Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Guru's Time Machine: Turning Pro

By Mel Greenberg

So in 1996, the Guru's byline made a rare Page One appearance in the front of the entire Inquirer, sharing coverage with the announcement birth of the WNBA.

That is the first of a three-point shot in Monday's time machine visit.

Some quotes are amazing in retrospect.

The other two stories, to give the former league equal time, are from coverage the same year from Atlanta, on the scene for tryouts for the American Basketball League. One was an advance. The other was a feature on a phenom from Australia, who happened at the time to be Philly's best kept secret - Debbie Black.

Ohio State fans will be amused because there will be references to Black having played for Jim Foster at St. Joseph's before he became nationally known at Vanderbilt. Now, of course, Black is a member of Foster's staff with the Buckeyes.

Next up, in honor of Big East Media Day in New York on Thursday, will be the Guru's coverage of past Big East media days this decade. Ironically, some of you will find humor in the 2002 media day at which Villanova's Harry Perretta makes a rare admission that he actually likes that year's team. Of course we all know now what happened near the close of that particular seaason in the tournament at Rutgers.

And now on to today's visit.

--- Mel



Apr 25, 1996, Page 1-A

By Raad Cawthon and Mel Greenberg


Inquirer staff writer Nita Lelyveld contributed to this article.

NEW YORK - The National Basketball Association, throwing its considerable financial clout and proven marketing muscle behind women's basketball, yesterday announced the formation of an eight-team women's professional league.

``We are giving life to a concept that has been much discussed, much attempted, but that we feel is now ready to bloom,'' NBA commissioner David Stern said. ``It's about time. ''
It's also about money and marketing.

The eight teams, which the NBA said it hoped to name by July 1, would begin play in the summer of 1997 in cities where the league already has franchises, in arenas now used by NBA teams.

Pat Croce, new president of the 76ers, said he wants one of the teams to be in Philadelphia. ``If there are going to be eight teams, I want us to be one of those eight,'' he said.

Professional women's basketball leagues enjoy considerable success in Europe, Asia and South America, but at least five previous ventures in the United States have failed. The last, the six-team Liberty Basketball Association, which had a franchise in Philadelphia, debuted in a nationally televised exhibition in 1991 but folded before playing a regular-season game.

Plans for an American Basketball League , a women's circuit that would play in the winter in smaller cities with a history of supporting the women's college game, also have been announced.

That league, like the previous attempts, is based on a markedly different concept than the Women's NBA. Neither it nor any of the previous ventures could call upon the support - in television contracts, arenas or publicity - available to a league backed by the NBA.

The WNBA was ``approved in concept'' by a unanimous vote of the NBA's Board of Governors in a meeting here yesterday. Details have yet to be worked out, but in a second-floor ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel, the parameters of the league began taking shape. They include:

* A league schedule of 25 to 30 games. The season would run from mid- to late June through mid-August, tucking neatly into the summer months when the NBA is idle. Players would be encouraged to play in European, Japanese or South American leagues during the regular winter basketball season, opening the door for marketing of WNBA merchandise abroad.

* The range of player compensation has not been set, but Valerie Ackerman, NBA vice president of business affairs, said women players in the European leagues average about $70,000 a season, and stars can draw low-six-figure salaries.

* A television contract that could include broadcast and cable networks would be in place before the league's first game and would not be limited to NBC and TBS, the networks now broadcasting NBA games. Stern said there is considerable interest in the television rights to a women's league. ``I think it's safe to say the response has been gratifying,'' he said.

* Rules that ``with few exceptions'' would mimic the rules used in the NBA.
As a mark of their enthusiasm, many NBA owners lobbied to have teams among the first eight, Stern said. One of those was Croce.

``Why wouldn't we want a team here?'' he said. ``Philadelphia is a great basketball city. ''
The league would draw on college stars and women who play overseas. Players would be assigned to teams on the basis of geographical considerations, as well as through a draft.

Dawn Staley, a point guard on the U.S. national team, is a Philadelphia native. Presumably, Staley's rights would be assigned to a Philadelphia franchise, if one existed.

``Right now, my heart is with the ABL,'' Staley said, adding that the league contract prohibits involvement with other leagues.

``But I think it's great that the NBA is getting involved. Of course, if they had a team here in Philly and I could play, I would love it. ''

Carol Blazejowski, the NBA's director of women's programs and a former Montclair State star, said it was a big step for women's basketball.

``My only regret is I wish I was still a player,'' she said.

Stern said the genesis of a women's league dates from 1980, when the NBA, then headed by commissioner Lawrence O'Brien, commissioned a study on the feasibility of women's pro basketball.

Former Old Dominion great Nancy Lieberman-Cline, now a TV broadcaster, yesterday recalled Stern telling her 10 years ago that this league would become a reality.

``I sat in David Stern's office and he told me, after closing the door, `I wouldn't say this to anyone else. Before I'm through, one day there will be a league. I have so many other issues to deal with first.'

``He believed there could be a league and it would be popular, and he was true to his word. ''
With no women's league in place 10 years ago, Lieberman-Cline played for a men's team, the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League.

``I'm not going to cry about not being a player,'' she said about the new league. ``I'm excited and proud. I'm excited for the opportunities for the players out there. ''

The idea gained momentum as the NBA watched women's collegiate basketball gain in popularity and television ratings. It may have been the University of Connecticut's 1995 national championship and star player Rebecca Lobo's national appeal that brought the concept to fruition.

``I think the success of the University of Connecticut, and seeing the interest it attracted in the New York market made a difference,'' Ackerman said.

The league's interest was heightened by Team USA, the national women's team that the NBA is helping fund with $4 million. The team has toured widely and successfully, not only taking on the best teams in the the world but also selling out arenas. Stern said the ``overwhelming interest'' in the women's national team was the final catalyst.

``We don't enjoy failing,'' Stern said. ``We've raised the stakes and we'll make it happen. That's the way we are. ''

The news had perhaps its greatest impact on the high school and college stars who may be able to look forward to pro careers in the United States.

``Oh, great!'' said Kristen Clement, 17, a junior point guard at Cardinal O'Hara who has accepted a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. ``Everything's just falling into place.

``I think it's going to do very well. I think that women are getting a lot better, a lot stronger. Look back 30 years, the women's game was so different. It'll take time. It's gradual. But we'll get there.''




May 27, 1996

By Mel Greenberg


Beginning tomorrow, women who normally toil as lawyers, accountants and nurses will get a chance to pursue a fledgling fantasy - a spot in the professional American Basketball League .

About 550 women who have collegiate and international experience, from as far back as the mid-1980s in some cases, will head to Atlanta to audition for the 100-player draft pool of the ABL, to be determined by Sunday.

To ensure fair evaluations, the Atlanta hopefuls, who each paid a $200 entry fee as well as travel expenses, will arrive in three shifts for the workouts, to be conducted at Emory University. The least experienced players will begin tomorrow, a more experienced group will arrive Thursday, and players with the most experience will arrive Friday.

Last fall, ABL officials announced their intention to begin play this winter, and have since awarded franchises to eight medium- to small-market cities. The East will consist of Atlanta, Columbus, Richmond and Hartford/Springfield, while the West will be represented by Denver, Portland, San Jose and Seattle.

Ten of the 11 members of the U.S. national team, who are expected to become Olympians, have already signed contracts with the league, including Dobbins Tech graduate Dawn Staley, a two-time national collegiate player of the year while at the University of Virginia. Twenty-six other players with international experience have signed contracts, including former Stanford star Val Whiting of Wilmington. The contracts will pay from $40,000 to as high as $125,000 to the 10 national team players.

Former Connecticut star Rebecca Lobo remains the unsigned member of the U.S. national team.
The league will attempt to balance the quality of players on the teams. It will also attempt to assign players to teams based on territory, according to where they went to school or where they live.

One member of the ``most-experienced'' group that will begin Friday is former St. Joseph's star Amy Mallon, an assistant coach at Villanova last season. Mallon played at the University of Richmond for Big Five Hall of Famer Stephanie Gaitley before both moved on to St. Joseph's five years ago.

``I'm really excited, especially to be put into that category,'' said Mallon, who has also played in Europe. ``When Dawn [Staley] was here with the U.S. national team, she talked to me about trying out. She's already been assigned to Richmond with Lisa Leslie.

``Just to make the pool for the league would be fantastic,'' Mallon added. ``But to be drafted by Richmond would be unbelievable. I really like it there. ''

While Mallon has great ambitions, Penn senior Shelly Bowers will be part of the middle group. She is going to Atlanta with no expectations.

``I want to support the concept of a women's pro league, and this is a way of testing my situation before going on to medical school,'' Bowers said. ``But hey, the worst thing that is going to happen is that I'm going to have at least two fabulous days of basketball. ''

Another local player who initially intended to go the ABL tryouts, but has since decided not to, is Villanova's Sue Glenning, who helped lead the Wildcats to the Big Five title last season and was the player of the year in the city series.

``I was really excited at first at the opportunity,'' Glenning said. ``But after the $200, it was going to cost $30 a day for the dorm, another $200 for the plane fare probably, and then money for food, which, the way I eat, could be expensive.

``Then, when I saw that they had over 500 persons coming, I realized I have more important things to look ahead to. I'd like to coach at St. Hubert's, my old high school; I'm getting married next spring; and I'm getting a degree in nursing.

``But I'm curious as to how it will turn out. Then there's always a chance, maybe, with the NBA. ''
Last month, the ABL founders ran into a new challenge when NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the league planned to begin a summer women's operation in 1997 in eight NBA cities, for which Philadelphia is a candidate.

The NBA blueprints, including TV contracts, are expected to be announced July 1, according to Stern. The ABL is still trying to hammer out a TV contract.

An NBA official said late last week that the TV deal might be announced sooner, while the announcement of cities might come a little later than the target date.

Stern also said that the NBA women's players would be free to pursue competition in either Europe or in the ABL in the winter. On the other hand, the ABL contracts are restrictive, a condition that worries Bruce Levy, an agent for the last 18 years who has helped collegiate graduates land lucrative deals abroad.

``What if the ABL doesn't make it through the season and all these players with one-year contracts won't be able to do anything until next August? '' Levy said.

``We believe we have the right plan and we're moving full-speed ahead,'' Steve Hams, a former Silicon Valley computer executive who is one of the league's founders, said after the NBA announced its summer operation.

Likely to be named Sunday are former Alabama all-American Niesa Johnson, former UCLA star Natalie Williams, former Miami stars Frances Savage and Vicki Plowden, and former Tennessee stars Dana Johnson and Tonya Edwards.

Debbie Hemery and Darlene Saar, who two years ago led George Washington to the Atlantic Ten title and a spot in the NCAA Sweet 16, are also likely candidates.

Hopefuls who starred in this area include Debbie Black, the feisty point guard for St. Joseph's in the mid-1980s, who has played professionally in Australia; Robyn Bostick, another former Hawks star; and Jennie Hall of Norristown, a star for Rutgers in the 1980s who is now an assistant coach for Vermont. Debbie Lytle, who played for Simon Gratz and Maryland in the 1980s, is also on the list, as is Missy Masley, a recent Penn State star.




Jun 01, 1996

By Mel Greenberg


ATLANTA _ The Energizer Bunny is a mere turtle when it comes to comparison with former St. Joseph's point guard Debbie Black.

A decade after the frenetic 5-foot-3 backcourt ace terrorized collegiate opponents for the Hawks, the graduate of Archbishop Wood High just keeps going. She plays for the Tasmanian team in Australia. But with a good performance here, she could be playing in the United States again.

``Tasmania is going to get killed this week,'' former Virginia center Heather Burge said. ``She's their whole team, but she's up here.''

``Here'' is a gymnasium filled with desire at Emory University, where an original field of 550 aspirants began tryouts Tuesday for a place in the draft of the American Basketball League .

This new effort at professional women's basketball in the United States will begin in the fall in eight medium-to-small market cities. Next summer, the Women's National Basketball Association, sponsored by the NBA, also will begin as a women's pro league in eight cities.

``It took me 26 hours to fly here, but I've got to give it a shot,'' Black said yesterday. ``It's been fun in Australia, but I'd like to come home. If I can't play [in the league], maybe I could get into adminstration. ''

So far, Black's playing hopes are still alive. She survived the week of cuts through yesterday afternoon before the most experienced players arrived to compete this weekend. Those players were given a bye of sorts.

Black's play certainly has entertained onlookers.

``That's what I think,'' Black said. ``Once you get to your eighth, ninth or 10th player of a team, you've got to be something different. I think I could be fun to watch. ''

Tryouts will conclude tomorrow at the George W. Woodruff Physical Education Center. Then the league will name about 100 or so qualifiers who will be part of the draft to be conducted on June 19.

``She was way over in the distance, but I knew that was her when I walked into the gym,'' said former Penn State center Vicki Link, who played against Black in college. ``She can still play, even better. ''

Black's arrival on Hawk Hill in the 1980s enabled former St. Joseph's coach Jim Foster to get his squad ranked in the weekly polls for the first time in his career.

``Look where he is today,'' Black said of Foster, now the women's basketball coach and interim athletic director at Vanderbilt. ``I should get a piece of his money. I got him started. But he helped me, too. ''

Coincidentally, during one of the workouts, Black was matched against Vanderbilt's Rhonda Blades, who helped Foster advance through the NCAA tournament in recent years.

Black makes about $20,000 playing for the team in Australia and makes an additional $50,000 in her other job, as a consultant.

``You won't believe what I do,'' she said with a grin. ``I visit companies and tell them how to save energy.''


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