When Dan Ayala was recruited away from his assistant job under men’s coach Jerry Tarkanian to take over the Lady Rebels program, he implemented the same style of play that had made the Runnin’ Rebels successful.
His Lady Rebels compiled a 109-23 record over five years, so it was no surprise when five of his players went pro.
Did we mention that Ayala’s first year was the 1975-76 season, the second year of the Lady Rebels’ existence? And some 22 years before the WNBA played its first game?
But in the fall of 1978, something new and daring was happening. Inspired in large part by the silver-medal success of the U.S. women’s basketball team in the sport’s debut at the 1976 Olympics, the first pro women’s league formed. The Women’s Professional Basketball League took hold in eight cities, from New York to Houston to Chicago.
Ayala’s young squads could hang with the top programs in college hoops, making Lady Rebels hot commodities in the new league. Liz Galloway, Debra Waddy-Rossow, and Janie Fincher went to the Chicago Hustle, Belinda Candler to the Houston Angels, and Janice Fuller to the Milwaukee Does.
All five were on stage in Knoxville, Tennessee in June as the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame honored its Trailblazers of the Game during the annual induction ceremony.
An upstart league with precious little precedent could have been a tough sell to a group of young women who, armed with degrees, had wide-open futures. But the chance to keep playing basketball won out.
“I felt I was at the top-performing level I had ever been in my life and it was all going down the drain,” Candler recalled. “That opportunity came, and it was exciting to know there was going to be that possibility.”
When a league official felt out Fincher, it looked like she was going to suit up for the Iowa Coronets. But a former coach from a previous school was in charge there, and she wanted to taste big city life, maybe learn a little something new. The Chicago Hustle was a better landing spot.
She joined Waddy-Rossow and Galloway for the Dec. 9, 1978, game against Fuller’s Does at the Milwaukee Arena, then home to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. It was a packed house nearing 8,000. Walter Cronkite reported on the debut. Fincher remembers seeing plenty of young girls in the stands to see this new, experimental league. It was loud, buzzy, and dark in the upper reaches of the stadium.
Maybe because Waddy-Rossow shot the lights out, dominating the game with 30 points. In fact, she still holds a UNLV record as the single-season leader in points, field goals, and field goals attempted.
“I remember scoring the first two points,” Waddy-Rossow said. “I played the post, so every team I played on, I was the leading scorer. They got it inside to me. We played that running game in Vegas just like we did in Chicago, that fast-break game..”
The crowds could run up to 4,000 people a night in Chicago, one of the more popular teams in the league. WGN-TV carried Hustle games in the city, and the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times assigned beat writers. Fans gave players nicknames and made their own T-shirts. Galloway, the league leader in steals her first year, still has one that says “Hand it to The Bandit.”
“We had a vision we might be able to lay a template for future generations to have women's professional basketball,” Galloway said. “We were conscious of what we were trying to do, not just for ourselves, but for the future. That was part of our agenda.”
Chicago’s other pro sports teams were just as quick to embrace the Hustle, with players from the Cubs and Blackhawks lining the bleachers at DePaul University, where the Hustle played.
Runnin’ Rebels standout Reggie Theus was playing for the Bulls by then, and would regularly score Bulls tickets for his fellow Rebels. There was even an on-court rivalry with Hall of Famer Walter Payton and other members of the Bears during annual exhibition games with the Hustle.
Sometimes, they even got to mingle with basketball royalty.
The Bulls and their opponents would use the DePaul facilities for shoot-arounds, so Hustle players would come early to practice to check out their counterparts. The first year of the WBL, the Lakers had a rookie who was just a few years removed from being the face of the NBA.
“I'll never forget my coach, Doug Bruno, told Magic Johnson, ‘I think you're the greatest, but I've got somebody who can beat you in HORSE,’” Waddy-Rossow said. “So I played him. I had an ‘H’ and he had an ‘S’ and then he went down low with hook shots, and that's how he beat me.”
That first season may have been magical for first-time pros, but the second season started showing cracks in the league. Rapid expansion left the league overextended. Fincher was dealt to the Washington Metros. On her way to report to her new team, the Metros’ credit card was declined and Fincher had to sneak out of her hotel. Weeks later, the team disbanded and Fincher came back to the Hustle.
By the final, 1980-81, season, original franchises in Houston, Iowa, Milwaukee, and New York went under. Waddy-Rossow and Galloway were traded to New England. Waddy-Rossow quit rather than move to Boston. Galloway wanted to keep playing, but the Gulls folded before she could get there.
For a year, Fincher tried to keep women’s pro ball going. With a barnstorming team of former WBL players, she met with Lakers owner Jerry Buss at one point, but the one financial backer she had lined up for the league died, and Buss’ support dried up.
“We finally let it go and went on to real life,” she said.
For Candler, real life meant going to the University of Houston to finish her bachelor’s of mathematics and added a master’s of computer science en route to a career in information technology, working in the young Space Shuttle program and in the energy and healthcare industries.
Galloway, Fincher, and Waddy-Rossow all went on to coaching and teaching careers. Galloway coached at Northwestern, Dartmouth, and Texas A&M. Fincher got her fill early, and was happy to focus on teaching math after she finished coaching.
“If I never hear another ball bounce, it'll be too soon,” Fincher said.
At the induction ceremony, another former player asked Waddy-Rossow if she could still play like she used to. The old competitive fire doesn’t die. It just might have to adapt a little.
"I can beat all of my second-graders," she replied.