Women’s Professional Basketball League (1979-1981)
Born: May 30, 1979 – WPBL expansion franchise.
Died: 1981 – The WPBL ceases operations.
Owners: Claudette Simpson & John Simpson
In the spring of 1979, the city of New Orleans lost their NBA franchise to Salt Lake City, Utah when the Jazz pulled up stakes after five seasons. One man, a 32-year old stockbroker and basketball junkie named Steve Brown took the news particularly hard. Five years earlier, Brown entered a Name the Team contest when the NBA expanded to New Orleans and he submitted the winning suggestion of “Jazz”.
Facing a winter without basketball, Brown approached one of his clients, a gynecologist named John Simpson, and proposed purchasing an expansion franchise for New Orleans in the two-year old Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL). Dr. Simpson initially declined, but his wife & medical office manager Claudette Simpson liked the idea and persuaded her husband to become the major investor, with Brown as the team’s minority partner/General Manager. The WPBL awarded the New Orleans Pride expansion franchise to Brown and the Simpsons on May 30th, 1979.
Two weeks later, Brown lured former Jazz Head Coach Butch Van Breda Kolff away from the A.D./Head Basketball Coach position at the University of New Orleans to coach the Pride. It would be the first experience coaching women for the 58-year old, who also served terms as Head Coach of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons. He joined Larry Costello of the Milwaukee Does as one of two former NBA head men to chase a paycheck in the fledgling WPBL.
The Pride made their home debut at the Louisiana Superdome on November 15, 1979 in front of a crowd of 8,452 – at the time, the largest crowd ever assembled for professional women’s hoops in the United States. The crowd was drawn partly by the novelty of women’s basketball and partly by an opening night show that featured the New Orleans Symphony, the San Diego Chicken and a National Anthem performance by Doug “The Ragin’ Cajun” Kershaw.
The Pride finished 2nd in the WPBL’s Eastern Division in the winter of 1979-80, good for second place and a spot in the league playoffs. The Minnesota Fillies eliminated the Pride in the WPBL quarterfinals in March 1980.
Brown left the team after the first season and Claudette Simpson took over as the team’s General Manager and the face of the franchise. According to Karra Porter’s definitive chronicle of the WPBL, Mad Seasons, Simpson and the team came in for some questioning from The New Orleans Times-Picayune during the 1980-81 season over the racial composition of the team. Only four of the Pride’s twelve players were African-American when the 1980-81 season began (see photos below) and two of those players, Betty Booker and Beverly Crusoe were traded away early in the season. (Brown, Van Breda Kolff and former Pride player Sybil Blalock all told Porter they thought that the paper’s implications were off base.) According to Porter, racial composition of rosters was just one way that some league officials and investors of the WPBL wrung their hands over the public image of their teams. Some teams pushed for skimpier uniforms and were perceived to take physical appearance and “femininity” into consideration alongside basketball talent in player personnel matters. The Pride’s Sybil Blalock recalled to Porter that Pride players were encouraged – but not required – by ownership to apply makeup before games.
For their two seasons of existence, the Pride would split their home games between the cavernous Superdome and the more appropriately scaled field house at the University of New Orleans. The big crowd of curiosity seekers for opening night in November 1979 turned out to be a fluke. A February 1981 article by the Associated Press estimated that the Pride averaged around 1,100 fans per game at the two venues during their second and final season.
Other WPBL were in the same situation and the league went silent following its third and final championship series, played in April 1981. The league still existed on paper, but no schedule was released for the 1981-82 season. The last anyone heard from the Pride was in late October 1981, when Claudette Simpson told The Associated Press that the league couldn’t return without the largesse of a new major sponsor and that she and her husband were hoping to unload their franchise to new investors. The league never formally announced a shutdown, but by early 1982, it was clear the WPBL was done for good.
Pride founder/owner Dr. John Simpson died in a car wreck in 1985.
Butch Van Breda Kolff passed away in 2007 at the age of 84. New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey published a wonderful obituary, calling Van Breda Kolff “the best college basketball coach I ever saw”.
The women of the 1980-81 New Orleans Pride…