Fake diamonds, fresh hairdos, and Martina Navratilova. That’s what Dallas Diamonds owner Jud Phillips was banking on to draw the crowds to the Dallas Convention Center Arena for the first home game of the city’s first professional women’s basketball team on November 27, 1979. To be more precise, it was the city’s only professional basketball team. The NBA wouldn’t bring the Mavericks to town for another year. So the 28-year-old Phillips was breaking all-new ground.
He had managed to sign a sponsorship deal with Zales that would put all 36 of the season’s games on the radio. And for the opening-night promotion, everyone who bought a ticket would receive a diamond, one of which would be real. Of course, the only way to find out if you were the lucky winner was to visit a Zales store.
To add some sex appeal, the team’s official stylists, J.D. & We, held a marathon hair-styling session a few days prior to the game. According to the Dallas Times Herald, though, it was more about strategy than sex. The paper reported that all of the players received “new hairdos so they won’t be bothered by hair in the face at the free throw line.”
In a last-minute coup, the team’s PR manager had convinced Martina Navratilova, a Dallas resident who had just won her second Wimbledon title, to toss up the ceremonial jump ball.
At the end of that Tuesday night, Phillips heaved a sigh of relief. The young team owner was pleased with the turnout of 2,477 and the 116–100 victory over the California Dreams. The future shone bright like a diamond. The only question was, was it real or fake?
Bill Byrne was a hustler, the kind of guy who could turn any sporting event into a bet or a business. Some went so far as to call him a flimflam man, but even those people had to admit he was likable. You knew he wanted your last dollar, but that’s why you didn’t resent him for trying to take it.
The Ohio State University grad started his career in the 1960s in sporting goods, and he leveraged his success into the presidency of the Columbus Bucks semipro football team. He then founded the National Scouting Association, which provided player information to the NFL and other sports leagues, and the American Professional Slo-Pitch League, which was an attempt to build on the growing popularity of what was, at the time, a predominantly male amateur sport.
So, in 1977, when Byrne told some friends over beers at a sports bar in Columbus that his next plan was to start a women’s professional basketball league, they laughed. But they were listening.
Byrne was one of the first to realize how the enactment of Title IX, in 1972, had already drastically altered the landscape of women’s athletics. Prior to the law, women made up only 7 percent of all collegiate athletes. The NCAA, which had been around for more than a century and a half, offered no athletic scholarships for women and sponsored no championships for women’s teams.
The impact of the new law was immediate. Within five years, women’s collegiate participation had tripled. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when women’s basketball was included for the first time, the United States took silver. In 1972, just 224 colleges and universities sponsored women’s basketball teams; by the 1976–77 school year, more than 800 had teams.
Byrne was convinced that women’s basketball was going to be huge. He incorporated the Women’s Professional Basketball League on October 11, 1977 (later dropping “Professional” to give the league a more typical three-letter initialism). By the time the WBL opened its inaugural season, in December 1978, Byrne had eight franchises: the Chicago Hustle, Dayton Rockettes, Houston Angels, Iowa Cornets, Milwaukee Does, Minnesota Fillies, New Jersey Gems, and New York Stars. He made sure the initial buy-in was attractive, a modest $50,000 for a team (the equivalent of $212,000 today; that same year, the San Francisco 49ers were purchased for $13 million).
During the first season, crowds ranged from a high of 8,000 to a low of 1,000, just enough to confirm interest and keep the league alive. Byrne decided to expand the following year to 14 teams, optimistically taking the buy-in up to $100,000. He was confident that with the 1980 Olympics on the horizon, teams would be in the black by the 1980–81 season, with name-brand star power added to the rosters.
His plan was right on track.
“One has to wonder what in the world would possess someone with a little extra cash to buy a women’s basketball team. It’s not what you call a low-risk investment. It’s more of an extravagance, really, like something out of a Neiman-Marcus catalog: for the man who has everything, including a chocolate Monopoly set, how about a full-court, perfume-scented team that will shoot 44 percent from the floor, 73 percent from the line and 100 percent of your money.” —Republic Airline’s Scene Magazine, March 1980
Phillips had already made enough of a fortune by the time he was 28 to fancy ownership of a professional sports team. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1973, he and his brother had started their own company and begun licensing McDonald’s restaurants throughout North Texas.
When I sit down with him in his office conference room at Preston and I-635, we are observed by Ronald McDonalds of various incarnations standing on a bookshelf—stuffed, plastic figurines, made of Legos. The table is spread with the contents of two shopping bags of Dallas Diamonds team memorabilia from his ownership days: photographs, newspaper clippings, and fan mail that his wife has carefully maintained for four decades. He jokingly refers to it all as his “$300,000 scrapbook.” In clippings, he sort of looks like a young, confident Sam Donaldson, clean shaven with a typical ’70s sweep of thick black hair. Now he looks more like a gray-bearded Paul Giamatti, with Giamatti’s characteristically apologetic air.
Phillips’ father died when he was 11, and he was raised by his mother. That’s why, he says, he was enamored with Title IX. “I love women,” he starts to explain, then pauses self-consciously. “That’s not the way to say it. I have always believed women should be able to do everything men can do.”
After he attended a WBL game in Houston during the league’s first season, he saw an opportunity. He couldn’t believe how fast-paced and exciting the game was. “I was hoping it would become a major league sport,” Phillips says. “If you look at what major league teams were worth at the time, this was a small fraction. We figured worse come to worst, we’d be able to sell it in a couple of years for a million dollars. That wasn’t the goal, to sell—it was just an attractive investment.”
His brother came on board as a partner, and their friend, a 32-year-old lawyer named Ira Tobolowsky who had just started his own practice, was the vice president. With a budget of $100,000 a year for the first three years, anticipated player salaries around $12,000 each (based on local teacher salaries at the time), and ticket prices planned at $6.50 for adults, they believed they could break even if they could get an average of 3,235 bodies in the seats. When you considered the fact that every 12-year-old girl who came would necessarily have a parent along for the ride and that college games were now playing in front of sold-out crowds, it didn’t seem that hard.
The Dallas Diamonds were added to the new Western Division for the 1979–80 season. Along with the defending-champion Houston Angels, they joined three other first-year teams: the Anaheim-based California Dreams, the San Francisco Pioneers (which was co-owned by actor Alan Alda, socialite Ann Getty, and former San Francisco 49er Gene Washington, among others), and the New Orleans Pride.
For his coach, Phillips quickly settled on Dean Weese, the “Father of West Texas Girl’s Basketball.” Weese had coached at Spearman High School in the Panhandle for 15 years, leading the team to three state titles before he was offered the head coach position at Wayland Baptist University, just north of Lubbock, in 1973. By the time Phillips approached him, Weese was one of the winningest coaches in the country, leading the Flying Queens to two AAU National Championships and a 194–30 record over six seasons.
It wasn’t hard to convince the 42-year-old Weese to move his young family to Plano and join the fledgling league. Thanks to Title IX, Weese was finding himself competing against schools with vastly increased budgets. It became clear that he was no longer going to be able to get the best recruits now that the likes of UT, Texas A&M, and UCLA were putting their ample resources toward women’s sports.
With Weese on board, excitement started to build. Governor Bill Clements sent a telegram: “Congratulations to the Dallas Diamonds Women’s Professional Basketball Team. I know that you will receive enthusiastic support from the sports-minded citizens of Dallas and surrounding area.”
The draft was held in the Terrance-Oval Room at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City on June 12, 1979. There were 400 potential players available for the 14 teams. Dallas had third pick.
Weese’s first-round choice was Alfredda Abernathy, a soft-spoken 6-foot-3 center with a memorable hook shot. The 21-year-old junior at Alabama State averaged 20.6 points and 15.1 rebounds a game.
“Word got out they were gonna have a professional league the year before I got out of college,” Abernathy recalls. “Everyone was excited; my dad was a coach. A day or so before the draft, I got contacted asking would I want to come to Dallas if they drafted me, and I’m like, OK, this is for real!” Later, Phillips would remember Abernathy as the player who stood out among the farm girls from Kansas and Oklahoma by showing up for the first practice in a souped-up black Camaro.
These days, Weese doesn’t like to talk about his time with the Diamonds. He considers it the worst months of his life. But back then, at the start of his first coaching gig for a professional team, he was optimistic about his lineup. In an early interview with Blackie Sherrod at the Dallas Times Herald, he couldn’t help but brag about Carolyn Bush Roddy, at 27 his oldest draft pick and the only married player on his team.
“She’s 6-2, and I’ve always said, the best talent I’ve ever coached,” Weese told Sherrod. “She can jump 10-6 and that’s pretty high for a girl player.”
“Another reason I’m optimistic is that I think the caliber of play is improving. Five years ago women couldn’t dribble, and now women are making moves that people can’t believe. I understand there’s a good senior class this year. You know, for many years, there just weren’t that many women who were seniors and still played. If a guy might not get his degree, he didn’t care because he was thinking about making the NBA. Women cared more about graduating, and, as a result, many of them dropped out of basketball their senior years.” —Jud Phillips, Dallas Times Herald, December 20, 1979
Raised by her grandmother in Kingston, Tennessee, Bush Roddy didn’t discover until years later that her mother had played basketball at an all-black high school during segregation. For her part, Bush Roddy says that growing up she couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. But she sure could jump and run.
Her basketball career started in middle school in 1964, at the beginning of integration. Back then, girls mostly played 6-on-6 half-court ball (it looked like two separate 3-on-3 games played on the same court). Then there was “rover,” a theoretically improved version that allowed two players on each side to play the full court. But Bush Roddy hated it, because if your teammate was slower than you, you could be caught alone between two defenders. And her teammate was always slower.
“I wanted to play like the guys,” says the now 67-year-old on the phone from her home in Tennessee. “I’m an only child, and I grew up with three uncles and a community of boys. Miss Bessie, she put an old peach basket on a telephone pole, and my Uncle Boots—his name was James Ervin, but everybody called him Uncle Boots—bought us one of them old rubber balls. We had a dirt court and we would go out there every afternoon and especially on Saturday. We would head to church on Sunday. There wasn’t no playing no basketball on Sunday.
“I never did play with dolls and stuff. Not that I didn’t like dolls, but I wanted to play. And my uncles and them, they were not easy on me. I think that is why I was so much better a player than a lot of other people.”
Her frustration with not getting to play like the boys was eclipsed by the challenges of integration as the first and only black girl on her high school team. One night after an away game, her team stopped at a restaurant. The manager took one look at Bush Roddy and told her coach that she needed to walk around to the back door and sit in the kitchen to eat. When the coach told him that if she couldn’t eat with the rest of the team they’d go elsewhere, the manager relented. But he still made a point to make Bush Roddy order last.
Because the University of Tennessee didn’t have much of a basketball program at the time—legendary coach Pat Summitt was just getting started—she opted instead to play for Hiwassee Junior College, where she caught Weese’s eye. She spent two years at Wayland Baptist, where she became a two-time All-American, scoring 1,090 points and leading her team to two AAU National Championships. She won a gold medal in the 1975 Pan-American Games, and she still remembers breaking down in tears when she lost out on the final spot on the 1976 Olympic team to Trish Roberts.
She married her husband, Steve, in 1977, and she was working for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee when Weese called her up to see if she’d be interested in playing for the Dallas Diamonds. “Well, I said, ‘Of course, but let me talk to my husband,’ ” Bush Roddy says. “My husband, the only thing he said was, ‘When do we leave?’ I took a $1,500 a year cut to go play professional basketball in Dallas.”
“When they’re not running, they’re jumping. When they’re not jumping, they’re diving. When they’re not diving, they’re shooting. When they’re not shooting, they’re passing. These girls can really operate.” —Julius Erving, Sports Illustrated, May 14, 1979
Eric Nadel was surprised when Phillips, the Diamonds’ new owner, called him out of the blue to see if he wanted to do the call for the games. “I had just started working for the Rangers, and it was my first year,” says Nadel, who would get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. “So I was looking for something to do in the off-season. I wasn’t making that much money, and I had never broadcast basketball, so it really appealed to me.”
Phillips had signed a radio contract with KAAM, which was on The Ticket’s current frequency at 1310 AM, to broadcast all 36 games of the first season. He got the station to hire Nadel to do the call, and he sold the sponsorship rights to Zales. “They had every commercial in the games,” Nadel says. “Literally, every commercial. There were no other sponsors.”
It was a one-man operation on the road, and Nadel did it all: stats, play-by-play, color, engineering. Oftentimes, there would be only a couple hundred people in the audience, so, Nadel says, it would sound weird when he would go back and listen to tape. There wasn’t any crowd noise. But he loved it.
“You know, it was still pretty early in my broadcasting career. I was 28 years old, and I didn’t know how things were gonna go,” he says. “So I was excited about getting a chance to do basketball. I had never really seen women’s basketball before. I was unfamiliar with the way the whole thing looked and operated. It was perfect for me because it was significantly slower than the men’s game, which was really good for learning to do play-by-play.”
Nadel would go on the road with the team, and two things struck him. One was that the women would change at the hotel and get in the van in their uniforms, and then after the game they wouldn’t shower or change at the arena. They’d get back on the bus in uniform and change back at the hotel. The other thing was the tears.
“I would get on the van—I had to do a little bit of a post-game show and I would be one of the last ones getting on the van—and there would be girls crying on the van,” he says. “I wasn’t used to that from any of the broadcasting that I’d done. You know, there’s no crying in baseball. So that was kind of weird. And I wouldn’t know what to say, so I would generally shut up. I didn’t know the right thing to say.” (The tears could be attributed to the fact that although the team managed a 7–11 run at home during the first season, they never won a single game on the road.)
Nadel faced other challenges. He had to kill a lot of minutes during the halftime shows, which started to get more and more elaborate as teams did everything they could to sell tickets. In New Jersey, they had planned to do a demonstration with police dogs and have them attack dummies on the floor. No one warned Nadel until right before halftime that instead of the 10 or 15 minutes he usually had to fill, the show was going be half an hour.
“Fortunately for me, we were playing New Jersey, which is the team Ann Meyers plays for,” Nadel says. “And Don Drysdale was in the crowd. He would later marry Ann Meyers—I think they were just dating at the time. Don was a baseball announcer, and I think he was working for the White Sox then. I had only met him once, but he was one of my boyhood heroes. I remember taking a commercial break and climbing up into the crowd. I told Don what was going on and asked him if he would come down. I did like a half-hour interview with Don Drysdale, which is still one of the highlights of my broadcasting career.”
“Some of the other coaches tell me there’s a big difference between boys and girls basketball,” Weese says in a deceptively high-pitched tenor of his Oklahoma and West Texas background. “I’ve never seen it that way. They tell me they go a lot easier on their women players than I do—and I thought about that. Their teams generally are losers.” —Sportsgame, December 2, 1979
The Dallas Diamonds didn’t have big names like the Iowa Cornets’ “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin or the New Jersey Gems’ Carol Blazejowski, but they did have a height advantage. With four players 6 feet or above, they were one of the tallest teams in the league. Yet they weren’t gelling as fast as Weese had hoped.
Skeptics were concerned from the get-go that the old-fashioned stop-and-pop style of some of the players didn’t stand a chance against the more athletic, 1-on-1 game favored by other teams. The skeptics were right. The team was slow, and they got slaughtered. After their first home win against the California Dreams, they lost the next seven games in a row. By the end of 1979, their record was 3–11.
Phillips was also losing at the box office. Of the 2,477 who attended the first game, only 1,354 paid. The other tickets were all comped. Attendance only declined from there.
Then there were the expenses. The Dallas Convention Center charged a $1,500 base rent for every home game. It cost $680 for folding chairs to be set up courtside, and $100 to put down the basketball floor. Once you included miscellany, it cost $3,200 just to open the doors for a home game. When ticket sales dropped to a few hundred per game, Phillips couldn’t even cover that.
But the Diamonds’ owner wasn’t alone. The Washington Metros and Philadelphia Fox franchises were both forced to suspend operations by the end of 1979. Only three clubs were making enough to pay the bills: Iowa, Minnesota, and St. Louis.
The team was playing moderately better as the new year started and had achieved its second-best crowd. But Phillips had noticed too late the inherent failings of the schedule, which put half of the home games over the holidays, forcing the team to compete with the Dallas Cowboys. And he had escalating travel expenses on the horizon. Of the remaining 18 games, only five were at home.
By mid-January, Phillips realized he had blown through his initial three-year, $300,000 budget in under three months. His attempts to find additional investors had failed. He was no longer going to be able to pay player salaries.
The sparkle was gone.
“One night at Joe Miller’s, Nancy Nichols sat by the fireplace sipping a glass of wine. It had been a long day. That afternoon she had called the local media to the Dallas Diamonds’ offices on Blue Lake Circle for Jud Phillips to announce his withdrawal of ownership. … That night at Joe Miller’s Nancy drank wine and tried to forget she didn’t have a job anymore. She didn’t know what would happen in the ensuing weeks. For someone who had tasted the excitement of big-time sports, the last thing she wanted to do was to wait tables as she had done before.” —Dallas Morning News, February 27, 1980
Soon after he bought the team, Phillips started looking for someone to run the front office. He wanted someone with experience in professional sports, so he asked Dallas Cowboys broadcaster Brad Sham whom he’d recommend. Sham, who knew Nancy Nichols from her time as the PR manager for the Dallas Blackhawks hockey team, gave Phillips her name. (Nichols went on to become D Magazine’s dining critic for many years.)
Phillips invited Nichols out to dinner to explain his business plan. She was more interested than she might have otherwise been in such a risky proposition. She had recently left her job with the Blackhawks after they refused to give her a modest raise, and she was now working in a wine bar.
“I knew just enough to be dangerous,” Nichols says. “He told me he had a three-year commitment for $300,000, and he was going to sell this many tickets, and this was what he was going to pay the players. So I just looked at him, and in my gut I was like, ‘Idiot.’ But I wanted the job. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this.’ ”
Even though the team got off to a rocky start, she was all-in. She loved sports, and she believed in the players and what the league was trying to accomplish. She would visit junior high and high schools to generate interest and offer group tickets. She got Dallas Cowboys players to come to games. When the newspapers and TV stations wouldn’t provide any coverage, she would write her own game recaps, hoping they would run something, anything.
When Phillips asked her to bring the team into the office and schedule a press conference on January 19, 1980, she honestly didn’t know what it was for. “We had rented furniture, so the office looked like a living room,” Nichols recalls. “The players were sitting on couches and stuff. So I just remember it looking so weird. It didn’t look like a sports team; it looked like a Tupperware party.”
Phillips stood up before the assembled group and reluctantly announced that he was dissolving the team. He said he wasn’t prepared to go further in debt, and he didn’t want to get to the point where he couldn’t pay the players, as some teams had. The TV cameras swiveled around to catch the reactions of the players. Several of them sobbed.
“We were totally shocked,” player and assistant coach Shena Cooper told the Dallas Times Herald. “We immediately started to wonder where we would go, what we would do, whether we should go home and find new jobs. No one expected this to happen. Not even the coach.”
Before figuring out their Plan Bs, they went out for pizza and some commiseration. Roommates Catherine Shoemaker and Debbie Stewart blamed themselves for the closure of the team, convinced they had jinxed it. The players had just joined the Diamonds at the beginning of the month after the Washington Metros had folded.
Most of the players, and certainly Weese, blamed Phillips. His heart was in the right place, but, like many team owners, he had grossly underestimated the up-front investment required. He wasn’t equipped to sustain the losses long enough to get the league on its feet.
What the women couldn’t possibly anticipate as they shared their sorrows over cheap beers and resigned themselves to get jobs at local health clubs or move back home and work on the family farm, was that a hard-drinking 33-year-old Dallas businessman had seen the press conference on the evening news and had been moved by their tears.
He didn’t know the first thing about basketball. But he decided he was meant to save the team.
“Of all the precious metal commodities in which Staver might have invested—gold, silver, Diamonds—he picked the only one with very little future.” —Dallas Times Herald, February 22, 1980
Earlier that winter, Mike Staver had been flying home to Dallas from Houston in a private plane piloted by a friend that almost went down in a storm. As the plane bobbed and weaved and he watched ice form on the wings, he wished he had done something more meaningful with his life than distressed real estate deals. He wanted a lasting monument, something more than the scholarships he had given to the drill team at the New Mexico Military Institute.
A few weeks later, while half-watching sports on Channel 4, he saw the news report. He had always wanted to own a pro sports team, and his sister had played basketball in high school. He figured this was the perfect opportunity to give back to the city where he had built his career. That night, he left a message for Sham, the sportscaster, to find out whom he needed to call to buy the team.
The deal was inked on February 1, 1980. Staver decided not to pick up the rest of Weese’s three-year contract (he didn’t know much, but he knew the team was losing). He kept Nichols on as general manager, and part of her early duties included educating him about the sport he had just invested in as they finished out the team’s first season.
Dealing with Staver was a little different than working with the mild-mannered Phillips. “He was a flaring, rowdy, drinking guy, and our meetings were at 11 o’clock at night at Trader Vic’s,” Nichols says. “Nobody went in the office until 3 in the afternoon. It was the anti-front office MO. I could be asleep, and I would get a phone call, and he’d say, ‘Nichols, get over to Vic’s.’ And I’d have to get in my car and drive over to Trader Vic’s and talk him out of some weird thing that he wanted to do.”
As they made plans for the following season, neither was overly concerned about the mounting losses. “We were awful,” Nichols says. “We came in last. I was actually praying that we would lose the last two games, because if we lost the last two games and we finished worst, then we’d get the first-overall draft pick.”
For the new coach, Staver had his eye on a young guy, Greg Williams, who had started out as an assistant coach under Don Knodel for the Rice men’s basketball team. When Knodel took the head coaching job for the Houston Angels in the league’s first season, he asked Williams to come along as his assistant.
In Houston, Williams and Knodel worked full-time sales jobs during the day to pay the bills and coached the team at night. The day workload became too much for Knodel, so he asked Williams to switch with him and become head coach; Knodel became the assistant. The unusual arrangement was effective. The Houston Angels were the league’s first champions. But by the time draft season rolled around for the second season, Knodel and Williams weren’t even getting paid their nominal salaries. Williams realized he needed a new gig.
When Staver offered him the head coach job with the Diamonds for enough money that he wouldn’t have to work a second job, it was a no-brainer. After getting turned down by his first few choices for assistant coach, Williams got creative. He decided to hire Tom Davis, a Moneyball-style stats savant who had zero coaching experience but had done scouting reports for the Houston Angels. Davis might not be able to draw up plays, but, Williams believed, he could help him draft a dream team, especially given that they’d get the first pick.
“We called all the top coaches in the country,” Williams says. “Texas, Georgia, Louisiana Tech, Stanford. I pretty much asked them all the question, ‘If you were in my position with the No. 1 pick, who would you choose: Nancy Lieberman or Inge Nissen?’ ”
Nissen and Lieberman were teammates and famous as rock stars at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Nissen, the “Great Dane,” was 6-foot-5, the dominant post player in the country. She started playing at the age of 14 in her native Denmark and had been attempting to expedite her citizenship to be an Olympic contender.
Lieberman was already an Olympic veteran. She was the youngest in U.S. history to win a medal, earning silver at the age of 18 in 1976, the first time women’s basketball was included as a sport. The redheaded Jewish girl from Queens was known for her charisma and sharp elbows.
“I would say off the top of my head, 90 percent of those coaches said they would pick Nissen first,” Williams says. “So that’s what I planned to go with.”
He had negotiated total control of player personnel as part of his contract, so he knew the choice was his when he headed to New York for the 1980–81 draft. The night before, Williams went out for dinner with Staver, Davis, and Nichols, and told them he had decided to go with Nissen. Nichols wasn’t happy.
“I wanted Nancy Lieberman, because, as I knew, she could sell shit to a plumber,” Nichols says. “She was a born promoter. You just can’t help but be mesmerized by her. She played street ball growing up in Harlem with the boys. And she could talk; she could captivate. So I told Greg, ‘Look, as much as we need to win, we need to sell. And she’s going to sell.’ ”
After dinner, everyone except Staver, the owner, headed back to the hotel to rest up for the big morning ahead. Nichols was staying in the room directly above coach Williams’. When she got to her room, she pulled a safety pin from her dry cleaning and scrounged around to find some string. She wrote something on a card and pinned it to the string. Then she opened the window and suspended the card in front of Williams’ window.
“She calls me on the hotel phone and says, ‘Hey, Greg, go look out your window,’ ” Williams recalls. “So I put the phone down and go over to my window, and there’s a little piece of paper there that says, ‘Draft Nancy.’ I started laughing and said, ‘OK, I get your point,’ because she was in charge of public relations, and she knew that Nancy was instant box office, but I was looking at it from a basketball perspective.”
The draft started at 9 am, and team owners had five minutes on the clock to make their picks or lose them. But Staver was nowhere to be found. The team owner liked the nightlife, and he’d been enjoying his time in the Big Apple. The minutes start ticking by. It was 9:04 when he finally walked in. Williams ran up to him with a slip of paper with Lieberman’s name written on it.
“Well, he’s not expecting to see that,” Williams says. “He’s expecting to see Inge Nissen. He’s all blurry-eyed anyway. He might have just walked in off the street. I don’t know for sure.
“He comes in, shakes his head, looks at me and goes, ‘Are you sure?’ I go, ‘Yes, sir. I’m sure.’ I gave him a little push and said, ‘Hurry up and get up to the podium before we lose our pick.’ He probably came in at 4:55 on the clock and made the announcement that we were selecting Nancy Lieberman. That’s how it all started.”
“Let the history of basketball, no, the history of civilization, record that last Monday night, with 1:06 left in the first half of a New York Pro Summer League game between the Gailyn Packers and Ka-Har-Lyn at Xavier High School in Manhattan, 6’4″ Al Skinner, late of the Philadelphia 76ers, fouled 5’10” Nancy Lieberman, formerly of the Old Dominion Lady Monarchs, because she had him beat to the inside. Lieberman went to the line and sank a pair. Two small free throws for a woman, two giant free throws for womankind. —Sports Illustrated, July 21, 1980
Lieberman was lounging by the pool at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas with Rhonda Rompola, her Old Dominion teammate and future SMU women’s basketball coach, when she got the call that she was being drafted by the Dallas Diamonds as the WBL’s No. 1 pick. The two were in town because Lieberman had been invited to participate in a celebrity tennis tournament with the likes of Julius Erving and Franco Harris. Any hopes Lieberman had for a second Olympic run had evaporated when President Jimmy Carter announced on March 21, 1980, that the United States would boycott the Moscow games. But she wasn’t finding it hard to fill her summer after graduating from Old Dominion.
After Las Vegas, she was heading to her hometown to play with the New York Pro Summer League. It wasn’t the NBA, but she would have the opportunity to face off against the likes of Geoff Huston, who had played with the Knicks the year before and had now joined the expansion Dallas Mavericks. She held her own, getting a fair amount of playing time while annoying some of the men with her aggressive game because they felt uncomfortable pushing her back. The summer team was happy to have the added publicity, and Lieberman used it as an opportunity to up both her game and her market value. Her agent, Matt Merola (who also represented Reggie Jackson and Tom Seaver), was busy negotiating a contract with the Diamonds. He was asking for $100,000 for the season, an outrageous sum compared to the $7,500 Bush Roddy was getting paid.
“I don’t want to seem greedy,” Lieberman told Sports Illustrated, “but every other star in women’s sports is making $400,000. I’m not saying I can do what Nancy Lopez or Tracy Austin does, but then Tracy doesn’t have to hit backhands with an elbow in her face, either.”
Lieberman hadn’t pulled the figure out of thin air. Before the draft, Jane Pauley had interviewed her when she was a college senior playing at Madison Square Garden. Pauley had asked Lieberman if she planned to play for the WBL, and, if so, what she expected to make, noting that Ann Meyers had been signed by the New Jersey Gems for $50,000 the previous year.
“Stupidly, I said, ‘Well, I’m twice as young and twice as good, so I should make $100,000,’ ” Lieberman says.
She stuck by the number when she was drafted, but what started as swagger turned into business savvy. After consulting with Julius Erving about how to format the contract, she realized she could justify the salary by outlining the increased revenue her celebrity status would bring the team and agreeing to make frequent promotional appearances.
On September 23, 1980, her $100,000 deal was finalized, making WBL history. Lieberman would be paid $65,000 up front and receive the rest at the end of the season. She packed up her home in Norfolk, Virginia, and made the move to a condominium in Oak Cliff. She was sitting pretty. Part of the agreement was that the team would provide the furniture.
“Confessions of a male chauvinist horse’s tail: I enjoy watching women’s professional basketball.
“Believe it or not, in Dallas I am not alone. The irony is, in any other Women’s Basketball League city, I might be drummed out of the press corps. Enjoying dame cagers would be considered nearly as weird as watching ’em mow the yard or fix the plumbing or reach for the top-shelf glasses or barbecue the steaks or move the couch or take out the trash or figure the income tax or do any of the things the little ladies just can’t do. I mean, sneaking off to a WBL game would be almost as unmacho as being seen at a soccer match.
“The guys at the office might figure you’re a little, you know.” —Skip Bayless, Dallas Morning News, April 17, 1981
With new money in the bank and fresh talent on the bench, the Dallas Diamonds had only one goal for the 1980–81 season. It became a mantra: go from worst to first.
“Lo and behold, we were able to do that,” coach Williams says. “In fact, at that time, we set the record in pro sports history—counting football, baseball, the NBA, and the National Hockey League—of having the greatest turnaround in history. Because we went from seven wins to 27 wins. If you prorate those numbers out over the longer NBA or MLB season, percentage-wise, we had the greatest improvement in pro sports history. Of course, nobody knew that because we weren’t getting much publicity as far as the league went.”
The turnaround on the court was immediate. After the first four days and three games on the road, the team was in the black for the first time ever with a winning 2–1 record. Back at home, Williams had sorted out more convenient practice facilities at Park Cities Baptist Church, and Nichols had found the team a slightly smaller and much more lively home at SMU’s Moody Coliseum.
As the wins added up, so did the number of fans in the seats. Attendance ultimately hit a record high of 6,373, surpassing not only the other teams in the league, but also the Mavericks.
But the increased draw wasn’t just about the wins. It also had something to do with race. At the end of the season, in a weirdly sexist and homophobic story with an ultimately pro-Diamonds feminist bent for the Dallas Morning News, Skip Bayless made an observation. During the first year, when the team played at the Dallas Convention Center and Abernathy was the star, the patrons were predominantly black and attendance was modest (he cited an average attendance of 1,008, but in retrospect it’s clear that wasn’t the case, at least in terms of tickets sold). That, he wrote, changed with the move to SMU:
“Moody became a take-me-to-the-circus family affair. Balloons, Celebration over the P.A. and run-and-fun on the court. Take your girls team and have ’em introduced. Free parking. The superstar is white, and so is the crowd. White as milk,” Bayless wrote.
“Once Cowboy games were over, Diamond Sundays became a sort of picnic for the Park Cities affluent. That 6,373 turned out on a Sunday against New Orleans which, by the way, barely survived the season and is now for sale.
“Dallas has embraced Lieberman, the Queens queen, and she has squeezed back. Careful, sweetie, not too hard. ‘Our timing was very good,’ said Lieberman, who estimates she signs 500 autographs a post-game. ‘This town is very much a Cowboy town, but it was looking for something else. We were something of a curiosity. But these people aren’t stupid. They want high-quality entertainment, and when they saw us, they enjoyed us. We’re good, and you can’t ignore us for that.’ ”
You also couldn’t ignore that the players most often getting mobbed by 11-year-olds in handmade tribute t-shirts were Lieberman, Cathy Shoemaker, and Kim Bueltel—all of whom were white. As far as Williams was concerned, however, the team’s success didn’t hinge on the Great White Hope of Lieberman. In fact, she spent much of the season plagued by knee and ligament issues, and the team’s talent was deep enough that they were able to win with or without her.
After finishing the season 27–9, the Diamonds were matched up against the Nebraska Wranglers for the Finals. Game 1 was in Omaha. It was a stark contrast to Moody, with only 1,000 or so in attendance. The Wranglers won easily, 89–72, and Brian Archimbaud with the Boy Scouts of America bought the team a consolation dinner at Perkins. At the second game in Omaha, the Diamonds came out strong. Lieberman had recovered from a sprained ankle and scored 31 points, leading the team to a 106–93 win. Thrilled, Staver took everyone out to Club 89 for steak dinners. The next day, both teams headed to Dallas on the same flight.
The publicity leading into Game 3 brought attendance over 8,000. The game was close, with Dallas ahead by only one point at the end of the third quarter. The Diamonds ultimately won 96–88. They were now one game away from going from worst to first and becoming the WBL champions.
On April 18, 1981, the team drew another crowd of nearly 8,000 fans in Moody. Williams was desperate to win; he didn’t want to have to face Nebraska on the road again. But Lieberman and Jennings struggled out of the gate. Williams subbed in Hattie Browning and Cathy Shoemaker, who were on fire. But the score remained close, and at the last minute he decided to put his top players back in. Then Holly Warlick, who would go on to coach the Lady Vols, did something no player had ever done before: she stripped the ball from both Jennings and Lieberman in the back court for a series of easy layups. To everyone’s shock, the Wranglers won 94–93.
On Easter Sunday, both teams flew back to Omaha for the deciding game. Instead of the Wranglers’ usual home court, they used the University of Nebraska’s gym. By this point, Lieberman says, “I had torn ligaments in my ankle and literally was playing like if I was in a cast.”
The game was close into the fourth quarter. With the Wranglers up by four and a little more than a minute left in the game, Jennings, who led Dallas with 21 points, missed a short jumper. Nebraska took the ball and a foul from Jennings. The Wranglers’ two free throws put them up by six. With 54 seconds remaining, Dallas managed to foul the Wranglers three more times and score only one more layup. The Wranglers won 99–90. The Diamonds had to settle for worst to second best.
It was the last game the team would ever play.
“Pioneers get shot with arrows.” —Jud Phillips, September 9, 2019
In the beginning, Staver had bragged to reporters that he was willing to sell properties and lose up to $1 million to fund the Dallas Diamonds. But in the end, like Phillips and the rest of the owners in the WBL, he found that he didn’t have the kind of money needed to bridge the vast gap between women becoming serious athletes and women’s sports becoming serious business.
In addition to the owners, you could blame the Olympic boycott. You could blame racism and chauvinism. You could blame the Dallas Cowboys schedule. And you could blame Bill Byrne and league office mismanagement, which led to the canceling of the next year’s draft and the slow shuttering of the league as a whole by the end of 1981.
But everyone I talked to, save coach Dean Weese, said they would do it again. Maybe a little differently, but they’d do it. They were pioneers, after all, and they made history.
“The WBL did more than people realize,” Lieberman says. “It was the first time there was a professional league for women. It allowed women in front office positions. It gave African American women an opportunity to play professionally or be leaders on teams. It had social consequences beyond just playing basketball.”
A few years ago, she says, when Dallas was making a bid to get the 2017 Women’s Final Four tournament, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle called her. He asked her to meet him at the American Airlines Center to help with the pitch to the NCAA.
“I got up there and I said, ‘You can pick any city you choose. That’s your business. But why wouldn’t you reward a city that supported women’s professional basketball before it was popular? Back in 1979 and ’80, there was a women’s professional basketball team here before the ratings were big. Long before things were exploding for female athletes, the city of Dallas said, “We want a team.” They were here supporting us before anybody else.’
“I talked about the Dallas Diamonds and the effect that it had,” Lieberman says. “I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
Dallas hosted the 2017 NCAA Women’s Final Four, and we’ll host it again in 2023.
The Dallas Wings professional women’s basketball team came to Arlington in 2015. Average attendance is now close to 5,000. Nancy Lieberman is a season ticket holder.
Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women’s Professional Basketball League, by Karra Porter, was published in 2006 and served as an invaluable resource for this feature.
After Dean Weese left the Dallas Diamonds, he returned to the Texas Panhandle to coach girls’ basketball at Levelland High School, where he won 17 more district titles and seven state championships. In 2000, he was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Alfredda Abernathy retired from teaching in 2017 and is currently the athletic director at Capital Heights Junior High in Montgomery, Alabama.
Carolyn Bush Roddy gave birth to her first child in Plano General Hospital before moving back to Tennessee with her husband, Steve. Now retired as a case manager for individuals with special needs, she works part time as a special education attendant with the Roane County School District. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June.
Eric Nadel has a “lifetime contract” with the Texas Rangers. He hopes to outlive it.
Greg Williams stayed in Dallas to coach at SMU before once again becoming head coach of the Dallas Diamonds, in 1984, when they were resurrected as part of the short-lived Women’s American Basketball Association. He worked for various colleges and the WNBA, and then finally settled back at his alma mater to coach the Rice women’s basketball team. He is the first person to be a head coach in three women’s professional leagues. He retired in 2015.
After spending 22 years as an editor and food critic for D Magazine, Nancy Nichols now leads culinary vacations around the world.
Nancy Lieberman has been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, among numerous others. She is currently the head coach of the Power in the Big3, a professional men’s league founded by Ice Cube.
Jud Phillips is still in the restaurant franchise business. None of his children played much basketball, but his 2-year-old granddaughter appears to be interested.
Bill Byrne retired when the league folded. He died from a terminal illness in Columbus, Ohio, at the age of 70.
No one knows what happened to Mike Staver.