Trivia question: where & when was the first women’s professional basketball game played?
Answer: at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee on December 9th, 1978. The Milwaukee Does hosted the Chicago Hustle in the inaugural game of the Women’s Professional Basketball League. The event drew a crowd of 7,824 curiosity seekers who watched the Hustle hold off a late Does rally to preserve a 92-87 victory. By comparison the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA drew 8,467 to their first home game at the MECCA ten years earlier.
Although a handful of women had earned paychecks playing for touring All-Star teams such as the All-American Redheads (a sort of female Harlem Globetrotters), the WPBL marked the first effort to establish a nationwide franchised league for the women’s game. The league was launched by male investors who spotted an opportunity with the rapid growth of the sport in the 1970′s. The passage of Title IX legislation in 1972 resulted in an explosion of women’s collegiate programs and scholarships. Women’s basketball debuted as an Olympic sport at Montreal just two years earlier in 1976 with the United States taking home the Silver Medal.
The euphoria of the big opening night lasted only four days before the Does organization began a very public descent into chaos. General Manager Gene DeLisle fired Head Coach Candace Klinzing after a single game. The quick hook was enough to catch the attention of Sports Illustrated, which cheekily pointed out that Klinzing’s bio in the Does’ game program concluded with the admonition ”Give ‘em hell, Coach. We’re with you all the way.” The Does ultimately went through five coaches during the 1978-79 season, including DeLisle himself, a man who had never seen a women’s basketball game prior to Does training camp.
Attendance declined rapidly, with the Does second home game drawing an announced crowd of just 1,561. The Does’ woeful play on the court didn’t help. A January 1979 game against the Houston Angels drew only 641 fans to the 10,000-seat MECCA. The two teams combined for 62 turnovers as the Does dropped to a league-worst 1-10. The Does rallied somewhat in the season’s second half, but still finished last in their division with an 11-23 record in 1978-79.
Around the WPBL, many teams struggled to attract mainstream media attention. The Does were an exception, attracting consistent and in-depth coverage from both of Milwaukee’s daily papers, The Journal and The Sentinel. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse, however. Both papers took a keen interest in the front office shenanigans of the Does, running exposes of the alleged chauvinistic behavior and misdeeds of the club’s original executives (1978-79 season) and repeatedly publishing detailed summaries of the team’s creditors and outstanding balances owed. Original owner Robert Peters rang up outstanding debts of nearly $600,000 during the 1978-79 season and was nearly forced into bankruptcy. Somewhat miraculously, Peters managed to a find a buyer and sold the team to local businessman Herb Schoenherr in September 1979.
Schoenherr settled most of the Does’ outstanding bills and initially established enough credibility to lure in Larry Costello as Head Coach in October 1979. Costello was something of an icon in Milwaukee. Taking the helm of the Bucks expansion team in 1968, he coached the team throughout its Lew Alcindor/Oscar Robertson glory days in the early 1970, winning an NBA title in 1971. Costello stayed with the Bucks until 1976 and came to the Does fresh off a one-year stint coaching the Chicago Bulls in 1978-79. Costello was originally hesitant to join the Does, characterizing their first season as “a big mess” in an interview with The Milwaukee Journal, but Schoenherr won him over.
Under the new regime of Schoenherr and Costello, the 1979-80 Does got off to another slow start. By late December 1979, the club was 2-10 and mired in last place. On December 22, the WPBL terminated two under-capitalized expansion clubs, the Philadelphia Fox and the Washington Metros. By virtue of having the WPBL’s worst record, the Does picked first in the dispersal draft of the disbanded clubs and selected 6′ 2″ center Charlene McWhorter from the Metros.
The crazy tale of McWhorter’s rookie season epitomized the precarious state of the fledgling league. Originally signed to an $8,000/year contract with Washington, McWhorter never received a dime from the insolvent Metros. Selected by the Does in the dispersal draft, she arrived in Wisconsin just as new Does owner Herb Schoenherr ran out of money himself. Costello and his players stopped receiving paychecks in late 1979 and played the entire month of January 1980 without pay. Meanwhile, McWhorter was selected to play in the WPBL midseason All-Star Game and won M.V.P. honors. Midway through the season, she still had not received a paycheck from either club. Years later, Karra Porter detailed the rest of McWhorter’s rookie story in her 2006 book Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women’s Professional Basketball League. Chicago Hustle coach Doug Bruno set his sights on McWhorter, but the Does were not willing to trade their new star. Knowing that Milwaukee wasn’t paying its players, Bruno unilaterally decided McWhorter’s contract was null and void and simply drove to Milwaukee to pick her up in his van. To save face, the league re-framed Bruno’s jailbreak as a trade, with the Hustle tossing a pair of future draft pick to the helpless Does as compensation.
By February 1980, Schoenherr was financially exhausted and owed tens of thousands in back pay to Costello, his players and the MECCA Arena. A two-game road trip to St. Louis and Los Angeles was cancelled as the team appeared ready to fold. At the 11th hour, a new group led by Milwaukee plastic surgeon Dr. Arthur Howell stepped in with enough cash to complete the season. That commitment apparently did not involve paying Larry Costello, who was asked to continue working without pay and resigned instead. The Does limped through the rest of the 1979-80 campaign, finishing in last place once again with a 10-24 record.
In June 1980, during the WPBL’s summer offseason, Howell’s new ownership group re-branded the team. For the 1980-81 season, the club would be known as the Milwaukee Express, with a new maroon and silver logo replacing the Does’ busty-deer-in-hot-pants motif. Meanwhile, the rest of the WPBL continued to face a severe crisis of confidence. The league directors set a deadline of September 30th, 1980 for each club to post a performance bond of $150,000 for the 1980-81 season. When the deadline arrived, four clubs chose not to move forward, including the Express. The turning point for Express owner Arthur Howell was reportedly the pessimistic results of a local market survey commissioned as part of the team’s re-branding efforts.
The WPBL trudged along for a third and final season, playing its final championship game in April 1981.
Former Does and Bucks Coach Larry Costello passed away in 2001 at age 70.