WBL Basketball Pioneers: Mariah Burton Nelson Q&A

The WBL brought professional women's basketball to the United States for three seasons from 1978 to 1981. As the WBL celebrates the 25th anniversary of the first women's professional basketball game in the United States (December 9, 1978), WNBA.com profiles some of those pioneers of women's basketball and asks them to reflect on how the game has grown since they were on the court.

This week, WNBA.com checks in with Mariah Burton Nelson (formerly Maggie Nelson of the New Jersey Gems).

Up next: Michelle McKenzie (WBL Dayton Rockettes and California Dreams)
Previously: "Machine Gun" Molly Bolin



Burton Nelson enjoys the "passion, heart, skill, creativity and panache" of players like Charlotte's Dawn Staley.
Kent Smith
WNBAE/Getty Images
What was it like 25 years ago?
"At first it was incredibly exciting – and surprising. I literally never dreamed that I'd be paid to play basketball, and the year I graduated from Stanford, I suddenly had two opportunities: to play in France or to play with the New Jersey Gems of the nascent WBL. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, I'd already been to New Jersey, so that first year, I went to France. But when I returned from France I did play for New Jersey and later, briefly, for the Dallas Diamonds, San Francisco Pioneers, and California Dreams.

"The reality was quite a contrast to the dream. Many of us were not ultimately paid to play; as the league developed financial troubles, many of us (myself included) received checks that bounced. Many of the coaches were sexist, insisting that we wear makeup or attend John Robert Powers' Charm School (in Los Angeles). One coach insisted on calling us 'girls' when we asked to be called women. Most had never coached women before and compared us (unfavorably) to the men and boys they had coached. There was a lack of respect for us as athletes that we found demeaning."

What are you doing now?
"I’ve written five books, mostly about women, sports, success or leadership; the latest is "We Are All Athletes". I write for various newspapers and magazines, such as the Washington Post and Ms., and give motivational speeches about “The Leadership Game” to corporate, association, government and college audiences. And I’m still an athlete. I swim about two miles or lift weights each morning and play golf every chance I get."

Burton Nelson describes Lisa Leslie as a player "with finesse and persistence."
Lisa Blumenfeld
WNBAE/Getty Images
When did you start playing basketball and what were the opportunities?
"I started playing in sixth grade, in anticipation for trying out for the Shady Grove Junior High School team in Blue Bell (Pa.) in seventh grade. I taught myself left-handed and right-handed layups in my driveway, where my parents had put up a hoop for my brother. Eastern (Pennsylvania) had a pretty progressive program for girls in those days, so we had a good coach (Dottie Bunting) for three years of junior high and one year of high school (Mary Smith).

"In the beginning of my junior year of high school I moved to Phoenix, where there was no girls' team. I asked the boys coach if I could try out for the boys team, and he said no, my 'breasts would get in the way.' I protested. He said I could play only if he could 'personally bind' my breasts. That's called sexual harassment now, but in those days there was no context for it, and no recourse; I just didn't try out. I did play intramural ball with the boys. My volleyball coach noticed me there, and invited me to try out for her AAU team, the Phoenix Dusters. There I played for two years with women whose average age was 25. That helped impress Stanford, where I played the next four years."

If you were playing in the WNBA now, which player would be the biggest challenge for you to match up against?
"Margo Dydek, Michelle Snow, or Michele Van Gorp. At 6-2, I used to be tall. I never learned how to shoot over or around taller players. They'd block my shots all the time."

Which WNBA player most reminds you of yourself?
"Lisa Leslie. She's way better than I ever was, but she's thin and agile and plays with finesse and persistence."

Burton Nelson says that players like Houston's Michelle Snow would block her shots "all the time."
Bill Baptist
WNBAE/Getty Images
Who is your favorite WNBA player to watch and why?
"Katie Smith. Dawn Staley. Sue Bird. Teresa Weatherspoon. All the players who play with passion, heart, skill, creativity and panache. Go, WNBA!

Who were your basketball role models growing up?
"Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. And Babe Didrikson, because I read books about her, but she died the year I was born. I knew of no women who played basketball – not even my own coaches."

Do you see yourself as a pioneer in the game?
"Yes. We all were. Pioneers are people who go where others have not gone before. They usually don't get rich or famous, and they often suffer numerous hardships and indignities, but they open doors for future generations."

What is the message you would like to give young girls who aspire to be basketball players?
"Enjoy yourself. Hard work and hard play is fun! Learn everything you can about the game – and yourself. Use the challenges of the game as an opportunity to develop patience, persistence, teamwork, leadership and more. Understand that winning is a useful goal, but not the most important one. Most important is learning and growing and developing yourself as a person. I'm successful as an author and speaker because of the discipline and commitment to excellence I developed through basketball. I'm still an athlete and still think all the time about how to apply athletic essentials to achieve my goals."

Where do you think the women's game will be in 25 years?
"When we were in the WBL we did not imagine 15,000 people attending WNBA games 25 years later. So I think we're literally unable to imagine how big this game could get. But when we look at women's tennis, we get a glimpse. I expect women's basketball to follow in their path: to achieve true equal status with men's basketball, with as many avid fans and almost as much money."