woman basketball player silhouette graphic

Neighborhood News: Before the Chicago Sky, women’s basketball in Chicago was about the Hustle

woman basketball player silhouette graphic

With all the hype surrounding women’s basketball this season, especially the off and on-court extravaganza of rookie Chicago Sky talent Angel Reese(aka, ‘Chi Barbie’), and the phenomenon that is the Indiana Fever’sCaitlin Clark, one thing is clear: professional women’s basketball has come a long way from its humble beginnings, starting with the Chicago Hustle of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), the first professional women’s basketball league in the United States.

The league played three seasons from the fall of 1978 to the spring of 1981. The Hustle played in all three WBL seasons and led the league in attendance each year. 

DePaul University’s Hall of Fame Coach Doug Bruno, who was the first head coach of the Hustle,  remembered “We used to play in front of 10,000 people every night.” 

In the Beginning…

WithTitle IX ratification just six years old in 1978, many names now associated with women’s pro basketball were just graduating from college. Among those standouts were UCLA’s  Ann Meyersand Old Dominion’s Nancy Lieberman, among many others. 

According to the blog funwhileitlasted.net, Bill Byrne, a former front office worker for the Chicago Fire of the World Football League, had the idea for the league in late 1977, and began selling franchises for $50,000 each. He  reached out to an enthusiastic but cash-poor Chicago sports promoter named John Geraty. Geraty, in turn, recruited the team’s financial backers, attorney Larry Cooper and personnel firm owner Sherwin Fischer, and the group purchased the WBL’s fourth franchise in June 1978.

Local marketing guru Chuck Shriver who had worked his magic in both the Cubs and White Sox front offices, according to DePaulBlueDemons.com negotiated a TV contract with superstation WGN with Johnny “Red” Kerr as color commentator and also brought WLS-AM radio on board with Les Grobstein handling play-by-play.

One popular Shriver promotion was handing out free Dr. Peppers to several thousand fans at DePaul’s Alumni Hall whenever the Hustle scored over 110 points on their home court. The Hustle triggered the promotion nearly a dozen times that first season.

Smaller Balls?

As the National Women’s History Museum said, the league used smaller and lighter balls than the men’s league because people reasoned women’s hands are smaller on average than men’s and their upper body strength also differs. 

The Teams

The league was divided into two divisions, with Hustle, Milwaukee Does(Get it…Does? Bucks?), Iowa Cornets and Minnesota Fillies playing in the Western Division, while the Dayton Rockettes, Houston Angels, New Jersey Gems and New York Stars were in the East.

According to Wikipedia sources, the league’s inaugural game was on December 9, 1978, between the Chicago Hustle and the Milwaukee Does at the Milwaukee Arena, attracting coverage in the previous night’s ‘CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.’ Milwaukee mayor Henry Maier issued a proclamation comparing this first game to the first professional football game, played in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and the first pro baseball game, played in Cincinnati. The game attracted a crowd of 7,824, which saw the hometown team lose to Chicago 92–87. The Hustle’s Debra Waddy Rossow led all scorers with 30 points.

Standouts in a stellar year 

In fact, according to the Stats Crew, during the first season, Waddy-Rossow tossed in a team-leading 833 points for the Hustle, while future MVP Rita Easterling scored 20 or more per game and ended the year with 313 assists. Sue Digitale contributed 335 boards. 

The Hustle finished first in the WPBL’s Midwest Division, but lost to the Iowa Cornets in the semifinals. 

Statistics for the Hustle 

While they never won a crown, according to the Stats Crew, the Hustle remained competitive to the end. Year by year, with the competition and teams  constantly changing (there were 14 WBL teams in all), their record was:

1978-79 Chicago Hustle (21-13) 

1979-80 Chicago Hustle (17-19)

1980-81 Chicago Hustle (18-18)

An Inauspicious End

As told by Wikipedia sources, the WBL disbanded in 1981 because of financial problems throughout the league. In 1981, the Minnesota Fillies players who were promised paychecks by Commissioner Sherwin Fischer, only to have him not follow through, walked off the court in Chicago ten minutes before a scheduled game with the Hustle. The game was not played, despite a full house at DePaul Alumni Hall, and before long it became clear that the WBL was doomed. Les Grobstein actually confirmed this story to me in an interview in November 2021, just a few months before his passing in 2022.

However, the WBL was the starting point for Women’s Basketball in the United States. Without the WBL, there would have been no WNBA.

Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago