As athletes and fans alike celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the civil rights law that leveled the playing field for women’s sports in America, it’s appropriate to remember a largely forgotten chapter in the broader story—the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL).
Although it lasted for only three years, the first professional women’s basketball league in the country played a crucial role in helping change the way people view women in professional sports.
Though only 5 ft 9 in, the former defensive player who earned the nickname “The Bandit” for her determined style, Liz McQuitter stands tall in that historical timeline. And as one of those who was part of that trailblazing period, she wants to ensure its history is acknowledged and celebrated.
“Anytime you have hidden figures that are not known, how can you fully, truly know your history and how can you fully know how far you’ve come?” she asks. “We say, ‘Oh, the game has come a long way.’ A long way from where?”
McQuitter is working to fill in some of those blanks as president of Legends of the Ball. The nonprofit was founded in 2018 by a dozen former WBL players after their induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. “It became glaringly obvious to us that little was known about our history,” McQuitter explains, though “we helped propel and change the trajectory of the sport at every level.”
Remembering the WBL’s contribution is important because many people today aren’t aware of the full story. “They don’t know what they don’t know,” says McQuitter. Today’s collegiate and professional players “carry our dreams inside them, but they don’t know or speak our names. They continue to reach new heights; they continue to soar, and they don’t know who gave them wings.”
Putting a human face on that history is important, she believes, not only to fully appreciate the past but to be inspired for the future. “People talk about Title IX the entity, the legislation that it is, but they rarely put faces, names, accomplishments, seminal moments and events to it. If they would do that, the history would unfold,” she says. “It leads you back to the real-live humans that implemented Title IX, and you don’t just discuss it as ‘Title IX did this.’ Title IX didn’t do it; it opened the doors. Those women who stepped through those doors actually took the actions to make Title IX effective.”
For McQuitter, the impact of Title IX can’t be overemphasized. “Those 37 words opened doors,” she says. While it’s most commonly associated with sports, the actual legislation “allowed women like myself to go to college” on an athletic scholarship. “Education was always at the forefront of what Title IX was going to do for us.”
She wasn’t immediately aware of how Title IX would impact her own trajectory while still in school in 1972. She was determined to go to college, but not sure how to make it happen. Without Title IX, “it would’ve been a lot of loans. It would’ve been financial aid. It would’ve been help from family friends . . .” But with the law opening up athletic scholarships, “sports became my vehicle.”
McQuitter got a first taste of what it was like to be in the spotlight when she transferred from Temple University in her home state of Texas to the University of Las Vegas‒Nevada. The Lady Rebels “were right alongside our Runnin’ Rebels counterparts,” she recalls. “Because we were new, because it was the first year, we received a lot of benefits. Because we went from nothing to something, we really looked at it as having arrived, so to speak. You could walk to a game, and anybody would be in your gym; I can remember all the stars and entertainers. It was quite an experience for a little, small-town girl.”
Other women’s college teams were launching across the country as part of what McQuitter calls the greatest growth spurt in the women’s sport. The inclusion of women’s basketball in the Olympics for the first time in 1976 was part of that wave and led to the founding of the WBL two years later. “It just started to take off,” says McQuitter. “We had no idea that there was a women’s pro league coming. We were just absorbing the fact that we could play in college.”
The WBL “took off with a bang,” with McQuitter joining the Chicago Hustle, which quickly became one of the most popular teams. “We had a general manager who had been involved with the Chicago White Sox and the Cubs and his whole intent was to treat us like every other sports team, not treat us like a sidebar team,” McQuitter says. “I think that contributed greatly to the success of the Hustle, which was the premier team in the league in so far as attendance and marketability.”
McQuitter quickly became a fan favorite, leading the league in steals in her first season and earning the nickname “The Bandit” from broadcaster Les Grobstein. “I would take your arm off before I’d let you get a shot,” McQuitter says in a recent TEDx talk, attributing her determination to a coach who told her she needed to be more aggressive.
The Hustle was covered by WGN Channel Nine and local radio. “We had beat writers,” McQuitter remembers. “I think if every other team had been able to do what Chicago had done, we would’ve sustained. In fact, we just interviewed [the general manager] recently and he said there was no question, had other teams been able to do what Chicago had, we might be playing in the WBL still today, not the WNBA.”
After the WBL folded, McQuitter turned to coaching. Starting as an assistant at Northwestern University, she moved on to more senior roles at Mundelein College in Chicago, Dartmouth College, DePaul University, Northern Illinois University and Texas A&M, among others.
In leading the Legends organization, she wants to be part of “passing it on and paying it forward,” which the group does in part by offering six annual scholarships. In her TEDx Boston talk about the WBL, she illustrates that passing-the-baton mission by throwing a basketball she has been holding as she speaks out to a member of the audience as she finishes her remarks.
Looking at how the landscape of women’s sports has changed over the past half-century, where does she stand in regard to equal pay for women? McQuitter prefaces her answer by recognizing the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team recently winning the same compensation as their male peers. “Their argument is different,” she goes on, noting how the attendance at the women’s soccer games and the team’s international achievements gave them greater bargaining leverage.
“When you look at women’s basketball and the professional level, I think they should demand more. Not necessarily the equal pay that the men get, but they should definitely demand more,” she says. “I don’t know that you can look at it based on the top female player making what the top male player makes, but she certainly deserves to earn more.”
Though the WBL did not last long, McQuitter and her fellow trailblazers don’t see it as a failure. “We like to say we were the league that propelled, because we started the ball rolling,” she says. “There were seven recognized leagues after us that didn’t sustain, but you have to give every one of those organizations, every one of those leagues, credit for attempting to chip away at the mountain.”
This article is featured in the Fall 2022 Edition (Issue 7) of WayMaker Journal.