The ABL blazed the trail for the WNBA

WBNA 20in20nobylineFor 20 weeks, to commemorate the WNBA’s 20th season (the MSR having covered each season), the MSR sports section will feature a column or article on the W in our “20 in 20” series. This week: Remember the ABL.

With nearly a third of the season completed, the American Basketball League (ABL) unexpectedly called off the rest of the 1998-99 season and declared the league’s two-time and only champion Columbus Quest its final title winner because it then had the league’s best record.

Some historians label the ABL as just another failed women’s pro league. Instead, the three-year league should be rightly remembered in this, the 20th WNBA celebratory season, for locking in top-notch talent and playing during the traditional wintertime basketball season.

Founded in 1995, the ABL began play in October 1996 with eight teams and a 40-game schedule. A ninth team was added the following season, and two more were scheduled to come on board after the league’s third season. They had a television package that included BET and Fox Sports Net, and CBS was scheduled to show the 1999 ABL championship series.

But three days before Christmas 1998, the ABL players got unemployment coals in their holiday stockings. At the time, Teresa Edwards was leading the league in scoring, and Minneapolis native Tracy Henderson was in the scoring top 25, 14th in shooting percentage, tied for 16th in rebounds, and tied for fifth in blocked shots.

“I started there,” noted Katie Smith, who played for Columbus. She was among a who’s-who list of notables including Edwards, Dawn Staley, Yolanda Griffith, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, and many others who later also helped their WNBA clubs to on-court success.

Katie Smith
Katie Smith Photo by Sophia Hantzes

“The ABL was special,” added Smith. “It started right when I was a senior at [Ohio State]. I did not grow up thinking about [pro] ball and playing it in the States. Then all of a sudden the ’96 Olympic team and all the people that funded the WNBA and the ABL — all of a sudden you had two leagues. [That] was unreal.”

Some suspected that part of the league’s start-up problems included a system requiring that everything be run through its main office in Palo Alto, California. Although the teams offered higher salaries, the ABL’s financial picture was blurry at best.

“We were unable to obtain the television exposure and sponsorship support needed to make the league viable long term,” said league co-founder and CEO Gary Cavalli in his parting gift statement. “We tried to do things the right way. We gave it our best shot… The league is out of money.”

What perhaps is most overlooked is that the ABL in essence was the John the Baptist of women’s hoops, showing American fans that indeed a women’s league could exist under the right conditions and financial backing.

Enter the WNBA in 1997. Along with its big brother’s financial and sponsorship muscle, the new league could use the NBA’s existing television package as collateral to have its games on ESPN. Even Lifetime, a network more known for weeping-killer movies and Oxygen, showed W games for a time. Its talent pool got an infusion as well when the ABL folded.

Smith was allocated in 1999 to the expansion Minnesota Lynx and played here six and a half seasons. Now the New York Liberty associate head coach, Smith is the all-time leading scorer in women’s professional basketball history, a five-time champion (three ABL and two WNBA) and three-time Olympian gold medal winner.

“To have the opportunity when that league folded, to have the WNBA also, you wanted to keep playing in the States in front of family and friends,” concluded Smith. “Now the girls are growing up knowing about playing U.S. pro ball.”


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