The ABL, 1996-1998


There’s a well-known (if apocryphal) rule at The New York Times that the paper won’t run obituaries about anyone who hasn’t already appeared as a subject in a Times story. Clearly they made an exception last Wednesday, when they splashed a color photo of Kate Starbird and Jennifer Azzi onto the cover of the Sports section to announce the demise of the American Basketball League. Where were the ABL stories all fall? You couldn’t even find a box score most of the time.

Massing like vultures to cover the league’s death, the media duly quoted ABL cofounder Gary Cavalli’s statement attributing the failure to a lack of media exposure. But no one bothered to explain why their own outlet pulled the plug on the women’s league with the superior game. Cavalli offered millions of dollars to the networks to broadcast ABL play, but even in the men’s pro-ball void, none would bite, fearful, no doubt, of future retaliation—another sort of NBA lockout.

Commentators and columnists who don’t know the difference between Jennifer Rizzotti and Gennifer Flowers cried crocodile tears for a day or two—noting, in comparison to the WNBA, the ABL’s better rosters, higher salaries, profit sharing for players, and year-round health coverage—and then went back to their NBA-less obsession with various obscure men’s college contests.

But what no one properly mourned is the death—indeed, the murder—of an ideal: a way of organizing a league that puts quality over hype, grassroots communities over mass markets, and that values player input as a matter of principle. Without the ABL, the sports-industrial complex can continue on its rapacious way in the absence of any model for how things might work differently: it is unbridled free-market capitalism running amok without the balancing promise of an alternative, more just, theory. As Cavalli once told Jockbeat, “There are a lot of abuses and excesses in sports that are the result of greed and the search for the almighty dollar. We wanted to avoid that.” The most horrifying lesson of the ABL’s defeat may be that once one enters the ultra-commercialized arena of today’s pro sports, such excesses can’t be avoided if one wants to survive.

Still, the ABL model was of some use to the fledgling WNBA union, offering benefits WNBA players seek and the leverage of another place to go should the summer league fail to deliver. Now, with 90 players suddenly out of work, the first order of business for the new union, which has yet to elect representatives or name a president, much less reach a collective bargaining agreement, will be to secure job protection for those already on the rosters—two-thirds of whom remain unsigned for ’99. In the wake of the ABL’s folding, WNBA president Val Ackerman has remained tight-lipped about whether that league will hold a special draft for ABL players, or even consider a franchise in Hartford, the most successful ABL city.

Certainly the WNBA game will improve if it absorbs players like Rizzotti, Starbird, Azzi, Teresa Edwards, Debbie Black, Shannon John son, Valerie Still, Yolanda Griffith, Chastity Melvin, and Kara Wolters and coaches like K.C. Jones and Anne Donovan. Maybe the ABL will even bring a shorter shot-clock into the WNBA, just as the ABA brought the three-pointer into the NBA.

But in the face of the stalled NBA negotiations, will the league even continue to support its sisters? Might the male players demand to know how David Stern can cry poverty while sinking millions into a women’s auxiliary that has yet to turn a profit? Could the NBA, in its pursuit of that almighty dollar, kill women’s basketball twice?

Where Are They Now?

What ever became of Stephen Glass, the former New Republic writer, who scribbled his way via phantom sources, lies, and fictitious stories to the top of the journalistic heap? At the time of his fall, there was much speculation that the disgraced scribe had the talents to become a lawyer, a novelist, or even run for public office. But no. It seems the wily Glass opted for a place where he could be sure of anonymity—playing midfield for struggling Newcastle United in the English Premier League.

According to United’s player info, Glass, or “Glassie” as he’s affectionately known, is a “tricky left-sided midfielder signed under free dom of contract in 1998.” Seems then that United knew exactly what they were getting, though they obviously haven’t read the TNR in some time. Whatever his past indiscretions, we at Jockbeat wish the lad well and hope he can reproduce his sleight of hand with his feet.


It seems that Christy Martin’s run of glory may have finally come to an end. Martin, the icon of women’s professional boxing, lost a 10-round decision last week to the unheralded Sumya Anani. Apparently, the loss couldn’t have come too soon for Martin’s promoter, Don King, who was seen cozying up to Anani’s manager during the fight, looking to promote the victorious “Island Girl.” As boxing historian Herb Goldman says, “One quality King does not possess is shame. He’ll step over the body of his own fighter in order to sign the victor in the opposite corner.”

Contributors: Alisa Solomon, Matthew Yeomans, Rachel Ellner

Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman