How Karen Logan and her legacy of the WNBA's basketball shows how far women's pro hoops has come

·11 min read
Karen Logan's athletic career began before Title IX, forging her own path along the way, which included designing the smaller basketball used in the women’s game today. (Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports; Photos provided by Karen Logan)
Karen Logan's athletic career began before Title IX, forging her own path along the way, which included designing the smaller basketball used in the women’s game today. (Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports; Photos provided by Karen Logan)

Karen Logan didn’t watch basketball for years. It was too painful.

What started as a playground pastime morphed into a miserable memory. Her affinity and aptitude for the game had once reaped national attention, but now only sorrow. Whenever she saw a WNBA game while scrolling through her TV guide, she ticked past it.

“I was just pretty bitter,” Logan said. She’d given basketball so much — years of her life, dreams and hopes for the future — and it seemed like it hadn’t left her much of anything.

Logan, 73, is a pioneer of women’s basketball. Her career started before Title IX with the boys in her neighborhood and took a winding road to a barnstorming basketball team, then the first viable professional women’s basketball league in the country, and it ended with a quick pit stop coaching college ball. Along the way, she designed the smaller basketball used in the women’s game today.

The WNBA, now in its 26th season, is the longest-running women’s professional league. Logan’s generation has been omitted from the sport’s history books. However, the 50th anniversary of Title IX this year allows a look back at women’s sports pioneers like Logan, an eager athlete and leader by happenstance.

“I think mostly what the focus was was excitement,” she said, reflecting on her professional basketball career in the 1970s. “Excitement that maybe a women’s professional league was a real possibility. And my focus was on, 'I have some ideas, I want to share them, I think it can make the game better.'

“In hindsight, I realized that it was a pivotal point.”

Tracing the red roots of an athletic career

Logan grew up playing just about any sport she could. The only organized sports at Fortuna High School in Northern California, which she attended from 1963-67, were tennis and track. (Basketball was something she did “on the side,” she said.) Naturally, she played both and excelled.

Logan’s skills yielded an Athletic Achievement grant, which she referred to as an all-sports scholarship — this was before Title IX and women’s athletic scholarships were mandated — to Pepperdine University, where she played tennis and ran track.

While at Pepperdine from 1967-71, Logan caught the attention of men’s basketball coach Gary Colson. She scrimmaged with the team, and he, recognizing her talent, approached Logan when she finished college about an opportunity to continue playing basketball.

Enter the All-American Red Heads.

The All-American Red Heads was a team of professional women basketball players who toured the United States, Mexico and the Philippines from 1936-86 to play against men’s squads — including, Logan said, once facing off against the then-Oakland Raiders football team. Logan described the group as reminiscent of the Harlem Globetrotters. While much of what they did was trick basketball intended for comedic effect, Logan said playing with the Red Heads from 1971-74 helped her grow as a player.

Even “Pistol” Pete Maravich took to the Red Heads’ style of play, Logan said, using some of their moves to become the NBA’s first “showman,” as she called him.

In 1974, Sports Illustrated’s William Johnson pointed her out as the team’s “superstar” and likened her athleticism to Olympic gold medalist Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Johnson called Logan “quick as a cobra” and compared her style of play to Maravich. (Funny, isn’t it?)

The story thrust Logan into a spotlight women athletes seldom received. She was invited to represent basketball on ABC’s “Women’s Superstars,” a show where elite athletes competed in sports they didn’t usually play for prize money. Logan first participated in 1975 against giants like sprinter Wyomia Tyus, diver Micki King, softball player Joan Joyce and volleyball player Mary Jo Peppler.

That same year, CBS had Logan on its new show “Challenge of the Sexes,” inspired by Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ “Battle of the Sexes.” On the show Logan played Jerry West, the man on the NBA’s logo, in a game of H-O-R-S-E.

“As fate would have it,” Logan said, “I won that thing on national television. And that sort of propelled my exposure even further.”

Pioneering women’s professional basketball

Logan’s meteoric rise drew the Women’s Professional Basketball League’s (WBL) attention.

The WBL, which ran from 1978-81, was the first viable women’s pro basketball league in the United States. Bill Byrne founded the league on the heels of women’s basketball’s first Olympic appearance in 1976.

The American women’s chances of gold in 1980 seemed promising after their silver medal debut, and the college game began to take off thanks to Title IX. Byrne figured 1978 was an ideal time to explore a women’s professional league. Who better to help him organize the WBL, recruit players and serve as the fledgling league’s face than Logan?

“I got discovered and in a two- or three-year period sort of launched to the forefront,” she said of her newfound popularity. “So, it was a lot to take in. I was just excited that something was happening, that something was moving. I wasn’t going to have to go home and not be able to play.”

Logan recruited Elizabeth Galloway-McQuitter to play for the Chicago Hustle in the WBL. She knew of Logan from the Red Heads and her victory over West on TV. Galloway-McQuitter remembers Logan as “the original face of the league.”

“I don’t think anybody will deny that she was instrumental in it, in this league getting started,” Galloway-McQuitter said.

While working with the WBL, Logan pitched the idea for a smaller and lighter ball for the women’s game, citing that women’s hands on average are smaller than men’s. Dr. James Naismith’s ball had a circumference of 30 to 32 inches and weighed 18 to 20 ounces. Logan’s ball was 28.5 inches and 18 ounces.

“Almost all sports, with the exception of basketball, vary the size, weight and nature of the equipment to compensate for the physical size and anatomical differences of women,” her proposal read. Golf tees were shorter in the women’s game, the volleyball net lower and tennis rackets varied in weight and grip sizes, she wrote.

Logan convinced Byrne to adopt the ball and sold it to Wilson. The ball made its debut in 1978 and was adopted by the NCAA in 1984. Today, it’s used in all levels of women’s basketball, including the WNBA.

A regulation WNBA basketball rests on the floor during the first half of a WNBA basketball game between the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Sam Morris)
The basketball used in the WNBA today was developed by Karen Logan. (AP Photo/Sam Morris)

The trouble with too many titles

Struggling to balance her roles as a player, assistant coach and league spokesperson, Logan was quickly deemed a “troublemaker.” After a year with the Chicago Hustle (most of which she hobbled around with a broken foot), Logan was traded to the New Jersey Gems in January 1979. The deal occurred after she walked out of a practice because Hustle head coach Doug Bruno took her out of the starting lineup with no heads up, she said.

Her tenure with the Gems ended quickly, too, as she declined to re-sign with the team for another year until it paid her for the end of the previous season, which was a league-wide problem. The franchise couldn’t come up with the cash, so Logan started reaching out to other teams as a free agent. She got a tryout with the New Orleans Pride on the condition that she wouldn’t bring any trouble.

“Maybe it had gotten out that I was outspoken,” Logan said of the Pride’s vague request. “Maybe word got out that I walked out of practice in Chicago. I can’t say what they meant [by ‘trouble’] because they never did expand on that.”

Logan’s rabble-rouser persona became heightened after she fielded calls from the NFL Players Association.

The NFLPA was established in 1956, two years after the NBPA and three years after the MLBPA (although not officially recognized as a union until 1966). The NFLPA reached out to Logan about unionizing the WBL. With stories swirling around the league about lack of compensation and sexual harassment, she agreed to speak with women in the league in an attempt to create the first labor union for professional women's athletes. Why the NFLPA wanted to unionize women’s basketball still stumps Logan.

Karra Porter, author of “Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women’s Professional Basketball League,” said that while she was never able to confirm the NFLPA’s interest in the WBL, she theorizes that the association may have seen unionizing the league as an opportunity for “indirect benefits.”

“It would normalize players’ unions, it would permit collaboration across sports if desired, it might generate financial benefits for non-player personnel who might cover both sports, etc.,” she wrote in an email.

Word of Logan’s efforts quickly got back to management, she said, and her stirrer status became sealed. But she found a last chance in New Orleans.

“They wanted me,” Logan said. “Things seemed to be going fairly well in the beginning. And then the NFL Players Association contacted me again.”

Would she be willing, it asked, to fly out on her weekends to campaign for a union?

“I don’t know what I was thinking, but I said yes,” she said.

So, she flew to Dallas for a meeting with a few members of the Diamonds squad. Likely fearful for their jobs, Logan said, she believes some of the women went to team management about the meeting. When Logan got back to New Orleans, the Pride’s owner told her she was fired.

Galloway-McQuitter described the players of the time as “innocents” who were “just happy to play.”

“I don’t think we knew all that she was doing behind the scenes to try to help us, and step out and put herself on the line in trying to get things for us in place,” Galloway-McQuitter said. “I learned later. But for her it was just a matter of just fighting for us. And we’re forever grateful for the fact that she was fighting for us.”

About 20 years later, the WNBPA became the first labor union for professional women athletes, founded after the WNBA’s second season in November 1998.

Life after basketball, and a triumphant return to the game

In 1982, Logan was named the head coach of Utah State University’s women’s basketball team. She spent two years struggling with the school’s transition from Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) to the NCAA and the resources arms race that reclassification entailed.

“My basketball career was gone,” she said. “It was gone. And it couldn’t be resurrected.”

Logan was exhausted. Coaching wasn’t her passion. She asked herself: “What do you want to do for the rest of your life?”

She went back to school to get her master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Utah and became a licensed psychotherapist. She has enjoyed 35 years in the field, 30 in private practice, in Ogden, Utah, and spends some of her free time playing golf. Basketball began to fade from view, and she liked it that way.

A couple years ago, Galloway-McQuitter reached out to Logan. She and 11 other WBL players founded Legends of the Ball, a nonprofit organization with the aim of teaching the league’s history. In doing so, LOB hopes to inspire the next generation of athletes and leaders.

“We’re trying to tell a story, go back and put some pieces together,” Logan remembered Galloway-McQuitter, LOB’s president, telling her. Galloway-McQuitter wanted Logan’s piece.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open that up,” Logan said. She told Galloway-McQuitter that it’d taken years to get past what had happened in the WBL, to which she said that was all the more reason to let LOB tell Logan’s story. So she obliged and has since experienced extraordinary healing.

“That is what I do for a living, is talk therapy,” Logan said. “And the whole thing is based on as you hear yourself talk, as you hear yourself process issues in your life, you start releasing stuff. You start feeling. You start coming up with your own solutions. You start taking charge of the narrative. I mean, it’s silly, but that’s what I do for a living, and the same thing works for me when I started talking about the story — my story.”

A couple months ago, she turned on a WNBA game. She tunes in every once in a while now, awestruck.

“Wow. Wow. Look how far we’ve come,” Logan said. “I watched what they could do with my ball, and I was just like, look at you guys go. Look at what they’re doing with that little ball. … Look how they’re shining."

Logan’s legacy continues with every crossover, spin move and in-and-out dribble in today’s women’s game — the game she dreamed of when she designed the ball 45 years ago.