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    Alexander: Ann Meyers Drysdale and the state of women’s basketball
    • March 13, 2024

    The best way to learn how far women’s college basketball has come is to talk to someone who was there in its early days.

    The game today is at its height of popularity. More games than ever are on national TV, scalpers are making a killing – especially with games involving Iowa star Caitlin Clark – and even the mode of transportation to road games has changed. Today, the top teams take charter flights.

    “We had vans,” Ann Meyers Drysdale recalled. “A van or a station wagon.”

    She was there at, if not the beginning, close enough. Title IX, mandating equality for women in education, became law on June 23, 1972. Meyers had just finished her sophomore year at Sonora High in La Habra. By the spring of 1975, she was a senior and a star in not only basketball – her teams as a high school player were 80-5 – but softball, badminton, field hockey, tennis and track and field. She was good enough to make the U.S. national team for the Pan-American Games in 1975, the first high school player ever to do so.

    Bill Walton hugs fellow UCLA basketball legend Ann Meyers Drysdale after she was named the 2017 Naismith Outstanding Contributor to Women’s Basketball during the 2017 Naismith Awards Brunch on April 2, 2017, in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

    With credentials like those today, a player would be the object of a heated recruiting battle. Then? Not so much. All UCLA had to do was ask.

    Her brother, Dave, was playing for the men’s team and for John Wooden, whom Ann still affectionately refers to as “Papa.” Kenny Washington, who had been a member of Wooden’s first NCAA championship teams in 1964 and ’65, had just agreed to become UCLA’s women’s coach in 1975-76.

    “I had no idea what I was going to do after my senior year in high school,” Meyers Drysdale said in a recent conversation. “I really didn’t. Billie Moore was the coach at (Cal State) Fullerton, and my sister Patty had played for Billie and they won the national (AIAW) title in 1970. So Fullerton was just around the corner. It wasn’t that expensive. And I’m from a family of 11 children, so having a college education was not always (something) that my parents could afford for all of us.

    “But David and Kenny came home on a weekend for a barbecue and just basically said, ‘How’d you like to go to UCLA and play basketball on a scholarship?’ I said, ‘OK.’ So that’s how I was recruited.”

    Of such moments are legends made. That might seem like hyperbole, but the award to the college women’s player of the year is named the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award.

    That four-year scholarship was a first for women’s basketball, but there were many more to come. At UCLA she was a four-time All-American, an Olympic silver medalist on the 1976 team in Montréal, the first woman to sign an NBA contract with the Indiana Pacers in 1979 – we’ll get to that – and the first woman to go into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

    Former UCLA women’s basketball star Ann Meyers holds up a jersey after signing a $50,000 contract with the Indiana Pacers on Sept. 5, 1979. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

    As it turned out, she eventually played for Billie Moore anyway, on the 1976 Olympic team and her senior year at UCLA when Moore, who had come over from Fullerton, coached the Bruins to the AIAW championship. That year, Meyers Drysdale noted, the Bruins did make trips to New York and Raleigh, N.C., but while the men’s teams played in what then was the Pac-8, the women played in the Western Collegiate Athletic Association, where the furthest road trip was to San Diego State.

    Thus, the vans and station wagons.

    Meyers Drysdale has stayed involved with the game as a broadcaster and executive. She was first general manager and is currently vice president of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and she also is the color analyst on 15 Phoenix Suns telecasts a season.

    In other words, this lady has serious basketball chops.

    Former professional basketball player and current sportscaster Ann Meyers Drysdale speaks during a rally to support the release of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, who was detained in Russia, on July 6, 2022, at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    And yes, she is as enamored with Caitlin Clark’s game, as most of the rest of us are.

    “Caitlin Clark has captured the heart of the nation, and she has brought the history of the game out with her scoring,” Meyers Drysdale said, noting that such long ago and forgotten stars such as Lynette Woodard, Pearl Moore and Lucy Harris have received attention as Clark has moved up the all-time scoring list.

    “I love that Caitlin is the player that she is, because she’s not just a shooter,” Meyers Drysdale said. “She’s a scorer. She plays defense. She leads the Big Ten now, men and women, in assists. She broke Susie McConnell’s record; (she) was the all-time leader in assists in the Big Ten for both men and women. She plays both ends of the floor, she rebounds.”

    The quality of the women’s game in itself should be reason for the public’s heightened interest, but the rivalries and back stories have added spice, starting with the byplay between Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese in last year’s NCAA championship game. The brawl last weekend between LSU and South Carolina in the SEC Tournament’s title game was hardly a positive, but it likely also got the attention of the casual fan who might now be more inclined to check out the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

    And there are so many stories and so many personalities, from Clark and Reese to Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, Stanford’s Cameron Brink, USC’s JuJu Watkins, and …

    “Charisma Osborne,” Meyers Drysdale said, putting in a good word for her alma mater’s star. “What she’s done at UCLA has been impressive, and nobody’s really talked about her. I’m just using her as an example, but there’s a lot of players in the country that are having great years but not getting the attention.”

    You could, if you wished, draw a straight line from Meyers Drysdale’s tryout with the Pacers in 1979 to the launch of the WNBA in 1997.

    She was the first overall draft choice of the Women’s Basketball League in 1978, but her inclination was to decline that opportunity to maintain her amateur status, with the idea of playing in a second Olympic Games in 1980 in Moscow – an opportunity that wouldn’t have come anyway once the U.S. decided to boycott those Olympics.

    Former UCLA women’s basketball star Ann Meyers drives during practice at the NBA rookie camp for the Indiana Pacers on Sept. 10, 1979, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/File)

    The Pacers’ offer of a tryout might have been a publicity stunt on the team’s part. And by signing a contract, she lost her amateur status anyway. But a lot of good came out of it.

    “Even though I didn’t make it, it opened up the door for broadcasting,” she said. “And then I did go into the WBL and was the MVP of the league (in 1980, with the New Jersey Gems). And then I met Don (her late husband, Dodger pitcher and Hall of Famer Don Drysdale) through the Superstars (made for TV competition). … So many positive things happened because of my decision to try out with the Pacers, even though a lot of people in the media felt it was a failure, and ‘what are you doing,’ and this and that. I wasn’t going to let people talk me out of it.”

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    The Pacers’ sibling franchise, the WNBA Fever, figures to be the center of attention itself this summer. It will have the No. 1 pick in the draft, and guess who that will be.

    “I heard that the Fever had (Clark) jerseys made up, and they’re already sold out,” Meyers Drysdale said.

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    ​ Orange County Register