reputation as the former home of musical icons David Bowie and Igor Stravinsky and the temporary home of many SNL guests and Major League Baseball players such as Casey Stengel.
As a city icon, protected by the Historic Hotels of America program, the Essex House loaned a sense of importance and credibility to the WBL draft. But even in a swanky location, the small-scale operation only merited the use of a conference room, which held a handful of league officials, a few representatives from each of the eight teams and a smattering of media members.
However, the Essex House was not the only location drawing attention on draft day. In its recap of the event, The New York Times reported that the owners of the New York and New Jersey franchises, among others, had yet to secure a home court for their teams mere months before the season was set to tip off. The right setting can elevate a story, while the wrong setting can throw a story off balance. No setting makes storytelling an impossibility.
At the time of the draft, New York hoped to play in the Nassau Coliseum, while New Jersey set its sights on the Rutgers University gym. The two locations proved unattainable, leaving New York to play at Iona in New Rochelle and New Jersey hosting games at the Thomas Dunn Sports Center in Elizabeth. Both teams would revise their plans and upgrade their arenas in subsequent seasons.
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The inaugural WBL draft was run by league president Bill Byrne. Byrne’s obituary describes him as a “sports entrepreneur,” a succinct way of encapsulating a career that included founding a semi-pro team to play in the Midwest Football League, later serving as commissioner of that same league, and then taking on the role of player personnel director for the World Football League’s Chicago Fire and Shreveport Steamer.
After that, he created the American Professional Slo-Pitch League for softballers before finally using all of that experience with fledgling leagues to bring the WBL into existence. Byrne also founded the National Scouting Association, which provided teams with information on draft-eligible players to use in their evaluation and selection process.
After two years as commissioner of the WBL, Byrne resigned under pressure from team owners and decided that, if he couldn’t beat them, he might as well join them by taking ownership of an expansion team in Tampa Bay. It never saw the court, and the WBL folded in 1981.
In 1984, Byrne attempted a reboot with a new league, the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA), but his second try only lasted two months.
The other notable presence on the league side was Fred “Curly” Morrison, the vice president of marketing. Morrison’s role with the WBL doesn’t feature prominently on his resume; he is better known as a two-time NFL champion and the MVP of the 1950 Rose Bowl for the Ohio State Buckeyes. However, Morrison played an important role in the WBL draft by standing up after the final pick and reminding the assembled owners to call their draftees to make sure they were aware of their selection. It was a necessary step for a new league lacking in public recognition.
As Morrison’s reminder implies, several key characters remained behind the scenes during the event. No players were present. No one had to agonize over the perfect outfit or do orange-carpet interviews. Many players learned about the league, and subsequently the draft, when their new teams reached out afterward.
But not all teams heeded Morrison’s advice, at least not right away. Legends of the Ball board member Debra K. “DK” Thomas recounted to The Next how she learned about the WBL draft:
I got this phone call [at] like seven o’clock on a Sunday morning saying, “Hey, cuz, you’ve been drafted to play pro ball.”
I said, “Get out of here. There’s no women’s pro team.”
“Yes, it is. It is. Your name is in the paper.”
So I get out [of] my bed at seven o’clock in the morning and go get a newspaper, a Shreveport paper. That’s what we get. So I’m opening up the paper and I’m reading it. Sure enough, my name was listed. I got drafted by the Iowa Cornets. And I couldn’t believe it.
Thomas didn’t believe it until about a week later, when the team finally called to arrange her travel to Iowa.
In all, 80 players were selected to fill out the league’s eight teams. Houston used the first overall pick to draft Ann Meyers, the first woman to earn a full athletic scholarship from UCLA and the first high schooler to make the United States senior national team. The New York Times article covering the draft failed to mention Meyers’ draft position, opting instead to note her relation to an active NBA player.
The second pick went to another U.S. national team member and a Mississippi high school and college basketball legend, Rita Easterling. Subsequent picks included Lusia Harris, Althea Gwyn, Debbie Mason and Carol Blazejowski.
Harris was a three-time national champion at Delta State University and member of the U.S. national team. She went on to become the first Black woman and women’s college player enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Gwyn came off a career at Queens College in which she twice led the nation in rebounding and played in the first-ever women’s collegiate game at Madison Square Garden. In the WBL, Gwyn and her teammates with the New England Gulls would leave the court to protest their lack of payment.
Mason, Gwyn’s teammate at Queen’s College, was drafted by the New York Stars, then cut a few days before the start of the season because the Stars coach felt that, at 5’5, Mason was too small to make it in a league with so many powerful bigs. The New Jersey Gems quickly acquired Mason’s rights and she went on to play in 34 games, shooting 46.6% for an average of 14.1 points, 3.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game. She was third on the team in overall scoring, which is where she would have ranked on the Stars as well.
Blazejowski entered the draft as a decorated player from Montclair State University. She set (and still holds) single-season and career scoring records at Montclair, was a first-team All-American three times, and was named the Converse Women’s Player of the Year in 1977. She initially chose to devote her energy to the U.S. national team rather than the WBL, but she joined the Gems for the league’s final season.
The Stars selected Phyllis George, a former Miss America, a future First Lady of Kentucky and at the time a sportscaster covering the NFL for CBS. The pick was perceived as a publicity stunt to get attention for the league. Stars president Larry Kinitsky joked about taking a Miss America rather than an All-American as he made the pick, and The Washington Post added George’s selection to a list of points arguing that the league exists on the “lunatic fringe” of professional sports.
Similar jeers were directed toward Ulina Seminova, a 7’4 member of the Soviet Union’s national team selected by the Cornets. Neither she nor George would ever suit up for a WBL game.
Players taken in the draft were selected by top-ranking team officials. The aforementioned Kinitsky represented the Stars as the team’s president, general manager, scout and public relations lead — a lot of titles for a 27-year-old. Most teams lacked a fully staffed front office, so owners operated as one-man bands making not just the business decisions, but the player evaluation and acquisition decisions as well. Kinitsky played basketball at Pace College and coached boys’ teams, then joined a sales company that marketed sewing supplies to women, so he felt qualified from both a basketball and a gender studies perspective.
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A few storylines were part of the narrative around the WBL draft. In established leagues, it’s almost a given that selected players want to sign with a team, maybe even grew up dreaming about it. For a new league, players face a much more complex decision. They don’t know whether the league is legitimate, and they likely made other plans, both in basketball and life more generally. Do they uproot those plans to join an unproven league?
The timing of the draft created a conflict for those with Olympic aspirations. The first women’s team represented the U.S. at the 1976 Olympics just two years prior. That team’s success made much of the nation’s top talent want to compete in the upcoming 1980 Olympics (which the U.S. would eventually boycott). However, joining a professional league would disqualify them from participating.
Some players, such as Gwyn, felt that establishing a professional league for women carried just as much weight as competing for a medal. “Pro ball is just as important as the Olympics,” Gwyn proclaimed.
As members of the national team, Meyers and Blazejowski felt differently. At the time of the WBL draft, the national team was on tour playing a series of exhibition games in Bulgaria. The national team coach, Maureen Wendelken, said on Blazejowski’s behalf, “She has no intention of signing with the pro league and she’s stated that all year. She plans to play in the Olympics. This is one of her dreams and her goals. That’s what she wants, and I agree with her. After the Olympics the [WBL] will be two years old and stronger. The money and the demand for her will be there in two years.”
The WBL was still around two years later and Blazejowski did play one year with the Gems, but the financial component started on shaky footing and never really stabilized.
To convince players to upend their existing plans, the league needed to offer reasonable salaries, a big ask for a new and trailblazing league.
Harris was one year removed from her tenure at Delta State and working as an administrator at the school when Houston drafted her. Following the draft, Harris implied that, for her to put in the hard work required of pro ball, the team needed to beat her administrative salary. As she put it to The New York Times, “I know the women won’t play for nothing. I make that, sitting [at a desk].”
Upon learning that 29 free agents had signed before the draft for only $3,000 to $5,000 per year, Harris declared, “I wouldn’t even consider playing for that salary.”
Draftees wound up signing for between $3,000 and $12,000, which in today’s dollars is about $14,000 to $56,000. Team owners had bought into the league for a fee of just $50,000 (about $235,000 today) and didn’t necessarily have the deep pockets to pay players more.
Karen Logan, who was a player and coach for the Chicago Hustle while also working for the league as an advisor and promoter, knew the WBL needed stronger investments to succeed. Early in the league’s first season, Logan told The Washington Post, “If a league can’t pay decent wages, it shouldn’t exist.” Even today, as the WNBA looks to expand, prospective ownership groups need thorough vetting to ensure they’re willing and able to provide the proper resources.
The underwhelming financial investment from teams carried over to a general lack of organization and vision for the future. In addition to needing a home court, more than half of the teams entered draft day still in search of a nickname, and preparing to select players proved difficult. The league did a paltry job of alerting the public or even the women’s basketball community of its existence prior to the draft. As a result, Kinitsky struggled to even contact players to gauge interest or fit. He complained, “[N]obody really knew what was going on, so people weren’t in a hurry to return your calls because they didn’t know there would be a league.”
Logan attributed many of the WBL’s early challenges to owners’ questionable commitment to advancing women’s basketball. “The team owners are looking at this league as a marketing movement, a fad to cash in on,” she said. “They have no idea what they want the product to be.”
The owners not only lost the plot; they failed to truly establish one.
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The moral of the story
While the first draft of a women’s professional basketball league desperately needed an editor and more resources, it provided a starting point for future drafts. Mary Jo Peppler of the Gems spoke of her rough stories as a professional player before the WBL and hoped that future players could live out more polished narratives.
“The next generation of women athletes shouldn’t have to put up with those things,” she said, referencing living off scant salaries and having their talent exploited.
Byrne wanted the WBL to provide that idealistic future. As he saw it, “We’re pioneers. Someday when we’re in our rocking chairs and girls are making $100,000 a year, we’ll laugh about these struggling times.”
Byrne’s vision eventually played out, but not in the manner he desired. The urge to rush things is understandable, but more often than not, progress is incremental and requires many drafts.
To learn more about women’s basketball history, check out all our WBL coverage at The Next.