Jessie Kenlaw, Women’s Basketball Pioneer

The phrase "women's professional basketball" now conjures up images of thousands of fans, of nationally-televised games, and a league, the WNBA, that is beginning to mature as it continues to build its history.

Kenlaw has been a women's basketball pioneer at several levels of competition.
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Of course, it was not always that way. Once upon a time, a time not so long ago, there had never been a viable professional women's basketball league in the United States. Then a group of pioneers came along to change that with the WBL, the Women's Professional Basketball League, and one of those pioneers was Seattle Storm assistant coach Jessie Kenlaw.

Founded by Bill Byrne, the WBL began play in time for the 1978-79 season, hoping to eventually capitalize on the publicity surrounding the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. The league started with eight teams - the Chicago Hustle, the Dayton Rockettes, the Houston Angels, the Iowa Cornets, the Milwaukee Does, the Minnesota Fillies, the New Jersey Gems and the New York Stars. During the league's inaugural draft, Kenlaw was selected by the Angels.

Despite the fact that she had completed her collegiate career at Savannah State more than two years earlier, Kenlaw quit her job as a teacher to pursue her dream of playing basketball professionally.

"The thought of them bringing a professional team to the US was unheard of for me and overwhelming," she recalls. "It didn't matter what I would have been doing or could have been doing. If I had an opportunity to play professional basketball, I didn’t give it a second thought because it had always been my dream. "

Kenlaw's Angels quickly emerged as one of the WBL's premier teams. They won the Eastern Division with a 26-8 record, outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per game. After sweeping New York in the playoffs, the Angels advanced to the first WBL Finals, where they took on the Iowa Cornets and high-scoring star Molly Bolin. The series went to a full five games, with the Angels taking the decisive Game 5 in front of nearly 6,000 fans in Houston to win the WBL's first championship.

Kenlaw would go on to play one more season with the Angels. Though Houston won the Western Division during the regular season, it was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the expansion San Francisco Pioneers. After that year, Houston was one of four franchises that ceased operations.

Undeterred, Kenlaw would play for the Phoenix Flames in the short-lived Ladies Professional Basketball Association before returning to Houston for another short-lived league, the Women's American Basketball Association. After seeing three professional leagues fold (the WBL lasted just one more season after the Angels disbanded), Kenlaw knew her professional career was over.

"After that, I realized, 'Okay, that's it'," Kenlaw says. "But it was a great experience for me."

Kenlaw and company helped to set a foundation that would eventually allow women's professional basketball to grow where it is today. Since Kenlaw has been involved in women's basketball throughout her adult life, this is not a fact that is lost on her.

"You know or hoped that some day it would get to the point where it is now," Kenlaw says. "Even though I didn't know it at the time, how big my role would be in helping to lay the foundation for where women's basketball is today, I can appreciate it more now and feel privileged to have been a part of something so special.”

Kenlaw was also a pioneer during her college career. When she first matriculated at Savannah State, the school did not have a women's basketball team, limiting her and other talented players to playing intramurally. Thanks to their efforts, that changed by the time Kenlaw's senior season rolled around.

"We went to the president, my freshman year," she says. "There were a lot of talented women there. We wanted to play in an organized, competitive collegiate environment, but it took three years to convince the president into giving us a team. I played my first collegiate season my senior season."

With Savannah State playing against other local colleges in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, Kenlaw, who describes herself as "a very physical, very aggressive hustle player", averaged 15 points and 17 rebounds per game.

Given the conditions of the time, it appeared that Kenlaw's career was over.

"It (playing professionally) wasn't an option at that time, because there was no talk of a women's professional basketball league," she explains. "The only option at that time was overseas, which was not an option for me."

When her professional career really was finished, Kenlaw turned to coaching to stay involved with the game. She started out at the high-school level, while continuing to play basketball (and softball) at the AAU level, winning multiple national championships. In 1987, Kenlaw moved up to coaching in college, spending a year as an assistant at Lamar University.

Kenlaw (left) has coached in the NCAA, the ABL and the WNBA.
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After that season, Kenlaw got a call from an old friend - University of Houston Coach Greg Williams, a future WNBA head coach with the Detroit Shock and an assistant on Kenlaw's WBL teams in Houston. Williams offered Kenlaw an assistant-coaching position with the Cougars, who were coming off of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.

"Coach Williams was aware of my interest to coach. We had a very good coach-player relationship and he appreciated my passion for the game," Kenlaw says. "When he did have an opportunity to hire me as an assistant, he called, and I will always be grateful to him for encouraging me to pursue coaching as well as providing me the opportunity to fulfill my dream.”

After only two years alongside Williams, Kenlaw was promoted to Head Coach at Houston when Williams left to take the same position at Colorado State University. With only two years of experience as a major-college assistant, Kenlaw wasn't sure she was prepared.

"It was a situation that was totally unexpected. I didn't want to be a head coach at that time," she explains. "After confiding with a few of my mentors, I decided to accept the challenge, but I’ll admit it was overwhelming. I was at a stage where I just wanting to learn and grow as a coach. Then, wow, here I was, two years at the University of Houston and had an opportunity to become a head coach."

Despite her own qualms, Kenlaw was instantly successful. During her first season at the helm of the Cougars, 1990-91, the team went 20-12 and recorded the program's first postseason victory in the Women's NIT Tournament. Kenlaw was rewarded by being named BCA National Coach of the Year. The following season, Houston did even better. A 21-7 record - which included starts of 9-0 and 15-1 - was good enough for the Cougars' second trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Thereafter, Houston struggled to maintain the same level of success, and Kenlaw resigned after the 1997-98 season with a career record of 106-121. It wasn't long before Kenlaw was back in work, joining the ABL's Colorado Xplosion as an assistant to Coach Linda Hargrove after meeting Hargrove at an ABL combine. After just 13 games that season, however, the ABL ceased operations.

Kenlaw returned to the college ranks, where she joined the coaching staff of legendary Hall-of-Fame Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore as an assistant. Kenlaw helped lead the Lady Techsters to a 31-3 record, and the team advanced to the regional finals in the NCAA Tournament.

"I always had a desire to work in a high-profile program such as Louisiana Tech and often wondered what it would be like," says Kenlaw. "I was not disappointed to have experienced playing in an arena full of screaming fans every night while recruiting elite athletes anywhere in the country and the opportunity to work with the legendary Leon Barmore was awesome!”

After the season, Hargrove came calling again. She had been named coach for the WNBA's expansion Portland Fire, and brought Kenlaw back as an assistant. Together, they helped build the Fire into a playoff contender in its third season. Portland finished with a 16-16 record in 2002, finishing one game behind the Storm for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. That wasn't enough to keep the Fire alive, as the franchise folded.

"It felt like we were right on the verge to building a great franchise there in Portland," Kenlaw recalls. "We had some talented young players, we had proven that we could be successful there. What was most disappointing was that we didn't see it coming, we had no idea that it was going to happen. The fan support was great there, the management was good and no one expected them to move in a different direction."

Ultimately, the disappointment would turn into an opportunity for Kenlaw to come north up I-5 and join Anne Donovan's staff in Seattle. After bouncing around throughout her playing career and her coaching career post-University of Houston, Kenlaw appears settled with the Storm.

It has now been two decades since Kenlaw's professional playing days, and the dramatic changes in women's professional basketball are all too evident.

"When you compare the growth of the leagues then and now, the most significant changes are the increase in sponsorships, television exposure, media, travel, player salaries, playing sites and uniforms." Kenlaw says. “Our uniforms look more like ‘hot pants’ compared to the baggy shorts worn today. All and all, it was an unforgettable experience and a phenomenal journey to have been a part of as well as witness the growth of women’s basketball from my era to where it is today. It’s just the beginning of a new and improved era. "

And today's players have her - amongst others - to thank.