Phoenix Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale talks about breaking barriers, raising kids and building the WNBA.
What shaped your interest in sports?
I have five sisters and five brothers. When you’re that big of a family, you’re very competitive and very active. Sports were a great outlet for all of us.
My oldest sister Patty was very competitive and…she created teams. We were just always together with family and friends and always competing—whether it be kick-the-can or hide-and-seek.
There were no girls’ basketball teams, so you joined the boys’ teams. Not something most girls tried to do.
It was a time of change. Even though Title IX came along when I was in junior high…we just always thought the door was open because of our parents. They allowed us to dream.
Are young athletes today aware how the passage of Title IX paved the way for women in sports?
What Title IX ended up becoming was a calling card for women in sports [who were] trying to have what men and boys have from the elementary level all the way to college and pros—just an equal opportunity to be able to compete. That’s what it is: an equal opportunity. Where boys were getting scholarships all the time, now girls are.
I suppose that’s progress. Today, talented young women athletes are sought after to play at the collegiate level and probably don’t give the inequities of the past, or the women who broke the barriers, a second thought.
There’s an entitlement, and they don’t understand what Title IX did create.
How did you stay in the game at a time when very few opportunities existed for girls to play at the high school level?
I’ve been competing against guys my whole life because of my brothers and their friends. The first boys’ team I was on was in elementary school in fifth and sixth grades. [I] played against the guys in junior high and…had an opportunity to play on the high school team. It didn’t work out. I kind of stepped away because a lot of people were saying things.
“You’re going to get hurt. You’re a girl—you can’t compete. You’re not going to get to play.” A lot of people questioned my sexuality. I was just going out there doing something that I’ve always done my whole life [but] when you’re in high school, some of those things that are said really hit you hard. I backed off on playing on the boys’ team.
Still, you ended up winning a scholarship at UCLA, and ultimately you tried out for the NBA.
Who knew five years later I would have an opportunity to try out on the men’s side on the Indiana Pacers? I…said, “I’m not going to have what I did five years ago and walk away.” So somebody gave me an opportunity and I took it. Because I knew I was capable of playing at that level.
How did you meet your husband, Don Drysdale, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher and broadcaster?
I was playing in the WBL [the Women’s Basketball League, which operated from 1978 to 1981] and he was announcing for ABC. It struck up as a friendship, and we talked a lot and everything. Fortunately, he kept pursuing me, and I was happy about that.
You married, had three children…and then when your youngest was 3 months old, Don died suddenly while he was on the road to broadcast a game.
Passed away in 1993. DJ was 5, my oldest. Darren was 3. And Drew was just born in March. So it was not an easy time. Sometimes we still struggle with it. He was a wonderful father. He was a wonderful husband. We were blessed. Sometimes it’s tough. You just wish that they had more time with him.
So you’ve raised your kids as a single mom for most of their lives.
Great support system. Big family. My mom and dad and my brothers and sisters, certainly, they’ve been there to support me and they’ve helped me raise them.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Being away from them. Working. I love my job tremendously, but it takes me away from them.
With so much competition now with youth sports—kids are starting earlier, going to a single sport earlier—any tips for young athletes?
Use your athletics to get an education. But if it’s not there, it’s not there. I think that so many parents push kids into sports a little bit too much because of the end factor of getting a scholarship…or being on TV, becoming a professional athlete. I don’t think that that was ever Don’s and my notion for our children. It was about having fun first, but also all the lessons that were learned within it.
What’s the difference between the audience for the NBA and the WNBA?
If you look at the WNBA when it first started, it certainly was on shaky ground as far as whether the league was going to grow. I think that there are a lot of positives—strong role models, leadership qualities, [the fact] that young girls and boys are able to go out and watch women do something that they can make a living at that they love to do. To me, that’s a real positive.
So you’re building fans?
Always building, yeah. The NBA is more than 50 years old. So give us 20, 30 years. I think we’ll be okay.
What does the future hold for the Mercury?
Continuing to try to win championships, and keep great players here. Even though they may not get the same recognition that other people do, everybody is just vital as far as the success. Everybody has such an important role to play within a team. It’s an organization of women and men that really make a difference, and really care about this community. RAK