The WNBA, which began in 1997, is celebrating its 15th year this summer. However, it would be just a year younger than the American Basketball League (ABL) if it hadn’t gone bankrupt after two seasons (1996-97 and 1997-98) and 12 games of the 1998-99 season.
Since 1975, there have been at least six women’s pro leagues in the U.S. Minnesota once had three teams that started and failed during this time. When it began in 1996, the ABL initially looked like just another one of those leagues built mostly on high hopes and little else.
However, things were different this time: The league offered higher salaries and signed many of the top players from the unbeaten USA women’s team. Teresa Edwards was among the first signees; she was one among countless others who had taken their game overseas, the only option available for women basketball players who wanted to turn pro after completion of their collegiate years.
“I always was walking around talking, ‘Man, we need a professional league here in the States,’” recalls the legendary player, “because I spent so many years overseas, lonely…on the court playing with no family, no friends [around]. It was such a culture shock back in those days.”
Eventually, in the mid-1990s, Edwards says she ran into a group of investors out in California. “They knew I was trying to do something, and somehow we got connected,” she points out. “Once I connected them with a guy I knew in Atlanta that was definitely interested as well. I stepped out of the picture to see what they could do. I didn’t have any money — I was just a ballplayer who wanted it to happen.”
The convergence couldn’t have come at a better time with growing popularity for women’s basketball, thanks largely to the USA women’s team Edwards played on that went undefeated for two years en route to winning gold in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.
There were “some very big-time names in the ABL,” such as Edwards, Dawn Staley and Yolanda Griffith, recalls Minnesota Lynx Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson, who was an assistant coach in Philadelphia during the league’s final year. She also coached current Lynx center Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who played three ABL seasons and finished as the league’s all-time blocked-shots leader.
McWilliams-Franklin says she was overseas when her agent called her about the upstart league. “I had to go through this big, huge tryout — 400 people, in Atlanta.” Her agent paid her entrance fee. “I got drafted in the fourth round [by] the Richmond Rage.”
The league was competitive, says McWilliams-Franklin, who played and graduated from St. Edward’s, a NAIA school. “I never had been up against that level of competition, even being in Europe. It was a great eye-opener for me,” she recalls.
Edwards says she and her fellow ABLs didn’t get hung up on whether the league would make it. “This is something we wanted that wasn’t available, and a lot of women wanted it. You could feel it — the old ones that would never play [U.S. pro ball] again, and the present ones who didn’t want to go overseas. There was no place for fear.”
Although their respective seasons wouldn’t clash — the ABL played a traditional wintertime schedule — it didn’t help when the NBA-backed WNBA was set to come on board the summer of 1997.
“[The ABL] was very competitive and paid a lot of money, and I think that was one of the reasons why it failed. They paid the players so much money that they didn’t spend a lot of time advertising,” surmises Patterson.
The WNBA also had shoe sponsors and television deals on ESPN and Oxygen, something the ABL didn’t have. “It gave the WNBA identification,” notes Patterson, “and everybody was able to see that.”
And according to Edwards, “Just like [what happened with] the ABA, the players started going to the WNBA.” She would wait another five years before she signed and played two WNBA seasons in Minnesota (2003-04). She is slated for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in August.
“I’m happy I played there, because it made me the type of player I am now,” admits McWilliams-Franklin, one of four current WNBA players who once played in the ABL. “When it folded, it was devastating for a lot of people.”
The short-lived ABL should always be known as the Moses of women’s pro basketball. After years of basketball wilderness, it didn’t get to the Promised Land, but now a decade and a half later, the WNBA — the female Joshua — took women hoopsters to their Promised Land, and thus far has survived.
Yet the question remains — can it make it through another 15 years?
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.