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Yale 62

Jolene Ammons: Odyssey from Homerville

By Lee Bakunin

5:30 A.M., January 31, 1942, Homerville, Georgia. Small Southern crossroads town tucked into the Southeast corner of the State.

First a few facts: 3.5 square miles. Population 1,522 according to the 1940 census that would grow to 1,787 in 1950. Clinch County seat. Coordinates: 31°2′13″N82°45′5″W. Waycross 27 miles to the east, Valdosta 35 miles to the west, 35 miles north to Douglas and 67 miles south to Lake City Florida.

Known as a “honey of a place to live” as the starting point of the Clinch County Honey Trail. Lots of varieties of honey. Wooded areas and swampy marshes surround the city. Okefenokee Swamp and the Suwannee River in Fargo, just a short drive away.

Farm folk up already and doing the chores. Townspeople taking a few extra winks before starting their day. Lots of bee hives humming and buzzing. Patriotic hard-working Georgian folks putting food on the table, raising children, going to church and helping neighbors in times of crisis. World War II. Most of the males 18-25 away in the military fighting for our freedom. Everyone has a ration book as there are restrictions on certain foods and goods.

Typical day. Nothing remarkable, special or different from any of thousands of other small towns. Places where everybody knows everybody and teach their children to follow the golden rule, respect authority and take responsibility for their actions.

Not much excitement today, other than at Frank and Ruth Ammons’ house. Ruth in labor and about to bring a newborn into this world. Sister LaVerne, 4 years old and brother Johnny, age 2, are gonna have a baby sister. Town gossip and some of the church ladies going to do some cooking and baking to bring to Ruth after the home delivery as things get settled down a bit.
Dr F.M. Bruce keeping everybody calm, assuring Ruth & Frank everything’s gonna be fine and let nature take its course. A fine Country Doctor from the old school who’d done many a home delivery.

1:35 pm: a cry as Jolene makes her initial debut to the joys and delight of the crowd. Perhaps that moment was a precursor to how she’d often introduce the final player at basketball pre-game ceremonies: “last in your program, first in your heart.”
Doc Bruce signs the official birth certificate: Mary Jolene Ammons. named after her grandmother. Doc Harper will fill the prescriptions. Frank will get congratulations and some cigars will be passed around.

It wasn’t too long afterward when everyone began calling her “Jolene,” from which we get “Jo Jo.” Much better and peppier for a would-be athlete who was destined to break barriers and serve notice that it “ain’t where you come from” that limits your ability to push the envelope to follow your dream.

If one had to predict Jolene’s future path at that time, it would be something like this: spend the next 17 years growing up in Homerville, attending the Clinch County schools, doing all the normal things young girls and women do in small southern towns, like baking, cooking, washing and other household chores, be active in town charitable work, maybe teach and then settle down, marry and raise a family melt into a comfortable down-home atmosphere.

Wrong, my friend.

Jolene was born a free spirit who would find her passion and go for it, despite any setback that would come her way. Heart of gold, maybe from all that Clinch County honey. 5’7” and coordinated – maybe ballet or ballroom dancing? Musician? No way.

Though she did have a go in the high school band, she found it too limiting and out of the real action. Try something outrageous and not heralded as a proper occupation for young ladies of that era.

Basketball! Women’s Basketball. In the middle to late 1950s? Once Jolene learned how to spin a basketball on her finger, that was it.


[Directions: Click on any photo to enlarge it and see its caption. Advance through the photos by clicking in the middle left or middle right. Close enlargements with the X in the top right.]


Here’s the reprint of what happened as told by Gene Asher in the Georgia Trend May 2008 issue.

Standing Tall
Jolene Ammons was at the top of women’s basketball in the 1960s.

By Gene Asher

Jolene Mary Ammons has had the time of her life. Can you imagine coming out of Homerville (Ga.), where her biggest thrill was fixing a chocolate malted milkshake at Doc Harper’s drug store, and vaulting to the basketball Hall of Fame?

Scoring 25,000-plus points over a 12-year career may be no big deal for a 6’6” NBA superstar, but for a 5’7” woman it’s downright remarkable, especially when there was no three-point line.

Jolene literally marched to the beat of her own drum. She played two years in the Clinch County High School band before opting for the basketball team and an eventual women’s pro team.

A friend and part-time scout and sports writer, Lurner Williams, arranged a tryout for Ammons with the All-American Red Heads. It was 1962, and one year later she was the rage of women’s basketball.

“What was my biggest thrill? There were so many. Getting a tryout and making the first team was one of them. But here is this small town girl and all of a sudden she’s featured in sports magazines and appearing on radio and TV shows,” Ammons says. “I was made honorary citizen and given keys to many cities. We played in Alaska for a month, and I got to see whales, fly in seaplanes and pan for gold. We played in 49 of the 50 states. Can you imagine that? From Homerville to California? For this small town girl it was like seeing the world!

“During the 1970 season, the referees stopped the game and my coach, Orwell Moore, presented me the game ball. The ball was signed by all the players and coaches and it had written on it ‘10,000 points.’” There was another one, 15,000 points later.

Talk about versatility, Ammons had it in spades. Among many coaches (her own and those of the opposition) she was considered the best ball-handler in the game – the men’s and women’s games. She could do more tricks with the ball than a Harlem Globetrotter.

A player-coach for two seasons, during the off-season, Ammons became a coach at the first camp emphasizing women’s basketball. Some of her campers became good enough to make the Red Heads squad.

The Red Heads played about 200 games a season and won 75 percent of them. But it was Ammons’ ball-handling and long-range shooting that drew the crowds.

Ammons credits her late mother, Ruth, with providing the motivation for her success. “She started me playing pitch and catch at age four. She had me making moves and passing behind my back. She was my greatest fan. At Clinch County High School, she never missed a game. And she traveled far and wide to see me play for the Red Heads.

“My dad, Frank, was an auto mechanic and worked most of the time. But Mother was always home. Kids from all over the neighborhood came to our house to play basketball.

“Of course Mother was not the only booster I had. There was Charles Bennett, my high school coach, my high school and professional teammates and especially the teams I coached during the season and at our basketball camp.

“My sister Laverne, who was four years older than me, taught me how to grip the ball although she never played past high school. My brother, Johnny, was not a player but he was a loyal spectator.”

Ammons is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame where her uniform is displayed. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame also requested a uniform to display. All told, Jolene played 2,136 games. Her Red Heads won 1,848 and lost 488. In 1974, she was the only female basketball player featured on CBS television during the NBA playoffs. She is retired and lives in Florida.

According to women’s basketball historian, John Molina, “Despite all her accolades, Jolene is one of the most unsung heroes in the game. In games, she would pass the ball off when she could have easily made shots. Her teammates and her coaches encouraged her to keep shooting because she could hit the basket from anywhere on the court.”

[End of Asher article]

Now for the rest of the story and how Jolene became one of the most unforgettable characters that shaped my life.

In 1942, I was a little tyke paying with pots and pans on the floor in Bridgeport, Connecticut when Jolene was born.
Our paths would not cross until 1974 after her successes with the Red Heads. She’d already traveled the world and was one of the best Women Basketball Players in the country. Were the Olympic rules then as they are today, she’d have been on the Olympic Team.

Fast-forward to 1974. At the time, I was a young, brash, restless attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, married with 4 children. One day I read an article in Sports Illustrated about the Red Heads featuring Jolene and Karen Logan. Title IX was on the horizon and basketball had been one of my chosen sports growing up. As a teenager, I’d formed a team called the “Stratos” that had won a championship at the Bridgeport Jewish Community Center in a unique way. (See my chapter on “Never Underestimate Your Power of Creative Genius” in my book The Power of Creative Genius.)

I was not a star player – quite the opposite. I wasn’t good enough to make my high school team, so I became its manager and later a statistician. When Phoenix was awarded an NBA franchise, it reignited my interest.

After reading the article, my brain went into overdrive. Why not a Women’s Professional Team? Basketball is going to grow and there’s an under-served audience out there – women and young ladies. Based on my prior experiences in marketing and advertising, there were lots of new and profitable markets. Only the establishment was engrossed with the male side and knew little about what would appeal to female market.

Market differently and create pathways to serve goods and services.

Using my marketing talents, I prepared a business plan. Being the bull-headed person I was at that time, I decided to go for it, despite having few contacts in the field and little money.

I took a leap of faith and paid no attention to my downside as from the start I was operating on a shoestring budget. Enthusiasm and passion trumped practicality. Either discover a vein of gold or go home empty-handed. My ego engaged on all cylinders — the desire to be the first — ahead of the crowd. The problem, which I completely underestimated, was the time and resources needed to bring reality into sync with the competition. What I would learn is that the project was viable, but it was too far ahead of its time. It is challenging and more likely foolhardy to execute a million-dollar idea with coins from your piggy bank.

Others either jump on your bandwagon with help and contacts or they steal your ideas. Media likes new ideas and so does your competition, which in this case was the very successful NBA that had recently weathered the onslaught of the fledgling ABA through consolidation of the best pieces after the attrition of the under-financed teams. More on that later.

I based my projections on 1,000 to 2,000 paying customers per game at an average of $10 per ticket on a 40-game schedule over a period of several months during the NBA off-season. Working class salaries for the players, smaller gyms, travel by bus or limo to a group of cities within a 500-1,000 mile range that were good basketball venues. At the time, there was no professional league for women in the United States.

The first step was to create a team of exceptional players who would play men’s amateur teams with less of an emphasis on comedy routines and a bit more straight basketball to show their talents. There would be no gimmick such as same color hair, heavy make-up and looking like beauty queens. Uniforms would be catchy, look as professional as the men’s, but more fashionable. A statement that would reflect a wholesome Olympic image. Half-time would showcase their talents with ball-handling and dribbling plus one-on-one against males.

I’d received some training from Eddie Feigner, the best softball pitcher in the world and successful barnstormer with The King and His Court Softball Team. He taught me what worked and how to incorporate some of his routines as well as some of the Harlem Globetrotter concepts. With the help of a musician, I developed a version similar to “Sweet Georgia Brown” before tip-off and developed a catchy theme song called “American Girl.” Part of the package was for the team to be goodwill ambassadors through clinics and appearances as well as introduce an attractive pink-and-white basketball, then other items geared for the female market.

The goal was to build momentum for a season or two and then attempt to form a league and obtain a major sponsor. We’d start in Arizona and then gradually move to other neighboring states and venues to keep our costs to a minimum and provide the opportunity to grow.

I called Jolene and talked to her about my idea. She was interested and talked to another star player, Karen Logan. Both of them wanted a change, knew there were changes coming and met with me.

When we met, our enthusiasm outweighed the negatives and we decided go for it.

Jolene and Karen recruited a number of other players. The lawyer I shared an office with owned apartments near the Jewish Community Center, which was two blocks from my condo. I made a deal with him to rent two apartments to house the players and got the Jewish Community Center to let us use their court to practice as well as the locker rooms and showers for free. We’d share the facilities with the Phoenix Suns who used the Center for their practices. That was big for our players as the Suns proved very helpful and gracious to our players. I even heard that Karen and one of the rookies went head-to-head one-on-one. I stocked a bunch of groceries and other items for the apartment and leased two vans for travel.

Jolene was the player-coach. She and Karen were the starting guards. Our starting forwards were all over 6 feet (we had one that was 6’5” and another at 6’7”) plus we recruited a 7 footer to play center.

The team Jolene recruited and coached — the Phoenix Pink Panthers — was one of the best women’s teams of that era and played at a high professional level. The team could have easily beaten any college team at the time, including the Universities of Connecticut and Tennessee, as well as being competitive with any U.S.A. or foreign country’s Olympic team. Compared with Jolene and Karen’s former team, they both said ours was better and more professional. Karen Logan was probably the best women’s basketball player at that time. Because she’d played professionally with the Red Heads, she was not eligible to play in the Olympics, as was Jolene and our other players. Jolene’s coaching abilities were ignored but, in my opinion, she was as good as or better than any of the current women’s basketball coaches.

Jolene organized and scripted the crowd-pleasing routines as well as the half-time show. She’d do her ball handling (including spinning three basketballs simultaneously) and Karen would go one-on-one against an opposing team player.

Money was tight and I had to devote more time to the law practice, so I hired a lady who was recommended by a friend to manage. To my dismay, I would learn afterward that her motives were to grab the project and force me out. Ego is big in professional sports and there is often the false sense of scarcity or limitation that brings out the greed factor.

Our debut in Phoenix went well. We opened at the Phoenix Jewish Community Center to a capacity crowd. The Softball King, Eddie Feigner, came to be part of the half-time show as well as Jolene’s ball-handling and Karen’s one-on-one against a male player from the JCC.

Following that game, we scheduled about 15 games in various venues in Arizona. To keep the team afloat, I used whatever resources and favors we had available. As I was unable to pay the salaries on the contracts, all gate proceeds went to Jolene for disbursement as she and the players saw fit. I paid the booking agents an agreed fee and never took a dime.

Somehow we got through the next two months, and then I knew we needed to make some changes. A friend, Conrad “Connie” Stephens, who was a successful sports agent in Plainfield, Indiana, agreed to take over the team, move it to Plainfield, and obtain bookings. I’d continue to pay for the vans and work with Connie on establishing a league to put the team on a better financial footing.

Two little guys with giant-sized plans.

Jolene is not a quitter. She stuck with the plan and we involved her at every step of the way. The lady who had been helping was a complete disaster and had cost us the opportunity to play a pre-game at the Suns venue, the Memorial Coliseum. I’d hoped to open a dialogue with the general manager, Jerry Colangelo, who’d made the offer, which the lady refused by wanting an appearance fee and other concessions. The lesson: never play hardball when your opponent holds the winning cards. A two of clubs does not beat a full house.

Jolene had also told me that this lady was undermining the team morale and spirit. The lady had her boyfriend, who was equally as useless, accompany the team in its move to Plainfield and caused some problems by spending time with two of the new players. As we were in survival mode, Jolene and Connie managed to schedule what would be the first women’s professional game pitting the Panthers against the Arkansas Lassies in early January, 1975. Two of our players had gone home, so we were down to about eight players.

To our knowledge, it was the first paid-to-play Women’s Professional Basketball Game.

The game received some press locally and it was a closely-fought contest, straight basketball head-to-head as the Lassies won 65-63. Following that game, the team disbanded as Connie’s attempts to form a league with the existing other women’s teams met resistance from an owner who had a most successful operation and was not willing to view the future.

Despite these hardships, there was a last hurrah as several months earlier I’d convinced the ABC executive in charge of the First Women’s Superstars, Howard Katz, to have our star player, Karen Logan compete. Karen was a natural, finishing first in a preliminary at the Houston Astrodome and then finishing second in the finals at Florida. Karen won over $30,000 and although I’d have been entitled to some fee for representing her, I didn’t take a dime. It was the right thing to do.

Jolene and her mother Ruth attended the finals and had an opportunity to meet many other professional women athletes, such as Billy Jean King, Joan Joyce and Donna DeVarona.

Before the competition, there was an impromptu women against men 3-on-3 half-court basketball game: Karen Logan, Joan Joyce and Mary Jo Peppler vs. myself, Howard Katz from ABC and one of the men who were competing. Not sure if Jolene played. Result – they kicked our butts. Once, when going for a rebound, Joan checked me so hard that I ended up out-of-bounds. It was great fun for the crowd and showed the guys that women were very competitive.

Regarding the remaining bills for the team, I managed to negotiate reductions from some creditors and extend payments on others. It took about two years to settle the accounts. The players were never paid, including Jolene, and that was regrettable on my part, to have broken a promise. Yet they were all troopers who played because they loved the game and wanted to make a difference and pave the way for others.

Meanwhile other persons who had read my business plan began to develop their own strategies and within a few years, some fledgling leagues were formed based on my initial premises. While it was then obvious that times were changing, it would take another 10-12 years before the NBA money began to see the light. The Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA came into existence with Jerry Colangelo’s son Brian as General Manager. The concept was there in 1974. We were just too early to gain traction.

Jolene and I have remained friends and from time to time reflect on our experiences. We’ll go down in Women’s Professional Basketball History, if lucky, as an asterisk. You readers, however, will have learned the rest of the story.

The take: every change, whether in sports, industry, education, technology or finance, has its unsung, unknown pioneers and innovators who risked their time and money without receiving any awards. Be thankful for those risk-takers who paved the way and say a little extra blessing at night before going to bed for their contribution.

POST SCRIPT: Jolene’s Red Head Jersey in on display at the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
She is also a member of the Hall of Fame at Clinch County High School in Homerville, Ga. and was honored on January 21, 2018 proclaimed Jolene Ammons Day.

She is also featured in Barnstorming America, a history of Women’s Basketball written by John Molina. If you believe in unsung heroes and following dreams, I urge you to purchase a copy.

 
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