“I have never missed the last day of school,” said longtime teacher Tonyus Chavers, but this time she has a very good excuse. The Richard Green Central Elementary physical education teacher is heading to Knoxville, Tenn., where she will be inducted into a class of her own – the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
On June 9, Chavers will join a roster of women in Knoxville, Tenn. that includes players Tina Thompson, Chamique Holdsclaw and Katie Smith, coach Ceal Barry, assistant coaches Chris Dailey and Mickie DeMoss, and veteran and contributor Dr. Rose Marie Battaglia. All will be inducted into the WBHOF Class of 2018.
As a former member of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), Chavers will be inducted as one of the “Trailblazers of the Game.” She played for three WBL teams, including the Minnesota Fillies, which was one of eight original teams during the first professional women’s basketball league in the U.S. from 1978-1981.
“We knew we were doing something back then, but we didn’t look at it as…Hall of Fame level,” Chavers reflected of her WBL years – a domestic forerunner of the WNBA, now in its 22nd season. She didn’t play high school ball in the pre-Title IX era because a girls’ team didn’t exist at the time in her hometown of Memphis.
“[I] hung around for two years [after graduating from high school] not doing anything but wasting time” until a friend suggested she enroll at LeMoyne-Owen College, which was starting a women’s basketball team.
“Most [of] the ladies from my era were the first to get athletic scholarships,” Chavers pointed out. “The coach offered me a full scholarship.” She played at LeMoyne-Owen, but her hoop career was almost grounded even before it could start.
“[I’d] gotten into some other things, [and] I was facing three to 10 years in the penitentiary,” Chavers said. “I went back to Coach [Virgie Broussard] and I said, ‘Coach, I appreciate what you are trying to do for me, but I am in a situation, in trouble, and it’s my own fault. But, I don’t want that scholarship to go to waste. Somebody else can have that opportunity.’
“She said, ‘Let me worry about it.’ I had no idea what she was talking about.”
But, at her case hearing, “The judge said, ‘I see that you never have been in trouble before. I see you accepted Christ. I also see that you have been offered a full scholarship to LeMoyne Owen College. Do you like to play basketball? I’ll tell you what – you have two years of probation and I want to see your name in the sports section.’”
Chavers later learned that Broussard had written a character letter to the judge, speaking on her behalf – a gesture she has not forgotten to this day as she prepares to enter the Hall of Fame.
“Literally, since that day, I’ve been doing everything I possibly can” to be positive, said Chavers. “I tell the kids, ‘Do you think I could be a teacher today?’ No, you can’t have a record and do what I do today.”
After playing one season of college ball, she said she opted for the WBL. “I wanted to see if I could play against the [Nancy] Liebermans, the Lusia Harrises, Ann Meyers, and all these people that I had heard about,” Chavers said.
After the league folded, Chavers stayed in the area, earned two education degrees, and has taught in Minneapolis Public Schools for 27 years – 14 of them at Green Central.
She was the district’s first Black female girls’ high school basketball coach at North High School in the early 1990s. Her Green Central office is adorned with hoop memorabilia, photos, Minnesota Lynx championship towels and other honors, including her 2015 Teacher of the Year trophy.
She also is an unabashed Minnesota Lynx fan. As their unofficial ‘coach’ at home games, Chavers’ voice can be heard loud and clear. And now she is set to welcome one more honor – becoming a Hall of Famer.
“I am really looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen since 1981,” Chavers said, trying to stay composed. She expects her mother, family members and friends, high school and college classmates and other well-wishers to be with her during the festivities. “I am going to probably have the biggest contingent there,” she predicted.
“I’d rather be a trailblazer,” she said of the award. “It’s nothing like being the first,” Chavers said. “[And] going in with the winningest lady ballers [of] all time” she said of Holdsclaw, Thompson and Smith’s induction this weekend, “I know I am going to have a ball. I’m not holding anything back when I get down there.”
Chavers is also taking one of her souvenir WNBA balls with her to Knoxville, where she will seek out autographs from her fellow Hall of Fame members. “Each day that goes by, I catch myself smiling,” she said. “I still can’t believe it. It is still sinking in.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.