Monday, August 31, 2009
Diana Vines (DePaul) of the Detroit Dazzlers steals the ball. Maria Rivera (Miami) of the LBA All-Stars is the victim, with teammate Linda Godby (Auburn, Seattle Reign) looking on.
On February 19, 1991 the Liberty Basketball Association played its only game.
It seems that the Liberty Basketball Association, or LBA, was doomed from the start. The idea was certainly an interesting one - this would be ordinary basketball with 9-foot-2 inch baskets and a smaller court. The hope was that the scaled-down court and lower basket would promote a style of play more like the NBA - if women could go to the hoop with the expectation that they could dunk, the midrange game would disappear and women's basketball would finally become airborne.
The distance from basket to basket was 82 feet, four feet shorter than the NBA's distance. The foul line was only 13 feet away from the backboard instead of 15 feet. An undersized basketball was used.
There were 10,753 in attendance. Even then, all of the old assumptions were in place. USA Today, which might have the best generalized coverage of the WNBA, couldn't help but report that only half of those tickets were paid for - something which I doubt would have been mentioned if this were a men's game. The audience was crammed into one side of the palace to make the crowd look bigger for ESPN.
Among the players were Tonya Edwards, formerly of the University of Tennessee. Other college players were signed.
The game was played at the Palace at Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan between the Detroit Dazzlers and the LBA All-Stars. The game would be televised on ESPN, but even then the LBA couldn't have any luck. The game started at 12:30 pm ET on Monday, a time when you'd expect few viewers. There were two power outages at halftime which turned the halftime into a 40 minute wait, and one wonders how many people tuned out, never to return.
Most intriguing - and perhaps disturbing - were the uniforms. The uniforms were not the floppy shorts and jerseys but were skin tight lycra leotards, so tight that a player's nipples would stand out. Even some men thought that the uniforms were too tight. I don't know what the players thought about them.
Nancy Lieberman was okay with the idea. ""This is all part of appeal marketing...we're in a society where all that matters." Lieberman added, "I will do whatever I can for women's basketball." However, Lieberman didn't take part in the game. Other stars like Teresa Edwards kept their distance.
The Dazzlers would win 104-87. The ball was dunked, at least during the slam-dunk contest. Laurie Byrd scored 25 points for the Dazzlers. Six players scored in double figures. According to the Associated Press, the 22 players each got $250 for their troubles with the Dazzlers picking up an extra $100 for the win.
Some coverage was laudatory. "Women can play aggressive, fast-paced basketball. And with the help of smaller basketballs and lower baskets, women can dunk," wrote the Charlotte Observer. Other coverage focused more on the aspects of male reporters entering the locker rooms. (This was the Lisa Olson era.) A Washington Times said that women's sports would just never work. (It seems that some reporters' attitudes haven't changed over the following two decades.)
Others thought that the league exploited women. Jena Janovy of the Columbia School of Journalism wrote:
When was the last time a player in the National Basketball Association wore a unitard?
The revealing wear is clearly aimed at capturing the attention of the TV fans - most of whom are expected to be male.
Making the players attractive detracts from women's professional abilities and focuses all eyes on their bodies.
In the end, the prospect for a new league failed. A new league was supposed to be launched in December 1991, but the country was in the middle of a recession. The LBA was consigned to keepers of basketball trivia. No box score from their lone game exists or can be easily found.
However, the LBA came back - briefly - in 1997. To avoid any lawsuits from the founders of the Liberty Basketball Association, the New York Liberty purchased all trademarks and indicia belonging to the LBA. I wonder if there are some lycra unitards hidden somewhere in a box deep in the bowels of Madison Square Garden.