Originally published in SLAM 169

by Matt Caputo / @MattCaputo

There’s a crowd gathering outside Staples Center for a late-season WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the hometown Los Angeles Sparks. If you didn’t know there was a basketball game inside the arena here tonight, you might think you were at Disneyland. There are pre-game festivities for all ages outside the building, with music and face painting for both kids and adults. The arriving spectators are families; packs of young daughters wearing Sparks jerseys and little girls lugging huge homemade banners.

The Sparks are riding a winning streak and Staples Center is filling up. Many of those attending tonight’s game stop and take pictures in front of the statues outside the arena that honor L.A. sports legends. Standing with her husband and daughter next to the statue of Magic Johnson is a blonde-haired woman with large sunglasses and a polite smile. No one in the gathering crowd of basketball fanatics notices her, but without her, they’d probably be at the actual Disneyland tonight.

“It’s amazing to see statues of people who were playing when I played,” Molly says, extending her hand.

The woman is “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin (now Molly Kazmer), one of the first stars of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (or WBL), a short-lived but pioneering attempt between 1978-81 to create women’s pro hoops. While there has yet to be a 50-point game in the WNBA, Molly broke her own records by scoring 50, 53, 54 and 55 points in WBL games. Her opponents remember her for possessing a shot that “could just kill you” and for being an “adorable blonde.” She had endorsement deals and later shared a Spalding commercial with Larry Bird. The success Molly reached on the court was almost equally matched by the hardship she faced off it. She fought a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband and watched as lawyers used her busy basketball career and good looks against her.

When the league folded, Molly’s popularity and talent—like those of her contemporaries such as that of Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski and Nancy Lieberman—went largely unutilized. Molly re-married and raised a family but never caught a break in pro hoops again. Her records are largely unrecognized and she’s still basically as unkown as she was coming out of a small JuCo—already a mother—and dominating women’s pro hoops.

“I went to the Forum to watch the Lakers play. I haven’t been here,” Molly says, finding her seat at Staples. “It’s so different than it was. The Showtime days were awesome.”

***

Monna Lea Van Venthuysen was born in Drydan, Ontario, while her father was working on the TransCanada pipeline, but grew up in the small Iowa town of Moravia. She picked up basketball in the tiny community where going to girls’ high school basketball games is a big deal.

In her first game as a high school junior, Molly scored 63 points on her 16th birthday and finished the season averaging 50 ppg. As a senior Molly scored over 70 points in 32-minute games five times and set a single-game scoring record of 83 points. “I think we had some girls out sick and I had to pick up the slack,” shrugs Molly, who averaged 54.8 points her senior year. “I just took over the game, that was kind of how I always did it. It was time to win, I wanted the ball and I was going to take over. I didn’t mean to be such a ball hog, but I wanted to win.”

Girls’ high school hoops in Iowa was not always a full-court game. Molly played Iowa’s unique “six-player” version, which was effectively a half-court game where only forwards can shoot and teams take possession at midcourt. Inside those rules Molly totaled 1,370 points her senior year and was named an All-American. “College wasn’t the same experience as high school and I had to learn the five-on-five full-court game pretty quickly. In fact, right out of high school in 1975, I got recruited to try out for the ’75 Pan American team and I couldn’t even dribble full-court and make a basket,” Molly says. “But because I scored 55 a game, they wanted me there and I made the final cut.”

Molly set several school records, but playing at Grand View College—a two-year school—in Des Moines did little for her reputation. After one year, Molly decided to try something different. “I sat out my second year, got married, had a baby and came back my third year to a different coach,” Molly says. “So I only played two years of college.”

Molly married Dennie Bolin after her freshman year and the couple had a baby boy, Damien, in 1977. Molly stayed at home and took care of Damien while Dennie worked for a year, then played a second season at Grand View before going pro with the Iowa Cornets of the new WBL. “When I finished my second year of eligibility, the WBL started and the GM turned out to be my first college coach and so I was one of the first people he recruited,” Molly says. “That’s why Iowa was first to join the first women’s pro league and they made a big deal out of signing my contract in the governor’s office to sort of make history, as the first player to sign to a contract.”

Molly turned pro as the WBL was trying a variety of ways to promote itself. In one plan executed before the inaugural season, Iowa Cornets owner and trampoline mogul George Nissen financed a film called Dribble (now Scoring) staring “Pistol” Pete Maravich, who’d just had a knee injury. The Cornets were used as extras in the film and Molly got to know the legendary point guard on set.

“We sort of had a crush on each other but it was like, it wasn’t going to happen because we were both married and we were both very loyal that way,” Molly says. “It was something I carried around for a long time.”

When the time for actual basketball started, the players were sure it was the start of something that would shine an early light on women’s pro sports. The first women’s league started with eight teams; the Houston Angels, New York Stars, Dayton Rockettes, New Jersey Gems in the Eastern Division and Chicago Hustle, Minnesota Fillies, Milwaukee Does and Molly’s Iowa Cornets in the Midwest Division. “We knew we were paving the way for the future and I believed in it,” says Molly, who earned $900 a month that first year. “Even when people talked about teams struggling or the WBL folding, I never bought into any of it. I was focused on what I was gonna do to make it successful and keep myself in a job for a while.”

Her still-limited full-court skills confined Molly to the bench initially, but she caught fire and finished with 53 points in a mid-season game. She averaged 16 points per game for the Cornets. Still, despite her budding career, Molly had a family to care for. “I was like the only wife and mother,” Molly says. “That was hard because the more successful I got, the more points I scored, the more I was in demand.”

In the WBL’s second year, Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski and Luisa Harris all joined the league after having sat out to retain their Olympic eligibility. Despite the new talent, Molly still ruled, averaging over 32 points per. Molly became a star as the league idled but was still barely earning a living. “Although we had one of the most successful teams in terms of the attendance and exposure, the big thing they came up with was they were going to finance photo shoots so I could sell posters,” Molly remembers. “I did get a pay raise, but it wasn’t anywhere near what the other top players got.”

Molly and Ann Meyers were named co-MVPs in the spring of 1980, but the league was struggling. Having grown tired of the WBL’s low pay, long road trips and instability, Molly joined the startup Ladies Professional Basketball Association, a Southwestern-based league with plans to cut costs and travel. “I had somebody aggressively recruiting me,” Molly says. “They flew me to California and promised me the sun and the stars, and $30,000 and I took it.”

The LPBA only lasted seven games before Molly was looking to get back to the WBL. She negotiated with six teams before choosing to join the San Francisco Pioneers, a club with a retired NBA player, Dean Meminger, as its coach. Meminger was a selling point, as Molly was eager to learn from the best possible teachers. “He would be on the court with us and he’d make us take charges from him,” Molly remembers. “He was an NBA player, you know? So I loved playing for him.”

With Meminger as her mentor, Molly blossomed. In the third WBL all-star game, Molly led all scorers with 29 points. “She didn’t look like an athlete per se, but she’d score from everywhere on the floor,” says Donna Orender, a three-year WBL vet and later WNBA commissioner. “She was unbelievable.”

But by the spring of 1981, the WBL was in trouble. The league shrunk to eight teams and collapsed altogether after the season ended. Though Molly was left without a league to play in, she still had a lot of game. “If it came down to offense at the last second, she would be the person I’d go to,” Meminger remembers. “She would be my Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant. She was bold and confident.”

The league folding was a great hardship for all the women of the WBL, but Molly faced a whole new challenge in the court of law. She and Dennie argued often during her time in the WBL. He didn’t like how much time Molly devoted to playing and promoting basketball. “They wanted me to do off-court appearances and interviews and my husband thought that the husband worked and the wife stayed home,” Molly says. “Someone got him a t-shirt that said ‘Molly’s Husband’ and he wore it to games.”

By the WBL’s last season, Molly and Dennie had split for good and a nasty custody battle ensued. “When we got divorced, they used the fact that I was the breadwinner and played pro basketball against me,” Molly remembers.

In October 1982, Dennie’s lawyer made a case that Molly spent too much time traveling to games and that glamour photos she posed for to promote the league made her unfit to raise a child. “They promoted and marketed me as a blonde, you know, pinup, and that got attention,” Molly says. “I was OK with that. I was the leading scorer in the league. I had no problem taking pictures because if they came to the game, they could see I could play.”

However, the Iowa court saw a problem with it and awarded custody of Damien to Dennie. It was another battle of the sexes and a landmark ruling that put gender equality into question. The Supreme Court did overturn the judgment and for years afterward Molly’s case was cited in divorce and custody proceedings around the country.

***

It’s Latino Celebration Night at the Sparks game. There’s an elaborate laser sequence flashing on the Jumbotron  inviting everyone to stay for a post-game concert from Jon Secada. It’s louder than a novice WNBA fan might expect and there’s a feeling that everyone is getting their money’s worth. The WNBA launched in 1997 and—although Molly attended the 10th anniversary—she’s had nothing to do with the league otherwise. Tonight, in August 2012, Molly is at her first regular-season WNBA game. “That’s a good, strong move there,” Molly says, watching Candace Parker beat a defender. “The players are a lot better ballhandlers.”

Molly spent the years after the WBL living in California. She played recreationally and joined several groups that tried to establish new women’s leagues to no avail. She spent time shooting around with the Lakers and watching them practice. “Magic was a huge flirt. I was in the stands at practice and he was always winking,” Molly recalls.

She’s been away from women’s pro basketball for many years and is remarried with two more children. Her husband, John  Kazmer, played for both Lute Olson and Jerry Tarkanian at Long Beach State, but none of their kids hoop. After several attempts to stay in the game, Molly tried broadcasting, construction and house painting, but she’s settled into a career in real estate.

What Molly hasn’t found in the years since she stopped playing is a place in history. Her 50-plus games pre-dated the WNBA and aren’t recognized. She also isn’t in either the Naismith or Women’s basketball Hall of Fame. “I’m thinking she should be,” says Roy Johnson, who wrote about Molly for Sports Illustrated in 1981. “She was right ahead of the trailblazers, she was ahead of the people who were recognized as the architects of the women’s game.”

While no one can take away Molly’s accolades, she’s still hoping that someone will remember them and honor her. “I see people every year inducted and I kicked their butts up and down the court,” Molly says. “But I guess it’s not about how good you were.”

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