Winter was sitting out there to the north and west, stacked up
across the northern plains and reaching into Canada, but it
couldn't find its way to central Ohio. When the temperature hit
67[degrees] on the first Saturday in January, the people of
Columbus were out like thieves, stealing some time in the freak
weather as eagerly as the Ohio State Buckeyes had stolen the
Rose Bowl a few days earlier. Maybe the thrilling football win
was still too fresh. Maybe it wasn't fair to walk into Goodale
Park, where people decked in Buckeyes scarlet and gray were
running laps and riding bikes, and ask questions about basketball.
But the park is about a mile from the home of the Columbus
Quest, which won 18 of its first 19 games in this inaugural
season of the American Basketball League. It's a team with no
bickering millionaires and not a single certifiable head case.
The players go to dinner together on road trips and act as if
it's a privilege to be playing.
Yet almost no one goes to watch the games. If anybody could
explain why, it had to be these people in the park, many of whom
lived within walking distance of the Greater Columbus Convention
Center, which houses the Quest's home court. O.K., folks. Any of
you ever hear of the women's pro basketball team in town? And if
so, what's it called?
Ten people were given a fair shot at answering those questions.
They did not test well. Five of the 10 weren't aware that there
was an ABL team in Columbus. Seven of the people couldn't name
the team. None of the 10 had been to a game, and not one of
them--including a young man who had been given tickets to a
future game as a gift--had a clue where the Quest plays its home
The reasons for this lack of awareness could fill a college blue
book, but a single response best explained it: Asked if he knew
the name of the women's pro basketball team in town, one man
smiled as if he had just won the Publishers Clearinghouse
Sweepstakes and replied, "That's the Lady Buckeyes." An Ohio
State fan but apparently not a graduate.
This is what the most exciting basketball team in Columbus must
contend with: It plays just two miles from the 52,500-student
Ohio State campus, in a building that has a store devoted solely
to Buckeyes paraphernalia. "If you grow up in Ohio," says Quest
general manager and coach Brian Agler, a native of Prospect, 35
miles north of Columbus, "the Buckeyes are everything."
So it made perfect sense last October for the Quest to sign
Katie Smith, an All-America forward from last year's Ohio State
team. But even with Smith and two U.S. Olympic gold medalists,
forwards Andrea Lloyd and Nikki McCray, the team that's first in
the ABL standings is last in attendance. At week's end Columbus
was 23-3 but was averaging 2,452 for 13 home games, almost 900
below the league average. (By comparison, the 9-6 Lady Buckeyes
were averaging 3,898 for nine home dates.)
Says Smith, who was the Quest's third-leading scorer with a 15.4
average through Sunday, "I don't know who will ever arrive in
this town as a professional team and take anything away from the
But as Agler and the ABL pooh-bahs know, the trick isn't to take
anything away from Ohio State. It's to offer something that's
new and different. "Now that football is over and people get a
chance to see what the game is like and the way Columbus is
playing, I think it'll catch on," says Gary Cavalli, the ABL's
CEO and one of its founders--and a man who expects the league,
which owns all eight teams, to lose about $4 million this year.
Indeed, last Saturday night the Quest drew an encouraging 4,310,
its second largest crowd of the season, for a 96-66 drubbing of
the Richmond Rage. "We are not about to panic," Cavalli says.
The game he's talking about is nothing like the basketball we've
come to know in the last few years, especially in the dunk-crazy
NBA. The ABL is playing the game as we knew it before it moved
above the rim. Quest players pass the ball. They set double and
triple picks. They're in constant motion on offense. They help
each other on defense. And they dive for loose balls as if the
future of the league depended on their efforts. "The one thing I
hear most from fans and sportswriters," says Cavalli, "is that
they can't think of any other league where the players play so
hard from the tip to the end of the game."
Because ABL players don't waste time perfecting 360-degree
monster jams, they spend more time on their shooting. Here's a
stat NBA players won't want to hear: At week's end the NBA's
free throw shooting percentage for the season was .730. The
ABL's was .749.
There's one more thing about the Quest that makes you think back
on the game as it used to be played: The team always looks to
run the most crowd-jacking play in basketball, a play that has
all but disappeared from the NBA--the fast break. It would take
bonus clauses to get the fast break back into the NBA, but
Columbus runs a couple dozen a game, and it doesn't matter what
the score is, because the break isn't a strategy so much as a
statement. You don't wait and wait for a professional league to
come along in the U.S. and then walk the ball up the court.
Point guard Shannon (Pee Wee) Johnson will grab an outlet pass
with six seconds left and a win already in the next day's
newspaper and still motor down the floor like a woman possessed,
looking to feed one of her four teammates blasting to the basket
along with her.
On Jan. 2 the Quest won employing such a style, snapping the
Colorado Xplosion's 10-game winning streak with a 98-62 victory.
Point guard Tonya (Ice) Edwards led the Quest with 26 points,
Smith had 16, and McCray, the ABL's leading scorer (20.2 point
average through Sunday), had 11. All three are quiet types, but
Johnson, who on her right shoulder has a tattoo of a flaming
basketball (with her nickname on it) descending into a hoop, and
guard Sonja Tate, who, depending on whom you ask, may or may not
carry a photo of a boyfriend in her shoe during games, keep
Tate interrupted a practice and got an embarrassed smile out of
the all-business Agler when she said, "Hey, Coach, I meant to
tell you. Your hair looked really nice at last night's game."
The players say much of their enthusiasm comes from the
realization of a dream: They're getting paid, an average of
$70,000, to play basketball in America, something few of them
ever expected to happen. Smith shot free throws at practice one
day--burying 89 of 100--wearing a T-shirt that said LITTLE GIRLS
"It's still all very exciting," says 35-year-old reserve
center-forward Valerie Still, who played in Italy for 12 years.
"The European game is more physical, but there's more
athleticism here. I watched the young girls coming up on
television, and I didn't know if I could compete, as old as I
am. I just have to get here earlier and start warming up before
Still is not only a crowd favorite but also an inspiration to
her teammates--two of whom are 13 years younger than she is. In
games against Colorado and the New England Blizzard, Agler
called on Still to replace injured starter Lloyd (sore knee).
She responded with 24 points and 15 rebounds. "At my age I'm not
going to get nervous out there," says Still. "I've got a kid at
home who might have a fever and a husband who might complain
that I'm not cooking enough. When we go on the road, it's like a
The ABL has given new life to Agler's career as well. He lost
his coaching post at Kansas State last season after the
university found that six of his players "had received payment
for impermissible employment," including summer camps and
babysitting, in violation of NCAA rules. Kansas State forfeited
11 wins. His success in Columbus has moved him out from under
that cloud and brought great satisfaction to the fans who trek
to 6,700-seat Battelle Hall in the sprawling convention center,
which sits at the north end of a downtown that dies every
evening at five o'clock.
Ebony Pegues, a sophomore point guard at Eastmoor High in
Columbus, hasn't missed a game. "It's so competitive," she says.
Pegues and her teammates study the games as if they were
watching videos of their own future. "I've got letters from
Georgetown, Michigan, Maryland and Penn State," she says of her
coming college decision.
Loyal Quest fan Ruth Hendrickson, a transportation specialist at
a think tank, watches with bated breath. "I am scared to death
we're going to lose them," she said during the Xplosion game, at
which 2,038 seats were filled and 4,662 were folded up like
empty pita pockets. "This is such a football town, and a lot of
people follow the professional teams in Cincinnati and
Cleveland. My mother calls Columbus the redheaded stepchild of
There are also concerns about the rival WNBA, the eight-team,
NBA-backed women's league that starts play in June. Geraldine
Crane, a retired civil servant and Quest regular, is worried
that that venture might bring down the ABL before the ABL gets
an honest chance to establish itself. "No women's league has
ever flown, and now we'll have two," she says. "And we all know
the NBA has the money."
But if the Columbus players are worried about attendance,
they're not saying so. Sure, McCray admits, hearing echoes
bounce off empty seats is a letdown after playing in front of
35,000 at the Atlanta Games last summer. New England, which had
the second-worst record in the league (8-19) through Sunday, led
the ABL in attendance with an average of 4,694 at a time when
the Patriots were advancing to the Super Bowl.
"It is disappointing," Johnson says of the local support. "I
might be in a mall or somewhere talking to somebody, and I tell
them I play for the Quest, and they've never heard of it. But I
carry pocket schedules with me, and I give them out and tell
people to come see a game."
On that first Saturday in January a crowd of 5,216 watched the
Ohio State women beat 17th-ranked Notre Dame in a nationally
televised game in Columbus, after which 10,503 were in
attendance when the Ohio State men lost to Illinois in another
televised home game. Throughout the afternoon and early evening
two NFL playoff games filled the airwaves. Finally, the Quest
had a home game that night against the Blizzard. "The schedule
hasn't helped," Agler said. The game against New England also
was only Columbus's third weekend evening home date--not ideal
for a team trying to attract families. What's more, the average
price of a Quest ticket, $12, is about twice that of a Lady
Despite all that, Columbus established what it hoped would be a
trend, drawing what was then its second-largest crowd of the
season--3,682--for the Blizzard game. "This is the best women's
basketball team in the world right now, no doubt," said Rick
Scott, who that night was at his fourth Quest game, with his
wife, Jane, and their twin seven-year-old sons, Bubba and Teddy.
"We went to the Ohio State women's game earlier, so this is a
doubleheader for us. I like the women's game better than the
men's. It's less glitz and more no-nonsense basketball. Plus
we're big Katie Smith fans, dating back to her career at Ohio
State. My kids call it Katie Ball wherever she plays."
With the perpetually anguished Agler imploring his players to
keep running, Columbus awoke from a dazed start and blew to a
49-28 lead over New England at the half. Early in the second
half of an eventual 94-74 Quest win, Still grabbed a rebound and
popped the ball out to Edwards, who caught it and in the same
motion threw a baseball pass to Johnson streaking down the
court. Johnson made a no-look pass over her head to Smith, who
banked it in on the run and was fouled.
With all in the arena screaming their approval, it sounded like
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY There was no holding back McCray, who stepped from the medal stand in Atlanta to the ABL scoring lead. [Nikki McCray in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Starved for attention in Buckeyes country, the Quest plays before more empty seats than fans. [Sparse crowd watching basketball game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO The 5'8" Johnson (14) runs the fast break, keeps the team loose and hands out Quest schedules. [Shannon Johnson in game]