Time was running out on the Washington Metros. Flushed and weary in their sweats and T-shirts, they straggled off the floor of Mount Vernon College to make way for the junior varsity basketball team from Sidwell Friends.
Pink-cheeked young ladies with matching ponytails and burgundy, pleated skirts giggled and dribbled with abandon, oblivious to the identity of the "pros" along the sideline.
Carmen (Cheese) Fletcher, a second-year professional out of St. John's of New York, said "I wish I was playing with them. They're so uninhibited. It was a joy to see the way we once were."
Once, not so long ago, women played basketball for nothing, for love of the game.
The Washington Metros are still playing for nothing. They have not yet been paid this season.
The Metros and the other 13 teams in the Women's Basketball League (WBL) may be the future of women's basketball. But for the moment, the past is going one-on-one with the future and saying, "In your face, sucker."
"We're supposed to be paid on the 15th and 30th of every month -- we haven't seen anything," said team captain Vivian Greene. "Some of us couldn't go home for Thanksgiving because we didn't get paid.Coach (Nat Frazier) made it so we had a Thanksgiving dinner, but it wasn't really the way we wanted it."
The players say Frazier has been good to them, fair to them, has gone into hock ($50,000-60,000) for them.
"They're upset," Frazier said. "I'm upset, too. They haven't been paid. As a coach, that doesn't help morale. I haven't made my final cuts because they haven't been paid. I won't make the cuts until they get paid."
Morale could be a lot worse. The Metros have that pioneer spirit. They know times are tough but it was tough on the men, too, once, they say. Besides, they are pros and pros don't quit.
Dianne Engleken, once the Metros' marketing director and one of several former team employes still owed money by the club ($3,500-$4,000), said, "It's a dream. If I had been one of those girls, I'd still be there, too. When you've played basketball all through grade school, high school and college and finally start to receive recognition as an athlete, not just as a girl playing basketball, and you have a chance to make it a career, it's hard to give up."
Cathy Shoemaker, a starting forward from the University of North Carolina said, "You come so close to leaving and saying it's not worth it. But after four years of high school and college, it's in your blood. . . ."
What can you do? You love the game.
It was three minutes until game time and Capital Centre, that red, white and blue monument to sports capitalism, was empty. There were perhaps 100 people in the building, including the players and coaches of the Metros and their opponents, the New Jersey Gems.
Among the no-shows was Ann Meyers, the gem of the WBL. She was in the Bahamas. Meyers is a Superstar and she was on location taping the ABC show of the same name.
"They tell you you're the pioneers," said Meyers' teammate, Donna Geils, who is supportive of the league and particularly her coach, Howie Landa, whom she calls a "mensche." "That's the carrot they hold in front of your head.
"They know how great their desire is to play," she continued referring to the Metros. "And, in way, their desire to play is being exploited."
"Cheese" Fletcher, who did not dress for the game, was asked if she feels exploited. "Without a doubt," she said. "Maybe men feel like whenever they get women together in a group or a team, they feel like a pimp and can do with them as they please."
Frazier said, "If they are being exploited, I'm being exploited, too."
League President Bill Byrne bristled at the suggestion. "I get mad when men or women say we're exploiting women. Their salaries aren't too bad for 4 1/2 months work."
The Metros are paid, or unpaid, between $6,000 and $12,000 for the 34-game season, they say.
Byrne says the players "will be paid by the first of the week. That's why we're here."
On Dec. 3, the league officially took over the financial management of the expansion club from Frazier, the team's coach and owner. Byrne said the league is trying to arrange new ownership for the Metros and that the future of the club (now 2-5) should be resolved this weekend. He refused to say whether that future includes Washington, although he admitted, "I don't think they'll draw here."
Byrne says he does not blame the players for being upset about the situation and does not blame Frazier, either. He blames a major corporation that, he said, guaranteed the team's financing in writing and then pulled out. "There will probably be a lawsuit over it," he said.
The legal status of the players also is ambiguous. Jodi Gault, a guard who was traded to the California Dreams Wednesday, said "We don't have copies of our contracts. We had to turn them in. I don't know if we have say until we have a contract in our hands."
Fletcher said that when she asked to make a copy of her contract, she was told, "You're not allowed to."
Frazier said, "They know where they stand. Everyone signed a contract. Because of the financial situation, some were not finalized and returned."
Some of the players, who preferred not to comment on their financial situations, said, essentially, "Let's just say we're being taken care of."
Dianne Caudle, a graduate of Georgia State who was an airline stewardess until she became a Metro, said, "It was a tremendous sacrifice salary-wise," she said. "I gave up a lot because I think it's worth it. If I didn't think it was worth it, I'd be working now."
Cathy Shoemaker was equally resolute. "Hey, nobody is looking to get rich off this. If you're an organized person who likes to be on two feet, this isn't the place for you."
Lisa Schlesinger, who played last season with the University of Maryland, lives at home with her parents. "They're supporting me this first year. I don't have to worry about paying rent."
Schlesinger said that when the players were not paid before the first game, as they were supposed to have been, they went to Frazier "and he sympathized. He said there was no problem you'll get paid or get a per diem. He's bought groceries for everyone and taken care of gas."
"We have gotten groceries," said Bertha Hardy, a starting forward from Jackson State. "As far as gas, I haven't got a car."
Hardy said her biggest worry is her three-year-old daughter at home with her mother. "I got somewhere to lay my head. There's more to life than eating and sleeping. I got food and shelter and I'm doing okay."
Frazier said the team has "made concessions to the players no other team in the league has made, including paying 50 percent of the rent for the Virginia apartments they share.
Fletcher said she does not know who has been paying the other 50 percent for her rent, but that it wasn't her. She said she has not been getting enough to eat, either. She's been eating a lot of cornbread, she says.
So while her teammates were out on the floor, Fletcher was upstairs in her press room chowing down.
It was 7:30 and there was a minute left in the game. The arena was beginning to fill up in anticipation of the Bullet game. Knick forward Toby Knight sat at courtside, watching the girls do their thing, waiting to warm up. Knight has a sister who wants to be a pro some day and, he said, he thinks the women's league is right on time.
Knight was told that half the players on the floor had not been paid this season. He was incredulous. "You'd never be able to tell it by the way they're playing," he said.
The Metros lost, 87-84, in the last minute of play.