The W at 25: Before the WNBA was the WBL—and Tonyas Chavers

Photo by Charles Hallman Tonyas Chavers

Our ambitious 25-part series of articles reflects on the WNBA’s 25 years through the eyes of those who played a part, large or small, in its beginning and sustained growth throughout its quarter-century existence as a major league.

This week: Tonyas Chavers recalls her pioneering play.

Before America’s longest running women’s pro basketball league became more than a wish 25 years ago, Tonyas Chavers and other female hoopsters played in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), the first of several U.S. pro hoop leagues for American females. It was an alternative to packing up and going overseas after their college eligibility ended. More often than not these leagues sputtered and shut down with limited success.

Chavers left school after one season and joined the WBL (1978-81) during its heyday. “We knew we were doing something back then,” she said in a 2018 MSR interview leading up to Chavers and her fellow WBLers’ induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as “Trailblazers of the Game.”

The honor added to Chavers’ existing place in history. She was the first Black female girls’ high school basketball head coach at Minneapolis North in the early 1990s, where she coached a freshman and future WNBA lottery pick named Tamara Moore.    

The HOFer and this columnist earlier this year got together and relived her WBL days. Chavers played for three league clubs, including the Minnesota Fillies, one of the league’s eight original franchises. The WBL was on its last legs, she noted: “When I got to the Twin Cities, that was the last year of the WBL. We weren’t getting paid on time.”

Once the league folded, several compatriots looked to overseas as their next pro destination, but Chavers resisted. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around” playing in another country, she recalled. “Basketball is an American sport. Why do I have to go to Spain to play?”

Instead Chavers stayed in town, finished her college education with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and eventually became a Minneapolis Public Schools elementary school teacher for nearly 30 years. She retired this last school year in the midst of the pandemic and soon will be back home in Memphis to be closer to family.

“When I look back now,” continued Chavers, “if there’s anything I regret it’s that I didn’t take…the opportunity” to keep playing by going overseas.

When the WNBA opened play in 1997 and its forerunner American Basketball League (1996-98), Chavers welcomed it with open arms. When Minnesota got a franchise and began play in 1999, she was more than overjoyed.

Her booming voice at Lynx home games is unmistakable—Chavers endlessly “talks smack” during contests. She’s not disrespectful but enthusiastic because she and other women pro hoops fans can support a league that now, a quarter-century later, is on solid ground thanks to the foundation Chavers and others of her generation laid down decades ago. 

“Our league only lasted three years, but we know it was the beginning of something,” said Chavers proudly.

When asked for her prognosis on the W’s next 25 years she surmised, “Hopefully the next 25 we will see more equity, period. More people giving women athletes the respect they deserve.

“The game is basically played under the rim,” argued Chavers to those who foolishly believe that if women aren’t dunking the ball, then they aren’t playing real hoops. “How many dunks in an NBA game—seven or eight? You got to have a jumper. You got to have the basics.

“For people that pay attention” to women hoops, concluded Chavers, “the women’s game always [has been] fundamentally solid.”