Did Pacers Once Invite Woman For Tryout?
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Q. I need your help. I have gone everywhere else I can think of and I only ever get quizzical looks. When I was still a young boy I remember that the Pacers made the news because they were the first professional basketball team to sign a woman to a contract. I can't remember her name – was it Sandy? Anyhow, a few days or perhaps a few hours later it was reported that she was indeed signed but would not play. Is this memory for real? Or have I created it out of thin air? An answer either way would make me feel much better. (From Johnny in Chico, Calif.)
A. Your memory, while not quite photographic, is largely correct. In September 1979, the Pacers invited Ann Meyers, the most prolific and famous female basketball player in the United States, to participate in their rookie and free agent camp. Reports about her contract status are fuzzy; some indicate she was paid as much as $50,000 to show up, while others suggest a lesser arrangement. Either way, she didn't last long and was released on Sept. 12.
Though Meyers was the first -- and still only -- woman to try out for an NBA team, this was largely considered to be more a publicity stunt than an attempt to make history by the Pacers, who were struggling at the gate and box office and needed something, anything, to spark local interest.
Remember, they had to pay a steep price to enter the NBA in 1976-77 – an entry fee of more than $3 million and the forfeiture of their share of national television rights fees for four years. The franchise needed a save-the-Pacers telethon on local station WTTV in 1977 to get the season-ticket base up to 8,000 in order to keep the team in Indianapolis. The team had experienced four consecutive losing seasons and fan support was wavering.
So Meyers was brought in, apparently at the prompting of owner Sam Nassi and over the objections of coach and general manager Bobby "Slick" Leonard. A four-time All-American at UCLA, Meyers (whose brother, Dave, also starred at UCLA and spent four seasons with the Bucks) had impeccable credentials in the women's game, serving on the 1976 Olympic team and becoming the first player ever drafted in the Women's Professional Basketball League in 1978. She moved on to a successful broadcasting career, married former Dodgers pitching star Don Drysdale (who died in 1993) and was the first woman inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. As it turned out, she was able to make plenty of history on her own.