“We’re keeping the dream alive”

“For girls who want to be in the WNBA someday, or for parents who are looking for scholarship opportunities for their daughters, here’s an affordable, exciting opportunity to see what the next level of athletics is all about.”

Ann Meyers Drysdale is talking about women’s professional basketball, more specifically the Phoenix Mercury. Not only is this her passion, but now it’s her job as the new General Manager of the Mercury.

That passion runs deep, ever since a young Ann Meyers took to sports at a time when there weren’t a lot of girls into sports. “I come from a family of 11 kids,” she explains. “My dad played for Marquette (University) and my parents were very supportive, so we grew up in a sports atmosphere.”

She says her role model was her older sister, Patty, but it was a book written about Babe Didrikson-Zaharius, that she read in fourth grade, that lit her fire. “The Babe” was named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Half-Century in 1950. “After that book, my dreams were set in stone. I wanted to become an Olympic athlete.

I played seven sports in high school; I believed in myself, that I could do it.” In 1976 that dream was realized when she earned a silver medal as part of the first women’s US Olympic basketball team at the Montreal games. And a sports career was about to bloom big time – one that lead to a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame as a player in1993.

As the first woman to receive a full athletic scholarship from UCLA, she led the Bruins to a national championship in 1978 and had her number retired at the school. In 1979, she became the only female ever to sign a free-agent contract with an NBA team, joining the Indiana Pacers as a 5-9 guard.

“The Pacers was an opportunity of a lifetime,” she says in reflection, “one that many men don’t get.”

That opportunity catapulted her to national attention and, even though it lasted just one season, Ann Meyers became a household name. She married baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale in 1986, but continued to use her maiden name; he passed away in 1993. She leaves a career as a broadcast analyst to take over the reins of the Mercury.

In this interview, she reflects back on her playing days, through school and into the pro’s.

“I feel very blessed to have come along when I did” she points out. “People always asked my late husband, Don, ‘Don’t you wish you had played now, when there’s more money involved?’ and he would say, ‘No, I played at a great time, with great players.’ “ I feel the same way.

But there are things she’s not happy about with today’s sports.

“One sad part of it,” she notes, “is that the high schools don’t seem to have the same importance as AAU. Before, it was all about representing your school, but now AAU costs lots of money and some kids travel an hour to an hour-and-a-half to get to their team practices – and they’re trying to do their homework on the drive!

There’s no camaraderie (in the club system)… it’s not the same as when the players on a team play in the same town and maybe go out for a Jamba Juice after practice.”

She also points out that basketball coaches talk to her about the importance of fundamentals at the early stages: “We need more emphasis on fundamentals. That’s what our coaches clinic on Nov. 5 with Coach (Paul) Westhead will do.” She will be there at US Airways Center to lend support for Westhead and his staff as they put on a two-hour clinic for high school coaches.

And she expects that most of the coaches in attendance will be male coaches.

She is very aware of the trend toward more men coaching women’s sports.

“Before Title IX took effect in 1975, about 75 percent of the coaching jobs in women’s sports were filled by women,” she notes. “Since Title IX, less than 50 percent. There’s more money now, so more men are getting involved. But it’s important that there are women coaches, too… we need them at camps and clinics where young girls need to see women as role models, or they are going to say ‘Why would I want to stay with this if there are no opportunities’?”

Getting back to working with young players, she emphasizes that, “Coaches have to understand that they (players) are children and are still learning. They make mistakes. As an adult, you have to understand that, sure you want the best out of your players, but it takes time. They have to have patience.” She knows, too, that her new WNBA job is also going to take patience.

But she knows success is just a matter of time.

“The WNBA is still very young,” she points out. “I compare it to the NBA of the 50’s and 60’s. The fact that we’re still around after 10 years is a pat on the back.

“We have to be diligent, talk to the media and others about what we’re doing,” she says. “Obviously, winning breeds interest; the (Phoenix) Suns have shown that. Winning our last seven games will help that… the fans’ interest has been peaked.”

She is quick to point out that, in women’s sports, there is still much to be done. “You can achieve anything you want, but you have to believe. We’re keeping the dreams alive (for young girls), but women have to support other women.”

Meyers Drysdale is going to be looking for those women – and the fathers of daughters who are still dreaming – in the stands this season.