No one puts a higher value on girls' basketball than Iowans. A ticket to the Sweet 16s, the postseason high school tournament, is harder to come by than a ticket to the Super Bowl. Yet because of Iowa's antiquated girls' game—six-member teams are divided into three offensive and three defensive players, none of whom can cross center court or bounce the ball more than twice while dribbling—even the state's best players have little chance of making it big as pros. In fact, only one, Molly Bolin, has done so. But she is among the very best.
For two seasons the 5'9" guard with the bouncy blonde hair has enlivened the anemic Women's Basketball League both on and off the court. On the court, she's a high-scoring machine. Always has been; rarely has her season average dipped below 30 points. Off the court? Well, suffice it to say that if beauty were a stat, Molly Bolin would be in the Hall of Fame.
As the leading scorer for the now-defunct Iowa Cornets in both 1979 and '80 (16.7 and 32.8 points, respectively), Bolin took her team to the championship finals. Last season, after winning the scoring title and setting 12 WBL records, including a single-game high of 55 points, she was voted co-MVP, along with ex-New Jersey Gem Ann Meyers. That was the old two-dribble Bolin, though, the one who hoisted a thousand shots a game to earn the nickname Machine Gun Molly. Now, under the watchful gaze of Dean (the Dream) Meminger, the coach of her new team, the San Francisco Pioneers, the girl from the cornfields has become a knowledgeable and hardworking student, nay, disciple, of basketball and a symbol of the kind of drive that might keep the WBL alive.
For a few third-quarter minutes in her third league all-star game, in February, Bolin (it's her married name and rhymes with rollin') put on one of her typical showstopping performances, hitting seven straight long-range jumpers. She wound up 13 for 21 overall and scored a game-high 29 points to lead the West to a 125-92 victory over the East. Said Greg Williams, coach of the West and the Coastal Division's first-place Dallas Diamonds, "I don't think Iowa is much of a factor in Bolin's game anymore."
Until then, Bolin was out of shape and uncomfortable with her new team, which she joined in early January after a fling with the short-lived Ladies Professional Basketball Association. Since that all-star game, Bolin has averaged 30.3 points—including a club-record 41 against Chicago—and, with a season average of 26.8, she's just 3.2 points behind New Jersey's Carol (the Blaze) Blazejowski in the WBL scoring race. Until recently she was also the league's second-best free-throw shooter; now she's sixth at 77.6%. Unlike her peers among the women's basketball elite—Nancy Lieberman, Blazejowski, et al., the playground rats as it were—Bolin wasn't weaned at the school of hard picks. In Iowa the game is delicate, almost ladylike. Go to the hoop? They shudder at the thought.
Born Monna Lea Van Venthuysen, the fifth of six children, Molly was raised in the same two-story house her parents still occupy in Moravia (pop. 700), 60 miles southeast of Des Moines. Today the Van Venthuysen living room has a striking motif: basketball memorabilia and empty whiskey bottles. The basketball mementos are self-explanatory, but the bottles?
Forrest Van Venthuysen, a machinery operator, and his wife, Wanda, have made a hobby of collecting Jim Beam and antique bottles since 1966, amassing some 1,500. Various series of bottles—such as those shaped like the states—are on every living-room shelf, while the rest of the collection lines the walls from floor to ceiling in a room at the top of the stairs.
Molly took up basketball at the age of 12 because it was what every good little Iowa girl did. After she "accidentally" scored some 50 points in her first high school game, she was dubbed Moravia Molly and basketball became the most important thing in her life. Her high school career best was 83 points. In the last home game of her senior season the Moravia Mohawkettes lost by one point despite a 70-point performance by Molly. That defeat, combined with the fact that the Mohawkettes had failed to qualify for the Sweet 16s, was a sobering episode. "When the fans began pouring onto the court, my whole basketball life flashed before my eyes," Molly recalls. "I was like a zombie when I realized there would be no more games, no more exciting shots and, I thought, no more friends. This was the end of the world, I thought. I just lay on the locker-room floor and cried."
Her reaction wasn't totally unwarranted. There was no WBL then and not much basketball future for a girl who had never played defense or dribbled up the floor. Molly wasn't enamored of Moravia's pokey pace and wanted to use basketball as her ticket out. "There are a lot of famous people from Iowa, like Johnny Carson and Cloris Leachman," she says. "But one thing's for sure. They didn't get famous by staying in Iowa."
Molly's first escape attempt came in 1975, in the summer after graduating from high school, when she was invited to the finals of the Pan Am Trials at Central State University in Warrensburg, Mo. The Pan Am coach, Cathy Rush, who had guided Immaculata College of suburban Philadelphia to three straight AIAW titles (1972-74), was anxious to see the girl she had heard could shoot the lights out. "She was an incredible scorer," Rush says. "But her lack of experience in the full-court game killed her. Her transition game, playing defense, filling the lanes on fast breaks—none of these things had ever been worked on." Bolin eventually lost out to the more physical, more experienced players.
Back in Iowa, Molly had two options—attending a local college or getting married and starting a family. She did both. Between two seasons at Des Moines' tiny Grandview College, she married her high school sweetheart, Dennie Bolin, and subsequently had a son, Damien.
As a freshman at Grandview, Molly had scored 14.1 points a game for the 27-8 Vikings, a team that boasted several women with 30-ppg averages from high school. Then, following her marriage and the birth of Damien, she found herself, at age 19, out of the game. The realities of kitchen as home court began to depress her. "I was going berserk just being a mother, watching soaps and cooking supper," she says. "I realized that while I wasn't really unhappy, I had to have a career. But then, having been raised to never cross your husband's word, I had to have Dennie's blessing." And if he had nixed the idea of her taking up basketball again? "I don't know," she says. "I probably would have played anyway."
While Bolin pondered resuming her career, Grandview was trying to get her back. "When she was out of a game," says Rod Lein, who coached Bolin her freshman season, "we didn't score. The year she missed, the team went 1-24. So I guess we didn't win either." With Damien 28 days old, Bolin took her sneaks from the closet and scored 63 points in a women's church league game. "I remember thinking, 'Whew! The baby didn't take away my jump shot,' " she says. She rejoined Grandview in 1977-78, averaging 24.6 points, and that spring received her Associate Arts degree in telecommunications with a 3.1 GPA. In June 1978 Bolin became the first woman to join the newly formed WBL when she signed a one-year contract with the Cornets for about $6,000.
The Cornets led the WBL in attendance for two seasons, but like 10 of the original 18 franchises, they folded. Among the reasons was owner George Nissen's $1 million investment in Dribble, a movie starring Pete Maravich and featuring several Cornets, which was never released. Then there were misdirected priorities on management's part—spending money on traveling outfits (Bolin called them "green gunny sacks") while at the same time housing players six to a room on road trips. Low salaries forced some Cornets to take moneymaking matters into their own hands. In fact, a prized relic of the late franchise is an 18"x24" black-and-white poster of Bolin, which she paid for herself, posed in a tight-fitting tank top and shorts—no doubt the league's hottest shot ever.
"People always warned me about exploitation like it was a dirty word," says Bolin. "But it's all about putting people in seats, isn't it? You don't have to look like a man, act like one or play like one in this game. And I just wanted to show that women aren't trying to be like men. If you really want to make it when you're new, you've got to grab everything you've got and go with it."
When the Cornets folded, Bolin became the summer's hottest free agent. As one of the few survivors of the pro hand-to-mouth early days, she was wary of the high-priced packages she was offered by some WBL clubs, knowing that if an owner went under trying to pay her, her contract was worthless. After making so little her rookie season and less than $10,000 in 1980—paltry by other pro standards—Bolin had little faith in any of the deals. So, again, she escaped from Iowa.
The Southern California Breeze, one of six teams comprising another new women's pro league—the LPBA—drafted Bolin and offered her Hollywood and a guaranteed $30,000. Anxious for a chance at the few national endorsements given to women basketball players (ex-WBLers Faye and Kaye Young plug a yogurt and Ann Meyers a soft drink), Bolin was an easy sell.
"What kind of endorsement do you think I could get in Iowa?" she asked. "Tractors? Manure?"
When the month-old LPBA folded last December, the Bolins' already strained relationship was aggravated. Dennie, a bricklayer since high school, hadn't worked since the previous August, when he had left his job to go west with his wife to meet with the Breeze. The team offered to find him work, but a job never materialized. "This whole thing has been very hard for him," Molly admits, "especially since all his friends are supporting their wives like they were brought up to do. I wanted to succeed so bad that it sometimes meant going over his head. But he always went along. I'm not the ideal wife, I know. And I guess I'm not what he bargained for at all."
Molly had little trouble finding WBL teams—Nebraska, Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco were the front-runners—vying for her services. Nebraska, which plays in Omaha, was close to home, but ex-Iowans don't get famous by moving there, either. And the Diamonds already had their leading lady in Lieberman. The 1-5, next-to-last-place Pioneers fired their coach on Jan. 2 and hired Meminger on Jan. 3. Bolin signed with San Francisco two days later.
If the Pioneers' progress is any indication, Bolin made a sound decision. With Meminger teaching fundamentals, these folks aren't playing women's basketball, just basketball. "Dean will raise the level of the women's game," says one of his players. "It's important to him to form a team people will pay to see."
Under Meminger's tutelage, Bolin is unveiling some smooth new moves that are worth the price of admission. She sets up at the top of the key and, as the rest of the Pioneers clear out, throws in a few theatrics—a head and shoulder fake or two. Then, with her defender off balance, she can easily fire her trademark bombs. And when the opponents apply full-court pressure, Bolin is often called upon to weave the ball upcourt, a move most Iowa girls only dream of.
"Her first year in the league all she could do was go right," says the Diamonds' Williams. "Last year I think she was the most improved player in the league. She could go left and was playing some D that most people overlooked. Now what Dean's done with her is amazing. She's a player much of the league could learn from."
Bolin is as amazed at her improvement as anyone and, as a result, she's constantly quizzing Meminger on a new stance or move. In restaurants, airports or parking lots, there are always questions. They make an odd duo—the black coach and his blonde starlet—but she's his pet project and he her mentor. "All I know," says the pupil, "is that I'm scoring the same points with 10 fewer shots a game and half the effort. Now I'm proudest of the fact that I can dribble. I used to lose control and almost fall on my face."
With Bolin and Meminger, the Pioneers are stumbling less these days, too. "This team doesn't reflect Dean Meminger yet," says the coach. "Until we get the rest of the pieces, I'm just going to play with the puzzle and not worry about the whole picture."
No matter what, that picture will include Bolin. There are better percentage shooters in the league than Molly (44.4%), but from long range, Bolin is the best. "Molly doesn't have the type of body, the physical attributes to out-talent people," says Meminger. "But she's got the smarts to know that with a little hard work, she'll be around as long as there's a league to play in." Which isn't bad at all for a girl from the cornfields who cried on the locker-room floor thinking that Moravia was the end of the world.