Outside the bus window a weak winter sun shone on a landscape reduced to the sepia tones of an antique photograph. Desiccated drifts of old snow lined the eastern edge of I-35, and puffs of dust kicked up by a gusty wind raced across the bare cornfields. Only a grain elevator here and there broke the line of the horizon.
The Minnesota Fillies were on their way south to Des Moines to play the Iowa Cornets, with much more at stake than just the lead in the Midwest Division of the professional Women's Basketball League. Coach Terry Kunze played Mastermind with Guard Janet Timperman from Kentucky and reserve Forward Sue Wahl-Bye from St. Cloud, the Fillies' only homebred. Forward Kathy DeBoer read Bill Russell's Second Wind. Center Marie Kocurek sat alone, looking out the window, impassive. Donna Wilson, Katrina (K.O.) Owens and Patty Montgomery chattered, breaking into laughter now and then. Gordon Nevers, the Fillies' owner and president, settled down to his customary backgammon game with Point Guard Scooter DeLorme.
Nevers had reason to believe that the worst of his troubles were over, that the fortunes of his team had at last turned for the better. Minnesota's most recent appearance at the Met Center in Bloomington, a 105-71 win over the Chicago Hustle, had drawn a crowd of 4,917, the largest ever for a Fillies home game, and now KMSP-TV in Minneapolis had consented to broadcast the Fillies' game against the Cornets the next day. Furthermore, the timing of the telecast was perfect—2 o'clock on a cold Sunday afternoon, with nothing up against it except a charity telethon, the CBS Sports Spectacular and a lousy movie. Nevers felt as confident as he had in months.
Gouging a space in the public consciousness for a new sport requires a little luck and a lot of money, the money being for the purpose of buying time until the luck comes along. The odds against an owner's finances holding up until good fortune arrives are so high that, by comparison, pork belly futures are a giltedged investment. The WBL is well into its second season and still waiting. Though it will probably survive this season, it has suffered a number of setbacks. Two of the 14 teams with which the league began the season—the Washington Metros and the Philadelphia Fox—folded because of little attendance and no money. Two other franchises that were foundering at midseason, the Dallas Diamonds and the Milwaukee Does, were deemed worth saving. New ownership and new money were found for both. WBL Commissioner Bill Byrne concedes that a "couple" more teams will probably change hands by spring. He even concedes that the folding of a franchise or two is not inconceivable. But he points to San Francisco, St. Louis and New Jersey as teams that are solid and are gaining in both attendance and media attention. "There has never been a new league that didn't have problems," says Byrne. "But we're here to stay now. We've stabilized."
None of which is to say that any owner anticipates making money this year. "If I owned a team, I'd expect nothing before five years," says Byrne. Nevertheless, discussions are under way in Denver, Boston/Hartford, Phoenix and Tampa, which Byrne predicts will lead to at least two new franchises next season. The cost of a WBL franchise is now $500,000, up from $50,000 in the league's first year and from $100,000 as recently as last September. The average attendance for a WBL game in early February was 2,700. Byrne claims that by averaging 3,500 over an entire schedule, most of the teams could at least break even.
The key, as always, is television, not for its money at this point but for exposure. Whenever a WBL team has had television coverage, the franchise has prospered, relatively speaking. The Chicago Hustle, whose home games are aired live by WGN-TV, lost less money than any of the league's other franchises last year and is setting the pace again this time around.
Nevers and his co-owners lost about $270,000 on the Fillies last year, and the situation had not looked a great deal brighter this year until KMSP-TV finally agreed to do the game against the Cornets in Des Moines.
Of course, Nevers and one of his partners, Dick Higgins, had to make all the hookup arrangements for the telecast themselves, and they had to personally solicit every sponsor for the show's 22 commercial spots, but they had managed somehow. From Nevers' point of view, it was worth the effort and more, because the Fillies were finally going to get the kind of exposure that would show the people of Minneapolis-St. Paul that women's pro basketball is good sport and good entertainment, that the team deserves their support and that henceforth they should come to games at the Met Center by the thousands instead of the customary hundreds.
So ran Nevers' scenario. "This telecast is the best opportunity we've had to improve our chances of succeeding in the Twin Cities market," he said. "We have tried to interest television several times. We had sponsors lined up and we offered the stations plenty of money, but we couldn't get on TV. The broadcasters were concerned about whether we had something people want to watch."
At 1:10 p.m. on that January Sunday at Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines, Kunze banged on the locker-room door and entered. "If we're going to win our division," he said, "we've got to beat Iowa. Donna, you have Bolin. Push her to the left when she gets the ball. I don't want her to get a jumper going right." Kunze was directing his instructions at Forward Donna Wilson, the player he calls "our link to quickness." Wilson was to guard Molly Bolin, a 5'9" product of Iowa high school and college basketball, a phenomenal shooter who the previous season had set a single-game record of 53 points—against the Fillies.
To the rest of his players Kunze said, "If you get tired, don't be afraid to take yourself out. We've got depth. If someone's pushing you around, take care of it. Don't look to the bench. That's your job, not mine. K.O., if they belt you, belt them back.... The 15-foot shot with time, that's our shot. If you've got it, take it. We're shooters, remember that. Show 'em! Remember, all of Minnesota is watching this game. My mother's watching this game."
Later, on the bench, with the game about to start and 4,500 Iowa fans in their seats, Kunze muttered, "If we handle the press, we'll be O.K. If not, this is going to be a long day. We are a lit...tie slow."
What happened from that point on, to the Fillies, to Nevers' scenario and to the TV fans, including Mrs. Kunze, shouldn't happen to pro wrestling. First of all, the television signal that was supposed to be relayed by land line from Des Moines to Chicago to Minneapolis got lost somewhere along the way, and a quick switch to the Westar satellite had to be arranged. But the dish in Minneapolis, the one with which KMSP-TV receives signals that are bounced off satellites, was facing in the wrong direction and the motorized mechanism normally used to turn it was frozen. The dish had to be turned around by hand, an operation that took 20 minutes. Thus the game had been on for 35 minutes when the show started.
Given the way events were unfolding on the floor in Des Moines, it might have been just as well if the telecast had never gone on the air. Machine Gun Molly was shooting the lights out, and the Fillies could do nothing to stop her. The hotter Machine Gun got, the worse Minnesota looked. At the half the Cornets were leading by 13, and Kunze tore into his team in the locker room. "You're getting your butts kicked by athletes!" he shouted.
By the end of the third period, the Fillies were 21 points down, and four minutes into the fourth the gap was 25 points. Bolin was heading for another record, and when she got it—54 points—with 2:08 remaining, the standing ovation lasted several minutes.
On the bus again, heading north in the dark toward Minneapolis, Kunze said, "There's something about women. When something begins to go wrong, they have trouble turning it around."
At 6:30, not far from the Iowa-Minnesota border, the bus pulled off the highway into a glorified truck stop called Boondocks, USA, an island of neon in the night. With their spirits rising in anticipation of food, the Fillies, except for K.O. and Mason, who didn't want to spend their money, filed into the restaurant. The place was moderately crowded, so the players took seats wherever they found them, some in booths, some at the counter, a few in an area marked THIS SECTION FOR PROFESSIONAL TRUCKERS ONLY. Then, suddenly, Nevers was telling them they had to leave the restaurant; the manager felt the place was too crowded and would not serve them. Somewhat dazed, the Fillies filed back out into the darkness and onto the bus.
Higgins tried to cheer up Nevers by reiterating what he had said three times since lunch: "God is testing us, Gordon." The perfect end to a perfect day.
J. Gordon Nevers, 46, the founder and principal owner of the Fillies, is an essentially cheerful, normally optimistic, fiscally conservative middle-class American father of five who as a result of a middle-class American career crisis at the age of 41 became involved in a sporting proposition—women's professional basketball—that would challenge the gambler in Bet-A-Million Gates.
Nevers graduated from the University of Missouri in 1958 and for 3½ years pitched on minor league teams in the A's organization. When a broken leg in 1961 finished off his already marginal chances for a major league career, he went into his wife's family's undertaking business in Minneapolis, rising eventually to a vice-presidency and part ownership. In 1976 the family business was bought out by a larger company, and Nevers soon realized he was temperamentally unsuited to the corporate approach to death. Comfortably set financially but casting about for something to do, Nevers decided that professional sports might offer some interesting possibilities.
So Nevers set up a sports-consulting business, but when the main chance came, in the form of a two-page flyer announcing the proposed formation of the WBL, Nevers rounded up nine other investors and plunged. At the end of the first year his enterprise had lost the $270,000, not the worst deficit in the league but not the best financial record either. The best—if you can really call it that—was Chicago's loss of only about $250,000.
Attendance at Fillies home games had averaged around 1,000 for the 1978-79 season. Operating by trial and error, Nevers cut and traded his way through some 20 players and three coaches in one season, filling the gaps between coaches himself. With Wilson the only original player remaining. Minnesota finished the season 17-17, and Nevers, of all people, had the best coaching record, 8-2.
Last spring Nevers hired Kunze, a 6'7" lantern-jawed associate coach at East Carolina University and a native of Duluth, to come home to Minnesota and coach the Fillies into a real team. Kunze played for the University of Minnesota in the mid-'60s and after that spent a year with the doomed Minnesota Muskies of the ABA.
The Fillies approached their second season with renewed financial backing and an optimism tempered by the experiences of the first. "I thought everybody would come once and then come again," says Nevers. "But it didn't happen that way. You have to develop an identity for a product."
One way to develop such an identity is to spend a lot of money, which is what the Kicks of the NASL did when they opened for business in the Twin Cities four years ago. The Kicks' backers hired a local ad agency and then relied heavily on the ad men's advice. "The agency decided we had to sell soccer, not the Kicks," says Freddy Goodwin, the Englishman who is the team's president. "We picked a theme—Minnesota joins the world—and we advertised each game as a big event."
Except for a small profit their second year, the Kicks have yet to make money, but they've drawn large crowds from the start—they averaged 28,000 last season. Because they draw people, the Kicks also draw attention from the press and, thanks in large part to the media coverage, they draw still more people.
This happy symbiosis has so far eluded the Fillies. At the beginning, the "organization" was made up of Nevers, his office manager and right arm, 23-year-old Shirley Tesch, and the coach of the moment. There was no money for ad agencies and little for advertising, so Nevers depended on whatever publicity he could generate in the local media to draw the attention he could not afford to buy. Television and radio news shows found useful feature material in the Fillies and paid them a reasonable amount of attention. The four major newspapers—two in Minneapolis, two in St. Paul—did not. The morning Minneapolis Tribune, the most influential of the four, especially did not.
"Sometimes it seems totally unfair," says Fillies Forward Kathy DeBoer. "You're tired and beat up and bruised and you're awake all night because you're still so hyper, and when you open the paper in the morning, there's not even a box score saying what you did the night before."
Though Nevers has sworn off criticizing the sporting press this season, saying, "If our papers are not proud of the fact that we have one of the 12 WBL franchises, you can't make them proud," he still rankles at the treatment the Fillies have gotten—or not gotten—at the hands of sportswriters. "They began by saying we were not going to make it and then substantiated their verdict by not writing about us," he says.
Through all this, the Fillies have continued to play basketball, better this season than last and better most weeks than the week before. Kunze's coaching has been a large part of the difference. Nevers' trades have been another. The fact that the players love the game and will work hard without much urging is yet another. Last week the Fillies were still fighting the Cornets for first place and, short of an allout slump, they could wind up winning their division. They have height, strength and a number of good shooters. When they win, they usually have at least four scorers in double figures. They lack speed but they make up for it with good team play. They do not have a star, like Ann Meyers of New Jersey or Bolin of Iowa; but unlike those teams, the Fillies can go to their bench and not come up empty-handed. They are already one of the three best teams in the league, and now with Trish Roberts, a 6'1" center and 1976 Olympian, back in the lineup following two knee operations last year, Minnesota should be able to handle not only Iowa but the Eastern Division-leading New York Stars as well.
In Roberts' absence, Marie Kocurek, also 6'1", has been the Fillies' center. Last year she was All-Pro and Minnesota's leading scorer with 20.3 points a game. This year she has been sharing the lead with 6'2" Forward Patty Montgomery from Portland, Ore. and Utah State. Kocurek, the daughter of a Corpus Christi, Texas longshoreman, was molded into a basketball player at Wayland Baptist, the longtime women's college basketball power in Plainview, Texas. She was twice an All-America and was Wayland's MVP in 1977. Montgomery, on the other hand, learned basketball on the playgrounds of Portland. She has the strength of a discus thrower and shotputter, which she was in college, and she has the instinct for being in the right place at the right time.
Though seven of the 11 Fillies are Southerners who are tormented by Minnesota's winter weather, none of them suffers louder or longer than K.O. Owens. One afternoon as she sat on a table in the locker room having her foot taped before a game, someone remarked that her legs needed shaving. Looking down, she said, "It's cold in Minnesota. I'm gonna keep everything I got."
K.O. learned her basketball and most other games as well from her older brother, Rondy, whose aim in life was to be a pitcher. "I'd catch till my hands were all red," says K.O., "and he'd say, 'If you don't keep on catchin' I'll beat you up.' So I'd be playin' and cryin' and playin' and cryin'."
Homesick during the Christmas holidays, the 6'5" K.O. went back home to Roseboro, N.C., and didn't return for 13 days, missing three games. Nevers then suspended her and made her reinstatement conditional upon her paying a meaningful fine and straightening things out with her teammates, who were not happy about her absence.
DeBoer, who starts at forward opposite Montgomery, grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., the second of five children of an academically oriented family. Her father is a professor of theology at Calvin College; her mother is a librarian. DeBoer graduated summa cum laude from Michigan State in sociology and was on her way to graduate school at the University of Oregon when the WBL was formed. She jumped at the chance to play a while longer.
DeBoer, who is 5'10", would like to go to law school eventually, but intends to play basketball "until I get too small for the game or the game gets too big for me. We don't earn a lot of money (the average WBL salary is $10,000), but we make enough to get by and we're still doing the thing we like to do best." Like all the other Fillies, she puzzles a good deal over the lack of interest in the team in the Twin Cities. "We've spent our lives playing for ourselves because no one much cared," she says. "We're still doing that. Our standard line is: 'We're going to play just as hard if nobody's there.' But that's not quite true. When a gym is full, the excitement is infectious for the athletes. You think you're playing just as hard, but you're not. I understand that for this league to work, people have to be sold on women's sports. So you do a clinic somewhere or you make a speech, but you don't see results. There are not 2,000 more people there at the next game. There are maybe two. But we go ahead and do it because we know it's important."
Everybody in the Twin Cities has a different idea about why the Fillies are not a better draw. Robert T. Smith, who does a three-day-a-week general column in the Tribune, thinks the reason is sociological. "This is a conservative state, not politically, but in life-style," he says. "The women's movement has not done well here. The women of this state are frightened by liberation and anything that goes with it, and it spills over into sports. Their attitude is: 'What are those women doing playing a man's game?' " But Smith also has a theory that change is coming fast because of the effect Title IX legislation has had on the sports curricula in the Minnesota schools. He says, "Men like sports they have played. Girls will be like that now. You can't like something you don't know anything about. When they grow up, these girls are going to be the damnedest fans you ever saw."
With a little luck the Fillies will still be around waiting for them.