With a record of accomplishments like Ann’s it’s no wonder we chose to feature her during Women’s History Month. Ann began her sports career as one of 11 children and accomplished many firsts on and off the basketball court.
“Our parents did encourage their daughters to play sports as much as their sons. I was just following in the footsteps of my sisters and brothers. The competitiveness was there, because we all played sports,” Ann said.
Ann says she looked up to her older brother David, who later went on to play basketball for UCLA, and described her sister Patty as “the athlete of the family.” In addition to role models in her family, Ann says a book by Olympian Babe Didrikson Zaharias made an impression on her.
“I watched men’s sport because that’s all it was on TV, I watched my sister Patty play and all those other women compete,” Ann said. “In fourth grade, I read a book by Babe Didrikson Zaharias. I wanted to be an Olympian because Babe did it. She ran track and was in the 32 Olympics, but she had played basketball and softball and was a part of the original LPGA. To read a book on a woman athlete, that really was not, you didn’t see too many of that back in the 60s.”
Years later, Ann achieved her fourth grade dream of representing the U.S. in the Olympics. She was the first player to be part of the U.S. National team while still in high school and the first woman at UCLA to be signed to a four-year athletic scholarship for college.
Ann credits much of her career with the passage of Title IX in 1972 and the growing attention on women’s sports. She says she was fortunate enough to have a poster of herself when she played at UCLA but that was a rarity when she competed.
“I love the fact that the WNBA is 25-years-old, but I think our basketball community on the women’s side needs to do a better job, not just with basketball, but with the other sports too,” Ann said. “I want to hear about Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker and Julia Loyd and Sue Bird. I want to hear about the WNBA players, these are the role models that we need to look to.”
Ann played professional basketball prior to the formation of the WNBA. Ann was the first and only woman to sign a contract with an NBA team when she signed with the Indiana Pacers in 1979. She made it through the Pacer’s tryouts but was not signed to the team.
“This was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Ann said. “I had a lot of support from my family. They were a little concerned. But my whole life, I’d been playing the game of basketball, and been playing against guys. So what I was doing was nothing different. But I was able to train and put myself in a good frame of mind.”
She attracted a flurry of media attention and more than a few critics. Despite the high-stakes tryout, Ann says she has no regrets.
“I wasn’t a flag bearer. I think because of the character of the family I grew up with, and my parents and their work ethic, and then going to UCLA and being exposed to a standard of excellence, I knew that character really was important. I wasn’t doing it for publicity. I was doing it because somebody gave me a chance and, to this day, I say it was the best decision I ever made. It did not work out the way I had hoped it would. But it worked out in a lot of great ways.”
The same year she competed for ABC’s Superstars title, an all-around competition between prominent athletes, and at one point, competed in the Men’s Superstars event. She met her future husband, Don Drysdale, at the event. Ann says Don encouraged her to attend the Don Martin School of Broadcasting and launch her career as a broadcaster. She called the Summer Olympics with ESPN and NBA and WNBA games with Larry Burnett and the late Chick Hearn. She is currently the Vice President of both the Phoenix Mercury and the Phoenix Suns.
“I truly believe that not only myself, but women’s basketball, women’s sports wouldn’t have received the recognition that it would have at that time without my brother David, without UCLA, without Coach Wooden, without Billy Moore, and without Kenny Washington, who was my freshman coach,” Ann said. “There are so many people that have really helped me along the way, there’s no way I could have done this on my own.”
Ann has shown resilience on and off the court. At age 38, she became the sole provider for her three young children when Don died suddenly. She credits her upbringing, family, and support system with helping her through grief.
“I know I got through it with faith, family and friends. Certainly being an athlete, certainly coming from a big family helped. No matter how sore you are, or if you’re not feeling well, you have to get it done. My mom got up every day as my dad did, my brothers and sisters going out and working. I knew I had to get up for them and push forward,” Ann said.
“I was fortunate to have three beautiful children. They’ve had to grow into these young, beautiful people, they’ve gone through some struggles themselves, the decisions that they’re making in their lives and so forth,” Ann said. “You just hope that you can teach them to be kind to others, to have faith, and have hope. You always have to have hope.”
As she looks back on her career, Ann says she has no regrets with the chances she took and how the events played out.
“I tell people all the time, ‘don’t look back and say what if I woulda-shoulda-coulda, if somebody gives you an opportunity to do something, go ahead and take it.’ If it doesn’t work out, it’ll work out in the sense of you’ve challenged yourself,” Ann said.
Tune in to hear Ann’s thoughts on the current WNBA and more. Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast here. Watch the video of the podcast on the @legendsofsport YouTube channel.