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Trying to Force Overtime : At 38, Donna Simms Is Looking for One More Shot at a Professional Career

July 26, 1996|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND HILLS — Donna Simms never listened to the naysayers, the ones who told her that waiting for the rebirth of women's professional basketball in the United States was like waiting for a bus at the Atlanta Olympics.

In other words, don't hold your breath.

Well, guess what? Within a year, two women's pro leagues are scheduled to begin play in cities across the nation.

Finally, after years of training and hoping, Simms is in position to realize a dream she was forced to abandon in 1984, when the last U.S. league failed.

"I was always telling people the women's pro league is going to return," said Simms, a Woodland Hills resident. "It will be more organized, with more exposure and more money."

But it remains to be seen if Simms will cash in. At 38, she is older than every player drafted by the eight-team American Basketball League, which reneged on an agreement to give Simms a special tryout after she was unable to perform at the ABL's regular tryouts because of an injury.

With that opportunity dashed, Simms is pointing toward the start of the Women's NBA early next summer. The ABL begins play in October.

In the meantime Simms' basketball clock is ticking, and she knows it. Simms wasn't comforted when an apologetic ABL executive told her she could try out again for the league next year.

"You can tell that to players who are 22, 24," she said. "I've been training 11 years. That makes it a bigger dilemma. [Younger players] have years and years to play."

Simms was once one of the brightest stars in U.S. women's basketball, earning regional All-American honors at Queens College in her native New York City before embarking on a short-lived pro career. She played in the Women's Basketball League and the Women's American Basketball Assn., ventures that folded quickly because of financial difficulties. In between, she spent a year playing for a pro team in Israel.

The lanky 6-footer was a rival of Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a fellow New Yorker who helped Old Dominion win national championships in 1979 and 1980 and later gained fame by becoming the only woman to play in a men's professional league--the now-defunct U.S. Basketball League.

Simms says she beat Lieberman-Cline in all three of their one-on-one meetings, but that doesn't count for much. Lieberman-Cline is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Simms is trying to prove she remains a high-level player, even though her most-recent competition was in a Glendale recreation league.

*

Steve Hams, vice president of operations for the ABL, says it's difficult to assess Simms' ability because she has been away from the game for so long. The league has concentrated on signing recent collegiate standouts who have forged an unprecedented interest in women's basketball among American sports fans.

"To me, Donna is very impressive and a great story," Hams said. "I certainly admire her at how she has maintained her enthusiasm and commitment to the game. But I really couldn't say how she compares to other players."

Simms had a chance to prove herself to ABL administrators. But 11 days before the league's weeklong tryouts began May 28, she strained a calf muscle. Simms talked organizers into delaying her tryout until May 31, but she quickly aggravated the injury.

The tryouts at Emory University in Atlanta drew 550 women, all former college standouts. They competed for 44 spots in the ABL, since the league had already struck deals with 36 players, including 10 members of the U.S. Olympic team.

Salaries in the ABL range from $125,000 commanded by drawing cards such as Olympic team center and former USC star Lisa Leslie, to the league minimum of $40,000.

For Simms, who never earned more than $15,000 a season as a professional player, the money being offered by the ABL was more than enough incentive for her to consider leaving her job as a substitute teacher in the L.A. Unified School District.

"I've been subbing for 11 years, hoping every year that I would be able to quit and play in a pro league," she said. "It's a dream that I started, but because the bubble burst twice, I was never able to fulfill."

Not wanting her dream to end because of a calf injury, Simms approached ABL co-founder Bobby Johnson at Emory and asked if she could get a tryout at a later date. Johnson said he sympathized with Simms' misfortune and contacted Hams.

Hams said the league intended to give Simms a tryout in San Jose, home of an ABL team, before the June 19 draft but reversed its position after learning that other players also could benefit from special tryouts.

"The larger situation was there were lots of players in [Simms'] position who were injured at the time of the tryouts," Hams said.

However, Simms had purchased a plane ticket and arranged for time off from work in order to try out for the league. When those plans fell through, she wrote a letter to Johnson, appealing for another chance.

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