Minnesota Fillies

Brenda Chapman of the Minnesota Fillies
Brenda Chapman dribbles past Joan Uhl of Iowa
in the first game for the Minnesota Fillies, December 15, 1978

Adapted from a chapter in Minnesota Hoops by Stew Thornley and Marc Hugunin, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press

The true pioneers in women’s professional basketball in the United States are those who took a chance, leaving stable jobs or risking personal fortunes, on the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) in the late 1970s. The league struggled and sputtered—losing teams, creating turmoil, even having one of its players murdered—and lasted only three years. Yet it cleared a path for future generations to follow.

Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, the landmark legislation that required proportional participation opportunities for males and females in publicly funded schools, was having an impact on academics and athletics in colleges and high schools. But the only professional options for women in basketball remained far away, in Europe and Japan.

At least two professional leagues for women had been planned but never fully launched in the mid-1970s. Finally Bill Byrne, who had been involved with one of the teams in the World Football League team of 1974 and 1975, led the formation of the WBL, the first such league to actually get off the ground.

Getting Started
In Minnesota, the WBL provided an opportunity not just for women but also for a man in search of a new career. Gordy Nevers had been an outstanding pitcher who spent several seasons in professional baseball in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As he was winding up his pro career, he entered the funeral-home business operated by his in-laws. By the time he left that, in 1976, he was back in sports. With his company, International Sports Management, Nevers had been one of the innovators of the Pillsbury Holiday Classic basketball tournament, hosted by the Minnesota Gophers each December since 1974. Along with a former Gophers player, Paul Presthus, Nevers also tried to enter the field of representing athletes as their agent.

He explored other possibilities but was still trying to find the right path for his life when he consulted a counselor. After a barrage of psychological tests to determine his true interests and aptitudes, the counselor concluded that what Nevers should be doing was serving as the general manager of a professional sports team.

Soon after, in the spring of 1978, Nevers learned of the formation of the new league. Nevers contacted Byrne and ended up with one of the original franchises. The Minnesota Fillies would compete with seven other teams—the New Jersey Gems, New York Stars, Dayton Rockettes, Houston Angels, Milwaukee Does, Chicago Hustle, and Iowa Cornets—starting in December of 1978.

The WBL held a draft of college seniors and other free agents in July of 1978. With his first pick in the college draft, Nevers selected Ramona Von Boeckman, who had been part of the Delta State (Mississippi) teams that had won national championships from 1975 to 1977. Nevers immediately traded Von Boeckman to Milwaukee for Trish Roberts of Tennessee, who had been a member of the 1976 U. S. Olympic team. Von Boeckman never played in the WBL, but Roberts became a very good player and may have been on of the league’s top stars if not for a serious knee injury.

Houston drafted three prominent players, none of whom signed that season with the Angels. The team’s top choice (and the first overall pick in the league) was Ann Meyers of UCLA, the team that had just won the national championship. However, Meyers, who had also played on the 1976 Olympic team, wanted to retain her amateur eligibility so she could participate in the Olympics in 1980. (Another college star, Carol Blazejowski, also eschewed the WBL for that reason.)

Houston also picked Lusia Harris, the great center on the Delta State championship teams and the leading scorer and rebounder on the U. S. team in the 1976 Olympics. Harris decided to stick with her job as a college admissions counselor rather than take a chance on the new league (although Harris did play for Houston the following season). With another of its choices, Houston drafted Marie Kocurek, who had been an All-American at Wayland Baptist College of Plainview, Texas. Kocurek had just taken a position as a graduate-assistant coach on the women’s basketball team at the University of South Carolina and didn’t find the offer by the Angels alluring enough to leave her current job.

Back in Minnesota, Nevers hired Dee Hopfenspirger as the team’s first coach. Hopfenspirger (then DeMaras “Dee” Mercie) was the coach of the Redwood Falls team that won the 1976 Class A title in the first Minnesota girls’ state high-school basketball tournament.

However, Hopfenspirger never made it to the regular season, resigning in November during training came. “Coaching professional athletes, as I realized, was a little different, too. There were some very fine players there, but they were very individual,” she explained. “They were very good, all of them, competitive, but I didn’t think that the work ethic was especially what I would have expected it to be at that level. I didn’t think they were in good condition myself as far as what I would expect, and I know I had high expectations. So I wasn’t as enamored with coaching at that level as I was with my own high-school athletes.”

In addition to a new coach, Nevers found himself looking for a new center as Trish Roberts injured her knee and had surgery just before the opening of the season. Nevers dealt with the coaching situation first, hiring Julia Yeater, who was about to start her third season as head coach of the women’s team at Western Kentucky University. One of the players Yeater coached in college was Brenda Chapman, who by this time was playing with the Fillies (in addition to serving as the team’s receptionist), and it was on Chapman’s recommendation that Nevers hired Yeater.

Yeater said she left Western Kentucky because of a desire to see more female head coaches in the WBL. Lynnette Sjoquist, one of the original players on the Fillies, credited Nevers for his efforts in hiring women coaches and noted the challenges. “This was 1978, six years after Title IX, and there really weren’t a lot of women coaches at the collegiate level even,” she said. Regarding the women who were coaching in college, Sjoquist added, “There was a lot more security at that point if you were a woman coaching at the collegiate level, certainly a lot more in staying at that college, even if the pay was not tremendous. Certainly more security that going with the WBL.”

Sjoquist, a native of Cannon Falls, Minnesota, had played at Golden Valley Lutheran College in the Twin Cities and then spent four seasons with the All-American Redheads, a female barnstorming basketball team. With Roberts out, Sjoquist became the Fillies’ number-one center and was in the starting lineup opening night, jumping against the Iowa Cornets’ Doris Draving in the initial regular-season tipoff for both teams on Friday night, December 15, 1978.

Iowa won the game 103-81 in a contest that featured many shots and thus many rebounds. The teams combined for 187 field-goal attempts and Iowa finished the game with a 67-61 edge in rebounding. The WBL employed a 24-second shot clock, similar to the National Basketball Association, and the players fired frequently. (The three-point basket was not adopted by the league until its second season although it never became much of a weapon for any of the teams.)

Brenda Chapman led all scorers with 23 points while Joan Uhl was high for Iowa with 22. Molly Bolin played little in the game for Iowa and scored three points. As Monna Lea “Molly” Van Venthuysen, Bolin (by this time married) had been a great scorer in high school in Moravia, Iowa. In Iowa, girls played a six-player version of the game that featured separate three-on-three matchups in the front court and the backcourt.

Bolin did not make an immediate impact in the WBL. The reason often cited is that it took her some time to adjust to the five-on-five game. However, Bolin had played this style during her two seasons on the basketball team at Grandview College in Iowa (where she twice played against the Minnesota Gophers). Whatever the reason, when Bolin broke into the Cornets’ starting lineup, she quickly became the league’s biggest name.

The crowd at the Met Center for the Fillies’ first game was announced at 4,102. Minneapolis Tribune reporter Gary Libman covered the game but spent some of his time surveying groups in the stands to see if they had actually paid their way in or had received complimentary tickets. Nevers was frustrated with the focus of Libman’s story and became increasing agitated in the ensuing years as the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers largely ignored the Fillies.

Nevers eventually hired a longtime friend and public-relations ace, Dick Higgins, to find other ways of promoting the team. Higgins lined up personal appearances and got players on various radio shows, but the print coverage remained sparse. For the Fillies, it was the vicious circle of not attracting fans because of the lack of news coverage and not attracting news coverage because of the lack of fans.

Following their opening loss, the Fillies lost again two nights later despite 43 points from Chapman as well as the debut of Marie Kocurek for the Fillies. Nevers made a trade with Houston for the draft rights to Kocurek, flew her to Minnesota for a tryout, and had her play that night. Kocurek gave a one-word answer when asked why she signed with Minnesota after turning down Houston: “Money.” Kocurek said she was paid $8,000 for the season by the Fillies, $3,000 more than the Houston Angels had offered her.

The addition of Kocurek gave the Fillies and their prime rival, the Iowa Cornets, two of the top center in the league. Both Kocurek and Doris Draving of the Cornets made the WBL All-Pro team in each of the first two years. Draving said Kocurek was “one of my least favorite players to play against. She had this ability to shoot over me, which really made me mad. She was a great player. She was so technically sound.”

Kocurek said she learned the fundamentals at Wayland Baptist. She also pointed out that she was used to first-class treatment and accommodations in college and felt that the Fillies and the WBL were a step down. Kocurek was probably the most outspoken member of the Fillies, and she spoke up often during her time with Minnesota.

Within two weeks of the arrival of Kocurek, the Fillies had another player who would help define the franchise, Marie “Scooter” DeLorme. A South Carolina native, DeLorme hadn’t graduated from the College of Charleston until December of 1978, which is why she wasn’t available in the first college draft. In South Carolina, DeLorme had played against and with Accronetta “Neat” Cooper, one of the original Fillies. Following Cooper’s suggestion, Nevers signed DeLorme, who became the team’s point guard.

The Fillies went through more coaching changes in February of 1979. Nevers said he became disenchanted with Yeater after watching her refuse to take a time out in a game against Iowa during a surge by the Cornets. Yeater characterized her departure as the result of “a lot of issues (some personal) about the direction the team was going ” with Nevers and that she was to be reassigned as the director of scouting for the league office. Instead she took the head coaching job in Milwaukee.

Nevers coached the Fillies to a win in the next game, which was in Dayton, and while there hired a new coach, Lou Mascari, who moved to Minnesota to take the job with the Fillies. He lasted only seven games. Nevers coached the Fillies again before turning over the reins for the final two games of the season to Trish Roberts, who was served as an assistant coach following her injury during training camp and retained that role even after being activated as a player at mid-season.

The game of musical coaches was not confined to Minnesota. In Iowa, George Nicodemus was fired four days before the Cornets’ opener in Minnesota. Within a few days, he became the head coach at Milwaukee, marking the third coach the Does had. Milwaukee’s original coach resigned for family reasons in late October. Her successor, Candace Klingzing, was fired after the team’s first regular-season game. Nicodemus took over from Klingzing, was fired in January, and replaced by general manager Gene DeLisle. Soon after, Julia Yeater became the coach of the Does.

Nicodemus’s firing in Iowa in December had followed complaints by players. These weren’t the only complaints regarding coaches, but sometimes the people shown the door were the players, not the coach. This happened in late January in Chicago with Karen Logan, who made have been the league’s biggest name at the time. Like Sjoquist, a former member of the All-American Redheads, Logan gained greater recognition in a 1975 network television “Challenge of the Sexes” competition in which she beat Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers in a game of Horse (a sandlot shooting contest).

At the request of her coach on the Chicago Hustle, Doug Bruno, Logan polled her teammates following a loss and reported that the team wanted a new coach. However, management sided with Bruno. Logan was told she not start the next game and, claiming retaliation for the poll, walked of a practice out along with Mary Jo Peppler, a former member of the U. S. Olympic volleyball team. The two were suspended and then traded to the New Jersey Gems.

Logan and Peppler weren’t the only players who faced this situation. Also in late January, several members of the Milwaukee Does complained about their general manager-turned-coach, Gene DeLisle. Among the complaints, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel, were that DeLisle had encouraged the players to break training rules, that he and other front-office staff had come to practice with liquor on their breath, and that DeLisle was “close to a player.” In mid-February, two of the Does who spoke up, Kathy DeBoer and Marguerite Keeley, were traded to Minnesota. The trade was controversial not just in Milwaukee but also in Minnesota because one of the players the Fillies gave up was Brenda Chapman, who was leading the league in scoring.

Chapman held the league scoring lead through the rest of the season, but the players the Fillies got in return were great contributors to the team. With Minnesota, Keeley and DeBoer increased their scoring and both averaged nearly 10 rebounds per game.

By the end of the season, Molly Bolin was getting more playing time and putting up some impressive scoring totals. In one of the final games of the season, Bolin scored 53 points against the Fillies. Already been dubbed “Machine Gun Molly” by the Washington Post, by the following season, Bolin would become as renowned for her looks as for her shooting.

Minnesota finished the season a few days later with a 17-17 record, in third place in the four-team Midwest Division. The team had some bright spots. Marie Kocurek, Marguerite Keeley, and Donna Wilson had represented the Midwest in the All-Star Game in March, and Kocurek was named to the league’s All-Pro team at the end of the season. However, their home attendance was barely more than 1,000 per game, far below what would be needed for the team to survive.

Nevers, however, was in for the long haul and looked forward to better times. For the near future, he had to deal with the coaching situation again, which also was causing problems with the team’s star player, Marie Kocurek. Of the coaches the Fillies had their first year, Kocurek said, “None of them were competent. They were all stupid. None of them knew basketball.” At the end of the season, she said told Nevers she would not play again if “you do not have competent coaching. Trade me.”

The Second Season
Instead of trading Kocurek, Nevers hired Terry Kunze, the former star at the University of Minnesota and Duluth Central High School, as coach. Following college, Kunze had been drafted by the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA; however, he instead played in Europe, where he said he could make more money. After one year in Belgium, he came back and played for the Minnesota Muskies in the first season of the American Basketball Association, then returned for several more seasons in Belgium. “I was making good money in Europe, and I just really liked living in Europe,” Kunze said. “I’m an artist. I paint. I did a lot of paintings. In Belgium, a lot of my friends were painters, and I had my own exhibition with champagne and wine for the openings. It was something that you couldn’t do here.”

Kunze coached a year at Mora High School in Minnesota, became an assistant coach under Jim Dutcher for the Minnesota Gophers in the mid-1970s, then served as an assistant at Eastern Carolina University before taking the job as the Fillies’ head coach.

Kocurek said Kunze “did know basketball. He was a man’s coach all his life, but he knew basketball. He knew his stuff.” However, Kocurek had trouble with some of Kunze’s methods, particularly his language. She cited one game, following a loss, in which Kunze ranted in the locker room and “called us all gutless fucking bitches about 12 times.”

Asked about his language, Kunze said, “I treated them as athletes, not girls or women.”

Under Kunze, the Fillies did better, challenging Iowa for the division title. Six-foot-five center Katrina Owens, the team’s top pick in the college draft, provided help in the front court as did Trish Roberts, who was back from her injury after playing in only four games the season before. However, the Fillies again played before mostly empty seats at the Met Center.

The league itself also struggled even though the league had seven of the eight teams from back from the initial season (the Dayton Rockettes being the exception) and expanded by adding teams in Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas, St. Louis, California (Long Beach and Anaheim), San Francisco, and New Orleans. However, barely a month into the season the Philadelphia and Washington franchises folded.

The WBL had a bona-fide star in 1979-80 as Ann Meyers agreed to play with the New Jersey Gems. Meyers had been a four-time All-American at UCLA and received even more attention after she was drafted by the Indiana Pacers of the NBA in 1979. Meyers wasn’t the first woman drafted by an NBA team, but she became the first to go to training camp. After being cut by the Pacers, Meyers signed to play in the WBL.

While there were suggestions of resentment on the part of some of the players because Meyers had tried out with the Pacers before signing with the Gems, Lynnette Sjoquist said she was anxious for a player of Meyers’s caliber to join the WBL. Sjoquist, who became the Fillies’ public-relations director after being waived as player during the 1978-79 season, said, “That’s what the league needed, was certainly talent—all the talent we could find for us to cultivate a following.”

Meanwhile, other teams were relying on other methods to draw fans. In Iowa, despite the state’s strong tradition of girls’ high-school basketball, the Cornets relied heavily on extraneous entertainment. Owned by George Nissen, a trampoline manufacturer who was heavily involved in gymnastics as well as weight-lifting equipment, the Cornets had Polish gymnasts and champion table-tennis players on hand for exhibitions prior to their first regular-season game in December 1978. The halftime entertainment was a display by ball-handling wizard Tanya Crevier. Crevier was on the team’s roster but rarely played in a game; her primary role was to perform dribbling exhibitions. The team also had a mascot, Shucks, dressed as an ear of corn.

However, the Cornets received their greatest attention by promoting the attractiveness of Molly Bolin. Just prior to the start of the WBL’s second season, the Cornets worked with Bolin to produce and sell posters of her in a couple of different poses. The Chicago Hustle also followed a similar strategy with one of their pulchritudinous players, Janie Fincher, although not to the extent that the Cornets did with Bolin.

Although the glamour focus produced publicity for the league, not everyone agreed with the approach. “That’s marketing for reasons you thought would cultivate an audience [men],” said Sjoquist. “They thought the heavier audience would be male, and I think that was a mistake. I was pretty vocal at the time that I didn’t agree with it. I thought we could promote a game for the game itself.”

Gordy Nevers had a different opinion than Sjoquist and would have liked his players to have followed Bolin’s lead. “Makeup was something that was very resistant to our team. We had very, very nice people. They were good people, but they were so concerned about being basketball players, they didn’t want you to know they were women.”

Nevers claims that today’s Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has shown the success of such an approach. “You’ll see a different look than you ever saw at our place,” he says of the WNBA. Told that Sjoquist didnít agree with promoting the WBL on the basis of players’ looks, Nevers said, “I think there’s still people who think that way. But todayís league will tell you they were wrong.”

During the Fillies’ second season, Nevers arranged to have one of the games televised. He had to purchase the time and sell the commercial spots himself, but he thought the television exposure would help ticket sales. The game was at Iowa on a Sunday afternoon in January of 1980. However, problems with the land-line signal resulted in a delay in the broadcast. By the time the telecast came on, the game had been in progress for more than half-an-hour. What viewers did get to see was another outstanding performance by Molly Bolin, who broke her own record (set the previous season against the Fillies) by scoring 54 points. For the Fillies, however, it wasn’t a showcase game as they lost to the Cornets by 40 points.

Fewer than two months later, Bolin struck again against the Fillies, scoring 55 points to set another record. Iowa won the division by one game over Minnesota. However, the second-place finish put the Fillies into the playoffs.

The Fillies moved their post-season games to Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota because of scheduling conflicts with the Minnesota North Stars hockey team at the Met Center. Nevers also announced that the team would not return for the Met Center and instead would play its games in 1980-81 at the Minneapolis Auditorium.

Minnesota lost its first playoff game in the best-of-three series to the New Orleans Pride before 400 fans at Williams Arena. Three nights later, in New Orleans, the Fillies trailed and were on the verge of elimination when Katrina Owens scored to tie the game with four seconds remaining in regulation play. Minnesota then won in overtime.

The deciding game, in New Orleans, was tied until the Fillies scored six points in the final minute for a 97-91 win. Marie Kocurek broke the tie with a lay-up and later added a pair of free throws.

The Fillies next faced the Cornets in another best-of-three series. Minnesota got off to a fast start and cruised to a 108-87 win in the first game, at Williams Arena. In the second game, Bolin was at her best, scoring 50 points as Iowa won to tie the series.

Iowa built a 17-point lead in the third game, but the Fillies came back and cut the lead to a point. Denise Sharps had a chance to put Minnesota ahead but missed a shot in the final seconds as time ran down. Iowa’s Mo Eckroth got the rebound and was fouled with one second left. She made both free throws and Iowa won, 95-92, earning a trip to the league’s championship series.

They had lost to the Houston Angels, three-games-to-two, in 1979; this time, they were defeated by the New York Stars in four games.

The championship series marked the end for both the Stars and the Cornets. The demise of the Iowa Cornets was somewhat surprising since the team was among the leaders in attendance. Doris Draving blamed the collapse on the sale of the team from George Nissen to Dick Vance, whom she said “dragged the team under.”

Two other teams—the Milwaukee Does and California Dreams—also did not return for the 1980-81 season although the owner of the Dreams ended up with a new franchise in the league, the Nebraska Wranglers.

Also not back was Ann Meyers, who refused to return after not receiving her full salary from the New Jersey Gems. The Gems did survive and were only one of three original teams to survive for a third season, the Chicago Hustle and Minnesota Fillies being the other two.

Several other players were missing, as well, in part because of the formation of a rival league, the Ladies Professional Basketball Associate. Among those going to the new league were Molly Bolin and Doris Draving, who were in need of a new team after the Cornets went out of business. However, the new league lasted only a few games and Draving and Bolin both ended up back in the WBL, with the San Francisco Pioneers.

Turmoil in the Final Season
The WBL ended up with a couple of other stars who had been hanging on to their amateur status so they could play in the Olympics. However, those dreams evaporated when the United States decided to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow. Carol Blazejowski signed with the New Jersey Gems and Nancy Lieberman, who had led Old Dominion to the national college championship in 1979 and 1980, with the Dallas Diamonds.

The addition of great college players like Blazejowski and Lieberman didn’t cause any spikes in attendance, and the league struggled more than ever. A new team, the New England Gulls, were having trouble paying their players. On January 15, 1981, the Gulls responded by refusing to play, causing the team to disband.

Nevers was also experiencing problems meeting payroll in Minnesota, and this nearly resulted in a strike by the players in mid-February. “By the middle of my third year, we were not getting checks—half checks, no checks, bouncing checks,” recalled Kocurek. “We were tripling up on roommates. We had a team meeting before practice and all decided not to play, including the coach.” Kocurek said Kunze called Nevers, who came and gave 20-minute speech about how he’s doing us a favor by giving us a job that we love and that we should want to do for free.

“After he left, I, the big mouth that I am, spoke up and said until we get paid we will not practice of play anymore, expecting my teammates to also speak up and back me up. Not one did.”

When Kocurek got home from practice, she received a call from Minneapolis Star sports columnist Doug Grow. Kocurek was highly critical of Nevers, and the day after her comments appeared in the paper, she was traded to the Nebraska Wranglers. Grow responded with a column that began sarcastically, “The uppity wench deserved it. . . . She grumbled about not being paid on time and he [Nevers] had her on the next bus to Nebraska.”

Kocurek went to a team that was reeling over the murder of one of its players, Connie Kunzmann. A native of Everly, Iowa, not far from the state line with Minnesota, Kunzmann had played two seasons with the Cornets. When the team disbanded, she went to Nebraska. On Friday night, February 6, 1981 Kunzmann was at an Omaha bar with some teammates and ended up with an acquaintance, Lance Tibke. The next day, Kunzmann was late for practice, an unusual occurrence for her. The team became alarmed when she didn’t show up at all, and Kunzmann was reported missing. Three days later, Tibke turned himself into police. He said that the two had an argument. He stabbed her, hit her with a tire iron, and threw her body into the half-frozen Missouri River. Kunzmann was presumed dead although her body was not recovered for more than a month.

The confession by Tibke came the day after the league’s All-Star Game. Rosie Walker of Nebraska led the Central Division with 13 points, but the next night Nebraska postponed its game. The Wranglers, helped by the addition of Kocurek, did go on to win the WBL title, beating Nancy Lieberman and the Dallas Diamonds in the championship series.

Meanwhile, the Fillies won only one more game. Their roster was down to eight players, and they were now traveling to games in the Midwest in a van rather than a bus, which had been their customary transportation for games in the region. On Saturday, March 21, Kunze and the Fillies drove to Chicago for a game against the Hustle.

At the hotel, they found that the credit card Nevers had given them to pay for the rooms was rejected. Accounts vary as to what happened from there. Nevers said he had arranged with the management of the Chicago team to help out if needed and that Kunze was to have called them if there was a problem with the credit card. Kunze doesn’t remember any issues over payment for the hotel, although a newspaper story two days later said Kunze produced his own credit card for the rooms after the one from Nevers was rejected.

Scooter DeLorme remembers the incident with the credit card, which, combined with the salaries being in arrears, resulted in a team meeting to decide whether to play the game that night. DeLorme, who was also an assistant coach on the team in addition to playing, said she opposed walking out as did Nessie Harris, a college teammate of hers, and Donna Wilson, the only original member of the Fillies still with the team. However, they agreed to abide by the majority opinion and the other players—Angela Cotman, Kim Hansen, Nancy Dunkle, Anita Ortega, and Coco Daniels—voted not to play. They decided that Chicago, where the league office was located, was the place to make a statement. In addition, the WBL commissioner, Sherwin Fischer, was on the Hustle’s board of directors.

The Fillies still took the floor before the game, not even wearing their normal uniforms under their warm-up attire, and then left the floor just before the starting lineups were to be introduced. They exited through the locker room and got into their van. DeLorme recalls the disconcerting nature of the situation as the van was held up for about 15 minutes as the referees and Chicago management came out to talk to them.

Kunze said he had no idea what the players had planned until they left the floor, but Nevers expressed anger at his coach. “Had I had a little more stable leadership, they never would have walked out,” Nevers said nearly 25 years later. “I can’t believe what Terry did. He was a ringleader. He actually supported it.”

Contemporary newspaper accounts, written in the days following the walkout, may provide the most accurate account of the incident. In fact, the stories represented the greatest coverage the Fillies had in their history and reflected a comment that Nevers had made the month before, that “the only time we get any ink is when one of our players gets killed [referring to Connie Kunzmann] or when our players don’t get paid.”

The WBL suspended Kunze and the players for their walkout. Although Nevers had to postpone a game at home the next night, he was determined to have the Fillies finish their schedule. He came up with a coach named Mark DeLapp and cobbled together a roster that contained former Fillies Sue Wahl-Bye and Cheryl Engel as well as several Minnesota college players who had just completed their senior season—Linda Roberts and Mary Manderfeld of the University of Minnesota and Lynn Peterson of Mankato State. Elsie Ohm, who had played at Minnesota and Mankato State, also joined the Fillies.

On Monday night, March 23, the fill-in Fillies lost 128-80 to the St. Louis Streak. With a slightly different cast, the Fillies lost badly to St. Louis again the following night. Minnesota went on the road for two games to wrap up the season, and Lynnette Sjoquist, employed in the team’s front office, took over coaching duties while also bringing along a uniform so she could also play.

After a 44-point loss in Dallas, the Fillies played their final game, in San Francisco, on Tuesday, March 31. The result was a 122-61 victory for the Pioneers, who emptied the bench to the point that Tanya Crevier—the ball-handling wizard who had not played in a game all season—got 16 minutes on the floor.

Despite the tumultuous end of the season, Nevers was optimistic. He envisioned Lynn Peterson as a star for the team and a possible gate attraction because of her looks. “She was beautiful, number one. And she could play,” said Nevers, adding that Peterson could “have been our Molly Bolin, our Janie Fincher. She was a very beautiful girl and a lovely person.”

The Fillies, having the league’s worst record (7-28), would also be able to bolster their roster with the top pick in the college draft, which probably would have been used to select Lynette Woodard of Kansas.

However, the draft was postponed (and Woodard instead went on to become the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters) as stories came out that the Fillies were going to be sold and moved to Detroit. In the end, it didn’t matter as the league was unable to continue for a fourth season.

The following February Nevers, claiming assets of $1,525, filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy as he faced claims from creditors that totaled more than a million dollars.

Despite the financial devastation, Nevers, who now lives in Arizona, he isn’t sorry that he tried. “I don’t look back on things that are either good or bad and try to relive them. It was a part of my life that was very positive. I enjoyed it,” Nevers said, who added an adage he once heard: “You can live your life like you’re jumping on a train. You’re not worrying about the destination, but you just enjoy the ride. That’s a good philosophy of life as far as I’m concerned.”

Among the creditors in Nevers’s bankruptcy hearing were former players Marie Kocurek and Scooter DeLorme. Although neither got her full pay, both can cull positive memories of their experience in the league.

DeLorme (now Scooter Barnette), who coached and is now a faculty member at her alma mater, the College of Charleston, called her time in the league “a great adventure and a great opportunity.”

Kocurek went back to her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, and got a job with Valero Refinery. On November 8, 1989, Kocurek was riding her bike outside of town when she was hit by a car, dragged for 70 feet, and, in her words, “left for dead.” She was in a coma for eight days, in intensive care for two weeks, and out of work for nearly a year-and-a-half. She returned to Valero after recovering from numerous injuries and still works there.

Kocurek and DeLorme roomed together in Minnesota and remain friends, regularly getting together with another former teammate, Kathy DeBoer. Although Kocurek harbors resentment over some of her experiences, she said, “The pro league, it can be bitter and sad, but the friendships we made were lasting, and I’ll thank them for that. I met some good people, and I’ll thank them forever for that.”

Sources:

Newspaper accounts of Fillies games, primarily from the Minneapolis Tribune.

http://www.wblmemories.com

A History of Basketball for Girls and Women: From Bloomers to Big Leagues by Joanne Lannin (Minneapolis: Lerner Sports, 2000), pp. 91-97.

Minnesota Fillies media guide, 1979-80

Telephone interviews:
    Gordy Nevers, January 6, 2005
    Dick Higgins, January 5, 2005
    Dee Hopfenspirger, December 29, 2004 and January 2, 2005
    Marie Kocurek, December 19, 2004
    Lynnette Sjoquist, December 28, 2004
    Scooter Barnette (DeLorme), January 1, 2005
    Terry Kunze, December 19 and 20, 2004
    Doris Draving, December 28, 2004
    Lusia Harris-Stewart, January 24, 2005

Correspondendence:
    Julia Yeater, January 2005

Conversation:
    Mary Manderfeld, February 13, 2005

Specific news articles:

Initial college draft: “For Female Basketball, A Big Bounce Forward” by Robin Herman, New York Times, Wednesday, July 19, 1978, p. A14; “Minnesota Women’s Pro Cagers Deal Fast,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 19, 1978, p. 4C.

Musical coaches: “Sour Note by Cornets: Coach Fired” by Ron Maly, Des Moines Register, Tuesday, December 12, 1978, p. 1S; “Nicodemus New Coach at Milwaukee: Ex-Cornet Boss 3rd Does Mentor,” Des Moines Register, Thursday, December 14, 1978, p. S1.

First game: “Fillies Bow to Iowa in Debut” by Gary Libman, Minneapolis Tribune, Saturday, December 16, 1978, p. 1C; “Oh, Sister! Cornets Sail in Debut: Uhl Hits 22, Green 12 in 103-81 Breeze” by Ron Maly, Des Moines Register, December 16, 1978, p. 1S.

Turmoil with players during first season: “Does Players Blast Boss” by Jill Lieber, Milwaukee Sentinel, Thursday, February 1, 1979, p. 1, Part 2; “Suspended Players Rap Hustle, Coach” by Jim Fitzgerald, Chicago Tribune, Friday, January 26, 2979, p. 1, Section 6; “Hustle Suspends 2, Plans Trade” by Dave Nightengale, Chicago Tribune, Saturday, January 27, 1979, p. 1, Section 2.

Telecast snafu in January 1980: “Full of Heart in an Empty House” by Sarah Pileggi, Sports Illustrated, March 10, 1980, p. 32.

Trade of Kocurek: “Fillies Ritual: Sweating Out Payday” by Doug Grow, Minneapolis Star, Wednesday, February 18, 1981; “Fillies’ Kocurek Traded to Nebraska,” Minneapolis Tribune, Friday, February 20, 1981, p. 3D; “She Spoke Up, Got Shipped Out” by Doug Grow, Minneapolis Star, Friday, February 20, 1981, p. 9C.

Murder of Connie Kunzmann: “Women’s Pro Cager Reportedly Murdered,” Minneapolis Tribune, Wednesday, February 11, 1981, p. 1C; “Body Is Found; Believed to Be Connie Kunzmann,” Minneapolis Tribune, Sunday, March 29, 1981, p. 12C; “Killer of Pro Basketball Player Paroled after 9 Years in Prison,” Omaha World-Herald, Saturday, June 20, 1990, p. 3; “A Killing in Omaha” by Ira Berkow, Inside Sports, February 1982, p. 74.

Walkout: “Fillies Leave Floor Before Game against Chicago, Are Suspended,” Minneapolis Tribune, Sunday, March 22, 1981; “Nevers Promises Game Despite Fillies Walkout” by Jon Roe, Minneapolis Tribune, Monday, March 23, 1981, p. 1C; “Ex-Fillies Watch New Group Go for Broke” by Howard Sinker, Minneapolis Tribune, Tuesday, March 24,1981, p. 1C; “No Bed of Roses for Suspended Fillies” by Paul Levy, Minneapolis Star, Tuesday, March 24, 1981, p. 12B, “Fill-in Fillies Lose Again to St. Louis,” Minneapolis Tribune, Wednesday, March 25, 1981, p. 36.

Final game: “Pioneers Rout Fillies, 122-61, in WBL Finale” by Al Moss, San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, April 1, 1981, p. 64.

Aftermath: “Fillies May Be Headed for Detroit” by Paul Levy, Minneapolis Star, Wednesday, April 22, 1981, p. 13B; “Bizarre’s Word for Fillies Deal” by Paul Levy, Minneapolis Star, July 17, 1981, p. 7B; “Last Nail Driven in Fillies’ Coffin” by Doug Grow, Minneapolis Star, February 16, 1982.

Copyright 2005 Stew Thornley and Marc Hugunin

Back to Milkees Press Home Page

Back to Stew Thornley Home Page