Second game from the pro career of former UCLA star and U.S. Olympian Ann Meyers, one of the great early legends of women’s basketball. Meyers was a national celebrity in the fall of 1979 thanks to the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, who signed her to a $50,000 pro contract that September. Meyers didn’t last long in Pacers’ training camp though and by the time the Women’s Professional Basketball League was set to open it’s second season in November, Meyers was the newest member of the New Jersey Gems franchise.
Earlier on the day of this very game, Meyers was featured in a segment on NBC Sportsworld seen by viewers nationwide. But despite Meyers’ notoriety, the Gems didn’t see a big spike at the box office after signing her. Barely 1,000 spectators turned out in Elizabeth, New Jersey on this Saturday night to see the Gems take on the Chicago Hustle.
Those who showed up saw an end-to-end, high scoring affair that confounded the common stereotype of the slow-paced, dull women’s game. Meyers (28 points, 8 assists) matched Chicago’s Rita Easterling (27points, 8 assists), the Most Valuable Player of the league’s inaugural season, point-for-point. Meyers also led all rebounders with 13 boards from her guard spot.
The supporting casts made the difference, as the Gems had six players in double figures including forwards Debra Comerie (21) and Wanda Szeremeta (20) both going over 20 points. The Gems beat the Hustle 114-95.
This program and the accompanying materials were acquired from the collection of women’s basketball historian John Molina. Check out the Downloads section below for some colorful original press notes and other Gems memorabilia from this game.
This is a really awesome find that comes to FWIL courtesy of Tom Davis, a former assistant coach from the Houston Angels and Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1981). Tom has shared his files for the Diamonds 1980-81 season home opener against the New Jersey Gems. Scroll to the bottom for the some fascinating downloads.
What’s special about this game is that it was the pro debut for two future members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame – Nancy Lieberman of the Diamonds and Carol Blazejowski of the Gems. The struggling league was counting on the duo to breathe renewed life into the organization (after the similarly hyped Ann Meyers failed to do so the previous season). Although they were both just rookies, Lieberman and Blazejowski were far and away the two highest paid players in the WPBL.
Only 2,217 fans showed up at Moody Coliseum on the campus of Southern Methodist University to see the pro debut of the Diamonds’ new superstar. Perhaps they were justifiably skeptical. Dallas finished in dead last place at 7-28 the previous season without Lieberman. As the season went on, Diamonds’ crowds grew and occasionally topped 6,000.
Carol Blazejowski was the game’s high scorer, netting 24 points on 8-22 shooting from the floor, plus a perfect 8-for-8 from the stripe. Nancy Lieberman was nearly identical, pacing the Diamonds with 21 points. She was 8-20 shooting and hit 5 out of 6 from the line. Dallas took the night though, winning 102-87 thanks largely to a 34-16 run in the 2nd quarter.
The two teams would meet again in the WPBL playoff semi-finals the following spring, with Dallas coming out on top in the Best-of-3 series. The Diamonds later lost to the Nebraska Wranglers in the league championship series in April 1981. Those were the final games in the league’s short history. It folded later in 1981.
The death of the WPBL ended Carol Blazejowski’s pro career after just one season. She entered the Hall of Fame in 1994 on the strength of her legendary amateur career. Nancy Lieberman continued to find places to play sporadically through the 1980’s and 1990’s, including a brief and ill-fated revival of the Dallas Diamonds in 1984, a stint in the men’s United States Basketball League in the mid-1980’s and finally a valedictory appearance in the first year of the WNBA in 1997 as the league’s oldest player at age 39. By that time, “Lady Magic” was already a Hall-of-Famer, having joined Blazejowski there in the 1996 induction class.
Diamonds coach Tom Davis squirreled away the official scorer’s reports, line-up cards and press releases from this game some 30+ years ago. You can view and download them all here…
The New England Gulls were a trainwreck of a women’s basketball franchise that operated for two months in December 1980 and January 1981. It was no fault of the players, of course. The Gulls had a couple of pretty good ones, including 6′ 3″ center Althea Gwynn and Canadian National Teamer Chris Critelli. Former Boston Celtics star “Jungle” Jim Loscutoff was the Head Coach (briefly).
The Gulls’ problems started and ended with owner Joseph Reither, a Massachusetts liquor store owner who was allergic to making payroll and had an antagonistic relationship with the Gulls’ players.
Moving into the second month of the 1980-81 season, the Gulls were in disarray. During the first week of January 1981, Loscutoff was either fired or quit with the team 0-6. 24-year old assistant coach Dana Skinner took over and led the Gulls to a couple of quick wins. But Skinner’s primary duty seemed to be to negotiate with Reither on behalf of the starving Gulls players, who were unpaid for weeks and couldn’t afford rent, gas or groceries. During a January 8th, 1981 home game against the Minnesota Fillies, the Gulls placed black patches on their jerseys and walked off the court in protest. They were coaxed back to play the game after Skinner was able to secure a few hundred dollars from the gate receipts.
One week later, the Gulls were due to play a match at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. According to a 2011 Boston Globe retrospective by T.D. Thornton, Reither promised he was going to put some marketing muscle behind the game, the Gulls’ first “home” game away from their usual venue at Merrimack College’s Volpe Athletic Center in North Andover, Massachusetts. A packed house in the big arena would allow the owner to get current on his salary obligations to the players. But when Skinner traveled up to Portland a week in advance to look at the building, he found that the Civic Center authorities had no idea what he was talking about. Reither hadn’t even booked the arena, according to Skinner, let alone organized the promised promotions.
On the night of the Portland match, only about 100 fans drifted around the arena. For the Gulls it was the last empty promise. Reither stood on one sideline and the Gulls’ players on the other in a standoff over playing the game. Finally, Reither relented and offered the team the gate receipts of $500 – with the stipulation they had to pay the game officials out of their own pockets. That was the last straw for the Gulls, who trudged back to the bus and rode home. The game was ruled a forfeit in favor of their opponents, the San Francisco Pioneers.
Five days later, Women’s Professional Basketball League Commissioner Sherwin Fischer kicked the Gulls out of the league, a decision that was re-affirmed by an 8-0 vote of the other franchises one week later on January 27, 1981. The Gulls became the league’s third franchise to fold in midseason in the span of 13 months.
The remaining members of the Women’s Basketball League managed to finish out the 1981 season but the league went out of business soon afterwards.
The New Jersey Gems were one of eight founding franchises in the pioneering Women’s Professional Basketball League in the winter of 1978-79. The WPBL was the first professional basketball league for women in the United States. Of the eight original clubs, the Gems were one of only three to survive for all three of the league’s seasons.
The Gems featured two of the highest paid and best known players in the early years of the women’s game – Ann Meyers and Carol Blazejowski – but never seriously contended for a league championship. They finally made the playoffs during the WPBL’s third and final season, but were shown a quick first round exit by the league’s third great star, Nancy Lieberman and her Dallas Diamonds.
In the WPBL’s inaugural season, the Gems fielded a largely anonymous roster and were the worst team in the league with a 9-25 record.
In November 1979, new Gems owner Robert Milo signed former UCLA star Ann Meyers to a three-year contract worth $130,000. (Average pay in the WPBL at the time was around $10,000 per season). At the time Meyers was the closest thing to a household name in women’s basketball. A silver medalist on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, Meyers led UCLA to a national championship as a senior in 1978. She burst into national headlines in September 1979 when the Indiana Pacers of the NBA signed her to a rookie contract, making her the first female athlete to sign with a major American professional sports team. Meyers was cut soon afterwards and moved into the broadcast booth for the Pacers until Milo came calling two months later. Meyers would go on to win co-MVP honors in the WPBL in the 1979-80 season as the Gems finished 19-17, just missing the playoffs.
Meyers declined to return for the 1980-81 season, later telling The Christian Science Monitor that her paychecks stopped arriving in the summer of 1980. Her pro career was over after a single MVP season. The Gems replaced Meyers with another big name for their third season, signing former Montclair State star Carol Blazejowski to a three-year, $150,000 contract.
The Gems moved the South Mountain Arena in West Orange for the 1980-81 campaign and had their best season yet. Blazejowski lit up the league as a rookie, leading the WPBL in scoring with 29.6 PPG. The team finished 23-13 and made the postseason for the first time. In the playoffs, the Gems ran into Lieberman and the Diamonds and lost 2 games to 1 in a best-of-three series.
Their Game 3 semi-final defeat in Dallas on April 6, 1981 turned out to be last game for the franchise. The WPBL quietly faded away sometime in late 1981. No formal announcement about the league’s fate was ever made, but the WPBL never staged a fourth season.
Former Queens College All-American Donna Geils played for the Gems during the 1979-80 season. Under her married name Donna Orender, she later served as President of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) from 2005 to 2010. Former Gem Carol Blazejowski also became a high-ranking executive in the WNBA, serving as VP/General Manager and later President of the New York Liberty franchise from 1997 to 2010.
The Gems also featured identical twin forwards Faye Young and Kaye Young during the 1979-80 season. The “Yogurt Twins” brought much needed notoriety to the publicity-starved league by starring in a Dannon Yogurt ad campaign. Faye Young went on to co-author Winning Basketball For Girls, a coach’s handbook which has been through numerous print editions over the years. Kaye Young married Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and was known to Pittsburgh sports fans as Kaye Cowher. She passed away in 2010.
The San Francisco Pioneers were an expansion franchise in the Women’s Professional Basketball League. The team opened for business with the league’s sophomore season in the fall of 1979. The WPBL was the first attempt to start a professional women’s basketball league in the United States, so the Pioneers nickname was especially appropriate.
Stockbroker Marshall Geller and his partners – who included actors Alan Alda of M*A*S*H* and Mike Connors of Mannix – acquired the club for a $100,000 expansion fee.
The Pioneers came on strong at the end of the 1979-80 season and made the playoffs with an 18-18 record. They defeated the defending champion Houston Angels in the quarterfinal round before losing to the eventual champion New York Stars in the semis. Former UCLA star Anita Ortega finished fourth in the league in scoring with 24.1 points per game. Marshall Geller was named the league’s “Owner-of-the-Year”, as the Pioneers finished near the top of the league in attendance at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium.
During the Pioneer’s second season, the team was wracked with internal conflicts. Geller fired Head Coach and General Manager Frank LaPorte two months into the season and replaced him with former NBA player Dean Meminger. Meminger was the league’s Coach-of-the-Year the previous season after leading the New York Stars to the 1980 WPBL title, but the Stars had disbanded leaving Meminger available. Pat Mayo, a tri-captain and a fan favorite pictured on the cover of the team’s 1980-81 yearbook above, was so disgruntled with the situation that she retired from basketball at age 23 shortly after Meminger’s arrival. Meminger quickly dismantled the rest of the unhappy bunch and by the season’s midway point only four players remained from the Pioneers’ opening night roster.
One new arrival was “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, one of the league’s top scorers and self-promoters. She printed up posters at her own expense and sold them at games. Posters of the attractive blonde became sought after souvenirs in cities around the league. Bolin was available at mid-season because she had signed on with a rival women’s league called the Ladies Professional Basketball Association in late 1980. The LPBA went belly up after just a handful of games and Meminger quickly called Bolin in to San Francisco in January 1981. Bolin was so highly regarded in the league that she was picked for the February 1981 All-Star game in Albuquerque, despite playing in the league for less than a month after her return from the LPBA. She led all scorers in the game with 29 points.
The late season tinkering wasn’t enough to right the ship and the Pioneers finished out of playoff contention a disappointing 14-22 in 1980-81. Following the season, the WPBL drifted into a state of limbo. The college draft was cancelled in June 1980 and various club quietly shut down. No formal announcement was ever made, but the Women’s Professional Basketball League was done after three seasons.