Member of first U.S. women’s pro hoops league once swore ‘never again’

The game had caused her too much pain

Tonyus Chavers
Tonyus Chavers Charles Hallman/MSR News

Tonyus Chavers is a huge WNBA fan. But there was a time she didn’t want anything to do with hoops because it had broken her heart. “I was just angry,” she vividly recalled.

She was a member of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), this country’s first professional women’s basketball league during its entire three-season run (1978-1981). Chavers, who left college early to turn pro, played for three WBL clubs, including the Minnesota Fillies, one of the league’s original eight franchises. The players barely made a thousand dollars a month before taxes; sometimes their pay envelopes were empty.

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“We had started missing checks. My car got repossessed during that time,” Chavers said. She once dreamed that the WBL would fold, a dream so vividly detailed that she had to relay it to her teammates. “I felt [the dream] was a warning.”

Sadly, the inevitable came: “I remember the real pain when the league folded” in 1981, Chavers said. “I was so heartbroken. A lot of [WBL players] went all over the world [to continue playing], just like [WNBA players] are doing today.”

But a nomadic hoopin’ life competing for one of two mandatory roster slots for Americans on foreign teams wasn’t in her sights. “My family members [not] getting to see me play? No!  Forget that!” she said emphatically.

So Chavers decided to go cold turkey and give up basketball altogether. Not even the late Kwame McDonald, as co-coach of the local Summit-University Stars women’s basketball team that featured many local standouts like Linda Roberts, could make her budge. “He was telling me about [his team],” Chavers said. “He said, ‘I know you are disappointed with the league.’

“I told Kwame this game has broken my heart for the last time. I’m never going to play basketball anymore. He left me alone for about a year.”

Chavers stayed in town and got “my first real job at the Boys and Girls Club. I was coaching three teams… We all won city championships through the Park Board,” she said proudly. All during this time, even while she coached, Chavers refused to touch a basketball.

“I told the kids, ‘I know this game. I can teach it to you…but I am not going to touch the ball,” she stressed.

A year later, Kwame again asked Chavers to join his team – and this time she relented. “I played for him and Steve [Winfield] for 10 years. I was so glad I did, because those 10 years…were the best ball I ever had.”

Chavers also finished her college education, getting her B.S. degree from the University of Minnesota, then her master’s in education from St. Mary’s University. Since 1991, she has been a Minneapolis Public Schools physical education teacher.

But her hoopin’ days still weren’t over, even at middle age. She later participated in the WNBA expansion team tryout camp in St. Paul – Chavers was age 43 at the time. “I still wanted to play. I’m at the trials with ladies in their 20s.

“I had just a great time,” Chavers said. “I remember walking out and turning around and it was Brian Agler,” Minnesota’s coach-GM. “I was talking trash the whole time… I don’t think the coach appreciated it.”

But finally, her career had closure. “The first night, I tore my meniscus. I had surgery a couple of weeks after that. I knew then that was it. It was still a real good feeling of knowing that at 43 I could still compete.”

This weekend Chavers and her fellow WBL mates, along with the entire league, go into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. They go in as “Trailblazers.”

“I still can’t believe it,” said Chavers of the recognition.


Tonyus Chavers also is featured this week on MSR’s front page.