Monday, August 31, 2009

The Liberty Basketball Association

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.


Rebecca said...

Given that Laurie Byrd is now on our bench, that would be hilarious.

drxray said...

They would definitely report it if a men's team gave away tickets for free. That would be bigger news.

pt said...

You do have an argument there. The game took place in 1991, so it was probably about a decade or so since men's pro ball gave away tickets on a routine basis. The ABA was notorious for it.

Deiter said...

At the risk at sounding, well, insensitive (at best, a pig at worst), women's basketball is at best a reduced version of the NBA article. Some might enthuse that it is a far better display of fundamentals than its NBA counterpart, but where's the Showtime? It's slower and lower, they tend miss many more shots, and in general it's like watching a high school or junior college level game: It's a diminished product. Putting ballers in unitards is cute but let's face it, this isn't women's beach volleyball. Top women athletes tend not to have pin-up caliber bodies. Which is fine, mind you, I'd argue that fans aren't there to ogle--generally speaking. I don't think oglers are their target audience anyway. People who go to ogle at women's basketball games aren't cut from the same material as the traditional basketball fan. Owners would be well advised to go after the kind of non-traditional fans that might support such an endeavor. It ain't the men watching the cheerleaders with binoculars from the upper deck.

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Robelyn Garcia said...

This is an excellent weblog with some interesting and informative submissions.

As aforementioned the LBA was a unique approach to the game. The idea behind the rule adaptations were based on research analysis revealing that Women’s basketball players are 92% the size of Men’s basketball players. Hence the 9’2″ goal height, 25″ ball size and shorter court dimensions. I actually made the league roster; moreover the season folded right after the half-time NBA exhibition game. We did however practice on the 9’2″ goals for several months. I even have video footage of all of us dunking at will.

Many of the players that would have played in the LBA, had it been launched, played in the WBA. The WBA league also started with an All-Star Game in 1992 and then played three full seasons from 1993-95. The founder of the WBA, Lightning Mitchell, has a movie in production that will tell the story of the first professional Women’s basketball summer league. I am sure this will be an entertaining film chronicling the highlights and mishaps of one of the foremost pioneers of Women’s professional basketball.

Dr. Robelyn Garcia