Sports History: Ann Meyers Drysdale, 34 Years after she signed with the NBA

A talk with female basketball pioneer Ann Meyers Drysdale about the evolution of the NBA, the myths of the WNBA, the Suns new GM and why she never coached.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the pre-eminent men's professional basketball league in the world, and through it’s 67 year history it has seen many changes: from when it merged with the American Basketball Association in 1976, to the time the Indiana Pacers gave a contract to a woman.

That woman was Ann Meyers Drysdale, a California kid who grew up playing basketball against her brothers and her big sister. That made her good. She was the first player to be part of the U.S. national team while still in high school, and then go on to play in the Olympics in 1976.  Meyers Drysdale was First woman ever to receive a full athletic scholarship from UCLA, and when she got there she dominated. .

After leading UCLA to a National Championship in 1978, the four-time All-American Meyers Drysdale was drafted by Houston as the first-ever Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) draftee.

Just one year later, Meyers Drysdale became the only woman to ever sign with an NBA team, the Indiana Pacers. She never played a game because she failed to make the cut. After that opportunity, she then played three seasons with the New Jersey Gems.

Meyers Drysdale also has over 30 years of broadcasting experience under her belt as a network television sports analyst for ESPN, CBS, and NBC. In 2012 she authored the book You let some girl beat you?”, where she opened up about her controversial NBA tryout, life with her husband, legendary Los Angeles Dodger and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale, her career as a sports broadcaster, and her current roles. Now she serves as VP of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and broadcaster for the NBA's Phoenix Suns.

Meyers Drysdale accomplished a lot of firsts and overcame many barriers in her lifetime. This week marks the anniversary of her 34th year of her signing with the Pacers. September 12th, 1979 was the day Indian cut Ann Meyers Drysdale from the team.

When you played, you found opportunities where many female athletes could not…
Meyers Drysdale: People call me a pioneer. I’m a pioneer only in the sense that I was documented.

So how are the opportunities for female basketball players different, or better, than when you were coming up?
Meyers Drysdale: The fact that they have these AAU teams, and girls travel around the country at 12 years old, and they play in Texas or California or Chicago. Their parents are paying for their daughters to go play in these tournaments. [Also] colleges then offer them an athletic scholarships to pay for their college education. And from there they have the opportunity to play in the WNBA and overseas.

And then in 1979, you had an “opportunity” to join an NBA team...
Meyers Drysdale: I played basketball my whole life. I knew what I could do and believed in myself. And obviously somebody else did. I never expected to be the starting five, I never expect to be 6th or 7th. I expected to be 11th or 12th man.

Click here to see video of Ann Meyers Drysdale’s tryout with the Pacers.

What was your biggest challenge at that time?
Meyers Drysdale: (laughs) My brother David who played at UCLA and the Bucks for 5 years; he was my biggest adversary and supporter. I also played against Wilt Chamberlain; I played against Marques Johnson; I played against Mark Eaton; I played against Magic [Johnson]. Those were guys who would come down to Pauley Pavillion for pick up games. I didn’t think about them as anything other than just pick up basketball.

When your very own Brittney Griner was coming out of college there were rumors that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was interested in signing her to his team. Many wrote it off as a publicity stunt; but regardless, do you think the NBA would ever be open to the idea again?
Meyers Drysdale: If a women was to be on a team in the NBA, it’s going to be a guard. Brittney,
at 6’8”, plays center in WNBA. In the NBA she would have to match up against LeBron who is also 6’8”, but a man of 240 pounds; guys like Kevin Love. She would have to play wing position. To me it’s gotta be a guard, whether it’s Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore...someone who could put the ball on the floor and handle the ball.

So, do you think any of today’s female players would actually play in NBA if the real opportunity was there?
Meyers Drysdale: There are many other things involved besides just making the team. You also have to look at other factors that would make it a lonely existence and that would be tough mentally. It’s what everybody else is saying. Are you showering with the team? Are you in bed with the team? Girlfriends and wives, what are their assumptions going to be? What are the media assumptions going to be? And even, what are other teams going to say about you? That's what you have to deal with.

It may just be a misperception issue, but why does it seem that the WNBA has been slower to gain popularity as compared to women’s basketball in Europe?
Meyers Drysdale: We’re playing in arenas that seat 10k fans or bigger. I get enough video tape of players, and sometimes they’re playing at high schools in Europe. Their arenas are like 2500 and 5000. They’ve built a good fan base, and they fill up those smaller arenas, but the talent isn’t as good over there; yet they are paying more money. But if you’re a WNBA player, those FIBA teams are going to want you more because you have the exposure of WNBA behind you. Teams enjoy exciting players like Tamika Catchings, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi...

That reminds me of an interview I did with Dirk Nowitzki years ago about the influx of European players to the NBA. He said before everyone around the world, including the NBA, were paying players a million dollars a year, and it was only when the NBA started paying 10, 15, 20 million a year that players were willing to leave their countries. He said that European talent was always there.
Meyers Drysdale: Not until the 60’s when American coaches started to go [to Europe] and helping coach, I mean that’s when things started to change for Europe. You’ve got your spattering of really good players, it’s gotten better now because the Europeans do have better fundamentals now, compared to the Americans.

Right, looking at the Olympics, for example, there were only two time that USA Men’s basketball didn’t take home the gold medal: 1988, where then after the “Dream Team” was brought in for the next Olympics in ‘92, and 2004, where USA got the Bronze medal.
Meyers Drysdale: Exactly. You said it. The American game of basketball is pretty dominate, and the Olympics is the most obvious way that demonstrates that. And the European players that do come over, though Dirk may be well known in Germany, Dirk is now known around the world now because of the NBA and the NBA’s exposure.

So do you there is a problem with the growth of the WNBA?
Meyers Drysdale: If you look at the NBA [when it was] 17 years old, the WNBA is far ahead of it as far as the game is concerned. And I’d love for our league [the WNBA] to be around 30, 50, 80 years, like the NBA. Personally I’d like to see it be the viable league in the world, over FIBA. And that has to do with getting higher salaries. I would love to see players stay here and play in a seven month league.

It’s been 34 years since you signed with the Pacers, how have you observed the league’s evolution? What are the biggest differences in the NBA as opposed to the 70’s & 80’s?
Meyers Drysdale:  The different rule changes and how guys play the game. But the biggest thing for me is not only the money, but you’ve got high school and college coming out early. So it’s a game that’s still very youthful, where a lot of players are learning how to play the game.

So they are not as mature?
Meyers Drysdale: Right. You’re not only dealing with potential, but you are dealing with young men that are kids still. Not only in just the game, but also socially and emotionally.

Last season the flopping penalty was pretty controversial. What are your thoughts on actually giving fines to players?
Meyers Drysdale: The flopping, yes, there’s acting. But I was a defensive player too. I believe as good are you are on offense you ought to be able to play on the defensive end too. I just think how can you penalize someone that does get in a defensive position? I also know that it’s got to be an incredibly difficult call to make. So whether you like [Manu] Ginobili or not, at times, yes he does flop, and at times he does get good defensive position.

Suns new GM, Ryan McDonough, made headlines when he got the job because he’s so young. What has he done that has impressed you the most so far?
Meyers Drysdale: His knowledge of the game, his knowledge of people. I just think the family that he has come from, and his dad and his brothers, just being around the game and respecting what sports is all about. Certainly being in the Boston organization, he gets it. He came to Phoenix and there’s such a presence about him that you really like and you respect him and you feel confident about his knowledge. You feel confident about his ability to make a decision, right or wrong. He’s confident in who he is.

In my research I couldn’t find that you ever coached. Some would think that’s the obvious path, but why didn’t you do it?
Meyers Drysdale: I’ve ran my share of camps and helped my sister Patty [Meyers]  who coached at Pepperdine. But never officially, no. For me, broadcasting was more of an avenue. I took broadcasting classes at UCLA.

You were one of first female analysts to call a game. In fact it started that same season you were cut by the Pacers.
Meyers Drysdale: Yeah. Then years later my husband passed away and I found myself a single parent. Broadcasting gave me more of an opportunity to spend more time with my children, than coaching would have. Coaching there’s a bigger time commitment. Broadcasting, I can be gone three days, then back at home with my family for the other four.

Ann Meyers Drysdale started calling Phoenix Suns games in the 2012-2013 season. You can keep up with her on social media and through her personal website

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