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.

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.

In that same Sports Illustrated piece, Minneapolis Tribune general columnist Robert T. Smith ducked criticism of his paper's coverage by blaming the "conservative lifestyle" of Minnesota for the Fillies' poor drawing power. "The women of this state are frightened by [women's] liberation and anything that goes with it," he said. "Their attitude is: 'What are those women doing playing a man's game?'" Smith did sense a change coming though, due to Title IX and the increasing numbers of girls playing sports. "Men like sports they have played. Girls will be like that now. You can't like something you don't know anything about. When they grow up, these girls are going to be the damnedest fans you ever saw."

Chavers recognizes a lot of truth in Smith's prediction (if not his prognosis on Minnesota women). But she also believes that with more attention and the eventual assist of players like Cheryl Miller, who was starring at USC at the time, the WBL could've prospered. Chavers claims that what WBL fans lacked in numbers they made up for in vehemence. "These [today] seem like they're watching a movie sometimes, y'know? They need lessons. This is a place where you can let it all hang OOUUTT!" Her shout arcs up over the arena hum. "Man, back in the day, whenever you went to Chicago to play the Hustle, that was one of the most frightening places in the world. It sounded like thunder all the time. They clapped the whole game. Woo-hoo! I loved going there."

Still, as the Lynx cut through a road-weary Sacramento defense and the 10,000-plus fans finally make their presence known, it's hard not to be swept up into the excitement of this moment--and to feel, with Chavers, that somehow the fates are smiling where they weren't two decades ago. "It wasn't meant to happen then," she declares, with no bitterness. "It's on so much of a larger scale now. It's like the Women's World Cup. So many millions of people watched that--I thought it was awesome. And then to have the soccer team going around to the WNBA All-Star game"--the winning team was honored at the July 14 ESPN-televised contest--"that was so cool. It's all coming together at the same time."

Indeed, inspired by the World Cup triumph, pundits from former Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder to President Clinton are jumping up to celebrate--and take credit for--the explosion in U.S. women's sport participation and viewership. Despite House Republicans' best efforts, Title IX is on every newscaster's lips; what's more, statistics show that one in three high school girls played sports in 1996, versus one in 27 when the legislation was passed in 1972. Team play teaches girl players how to lead, Schroeder asserts in the Los Angeles Times, and coaxes viewers away from prejudices about female frailty and beauty. Sports encourage female risk-taking, bonding, strength, and self-acceptance, Mariah Burton Nelson oozes in Newsweek. Mia Hamm is much more inspiring, Margaret Carlson cries in Time, than any female presidential candidate.

How easy it is to get caught up in these effusions, and in the success American women athletes have been enjoying since the Albertville Winter Olympics, when they took home all five American gold medals. Not to mention the delightful vision, closer to home, of Lynx forward Brandy Reed starting to put her trickiness and speed in the service of her teammates with pinpoint bullet inside passes; against Sacramento, her assists are even prettier than her shots. "This is the golden age of women's sports," one friend told me. Chavers agrees: "The millennium is the bomb. Sure, it's only going to get better. But there's nothing like being there and seeing the history unfold."

 

Like most legendary sport "golden ages," though, this one is being seen mostly in soft focus, through the lens of nostalgia. If it seems impossible that we could be nostalgic about present-day events, consider this: Commentators keep admiring the "squeaky clean" women's soccer team, as if no player ever had a thought that was less than Ivory pure. What will happen when news leaks out, as it invariably will (because they're human), that one player is pissed about her playing time, or thinks Hamm gets paid too much, or--horrors!--shows herself to be not a heterosexual? Right now, goalie Briana Scurry can get away with cheating (on her game-winning World Cup save), but will sports audiences always be so forgiving--and so ready to credit women with sportsmanship (sic) they don't credit to men?

From the tone of the articles by Schroeder, Nelson, and Carlson, it would seem there are plenty of women in their 30s and older who experience the successes of U.S. women's soccer and basketball teams as a kind of personal revenge: You, the masculine world, said we were weak. You said we couldn't work together. You said no one cared what we did anyway. Well, EAT MIA'S SHORTS! It is very satisfying that the World Cup Final drew such big crowds that the nation's media were forced to notice (as they didn't, say, with the U.S. team's 1991 victory). The danger, per Carlson's words, is in overestimating the social impact of what is, after all, entertainment. Through the Nineties, the music world has been agog at the chart dominance of female singers. That hasn't changed the fact that the U.S. Senate seats only nine women senators.

Even within sports, change doesn't come as fast and sure as those World Cup cheerleaders let on. The hype about Title IX obscures the fact that, 27 years since its imposition, the college that meets its standard for sports-gender equity is a rare and wonderful thing. A 1992 study of 646 U.S. colleges found exactly one school in compliance. So far in 1999, Sports Illustrated has given women's pro basketball less coverage than it did in 1980. More disturbing, male sportswriters wrote about the World Cup's popularity by disparaging WNBA attendance--as if there can be only one successful women's sport. (For the record, for every six matchups among the WNBA's 12 teams, the league is attracting more than 58,000 fans. It's not 90,000, but it's not the World Cup Final, either.)

Finally, Nelson's propaganda notwithstanding, competitive sports are not for everybody. All the encouragement my friends, family, and coach could muster couldn't get me out for the cross-country team--and I still managed to fashion a self that plays well with others. Pressure to do sports can be just as pernicious as pressure not to. And what happened to feminist concerns about sports--the obsession with winning, the humiliation of the awkward, the screaming coaches and parents?

Such reservations could never dent Chavers's enthusiasm for women's athletics. After high school, she says, she just kicked around for a couple of years. Then a friend urged her to head over to Tennessee's LeMoyne-Owen College, where a women's basketball team was being organized. She did, and the impressed coach offered her a full ride (the long arm of Title IX). "Meanwhile," she recalls, "in my foolishness at 19, I got involved with the wrong crowd and almost went to the penitentiary for fraud." Her coach intervened with the judge on her case, and he sentenced her to go to college and play ball. "Judge Williams, I'll never forget him," Chavers swears. "I look at this, and I'm like, dang! If I'd gone [to jail] at 19, 29 years old coming out, my life would be totally different from what it is now. I definitely wouldn't be a teacher!" She smiles. "I owe my life to this game. I do."

Chavers turns again to the contest at hand, which is building toward a goose-pimpling finish, with the Lynx barely holding on. Inside the paint the "big girls," as Chavers calls them, are pushing for position. After Monarch Griffith forces in a shot, she shoulders brusquely into a Lynx player on her way up the court. "That was cheap." Chavers laughs broadly. "It's all in the game."

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