Review of Playing in a New League

Dateline: 03/09/99

THERE SHOULD BE A TIME CAPSULE for the failed American Basketball League, something that contains the successes and the failures of the leagues. It should at least record that the league existed and what happened there, allowing future generations to judge for themselves whether it really contributed anything.

One of the things that should go into this time capsule is a collection of the numbers, the objective pieces of information that tell at least part of the story. Harold Stier has worked hard to preserve this information, assembling comprehensive stats for the first two seasons of the league better than the league could itself.

A second item for the capsule is a good story of the personnel in the league. Sara Gogol's Playing in a New League is a decent attempt at such an item. Her book describes a bit of the league's inception, the struggles of its players before and during their time in the league, a bit about the coaches, and just a hint about what some have called "the evil stepsister", the WNBA.

Ms. Gogol asked me to review her book, Playing in a New League, around the start of the ABL season late last fall. After reading it, I started the review and, coincidentally, the league folded. With that event, my personal enthusiasm for the review faded. I do not hope to rekindle people's interest in the folded league here, but I do want to hold up my end of the bargain and point out some of the interesting aspects of her book, especially since the universe the book was built upon is now gone and history stands to judge it.

The Information

The useful information provided by Playing in a New League comes down to a couple things: a small bit of league history and a large dose of personalities.

The history of the league is handled fairly briefly in an introductory chapter. This chapter includes discussions of women's basketball through history, including short mention of previous attempts at professional women's leagues. For instance, there had been a league that actually emphasized sex appeal with tight uniforms, a fact I was clearly unaware of.

The majority of the book consists of chapters that topically cover the basketball careers of one or two players. Most chapters review the hardships that the players had to overcome before playing in the U.S. Several women played against boys while growing up and had success in college before facing the prospect of going overseas to play professionally. Some enjoyed it overseas, some didn't. All were curious at least and overjoyed at most that the ABL formed.

Several of the individual stories are similar, which takes away from the satisfaction of each. Many players suffered ACL injuries, which is eerily remarkable. Numerous women were also very hard on themselves, a striking contrast to the cockiness of many of even the worst NBA players. The coaches were often driven, even more than many of the players. There is some hint of dissension between coaches and players that isn't explored as much as it could be.

There are some unique tidbits. The story of Jackie Joyner-Kersee's time in the league is brief, but welcome, including a little bit about the hassles that the team's media director, Tonya Alleyne, had to go through during that time. There is a reference to when LaShawn Brown would put Valerie Still's son into his stroller and run laps while pushing the boy in front of her. Falisha Brown was paid only $500 per week while on the roster. Katy Steding felt pressure because her stats were not living up to her billing. Several unnamed players were drafted by the ABL, but chose to wait for the WNBA.


The ABL offered good basketball, not substantially better or worse than the WNBA. Losing it was disappointing, but inevitable. Even Gary Cavalli, one of the ABL founders once proclaimed that he thought the league had "about 0.01 percent" chance of surviving. Facts like this are in Gogol's book, making for interesting hindsight.

What was somewhat disappointing about the book was that it had the flavor of a kids' book, repeating the similar stories of several players, trying to present all the players as heroes, and not going into significant depth. In the press release of the book, it mentions that the author has written a similar book for children. This book, though more aimed at adults, still seems like it would more appeal to a large number of adolescent girls (though I admittedly am no expert on that class of the population).

I am someone who often dismisses books he has read, but this book, despite its flaws, has a few interesting facts about the failed ABL that make it worth keeping for that time capsule.