A dozen wholesome, college-educated Midwestern women are standing in green-and-gold basketball uniforms on the snow-covered steps of a high school gym on a Sunday morning.
They are beating on the doors with their fists and kicking with their frosty sneakered feet, yelling, "Come on! Open up!How about treating us like women?"
At first glance, these Iowa Cornets of the Women's Pro Basketball League seem to be the reduction of a once-sensible idea to its final absurdity.
If professional sports has a lunatic fringe, isn't the WBL close to it? Surely, this is the ragged edge of liberation for women.
The Cornets laugh through their shivers. Actually, they, like the other seven WBL teams, are proud not to be treated like women these days. They are pioneers, founding sisters, who have proudly signed a long-term contract with hard times.
And if you are determined to be a pioneer and suffer, Elizabeth is the right place. In this oil-refinery armpit of the industrial revolution, even the air has a 5 o'clock shadow.
The Cornets -- named after Iowa corn, not symphony horns -- are in no mood for locked doors.
"We beat the Milwaukee Does, 9889, in Wisconsin yesterday and didn't fly into Newark Airport until after midnight," said Bruce Mason, the assistant coach. "Is this how it feels in the NBA?"
In the National Basketball Association, players don't sleep three and four to a room to save pennies as the Cornets did here. Nor do they dress at the motel, then arrive at the game with 14 players and coaches (and all their belongings, including one guitar) crammed into two rented station wagons.
"Oh, we don't complain," said scrunched 6-foot-2 Cornet Connie Kunzmann. "Everybody knows we travel better than any team in the league."
NBA teams don't arrive two hours early expecting shooting practice, only to find a girls parochial game in progress. "Who's winning?" asked one Cornet. "Our Lady of Perpetual Debt," came the facetious answer.
And, finally, the six-figure NBA princes don't play in frigid gyms with high school refs, for annual salaries that range from $5,000 to 15,000 -- the lower figure being far closer to the median.
As the Cornets thrash the New Jersey Gems (130-88), fans keep their parkas on. The Iowans bundle up under towels and jackets as they leave the game breathing smoke.
Any of the 1,000 or so fans on hand must have the same question: Why?
One answer keeps returning: talent is a hard master. How many can resist following the path of their ability -- even if that skill were pickpocketing?
Few lures are as powerful as the phrase, "Gonna make you a star," even if a person must sometimes whisper that motivational message in her own ear.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, in time, a pro basketball league for women would emerge. The talent existed. A league had to be born to let it express itself -- even if that expression took place in a near-vacuum, in a league that is one of the best-kept secrets in sports.
Does the market for such a product exist now, or will it ever? No one knows. In the middle of its first season, the WBL is averaging about 1,500 fans a game and treading water.
Certainly, the 100 or so women of the WBL feel their endangered baby has the force of athletic history behind it.
"We're in flux now. Some franchises may fold. The whole league may fold. Right now, the idea of the league is for more impressive than the league itself," said Karen Logan, one of the league's prime movers and organizers.
"But no matter what happens, another league will spring up. The whole thing is too prime to fail.
"There is a huge feeder system of high school and college programs for women's basketball all across the country. The quantity and quality of players has to improve every year. So does the grass-roots fan interest."
Close up, a league that appears to be lunacy from a distance is really apple-pie sanity, mixed with a little youthful adventurousness.
The dream of pro sports riches has taken hold as firmly as the gold-rush mentality of more than a century ago. These young women with their jump shots and knee pads are '49ers, panning for a strike, hoping to stake a bonanza claim.
The WBL opens it arms to all who believe in Yellow Brick Roads and beneficent Wizards.
"At the moment," says one Cornet, "most people seem to think that WBL has something to do with bowling."
That does not daunt any true WBLer. "By the end of this year, we'll have 24 superstars in this league," says the league's president, founder and chief bottle-washer, Bill Byrne, getting a bit carried away.
"We're pioneers. Someday when we're in our rocking chairs and girls are making $100,000 a year, we'll laugh about these struggling times," he said.
"But right now, we need a million town criers. We need workers.
"The most beneficial thing we have going for us is the mistakes I've made and the millions of dollars I've seen misspent in all the other sports leagues I've been part of."
And Byrne has been part of them all: owner of a semi-pro football team; first player personnel director hired by the old AFL; personnel director of the Chicago Fire of the defunct WFL, and founder of a pro slow-pitch softball league.
"I've seen high-salaried players kill new leagues, and ego-tripping owners, and, above all, bad management," says Byrne. "We're keeping a tight reign on every dollar. We're not hurting financially. Let's get through a season or two without going in hock, and then watch this league take off after the 1980 Olympics."
Byrne's motto, and consequently the WBL's byword, is: "No fancy promises, no quick profits."
If you call the WBL a "low-budget operation," then you have paid it a compliment. Byrne has attracted his eight less-than-famous owners, most local business men, with a modest $50,000 franchise fee and annual operating expenses of about $250,000.
If that middle-echelon initial investment -- with hopes of big bucks years down the road -- sounds like the startup procedure for a small fast-food chain... well... Byrne has a business background in fast-food chains.
The people who must survive what Byrne calls a three-to-five year format of austerity are the league's chief asset: its remarkably gifted players. Cheeseburgers they ain't.(To get a bedrock feeling for the WBLers, you really only need to become familiar with two fascinating women: Molly Bolin, 21, of Iowa and Logan, 29, of New Jersey.
Although only eight years apart in age, they represent two entirely different eras in women's basketball -- the bad old days of second-class athletic citizenship and the bright new force-fed days of Title 9.
Respectively, Bolin and Logan sing the songs of innocence and experience of those two ages.
The young, blond Bolin -- mother of a 2-year-old son, wife of a bricklayer in an Iowa town of 700 -- speaks for the vast majority of WBL players who have left college within the last two years.
She has grown up in that first American female generation that has been encouraged to think that a woman can be a star athlete as easily as a cheerleader -- or a doctor as easily as a nurse.
The idea of pro ball has never struck Bolin as funny, at least not since the day she scored 83 points in a 32-minute high school game.
Consequently, Bolin has a natural beauty on court that goes beyond homecoming queen looks. She is no self-conscious woman in an uncomfortable, out-of-character role. Bolin is pure jubilant player. Machine Gun Molly grew up with, "In your face, sister."
Tell Molly Bolin it isn't ladylike for a blond bombshell to lower her shoulder and drive the baseline for a reverse layup and she'll give you a look that says, "Why should I listen to you, crazy as you are?"
To her, the WBL, with its 24-second clock and mandatory person-to-person defense a la the NBA, is an invitation to unheard of freedom.
"This is so creative," she bubbles. "You've got a lot more chance to show your stuff... I guess I don't have much conscience and never did. I'll put it up anywhere inside 40 feet.
"In high school, they'd just give me the ball and get out of the way. I always felt a little guilty about my 55point scoring average," she says, batting her baby blues.
Bolin is just the sort of shake-and-bake, one-on-one player the WBL wants to encourage.
"It's just a riot when they put one girl on you after another and you just keep doin't it to 'em," says a smiling Bolin. "I like to square up to the basket, look my girl in the eye and kind of freeze her."
What she does then is lay down some serious riffs -- sneaker-squeaker stop-and-pop jumpers, finger-roll layups, running hooks.
A week ago, Bolin was disgusted by a two-point first half.
So, in the second half, she scored 38 points against Milwaukee, shooting 12 for 14 from the floor and 14 for 14 from the free-throw line.
"The newspapers blew it out of proportion," she apologizes. "A bunch of slop just rolled in. But it was a lot of fun."
Like most WBLers, Bolin never has played with other women of equal talent. She is as shocked and pleased as league officials that typical WBL team shooting percentages -- 43-44 percent from the floor, 68-70 percent from the line -- almost equal the NBA percentages.
Nevertheless, Bolin continues to find the WBL a difficult choice.
"All of this gets my husband down sometimes... you know, we're all practically married to basketball, too. It's like a double life.
"The season's 34 games, so that's only 17 on the road," she says. "Even counting practice time, I spend more hours with my little boy than I would if I had an eight-hour-a-day job. Anyway, Donny can't lay bricks in the snow... when it's real cold, he can babysit."
By and large the WBL is in its freewheeling, lighthearted stage.
Most of the "gate attractions" of women's basketball are not in the WBL. They are either married and raising families, like Lusia Harris and Debbie Brock from Delta State, or saving their amateur status for the '80 Olympics, like Carol Blazejowski of Montclair State, Ann Meyers of UCLA and Tara Heiss of Maryland.
"We actually have strangers at our games... people that none of us know," says Gem walk-on Gale Tatterson, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding (20.6 and 10.8).
"We even think we may have a groupie. The guy's here at every game. We call him our season-ticket holder...
"What's our goal? When the New York bookies carry a line on our games, then we've arrived," said Tatterson, 23, who owns and has operated a 300-acre family farm in Snow Hill, Md., since her father's death three years ago, Basketball is just her winter crop.
For Karen Logan, veteran of the women's athletic liberation wars, the WBL is no casual let's-see-if-it-flies concern.
Others may smile as they make ends meet by washing windows, selling sporting goods or even operating heavy equipment. Others may laugh at headlines that say, "What's Tall, Wears Eye Shadow, and Can Kill You From the Corner?"
Logan, her face intense and emotional, has had the playfulness ground out of her.
For a decade she may have been the best pure jump-shooting creature on earth -- made, female. On a nationally televised shootout, she beat Jerry West at H-O-R-S-E. The contest started with 30 consecutive baskets before West missed.
In three years of touring the country with the barnstorming "All-American Redheads" -- a team she now calls "the grossest exploitation of women athletes on record" -- she had a free-throw mark of 94 percent.
Yet, almost no one has ever heard of her. "I don't know how many years I have spent shooting alone in gyms," she said. "I can't think of a woman in my sport who has made anything of hereself."
Ask Logan what she thinks of the WBL, and she quietly explodes, like 100 pounds of condensed opinion.
"If this league tries to copy the NBA, and that seems to be its goal now, then we'll come in a poor second and fold," said the Gems guard who is regarded as the league's leading idea woman.
"We can't prosper as a freak show, a roller derby. Right now, we're promoting a power game. Under the basket, it's a jungle.
"Soon, there'll be no room for any finesse or fancy play. It's much rougher than playing against men's teams with the Redheads...
"To succeed, this league must capitalize on what women do best -- utilize skill, grace, intelligence, strategy. Our selling point is beauty of motion...
"We need to encourage a fast running game with total team play, great interior passing, all the tricky passing and dribbling and spin layups that women have the soft touch for."
Logan, however, is not hopefu. "All three women head coaches have already been fired," she pointed out. "The product of all-male coaching is going to be more emphasis on strength.
"The team owners are looking at this league as a marketing movement, a fad to cash in on. They have no idea what they want the product to be."
Of course, in the short urn, a rock-'em-sock-'em element to the WBL may sell tickets.
"In the long run, it has to kill the league," said Mary Jo Peppler of the Gems, the volleyball star who won $49,600 on the ABC-TV women's superstars.
"I've played very little basketball before joining this league, but I know that it's murder out there. The last three games I've gone in, I've come out bleeding."
"If a league can't pay decent wages, it shouldn't exist," said Logan. "In Chicago, when I was assistant coach, I negotiated all the players' salaries. I tried to pay a kid what she could probably earn as a first-year school teacher -- $8,500-to-$10,000."
Then Logan laughed: "I thought that was very cheap. Now I realize the Hustle has the highest wages in the league."
Years of resentment linger in Logan's and Peppler's eyes.
"I can remember scratching for 15 years as an amateur athlete," said the powerful, handsome Peppler, under her Medusa's head of red-brown curls. "When you've lived on 25 cents a day, you figure you can cope with anything. Maybe that struggling builds character... I sure got to know a lot of characters... but it never seemed like fun.
"The next generation of women athletes shouldn't have to put up with those things."
That is the WBL's ground of common agreement. The league is not picky about how it gets itself off the fiscal ground floor.
If it takes pulchritude and dunk shots to sell tickets, so be it. The New York Stars picked sportscaster Phyllis George in the draft. Iowa, whimsically, chose 7-foot-4 Russian Ulina Semonova. "When the league gets someone who can dunk, it will help," said Bryne.
Iowa's high scorer, Doris Draving, only 6-1, can slam down a volleyball. "Doris is our team wit," said Bolin. "We tell her somebody must have kept her locked in a cave for seven years to make her so funny. If her hands were big enough to palm the ball, we'd have one spaced-out dunker already."
Until the mad slammer appears, the WBL must push smaller items, like its new one-inch-smaller ball which reduces turnovers.
Until that far distant day of femmefatale dunkers and $100,000 salaries, the first women's pro league in any team sport is searching for its million town criers.
"The Cornets are going to play in my home town next month," said Bolin, delightedly, "and I think we'll have a sellout."
Is that because of the fame of the WBL? The growing reputation of Machine Gun Molly Bolin?
"No," said Bolin. "It's because my mom's the head of the ticket committee."