Here we have a terrific program that Fun While It Lasted recently acquired from the collection of women’s basketball historian John Molina. This comes from a rare college/pro doubleheader hosted by the Old Dominion University Lady Monarchs in November 1980. The front end of the double dip was a pre-season exhibition game between the Chicago Hustle and the Dallas Diamonds of the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1981).
At the time, Old Dominion was the powerhouse team in women’s college basketball. In 1980, the Lady Monarchs were two-time defending AIAW national champions. And the Norfolk, Virginia school produced the top two draft picks in the 1980 Women’s Professional Basketball League draft. Nancy Lieberman, widely considered the greatest female basketball player in the United States, went #1 overall to the Dallas Diamonds. After a three-month holdout, Lieberman signed a record-breaking $100,000 contract with the financially shaky Diamonds, double the benchmark $50K deal inked by UCLA’s Ann Meyers a year earlier. 6′ 5″ Danish center Inge Nissen went #2 overall to the Hustle. No less dominant than Lieberman, Nissen cut a much lower public (and financial) profile.
The University imported the Diamonds and the Hustle for this pre-season tune-up and then retired Lieberman and Nissen’s numbers at halftime of the ODU-James Madison contest that followed. According to The Associated Press, it was the first time a university retired the jerseys of its alumni in the (relatively short) history of women’s college basketball.
Despite losing two future Hall of Famers in Lieberman and Nissen in 1980, the cupboard was hardly bare at Old Dominion heading into the 1980-81 college basketball season. For one thing, the Lady Monarchs still had the unstoppable 6′ 8″ sophomore center Anne Donovan. Lieberman (appearing “short” at 5′ 10″), Donovan and Nissen are pictured on the cover of the evening’s game program (above right). ESPNW writer Mechelle Voepel notes that the iconic photo of the three future Hall-of-Famers hung in the ODU Field House for years.
Donovan would lead the Lady Monarchs to a third consecutive Final Four appearance in 1981. But unlike Lieberman and Nissen, she would never get the chance to play pro basketball in the United States. The Women’s Professional Basketball League folded in 1981 at the conclusion of Lieberman and Nissen’s rookie seasons. Donovan played overseas and gold medals with the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 and 1988.
Donovan and Lieberman were enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in the mid-1990’s. Both went on to coach in the WNBA and Donovan coached the U.S. women to Olympic Gold in 2008. Inge Nissen, as always, has remained in the background in comparison to her legendary ODU teammates. Nissen was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, but still lacks that most basic credential of modern day notoriety – her own Wikipedia entry.
“Nissen gets her time in the spotlight“, Mechelle Voepel, ESPNW, June 8, 2012