If there is one team that should be celebrated as a success in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), it’s the Chicago Hustle.
Perhaps part of the Hustle’s success is owed to their city of origin. The league was the brainchild of Bill Byrne, who previously worked as a front office worker for the Chicago Fire of the World Football League (WFL). When Byrne approached Chicago sports promoter John Geraty about taking on a franchise in the WBL, Geraty enthusiastically raised the necessary $50,000 from attorney Larry Cooper and personnel firm owner Sherwin Fischer so the group could buy the hometown team.
Doug Bruno’s side Hustle
Perhaps part of the success also is owed to the team’s coach: longtime DePaul head coach Doug Bruno.
Bruno came on board after coaching at the school for two years. Bruno’s path toward coaching is highly unlikely in 2023; he was working as the assistant athletic director at DePaul when the women’s basketball coach went on vacation and he subbed in. Two years later, he was heading the Hustle.
Always a gift to have former Chicago Hustle & WBL trailblazers stop by campus!— DePaul Women's Basketball (@DePaulWBBHoops) July 19, 2022
Charlene Jackson, Adrian Mitchell-Newell, Liz Galloway-McQuitter and so many more paved the way for generations to come #DePaulBall x @legends_lobinc pic.twitter.com/xESWidi1Ra
He explained that he was approached by Geraty while running DePaul’s program. Geraty hoped to use the school’s gym for the Hustle’s games, and Bruno was the man had to ask. “He’d come to meet me and had seen me practicing ... that’s how he found me as a coach, because I had to negotiate the contract for the Hustle to play.”
“That’s how he found me,” Bruno added. “I’m sure there was a lot of people they tried to get ahead of me, but then, ultimately, they hired me to be their coach. I coached them for two years in ‘79 and ‘80.”
Successes, struggles for the Hustle
Unlike other teams in the league, the Hustle didn’t struggle to fill seats or get media coverage of their games. Their first game was attended by over 7,000 people who were enthusiastic about women’s basketball. As Bruno put it, “We were on WGN, a superstation that predated ESPN. WGN was a national cable station that did a lot of sports broadcasting and programming. We were on WGN television, that means we had a national television package. We were covered by both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, both Chicago dailies had a beat writer covering our team.” Those writers included legendary sports reporter Bill Jauss, who died in 2012. With that kind of advantage, it would be easy to assume the Hustle had it made.
For my money, the greatest logo in the history of professional women's basketball was the Chicago Hustle. They played in the WBL (Women's Basketball League) 1978-81. pic.twitter.com/8Dj5kjjHeU— Vintage Jerseys & Hats (@PolyesterUnis) May 25, 2020
Unfortunately, the team struggled with many of the same dynamics that caused teams (and ultimately the league) to fold: players weren’t paid on time, media coverage was only a fraction of what men’s teams received and questionable contracts kept some players committed to teams that couldn’t support them.
And of course, the bulk of the team’s success was due to the players themselves. As Bruno said, “They came from all over the country, they truly were pioneers ... they really did come from all parts of the country. They came out of a love for the game, a belief that it could happen. They had no reason to believe it could happen because they’d never seen it happen before.”
Lingering lessons from the WBL
For a moment in time, the impossible was right there—tantalizingly close, but frustratingly out of reach. Even more frustrating is that, as former WBL player Muffet McGraw told Swish Appeal, many of the problems that caused the end of the league are some of the same barriers the WNBA faces decades later. Teams weren’t adequately funded, or those who started teams weren’t able to see the process through.
As Bruno said, any time you start a league you’re going to lose money—that’s a given. And leagues need more than money, they need an audience to attend games. To get an audience, you need media coverage, and a heck of a lot more than women’s sports get now.
“I’m not arguing for equal coverage of all men’s sports,” Bruno insisted, “but come on, throw us a bone and cover it 25% of the time instead of 8% of the time, and we’re gonna get more fans. I think that’s always been an issue, and it was an issue even more so back then.”
Still, Bruno doesn’t regret his time as the Hustle’s coach. The league was special, and it’s clear that he cherishes the two years spent in it, and the relationships he built as a result.