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The Interim Leagues: Between the WBL and the WNBA

Between the end of the Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) in 1981 and the beginning of the American Basketball League (ABL) in 1996, there were multiple failed attempts to start another pro women's league in the United States.

Nancy Lieberman was part of the only championship team in the history of the WABA.
Nancy Lieberman was part of the only championship team in the history of the WABA.
Bryan Bedder

Between the end of the Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) in 1981 and the beginning of the American Basketball League in 1996, there were many abortive attempts to get a women's professional league off the ground. There appears to be a rule with failed leagues - if a league has some measure of brief success, other entrepreneurs will conclude that they can solve the mistakes of the previous league. The WBL, despite lasting only three years, acted as the call of the siren. It convinced others that a successful women's pro league was just around the corner.

Bill Byrne, the founder of the WBL, tried it a second time in 1984. The new league was the Women's American Basketball Association (WABA). Andy Crossley at Fun While it Lasted wrote about the WABA. He sums it up very nicely.

WABA founder Bill Byrne expected his league to get a boost from the anticipated strong performance of the U.S. women in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, playing against weak competition thanks to the Soviet bloc boycott. The women held up their end of the bargain winning Olympic gold. But the WABA was badly undercapitalized and most of the Olympians chose to return to their far more stable overseas clubs rather than try their luck in a shaky looking domestic league. Then there was the matter of Byrne’s personal history with women’s basketball. Byrne had launched the first women’s league – the Women’s Professional Basketball League – in 1978. That pioneering effort last for three seasons, but there were many instances where teams folded in midseason or simply stopped paying their players, leaving them stranded without money for food or rent. Byrne was eventually drummed out of the WPBL by the league’s investors.

Clearly, Byrne was working on the "if I build it, they will come" philosophy - a philosophy that was good for about eight weeks of pro basketball. That league started with six teams in October 1984. The Dallas Diamonds had Nancy Lieberman (who played for the Diamonds in its final season as a WBL club) and Paula and Pam McGee. But they only made it through one two-month season and many teams did not play a full schedule, with Byrne cancelling games at the end of the season by teams that were out of contention to save travel costs.

The next league to come along was the National Women's Basketball Association (NWBA) in 1986-87, which managed the magic trick of surviving five months without playing a single game, folding right before its scheduled start. They managed to hold a draft with Cheryl Miller being the number one pick and the Atlanta franchise held tryouts for players but no games were ever played.

There would be another four years before a serious shot at a women's pro league was attempted. This was the Liberty Basketball Association (LBA) which tried putting players in skin-tight uniforms and lowering the basket to 9'2". They managed to play a single exhibition game - one which was broadcast on ESPN - before folding.

The 1990s would be much better years for women's professional basketball. A new version of the WABA was formed in 1992 and this one lasted three seasons, but unlike the WBL, hardly anyone has ever heard of it. It played from 1993 to 1995, three full summer schedules of 15 games. Unfortunately, all we have from this second WABA are some league standings for its three years of existence.

The WABA was televised by Liberty Sports. In 1995, Liberty Sports was purchased by Fox Sports and decided not to carry WABA games. (I have no idea if Liberty Sports provided any financial support to the WABA.) On September 26, 1995 the American Basketball League (ABL) held its first press conference announcing the formation of what would be the first significant women's pro basketball league since the WBL. In January 1996, the WABA announced that it was postponing play until 1997 to start a full-fledged league of 32 games - but it never came to pass.

By now, it was starting to get crowded. On April 24, 1996 the NBA's Board of Directors approved the formation of the WNBA. But news of the WNBA's formation had been rumored as early as January 30th. Perhaps the WABA bowed out once the WNBA was announced - a small league with no television contract possibly figured that it had no chance to compete with the WNBA. But the ABL and WNBA would go to war for two years until the field of women's pro basketball was left with one survivor.

(* * *)

Below is a YouTube video of part of a 1984 WABA game between the visiting Dallas Diamonds (10-0) vs. the Columbus Minks (5-2) at the Fairgrounds Coliseum in Columbus, Ohio. (Which still exists as the Ohio Expo Center Coliseum).

The Diamonds would finish the season at 19-2 with Columbus right behind them at 12-5. Many teams folded, and the Chicago Spirit (at 6-14) would meet Dallas in the finals, with Dallas winning the only championship of the short-lived 1984 WABA.

Nancy Lieberman (#10), Pam McGee and Paula McGree played for Dallas but Columbus had "Machine Gun" Molly Bolin (#22). Bolin would lead the Minks to victory and deal Dallas the first loss of the year.

1:47: Lieberman puts a little physicality on Bolin on her move to the basket.
2:16: It's always interesting to see Bolin hop when she makes her free throw.
4:25: Check out Dee Dee Polk taking the charge. Polk was a graduate of Missouri. I wonder where Polk is these days; she seems to have disappeared from the internet.
6:05: The players look a little height-deprived compared to modern WNBA players.
6:40: Bolin works the baseline.
6:52: Lieberman with the turnaround jumper.
7:12: Fingertip jumper from Bolin.
7:45: Dallas D gives up the jumper to Bolin from the same spot.
8:55: Paula McGee from long range.
9:12: Note that there is no tenth-of-a-second clock.
10:49: Dallas makes one of two free throws to close the gap to 92-90.
11:10: With 0:02 left on the clock, Dallas is fouled under the basket in the fight for the ball after a missed free throw. Lauri Scott (Louisiana Tech) of Dallas gets sent to the line for two free throws. She hits the first one and comes back for the second one after a timeout. She hits the iron, giving Dallas a chance to rebound. Lieberman gets the rebound, but can't get it in. Columbus wins by two, 92-90.

13:46: A bonus commercial for Spaulding starring Larry Bird and...Molly Bolin!

Bolin would end up ending her career after the WABA finished. Bolin - one of the pioneers of women's professional basketball - is still not in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, a crime if there ever was one.