Ann Meyers Drysdale Led the Way for Women in Sports
All she wanted to do was play basketball, but in the process, she broke barriers, fought for equality and changed the game forever.
Ann Meyers Drysdale first started playing basketball at four years old, completely unaware of where that would lead her. Her father played basketball at Marquette as he and her mother were very supportive of all eleven of their children pursuing sports at a young age, uncommon for a typical household in the 1960s.
“Our parents encouraged all of us, both their daughters and their sons to play sports,” Ann said. “We were always outside playing, whether it was summer or wintertime in Chicago in the snow. We were always so active.”
As many younger siblings do, she looked up to her older brothers and sisters as her passion for sports set in when she was very young.
“I idolized my sister Patty,” Ann said. “Patty was the oldest of the 11 and probably the best athlete in the family. I just followed in her footsteps.”
It was a family full of basketball players, football players, volleyball players, swimmers, track stars, etc. and Ann was in the center of it all. While she was excelling in nearly every sport that came her way, especially basketball, the idea that it could one day be a career for her never crossed her mind.
“Never anything,” Ann said. “In those days, in the 60s, the NBA was still very, very young. Even though it was 20 plus years in, we were lucky to watch, a Celtics / 76ers game or a Knicks / Lakers game. Those were the four teams that were always on, but you only would get one game a weekend.”
That one time a week inspired her and her siblings, as she began admiring some of the early legends of the game.
“We'd go out and pretend to be Jerry West or Bill Russell or John Havlicek,” Ann said. “You'd go to the playground and pretend. I just played. I didn't know that I could go to college and play basketball.”
But all that changed midway through her high school career, when Title IX was passed, requiring equal opportunity under any education program or activity regardless of gender.
“I was a senior in high school in 1974 and they had just started thinking that maybe women's basketball would be a little bit more on the amateur level of the Olympics,” Ann said.
Ann’s brother, David, was a decorated basketball star at UCLA at the time, which assisted in leading to something that had never been done before.
“David came home with the coach of the UCLA women's basketball team my senior year in high school and said, ‘Hey, how would you like the scholarship to go to UCLA?"
Ann became the first-ever female to receive a four-year athletic scholarship to any university as she officially signed on to become a Bruin. While the opportunity was exciting for her, she had yet to comprehend the impact she was making and the barriers she was breaking for women everywhere.
“That didn't even sink in,” Ann said. “For me it was like, 'You're kidding. I can go and get an education at UCLA?' So, I didn't really understand the impact that would have in years later. I didn't understand the impact of what getting a scholarship would mean and what going to UCLA would mean.”
Once she officially arrived in Los Angeles, she shined.
Ann became the first four-time All-American women’s basketball player while leading the Bruins to an AIAW national championship. She recorded the first-ever quadruple-double in NCAA history, male or female, and earned herself the 1978 Honda Sports Award for most outstanding women’s college basketball player of the year and the Broderick Cup as the most outstanding women athlete.
With so many accolades and so many ‘firsts’ at UCLA, Ann said that receiving the degree meant the most to her, especially unaware of what was ahead of her in life.
“There are so many things to be proud of,” Ann said. “I would say number one is getting my degree for sure. That was so important to me.”
Ann was balancing basketball, volleyball and track while spending her summertime being with Team USA, but still managed to get her degree before being drafted first overall in the very first women’s basketball league, the WBL.
While the idea of continuing a career in basketball after college excited her, the opportunity to go pro would have to wait. The 1980 Olympics were approaching and in order for her to be on the roster, she had to be an amateur.
“I was so honored and excited, but I thought if the league is still going to be around, I need to stay amateur for the 1980 Olympics,” Ann said. “So, I didn’t play the first year and I stayed in school to get my degree. I was playing USA Basketball and went to the World Championships and won a gold medal. We went to the Pan Am Games and I carried the flag, which I was the first woman for the United Stated to do that in the Pan Am Games.”
Ann was a decorated athlete with Team USA, earning six total medals, including three gold. She was already preparing herself to suit up one last time for the 1980 Olympics before going professional.
Then the phone rang.
“I was blindsided,” Ann said.
It was Indiana Pacers new owner, Sam Nassi, offering Ann a contract and the opportunity to try-out for his team in the NBA.
“I never expected anything like that,” Ann said.
But in order for her to do so, she’d have to forfeit her Olympic eligibility.
"It was an opportunity of a lifetime, but it was a really, really difficult decision for me because I wanted to play in the 1980 Olympics. I really struggled. So, I went up to Squaw Valley and I talked to my family and I made the decision that I was going to do this.”
Through her parents’ encouragement, the guidance of her siblings and the support she received throughout college and with Team USA, the majority of Ann’s career had been presented with positivity every step of the way, until now.
"There were people that tried to talk me out of it and one was the coach of the Indiana Pacers [Slick Leonard],” Ann said. “He was not happy with what the new owner was trying to attempt to do. But I just thought my whole life I've been playing the game of basketball and played against guys.”
This wasn’t the first time she had people try to tell her she couldn’t or shouldn’t do something. Ann played on the boy’s summer league team in high school and was presented the opportunity to play on the boy’s varsity team during her senior year.
"I remember parents saying to their boys, ‘You're going let that girl beat you?” Ann said. “It was very difficult. I had a lot of people talk me out of it because at that age, you really care about what people say and they can say hurtful things.”
But she wasn’t about to let the naysayers hold her back again.
“So, I looked back five years earlier,” Ann said. “I had people talk me out of it when I was in high school. I'm not going to let people talk me out of it now because I've got another opportunity.”
With the three-point shot coming to the league, Nassi believed that Ann’s shooting ability would be a great addition to the team. Now, it was convincing the media the same thing.
“I had received a lot of media attention,” Ann said. “It was fascinating because I didn't know what a press conference was. I was pretty shy and I was not comfortable with the media in the first place. I was really being grilled and the media was not nice.”
Ann didn’t let that phase her as she officially withdrew from USA Basketball and signed the contract with the Pacers. She knew the journey was going to be tough, but stayed mentally strong and started preparing.
“I just totally devoted myself to six hours a day working out, playing basketball, running stairs, jumping rope, doing defensive slides,” Ann said. “Just anything that was going to help improve my game.”
Ann went back to the people who supported her throughout her entire life, her family.
“I played one-on-one with my brother, Jeff, who was 6'5",” Ann said. “He would talk crap to me and get in my head and so forth, which I needed. I could call my brother David for support even though he'd be on the road with Milwaukee. I would call my family to be positive with me. I just tried to shut out the negativity of what people were saying."
“It was not easy for a lot of people to accept what I was doing, that I was taking a job from a man.”
As the first day of the try-out finally approached, Ann felt nervous because the time had finally come, but excited that the opportunity was in front of her. In September of 1979, Ann arrived at Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University as a member of the Indiana Pacers.
"I knew that I was not going to go in there and embarrass myself or the Indiana Pacers. That was not my purpose," said Ann said in a 1992 interview given to WRTV-6. "I had been playing the game of basketball all my life and I was raised that way. So, from day one, I knew what I was doing."
The media surrounded the facility to observe the 5’9” female take the court and battle for her chance to prove her doubters wrong.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Leonard told IndyStar.com. “She was better. She was better. We had a bunch of guys come in trying out and she was better than a whole bunch of them."
Ann battled for three days on the hardwood, showing her worth, proving she belonged and outlasting anyone who got in her way. She was fighting for not only her right to be on the court, but for gender equality everywhere.
And although her name wasn’t on the final roster, Ann made history. She opened the doors for female athletes across the globe and changed the mindsets of so many others, including Leonard who initially didn’t support her even trying out for his team.
"I felt bad when we started the cut down,” Leonard said. “I felt bad about it. She really did do a great job. I was proud of her."
But Ann’s journey wasn’t about to end there. Not with basketball, not with the NBA and not with the Pacers as those same seats of the media that she once feared, she would soon be sitting in.
"Who would have thought," Ann said looking back on it. "I was pretty shy when everything was happening. I would shake my head yes and no That's how bad an interview I was. I couldn't even say yes and no.”
Not knowing what opportunity lied ahead, a professor took her under their wing and showed her something nearly unheard of at the time, sports broadcasting. ESPN first launched the same month of her try-out as sports reporting was slowly becoming a separate entity from a standard news program.
Her brother Mark represented her as her attorney during the contract negotiations and made this a possibility for her.
“When the contract came about, he put in there that it was a personal service contract,” Ann said. “So, if I did not make the team as a player, I would still be with the organization working in public relations and broadcasting.”
Ann went on to become one of the first female color analysts in the NBA and to this day she calls Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury games. She has also served as an analyst for NBC Sports covering the past three Summer Olympics.
Through her journey as the first-ever female athlete to receive a scholarship, the only-ever female to sign an NBA contract and now as one of the premiere female color analysts, Ann has consistently inspired others to not back down from adversity and continue the message that anything is possible.
Whether it’s collegiate athletes, professional athletes or media members, many look to Ann and her story for carving the way, breaking the barriers and carrying the torch for them, including arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time, Diana Taurasi.
“I've had such a great relationship with Annie over the past decade,” Taurasi said. “She's really helped me out in navigating me through this world of professional basketball and the things that are important and not important. She's just wise beyond her years and she has a lot of experience that she has been able to share with me. And the older I've gotten, the more I've leaned on her for advice.”
Ann may not have realized in the moment the impact that she was making for others, but her effort to pushing her dreams forward, changed basketball and sports forever.
“She's made such an imprint in basketball, not only on the women's side, but on the men's side,” Taurasi said. “She's been able to do things that not many basketball players have been able to do. She's been able to carry that post-career. She is just is always carrying the basketball torch everywhere she goes.”
While Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale has already accomplished all she has for women’s role in sports, her drive for equality is one that will always live on within her.
“I hope that I can still make a difference some way or another,” Ann said.