Basketball Star Born Too Soon For The Wnba -- Molly Kazmer Led Earlier Women's Basketball League
Molly Kazmer watches her TV screen in wide-eyed amazement at the huge, adoring crowds filling arenas for Women's National Basketball Association games. Then she thinks back for a moment to her days in the old Women's Basketball League, wonders "What if?" - and sighs.
"I just can't help watching and thinking that if I was still the player I was then, I would be in this league," she said. "I should get a big T-shirt that says `Born too soon.' "
Four months shy of her 40th birthday and with two young children, Kazmer is several years past her prime. But in her day, Kazmer - then known as Molly Bolin - definitely was a player. Her hair was long, blond and thick; she was attractive and outgoing. And she could sink the baskets.
Mention her name to TV commentator Ann Meyers, who played one season in the WBL, and she immediately responds, "Ah, yes, Machine Gun Molly."
Kazmer averaged 26 points during the WBL's three seasons of existence and scored 55 in a game. She figures she must be the all-time leading scorer in women's pro basketball because no other league has lasted as long.
But outside the WBL and its small coterie of fans, no one knew her. The WBL, which folded in 1981, had no national TV contract and no corporate sponsors. It was run by a group of people who, though dedicated, simply didn't have the money to keep it going. Teams folded during the season. Checks bounced. Players didn't get paid. One team even "kidnapped" a player from another.
3,000 was big crowd
While the WBL played in venues such as Madison Square Garden, the Superdome and Kiel Auditorium, it also had games in places like the Dunn Sports Complex in Elizabeth, N.J., and Ottumwa Junior High School in Iowa. A crowd of 3,000 was considered a big night at the gate - if the gym would hold that many.
For halftime entertainment, Kazmer's team, the Iowa Cornets, trotted out a troupe of acrobats from Poland - one of whom once chased her around a hotel room.
"He didn't speak a word of English," she said. "It must have been something with my body language."
Contrast that with today, when there's not one pro league for women but two. The American Basketball League completed its inaugural season in March and the WNBA, backed by the NBA and all its marketing and financial muscle, is off to a rousing start.
All WNBA teams play in NBA arenas and two of the openers drew crowds of more than 16,000. NBC, ESPN and Lifetime are televising games. Ads built on the "We Got Next" theme bombarded the airwaves before the season.
"I think the thing that really struck me the strongest when the NBA got behind it was that no longer did you hear mention of the `fledgling' league," Kazmer said. "I hated that word. You couldn't read a story about the WBL without reading fledgling."
Where the money is
Nancy Lieberman-Cline, who played one season in the WBL and is now with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, figures WBL owners went through $12 million over three years. The WNBA has spent $15 million so far just on marketing.
"So many things of change have come about in the course of the years," said Meyers, who averaged 22.2 points a game in her lone WBL season and now works NBC telecasts of WNBA games. "People support it now. More fathers are taking an interest in their daughters' activities. Title IX has taken effect.
"There are more opportunities now - AAU clubs, high school sports - for girls to participate, in all the sports. There are so many variables that you cannot pinpoint just one thing. But a lot of women and men worked very hard for this to happen."
Title IX had been on the books for six years when the WBL started in 1978, but it wasn't having much impact at that point. Many high schools still didn't offer girls sports and a good portion of those that did were playing 6-on-6, half-court basketball, which is what Kazmer played while growing up in Moravia, Iowa. Women's basketball in college had not yet to come under the NCAA.
Too soon for cable
ESPN? What did that stand for? The Chicago Hustle had a few games on WGN, but that was the exception. If the Cornets were on television, it was on the state's public TV network.
"The players were there," said Lieberman-Cline, who played for the Dallas Diamonds. "Obviously, not in the quantity it is today, but it was a good level of play, a good level of athleticism. But it was too early in what I call the cable era. ESPN was just starting. Fox was a dream. SportsChannel was just kind of getting going.
"It was so early. Now, everything is TV. Without TV, how can the masses know who and what you are?"
For someone like Kazmer, TV exposure might have done wonders. Meyers and Lieberman-Cline were well known when they joined the WBL because they were college All-Americans and Meyers had made headlines by signing with the Indiana Pacers. Kazmer's college experience consisted of two years at tiny Grand View College in Des Moines.
"If I played now like I did then, I think I would have had a chance at a career," said Kazmer, who lives in La Quinta, Calif. "I'd be scoring, flopping my blond hair - people would notice, I'd get endorsements. Maybe they'd have Air Molly shoes."
`A magnificent experience"
Still, Kazmer did all right with what was available. She was featured on a poster and was popular enough to be chased through department stores by autograph-seeking fans. Plus, she was a basketball player and getting paid for being one. The WBL may have been ahead of its time, but at least it was there.
"It was a magnificent experience," said Doug Bruno, who coached the Chicago Hustle for two seasons and is now the women's coach at DePaul. "We were coaching a great level of basketball. We had Olympians. The Chicago franchise was well marketed. We were on WGN television.
"I was 28 and dealing with some mature women. I also was dealing with a very strong self-identity based on the pioneering spirit. These women had something to prove. They wanted the league to go."
And for a while, it did go, despite a few bumps along the way.
Bruce Mason, who was the Cornets' assistant coach and director of operations, remembers frequently reaching into his own pocket to pay for meals, cab rides and hotel rooms for the team. One night, a hotel hadn't received a check for the team's lodging and threatened to throw everyone out. So Mason put the charges on his personal credit card.
"We were in Newark, N.J.," he said. "I didn't just want to spend the night on the street."
Meyers recalled the time her team, the New Jersey Gems, flew into New Orleans on the afternoon of a night game and the team had not reserved any hotel rooms. The players were told to walk the streets or visit the French Quarter until it was time to go the arena.
Eventually, Meyers talked her teammates into pooling their money so they could check into a hotel.
"We ended up getting two rooms so we could rest up," she said. "We went to the game, played, did not shower after the game, got into our sweats and were escorted to the airport to get our flight back to New Jersey. I don't think a lot of (the owners) understood what it really took to run a team."
Bruno was involved in the kidnapping incident. Hearing that a good player for the Milwaukee Does, Charlene McWhorter, wasn't being paid, Bruno drove the 90 miles to Milwaukee, picked up McWhorter, took her back to Chicago and put her in a Hustle uniform.
"The league said, `You can't do that. You kidnapped a player. The by-laws say you can't do that,' " Bruno said. "But I said the by-laws also say you have to pay them and she wasn't being paid. So she joined the Hustle."
Don't look for that to happen in the WNBA. And don't look for Kazmer to be trying any comeback. Even if she was born too soon for today's game, in her time and her place she had the chance to be a star.
"It was a great time while it lasted," she said. "When I played in the WBL, I ran into a gal who was born too soon for the WBL. She was a really good player and she didn't get the opportunity to play professional ball and here I did.
"I really had an appreciation at the time, thinking I was born at the right time. A lot of people between me and the ones now never got that opportunity. I have a lot to be glad about, that I came along when I did."
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