Before being a three-time WNBA All-Star, Nikki McCray was a star in the American Basketball League.
In fact, she was the ABL MVP in her inaugural 1996–97 season.
“I always say that I started at ABL. I never forget where I come from, because that league was very special and it will always be special, ”says McCray, who played for Columbus Quest.
The Quest was one of the eight original teams in the league. In ABL’s brief history, Quest was their most successful franchise, winning both championships awarded.
“It was an amazing and fun time in my life. It was like being in college because it was during a normal season, so you really had the opportunity to meet your teammates, “says McCray. “It was almost like a sorority, like you were in college but you really were a professional.”
As the spotlight continues to shine on women’s sports in general and the WNBA in particular, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, it’s time to look back and pay tribute to the ABL as the forerunner of the W.
“The ABL was not an afterthought. It was the precursor to the WNBA, we were the main event, ”says Valerie Still, McCray’s teammate who helped lead the Quest to back-to-back championships. She was named Championship Series MVP both times. When the ABL retired during his third season, he went on to play in the WNBA for the Mystics.
“You have to respect other leagues, because part of what happens with women’s basketball is erasing our history, and if we don’t know our history, we can’t build on that,” Still says. “People think, ‘Alone, they were only around for two, two and a half years,” but the ABL was way ahead of its time when it comes to what the players are talking about now: equal pay, health benefits, treatment. with respect and more. “
Brian Agler, general manager and head coach of Quest, who finished with an 82-22 record, agrees.
“We probably had two or three people on our team who were making more money than the supermax in the WNBA, so I say we were ahead of our time,” he says.
The longevity of the WNBA can also be attributed to this fact, says Agler. “That’s why the WNBA has played the game long and started slower, created the game in the summer so that players could go to Europe and play and earn more money. That ended up working in the long run. “
In 1996, women’s basketball was gaining popularity thanks to the United States team, which won the gold medal undefeated at the Summer Olympics. It was these same medalists, McCray, Dawn Staley and others, who made up the majority of the players signed in the new league.
The ABL was the first independent professional women’s basketball league in the United States. It was formed simultaneously with the creation of the WNBA by the NBA. The ABL began league competition in the fall of 1996, while the WNBA released its first game in June 1997.
The two leagues did not compete directly (the ABL played during the winter while the WNBA played during the summer) and both showcased the talents of female athletes.
“I have to give accessories where they are due,” says McCray. “I thought the ABL really stepped up to get that league off the ground. It was very competitive. We had a lot of the best players from the universities playing, the Olympic team, it was full of talent. Wherever we went, we had very good support from the fans. People fell in love with our teams. It was really amazing. At that time it was what we needed ”.
The Quest team in particular was the favorite in the league.
“Brian did a great job bringing together a great group of people that made us a great team,” says McCray. “We had a clear understanding of what winning looked like. Our team was stacked in terms of character and winner. It just allowed us to dominate. “
Shannon “Pee Wee” Johnson was the point guard and glue that helped hold the Quest together during its two-year reign of the championship.
“We were all willing to sacrifice ourselves. We all did what it took to become champions. Brian was our leader and coach [Kelly] Kramer was there with us, ”he says. “Players control their egos. We play as a unit. This is how we succeeded. “
Still he adds: “Everything just clicked. We loved playing. Brian Agler had this system that was so brilliant it couldn’t be explored. You had both young and veteran players coming in. We had everything going for us ”.
But it was not enough. The NBA’s WNBA endorsement and marketing prevailed, and after two full seasons, the ABL declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and suspended operations midway through its third season, with many of its players moving to the W.
“It was difficult,” says McCray. “When you have the NBA behind the WNBA, you know, can you hold two leagues? I think that became a big question and obviously the NBA is a powerhouse. And now, 25 years later, who was to know? The WNBA is still moving the boat. “
The fall of the ABL and its absorption into the WNBA was “the most transformative moment for the WNBA,” says Kramer, the Quest team’s assistant coach. “We had a great quality of players, so it was, and when our players were absorbed into that league, that completely changed the WNBA for the better.”
He was still out with a knee injury when word came that the league was pulling out.
“We were a family, especially the Quests. We just trusted and loved each other, ”he says. “When I found it, it was just devastating. I think it was just the shock, but things happen for a reason. It was like a death in the family. “
Even more distressing was the fact that once the ABL was made, there were no pensions or money for players to turn to. Some talked about filing for unemployment but didn’t know much about it, Still says.
“We were professional athletes,” he says. “It’s ridiculous that professional athletes find themselves in that situation, but as women, that’s what happened to us. We just lost our jobs. ”
Johnson, who had just brought his family to Columbus for Christmas, said the memories of what they had shared is what helped them get through the league finale.
“When it happened it was devastating, but we were also grateful and blessed for the opportunity. And that’s what I see my ABL experience as: an opportunity to put myself on the map, ”says Johnson, who played for several teams in the W, including the Orlando Miracle, the Houston Comets and the Seattle Storm.
The short-lived success of the ABL and the current 25th anniversary of the WNBA shows that there is indeed an audience for women’s basketball and that women’s sports leagues in general can be effectively marketed and supported around the world, McCray says.
Doing so includes looking back at what it was and the role it played in what it is.
“We have to remember our history,” Still says. “Recognizing and honoring those women who were really taking the hit because it wasn’t good to play sports and they were doing it anyway.
“I was lucky to play in the ABL Y the WNBA, and I will always recognize the women who came before me. “
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.