The Rebel Girl: Death of Our Hoop Dreams

Against the Current, No. 79, March/April 1999

Catherine Sameh

DECEMBER 22, 1998 will sadly be recorded in the pages of women’s sports history. On that day the American Basketball League, one third of the way into its third season, announced it was suspending operations and would immediately file for bankruptcy.

The news was unexpected and traumatizing. One player, Limor Mizrachi of the New England Blizzards, learned of the ABL’s collapse from family members who saw it on TV. Her coach K.C. Jones described it as the saddest day of his career, which goes back to the 1950s and the glory days of the Boston Celtics. Another ABL player, despondent over the end of her hoop dreams, has committed suicide.

The ABL was the real women’s professional basketball league—the one that played during the actual basketball season, paid its players well, and recruited talent deep into each of its nine teams. The league inspired young girls, old folks, families, lesbians, feminists, men and anyone else who gave it half a chance.

The ABL even had the power to convert the most skeptical, sports-hating woman into an excited, vocal women’s basketball fan. With all this going for it, why did the ABL fail?

Simply put: television, the arena where the ABL could not compete with its corporate counterpart, the National Basketball Association. Piggybacking on the momentum of the ABL’s 1996-97 inaugural season, the NBA launched the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the summer of 1997.

With NBA ownership, the WNBA got NBC network coverage, big corporate sponsors and lots of media recognition. All this for a nine-week summer league that nurtured single-player stardom over quality ball playing.

The ABL on the other hand was founded and owned by a core group of the players and a few idealists with no corporate connections, but many great intentions. Their primary goal was to promote outstanding women’s basketball by building a strong league that nurtured its players’ development.

In this sense they succeeded; but despite its loyal fan base the ABL got only two major corporate sponsors and no major network TV coverage.

In early January Richard Blumenthal, attorney general for the state of Connecticut, where the city of Hartford hosted the Blizzards, issued a subpoena to the NBA. According to CBS SportsLine wire reports, “the subpoena was part of his investigation into whether the NBA used its clout to monopolize women’s basketball.”

Blumenthal claims “there’s evidence the NBA used sharp economic elbows to exclude the ABL . . . from fair play—including access to essential financial rights like TV and product sponsorships.” Attorneys General in other states with ABL teams may follow suit.

Even if the investigation goes nowhere, it provides some hope of an active stand against patriarchal and corporate control of professional sports—and an active stand is preferable to a nostalgic look back at that brief moment of women’s history-making.

I for one am too mad to be sad. Ah well, I hear Joe Hill calling.

ATC 79, March-April 1999