How This (Female) Star Made Basketball History
When Ann Meyers Drysdale became the first woman invited to an NBA tryout, some called it a publicity stunt. Others called it historic.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Ann Meyers Drysdale didn’t back down from any challenge.
As was standard for the era, the NBA’s Indiana Pacers held a three-day rookie and free agent camp in 1979 before their formal training camp. Featuring recent college players and journeyman pros, the camp was unremarkable except for the historic inclusion of a 5-foot-9 shooting guard from UCLA named Ann Meyers.
A 1993 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, she changed her name to Ann Meyers Drysdale after her 1986 marriage to Los Angeles Dodger pitching great Don Drysdale. She remains the only woman to have an NBA tryout.
The four-time All-American at UCLA and silver medalist at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 didn’t make that Pacers team but nevertheless competed hard against her male counterparts. “Playing against guys, I knew that lots of times I couldn’t outjump somebody. So at my size I would crouch and make myself smaller,” says Meyers. “As most guys did and still do, they would rebound and bring the ball down. They wouldn’t see me, and I would raise my hand with my palm up and I would pop the ball out of their hand.”
Her basketball IQ was not only as good as most of the guys who were playing, it was better.
Johnny Davis, former NBA point guard
Getting the chance to pop those balls loose came as a shock to Meyers Drysdale. She had just returned from a tournament in the Soviet Union when the call came from Pacers owner Sam Nassi during what was a remarkable time for women in sports. Tennis’ historic “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs had taken place six years earlier, and in 1977 Lusia Harris became the first woman officially drafted by an NBA team when the New Orleans Jazz picked her in the seventh round (she never tried out). The following year the Women’s Professional Basketball League was launched with eight franchises, with Meyers as the first player selected in its inaugural draft.
“When this offer came I struggled with it because it was hard to leave USA Basketball. But I thought this was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Meyers Drysdale. “So I gave up my amateur status to try out. The WBL said, ‘Well, she’s not that good. We’ve got players better than her. She’s too old.’ I was like, ‘I’m 24 years old.’”
When Meyers Drysdale accepted the Pacers’ invitation to the three-day camp, the team made a big show of parading her in front of local and national media. The media blitz isn’t something she remembers fondly, and in the subsequent backlash journalists and fans questioned Nassi’s motivations.
“We’re talking about the ’70s, when testosterone was running rampant in the NBA and a woman trying out for a team was a personal affront,” says Johnny Davis, who starred on that Pacers team. “Women were nowhere around the NBA, and here comes Ann Meyers, and she’s all alone among all of these guys who are trying to get a position on a team. Just think about how intimidating that is.”
While some men involved with the Pacers scoffed at what they considered a publicity stunt, Davis saw a fearless competitor in Meyers and invited her to train with him before camp. By then, she was already in the best shape of her life thanks to the help of her brothers Jeff, who played at Azusa Pacific University, and Dave, who starred at UCLA before becoming the second overall pick in the 1975 NBA draft.
Her training proved grueling. But for the sixth of 11 children in a family obsessed with sports, basketball came naturally. “I have five brothers. I was always playing against the guys. So I never felt awkward out there being on the court with anybody,” says Meyers Drysdale. “I worked on the speed bag, to get my hand quickness, and ball handling and ran stairs. I knew I had to be in good shape.”
The Pacers cut Meyers Drysdale after the tryout. But because she had signed a personal services contract, she remained with the club, becoming the NBA’s first female color commentator. She then joined the WBL’s New Jersey Gems, winning league MVP in her first season. Her remarkable basketball career continued off the court. She currently serves as a vice president for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and television analyst for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
“Her basketball IQ was not only as good as most of the guys who were playing, it was better. She would have been a great teammate,” says Davis. “I don’t think she gets enough credit. She took on the challenge and she showed up every day and offered no excuses. I respect that.”
Davis’ effusive praise notwithstanding, the former NBA player and coach makes a compelling point. Does Meyers Drysdale, despite being considered among the greatest female basketball players in history, deserve greater recognition for her historic tryout? “I would like to think so. I’m grateful for the opportunities that it gave me,” she says. “I would have liked to make it as a player, absolutely, to this day.”
She might not be a household name among sports fans, but her stint in Indiana changed her life in at least one significant way. Following the tryout, she was invited to compete in Superstars, a televised showcase of world-class athletes hosted by Don Drysdale. “Competing in Superstars because of that tryout, I met Don. He changed my life, became my husband, we have three beautiful children,” Meyers Drysdale says of her husband, who died in 1993. “So many good things have happened.”
And some history was made too.
* Correction: The original version of this article misstated the draft order of Dave Meyers.