Lynette Woodard, Miss Globetrotter, Learns to Play Fun-and-Games Way : Olympic Medalist Strikes Gold Again in New Sports Career

After winning an Olympic gold medal as captain of the 1984 U.S. women's basketball team, Lynette Woodard called her cousin to discuss a fantasy she'd first shared with her college coach in 1977:

Did Hubert (Geese) Ausbie, playing the last of 24 seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters, think there was any chance that she, a female, might join the team?

"He said he thought it was a good idea, but he didn't know the attitude of the other guys or of the management. In so many words, it was no," Woodard recalled.

League Collapses

Woodard had watched the women's professional basketball league collapse, did not want to return to Europe, where she had played with a women's team for a year, and had no interest in playing in another Olympics. At 25, it seemed the 5-foot-11 guard's basketball career was over.

"I hung up the phone. I was downhearted," said Woodard, who felt as a child that the Globetrotters' ball handling was magic. "It was something that was closer to my heart than I realized.

"I sat there. I said a prayer. I said I can't believe, Lord, that you blessed me with this talent and you're going to end it right here. I remember falling asleep right there. I was still training like I was getting ready to go somewhere. People thought I was crazy."

Six weeks later, while Woodard was working as an assistant basketball coach at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, she picked up a newspaper and saw a story that the Globetrotters were going co-ed.

'Didn't Say a Word'

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said Woodard, who had set a national female career scoring record at the university. "I didn't say a word. I acted like it was nothing.

"And I took the paper into my boss, Marian Washington, because we used to talk about it. And I just laid it on her desk.

"And she looked at it and didn't say a word. She looked up at me and she shook her head. Because I knew that was mine. And it was just a matter of time."

True to her word, Woodard attended a tryout camp last July in Charlotte, N.C., and another last October in Burbank and won the job, beating out 17 of the nation's finest players.

She joined the Globetrotters at the start of their six-month, 165-game schedule in October and will be with them today when they open a Southern California stand with 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. performances in the Forum. They also play their touring opponents, the Washington Generals, at Anaheim Convention Center on Wednesday and the Long Beach Arena on Thursday.

She is apparently the only woman in the nation playing professional basketball.

The decision to include a woman among the team's 10 players was made by Earl Duryea, who was hired by the team's owner, Metromedia Inc., to become Globetrotter president last February.

In a large suite in the Globetrotters corporate headquarters in Sherman Oaks recently, Duryea said that he watched extensive film of the team and decided that "the basketball was not as good as it had been and the comedy, like good Shakespeare, was good, but perhaps not as good as it could have been.

"We could see that the reams (comedy routines) we were doing were not being done as well as they had been," Duryea said, "and they weren't doing some, probably because they were hard to do."

Duryea said the team's first effort was "to improve the quality of the basketball on the theory that the comedy would follow the basketball and be refreshed.

Updating the Image

"We changed our marketing principals (representatives) and logo and the way we did business. We tried to update our image and get the story to people who hadn't been paying attention to us for the last 10 years and also to increase the quality of the players."

Some team personnel changes were made, and the idea of going co-ed was raised.

"I tested the water with the guys. They said it sounds like a nice idea, but make sure she can play ball. We don't want to play with a girl who can't play. I respected that."

The Charlotte camp relieved any doubts over that question, he said. "It was not a question of whether one can play, but which one. If Lynette was a 10, there were five or six girls who were 9 3/4."

In addition to adding a woman, Duryea made two other changes. He installed a red, white and blue basketball, pioneered in the defunct American Basketball Assn., and put a portable microphone on the team's showman, 6-foot-9 center Sweet Lou Dunbar.

Dunbar calls the reams that the team uses and talks constantly. Now when he walks up the aisle to kiss a late-arriving female or stops play to borrow a woman's purse and inspect its contents on the court floor, even fans in the top row of the arena can hear him.

The team stages routines at about the same time each game. Before a live national telecast recently, the Trotters gave ABC a schedule of the order of 11 to 15 reams they would perform each quarter.

As with good jazz, the Trotters can improvise. If Dunbar sees a late group of fans having trouble getting seated, he may yell directions to the usher.

First-year Globetrotter coach Russell Ellington, a combination artistic director and basketball strategist, tells Dunbar to eliminate a routine if it fails with the audience.

Ellington, who wears a stopwatch around his neck, must also make sure that the games run no longer than two hours and 15 minutes. The Globetrotters think that a longer game becomes boring.

For the nationally televised game, ABC required the Globetrotters to complete their trademark, the "magic circle," to the traditional music of "Sweet Georgia Brown," in 45 seconds.

Ellington brought the team to Kemper Arena in Kansas City at 1:30 p.m., two hours before game time, to practice.

Woodard, who rarely appears in the circle, took part in this one at ABC's request. She would handle the ball three or four times, making passes that she intentionally bounced off her derriere and punched sidearm with her fist.

Ellington watched her passing carefully, because a mistake could slow the routine and make it too long for TV.

A Radiant Smile

Woodard, who often displays a radiant smile, appeared slightly nervous at the practice, perhaps out of awe for the circle. The Globetrotters introduced the routine shortly after they were founded in Chicago in 1927 by Abe Saperstein, the son of an immigrant tailor.

"I respect the circle," she said. "It's sacred ground. That's what the Globetrotters are known for. You have to work your way up to get in there."

Yet she played well on television, consistent with what the players say about her performance this season.

"I think she's doing real well," Dunbar said. "She has all the qualities of a good player. She has a great personality and above all she has a smile to go with that.

"She's not involved in a lot of reams right now. Basically I do a little (passing) thing with her in the corner. She's doing the hops (figure-eight passing weaves) real good."

In their ream, Woodard and Dunbar pass the ball several times through a bewildered defender. She also weaves quickly through several "hops."

Learning Her Way

Playing about half the game, she is learning her way around. As she practiced, the magic circle before the telecast, several players advised her how to make the passes easier.

The players seem content with Woodard's becoming the focus of attention.

"She made history," Dunbar said. "People always want to know, 'Where's the girl?' That's the first thing they ask in any town."

The team's arrival at Kemper Arena in Kansas City illustrated her importance to the show. When an Arena worker told Ellington that the separate dressing room Woodard always uses was not available, Ellington said that he had better find one if he wanted Woodard to play. He found one.

Woodard says she feels fresh, despite often being the center of attention. In addition to playing eight games in seven cities most weeks, she does interviews almost daily and signs autographs for pleading, screaming fans for 20 minutes after most games.

Yet before the televised game she found time to shop for a sweater and blouse and get her hair done.

"I don't think anybody's ever been on a schedule like this," said Woodard, who also dates when time permits, "unless they played for the Globetrotters. . . . You can't like it. You have to love it.

Not Competitive

" . . . You have to control your game. It's not like competitive basketball. This is Globetrotter basketball. . . . That's just relax and have a good time. Take your 50-foot shot," she said, laughing.

Woodard, who is believed to earn far less than the average National Basketball Assn. salary of $340,000, said she hopes to appear in summer basketball camps after the season ends. She'd like to play four or five years.

"It's entertainment," she said. "I see laughter and smiles on people's faces. They come in and they're happy. There are so many terrible things happening in the world. You can make people forget about their problems just for a couple of hours. That's good.

"You see those little kids. Those eyes sparkle. And I know their hearts, because that used to be me. They want that autograph."

Speaking in a sitting room of the team's exclusive St. Louis hotel a few days ago, Woodard was asked if making fans happy was more satisfying than winning a game with a 20-foot shot with two seconds to play.

"After you've done everything and won the gold medal," she said, "it's nice to turn back. I started out (playing basketball) just having fun. And now I'm going to end it with enjoyment."

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