116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - 'Just as little boys sometimes dream about becoming the next Pete Rose or O.J. Simpson, here in Iowa the little girls may soon be dreaming of becoming the next Molly Bolin of Sister Green,” wrote a Gazette sports reporter in December 1979.
Women's professional basketball started taking shape in January 1977 with the formation of the Women's Basketball Association. Franchises had been sold to New York City and Dallas. Agreements were close for Des Moines, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Milwaukee.
Iowa's franchise was financed by George Nissen, owner of Nissen Corp. in Cedar Rapids. His franchise attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmaker Mike de Gaetano, who explained in 1978 that his choice of Iowa as the setting for his movie, 'Dribble,” a comedy about a professional women's basketball team, was based on the popularity of Iowa girls' basketball.
'Women's basketball didn't go big back East the way it did here in Iowa,” he said. 'We found after we set it in Iowa that it was growing all over the country because of Title IX provisions, back in 1971, saying that all of the money going for athletics had to be divided equally between men and women. Because of this there have been more participants - 100,000 girl basketball players seven years ago, now up to three or 4 million gals playing.”
That led to creation of professional women's teams like the Cornets.
De Gaetano scheduled 4 1/2 weeks of filming in Cedar Rapids with five or six days of background footage in Des Moines. The plot about the mishaps of a down and out women's basketball team that eventually plays a men's Army team also featured Pete Maravich of the New Orleans Jazz. Shooting for the movie engendered excitement for the Cornets.
The Cornets already had four players under contract - Robin Tucker, Molly Bolin, Denise Sharps and Tanya Crevier - before the first women's pro draft in New York City in July 1978. Tanya Crevier was discovered by Cornets General Manager Rod Lein at the Girls State Tournament in March.
'I did a ball-handling act at halftime on Friday night and Rod called me after that,” she said. 'I think that's the reason they chose me to be in the movie, because I make trick shots and have a ball-handling act.” She, Robin Tucker and Joan Uhl spent two weeks in Hollywood taking acting lessons for their roles in 'Dribble.”
Molly Bolin acquired two nicknames while with the team. 'Dolly” referred to her posters and commercials promoting the Cornets. Her resemblance to actress Farrah Fawcett led to a look-alike pose on the team's most popular poster. 'Machine Gun Molly” referred to her league-leading scoring average of 31.5 points.
After their first game against the Minnesota Fillies in Bloomington, Minn., the Cornets' first home game was in the Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines against the New York Stars. Gov. Robert Ray tossed up a ceremonial jump ball and a Dixieland band played the Iowa Corn Song as the Cornets ran onto the floor. The Cornets won, 99-87, in front of 4,231 fans, a crowd described in a newspaper report as 'very much like that at any other sporting event, with perhaps just a few more women than normal.”
The Cornets' first Cedar Rapids game in 1979 marked the first sports attraction at the 7,000-plus-seat Five Seasons Center. They beat the New Jersey Gems 94-80 on Jan. 27, the day after 'Dribble” premiered at the Iowa Theater.
With its first year showing promise, the WBL surprised its critics.
'We didn't have too many bad things happen to us,” said President Bill Byrne.
The championship playoff in Houston in May 1979 resulted in the Cornets losing to Houston. At the same time, Nissen announced the Cornets office would move from Ankeny to Cedar Rapids, splitting home games between Vets Auditorium in Des Moines and the Five Seasons Center.
One of the more exciting moments for the team was when the most famous women's basketball player of the era joined the Cornets in March 1979. Denise Long Sturdy was the nation's top all-time top prep scorer with 6,250 points. She was the only woman drafted by the NBA. The Golden State Warriors didn't actually let her play in any games, but she did perform at halftime.
More changes were in store when Nissen appointed Catherine 'Katie” McEnroe as general manager and Steve Kirk as head coach. Bruce Mason continued as assistant coach.
The WBL continued to operate at a loss in its second year. Despite its on-court success, the Cornets weren't immune to financial distress. Nissen had sold the team to former Des Moines radio personality Dick Vance in January, but Vance pulled out, leaving team owners to find other financial support. Lein resigned shortly after.
Nissen said in an exclusive interview with The Gazette, 'Vance never came up with the money, and the deal fell through.” Explaining that Vance and Lein had worked together and purportedly put 51 percent of the team stock into so-called treasury stock, Nissen said, 'I sold my 80 percent to Vance, and he took Lein in with him. I'm not sure what they were doing from that point on. I just know that we declared a no-sale after Lein couldn't fulfill his promises. The sale was voided after extending it five times.”
After finishing the second season in second place in the league, the team's office in Cedar Rapids closed.
By September of 1980, the Cornets were facing a number of problems. Head coach Kirk, assistant coach Mason and General Manager McEnroe all resigned. Doris Draving, top rebounder in the league, signed with Tucson, and guard Robin Tucker signed with Albuquerque. Bolin was in talks with a new league out of California. By the first of November, Nissen announced that the Cornets would no longer operate as a WBL team.
'We tried our very best,” he said. 'There isn't enough interest in the financial community now.”