The Golden Age

Former Fillies center Tonyus Chavers watches from the sidelines as women's pro basketball hits the jackpot

"I watched the '96 Olympic team, and I saw everything that I had wished for begin to take shape." Tonyus Chavers, former center for the first Minnesota professional women's basketball team, the 1978-1981 Fillies, looks out over the Target Center crowd from her primo seat, four rows up from the Lynx bench. "So many years had already gone by, by then. I had a lot of friends from when I was in the WBL"--the Women's Professional Basketball League--"who went on to play in Russia and Italy. But the rebel I was 20 years ago, I felt robbed that I couldn't play this game that was born in America, in America. Watching the Olympic team get that gold medal and seeing the leagues forming, seeing that people are ready for women's professional athletics...I love it."

At a strong six feet and two inches, with a headful of short braids, Chavers would be an imposing woman were it not for her ready grin and quick, deep laugh. It's clear that the 43-year-old has won over her fellow season-ticket owners: They hoot and smile at Chavers's alternately encouraging and sharp but always generously audible comments to the refs, the players, and Lynx coach Brian Agler. Tonight, July 19, as the Lynx meet Sacramento, Chavers stretches her stiff right leg into the aisle; she had knee surgery less than a week ago. Relying on a walker has hardly dampened her spirits. At one point, having heard one too many compliments for Monarchs star Yolanda Griffith, a woman in front of Chavers jibes, "Who're you cheering for?" The ex-center doesn't hesitate. "The Minnesota Fillies." The slip, it seems, doesn't register.

And perhaps it's not really a mistake. In a way Chavers has continued to be a booster for the WBL--or, at the very least, the idea of it--since the organization went belly-up in 1981. After making the 1980 WBL championship series with the Iowa Cornets (they lost to the New York Stars in five games), Chavers was looking for a job when the Iowa franchise abruptly folded (as did New York's). She came to Minnesota for what turned out to be the league's last season. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Chavers decided to stay here and go back to college; she's been an elementary school physical-education teacher in the Minneapolis district for seven years, teaching potential pro players the basics. She also put in stints at North High as a girls' basketball coach; varsity teams she'd fostered there in the mid-Nineties later won two state titles.

Chavers: "I owe my life to this game"
Diana Watters
Chavers: "I owe my life to this game"

When the WNBA Minnesota franchise was announced in mid-1998, Chavers hit the gym to prepare for this spring's Lynx tryouts. She says she didn't want to be someone someday saying, "What if?" But she had another reason. "I wanted to be able to give my students [at Mary McCleod Bethune Elementary] a chance to be part of this. They had been supporting me all school year, watching me practice as they were going to lunch, asking me how my training was going. So I got on the intercom, and I told 'em, 'Well, I didn't make the team, but I need to let you know that I went to that tryout with so much energy from you guys. Thank you. Because I feel good about me today.' And kids were writing notes and telling me, 'Thanks for trying your best anyway.' Just that I tried out was more than enough for them."

Chavers graduated from high school in 1974, the year before the Memphis district started its girls' basketball programs and two years after the introduction of the equality-promoting Title IX. "All the basketball playing I did was in the dirt with the guys," she says with a laugh. "Literally in the dirt, on an outdoor court, no blacktop--or at community centers." As she watches the Lynx and Monarchs square off, Chavers enthuses about the greater opportunities these players have enjoyed, and the consequent improvement of their skills. Then she grins slyly. "These guys'll get mad, but I think we were better shooters than the players playing today." Indeed, final scores over 110 were common in the WBL--and are extremely rare in the WNBA (the league average hovers in the low 70s). Of course, the latter does use 20-minute halves, not the former's 12-minute quarters. "I think a lot of points could be scored in those eight minutes," Chavers allows. "But not that many."

But for all the flashy play, the WBL went down because teams couldn't fill seats. The Fillies averaged around 1,500 spectators per game during their first year; the Lynx, midway through their debut season, generally see seven times that. The difference has much to do with media attention: Chavers points to the weekly WNBA games now televised on Lifetime and ESPN, and the occasional MSC Lynx broadcast. The WBL had no national TV contracts, and a 1980 Sports Illustrated article about the Fillies described team owner Gordon Nevers's hapless attempts to gain local exposure (Nevers himself had to arrange hookups for one KMSP broadcast, as well as solicit 22 sponsors for the commercial breaks). This year the Star Tribune has supported the Lynx with regular features and game reportage; 20 years ago local print media could hardly be bothered.

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