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Five Women In Search of Their Hoop Dreams

Sports: They all share a love for basketball, but those who tried for spots in the American Basketball League took divergent paths to get their day on court.

June 07, 1996|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Sonja Henning of Beverly Hills, holder of a Stanford economics degree, a Duke law degree and now an attorney in a Century City firm, was hard-pressed to explain why she's ready to chuck it all . . . for basketball.

"It's hard to explain to someone who's never played college basketball," said Henning, 26, seated at a picnic table at Emory University.

"But that feeling of competition, that intense feeling . . . I can't forget what that was like, how much I loved it.

"That feeling of great importance to every pass, every shot, every move in a big game. . . . I want that feeling again."

So did all of the 550 women at Emory last week, ex-college standouts all. They were trying out for 100 berths in the American Basketball League, the first women's pro basketball venture in the U.S. in 15 years.

Since 1981, when the last U.S. league failed, opportunities for American women have been primarily in Europe, Latin America, Japan and Australia.

But in the coming year, America will go from no pro basketball for women to two leagues. After the Palo Alto-based ABL announced it would begin play next fall with eight teams, the NBA announced it, too, would launch a women's league, to begin play in the summer of 1997.

If nothing else, the seven days at Emory may have been the largest gathering of tall women in the history of America.

There was a 6-foot-8 candidate, two at 6-7, three at 6-6, five at 6-5 and 18 were 6-4. Included were the tallest female identical twins in the world, 6-5 Heidi and Heather Burge of Palos Verdes and the University of Virginia.

Henning, 5-7, was one of the premier former college players on hand. Her perfect world: to wind up with the ABL's only California franchise, San Jose.

She specializes in labor and employment law for the Century City firm of Littler, Mendelson, Fastiff, Tichy & Mathiason. She's already won her first courtroom case--defending a firm in a wrongful termination suit--and has a similar case scheduled for next week in San Luis Obispo.

"The firm is very supportive," she said. "They understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and also that practicing law will be my life's work."

For Henning and 549 like her, it was a week of basketball by the numbers. Henning's favorite number is 1990--the year she was the point guard on Stanford's national championship team.

Did we say numbers? No problem there for Kim Gessig.

She's a senior auditor in the Los Angeles office of Coopers & Lybrand, one of the nation's major accounting firms.

She's also 6-3, has movie star looks, lifts weights and enjoys knocking men around with her elbows in a Manhattan Beach men's recreation league, her training ground for the ABL tryouts.

At 25, she makes what she calls "a good salary" yet came to Atlanta hoping to leap ahead to a larger dream.

In addition to being a near-straight-A student at USC, Gessig was a basketball scholarship player.

"I had offers to play for several European teams after SC, but my right shoulder needed surgery, and I had that done in 1993," she said. "That took more than a year, with the rehab, so I never got to Europe. Plus, I had a job with Coopers lined up before I got my degree.

"I could stay at Coopers and in 10 years maybe be a partner, making a six-figure salary. But do I want to crunch numbers all my life? My job is brutal the four months before tax time. You have to talk to CEOs, asking a lot of questions about their finances and they tend to be really short-tempered people."

Much more fun, in other words, to get a paycheck for throwing elbows under a basket. The ABL says top stars will earn $150,000, the average salary will be $70,000 and the minimum $40,000.

*

Karleen Shields' number is two, as in daughters. Ayesha is 9, Keisha, 8.

Shields is 27, a 5-7 guard who played at USC. Ten years ago, she was a high school phenom in Snyder, Texas, recruited by dozens of major colleges. Her life seemed on the fast track to fame and fortune. Well, fame, surely.

Then she got pregnant.

Within three years she was in Albuquerque, N.M., mopping bank floors on a graveyard shift and flipping burgers by day. The father of her two daughters was an oil field roustabout, often out of work.

"I don't know if I was under the poverty line, but if I wasn't, I could see it from where I was," she said.

"It was horrible. There were times when my girls had to sleep on a blanket in the kitchen of the restaurant. When my boss saw that, he fired me."

Finally, she left the girls' father, bought three one-way Greyhound tickets and left for Vallejo, where a sister offered help. On the bus trip, Shields and her daughters lived on M & Ms.

She enrolled at Contra Costa Junior College, averaged 42 points per game, was offered a scholarship by USC and last month earned her degree.

How much does she love this game?

"I owe everything to basketball, I can't really express how much," she said. "If this works out, great. But if not, I'm in a position now where I can do other things."

*

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