January 6, 1981
On January 6, 1981, when most of KU’s students were still on vacation, 1,100 dedicated women’s basketball fans turned out to watch the sixth-ranked Jayhawk women take on the team from Stephen F. Austin University. Even before the tip off, the people filing through the doors of Allen Field House realized that this would be a special game. KU’s star senior forward, Lynette Woodard, sat tied with former University of Tennessee star Cindy Brogdon for the career scoring record of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ for Women and was certain to take sole possession of a new mark that evening.
An uncharacteristically nervous Woodard took the floor for the first game the team would play in 1981. In a frantic opening minute of play, she turned the ball over three times. After Stephen F. Austin finally capitalized on one of the turnovers to take a two-point lead, the greatest women’s basketball player in KU’s history settled down and got into the flow of the game. As the Jayhawks brought the ball across half court on their ensuing possession, Woodard slid to the top of the key where she gathered in a pass from an obliging teammate, took one dribble to the left, and released a jump shot that swished through the net.
The crowd rose to its feet in a standing ovation that a contemporary writer described as “more reverential than wildly enthusiastic.” The game came to a temporary halt as her teammates and opponents joined the fans in offering their applause. The rest of the game served as a footnote to Woodard’s record. KU rolled to an 80-59 victory over the 13th-ranked team in the nation and the team’s star senior added 22 points to the two that had pushed her ahead of Brogdon on the AIAW career-scoring list.
She had little time to reflect back on her accomplishment as KU players and their fans had already begun to dream about bringing home a national championship. For the rest of the regular season, KU lost only one game. Led by Woodard, the Jayhawks rolled through the Big Eight Tournament to claim the conference title and prepared to host UCLA in a first round game of the AIAW National Championships. Unfortunately for the Jayhawk faithful, the women from Los Angeles managed to eke out a two-point victory. The defeat marked the last time that Woodard would play for KU. It would not, however, be the last time she would find herself under the lights of Allen Field House.
Perhaps because her senior year had held so many extraordinary moments, the reality that her collegiate career had ended seemed somehow illusory. Only a couple of months earlier, Woodard had played a publicized game of one-on-one against a man for the second time in her career when she defeated coaching legend (and later CBS commentator) Al McGuire 8-0 on national television. Years later, Woodard remained bemused by the event, noting, “McGuire was cheating. He kept hitting my arm.”
A short time after showing up the former Marquette coach, Woodard went to New York for an interview with Bryant Gumbel on The Today Show. After her appearance on NBC, she put on a dunking exhibition outside of Madison Square Garden to promote a women’s basketball tournament that was taking place inside the midtown Manhattan arena. Then had come the record against Stephen F. Austin, the conference title, and the bitter UCLA loss. By the time the season was over, she had added 447 more points to the two that had vaulted her ahead of Brogdon. Woodard closed out her career having scored 3,649 points – a number still unsurpassed in collegiate women’s basketball (though the NCAA, it should be noted, does not formally acknowledge records from the AIAW). Far from being a one-dimensional player, Woodard left her alma mater – and remains today – not only KU’s all-time leading scorer, but also its leading rebounder and thief, having accumulated 1,714 rebounds and 522 steals in her career.
The awards kept flowing in even after her career at KU had officially ended. She was named a Kodak All-American for the fourth consecutive year, an academic All-American for the second, and after being a finalist for the award since her sophomore year, she finally claimed the Wade Trophy and with it the honor of being recognized as the nation’s best women’s basketball player. She also graduated from KU with a BA in speech communications. But looking back 20 years later, Woodard remembered the realization that her collegiate playing days were over as the lowest moment in her career.
As one contemporary sports columnist pointed out, Woodard had demonstrated repeatedly that she was “blessed with [as] many skills and talents” as any other “player, regardless of gender” in the history of the game. Had she been a man, a rich NBA contract and countless endorsement opportunities certainly would have been awaiting her. For women athletes in the early 1980s, however, no viable professional women’s basketball league existed in America and the gurus of Madison Avenue seldom sought female hoopsters as celebrity endorsers.
To her credit, Woodard has consistently rejected suggestions she should feel bitter about the denial of these lucrative prospects because of her gender. Instead, she has always publicly maintained the belief that she has lived a storybook life. Nonetheless, as Pam Clark of the Topeka Capital Journal asserted in 1984, many of Woodard’s fans and friends could not help but feel that she had “been cheated out of the full recognition due her.” Indeed, shortly after graduation, Woodard concluded that her opportunities in the United States were limited, and that she would have to go overseas to pursue a career in the sport she loved.
After spending a couple of years in a professional Italian league, she returned home and not only qualified for the 1984 Olympic team but was selected to captain it. As the second leading scorer on the team (behind Cheryl Miller), Woodard fulfilled her ambition to win a gold medal – a dream that had been thwarted in 1980 when the US had boycotted the Moscow Games due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In July of 1985, she gained the opportunity to realize yet another of her dreams when the Harlem Globetrotters invited her and 25 other women to tryout for the legendary squad. As a child she had kept a poster of the Trotters in her bedroom and as a Jayhawk had kept another over her locker. The fact that her cousin, Geese Ausbie, was a longtime member of the team had further stoked her desire to play for the clown princes of basketball. In September of that year the Globetrotters, who had initially been skeptical about the ability of women to play basketball at their level, chose her to become the first female member of their team and signed her to a four-year contract. Her selection was, she recalled, “A miracle in [her] life.”
As a Globetrotter she returned to KU in January 1986 where she again played in Allen Field House – this time in front of 11,000 spectators, far more than had ever turned out for her games as a Jayhawk. After two years of touring the world as a Trotter, she began to feel excessively restricted by the demands that being a member of the team entailed and so she opted out of the final years of her contract.
She returned to playing professional basketball overseas in Europe and in Japan before retiring early in 1993. After a brief stint as the athletic director of the Kansas City, Missouri public school district, she earned a stockbroker’s license and took a job with Magna Securities in New York. She lived for much of the 1990s across the street from New York’s famed Downtown Athletic Club, in the shadow of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In 1997, the Cleveland Rockers of the nascent WNBA drafted her. As the WNBA intended to play its season over the summer months (a relatively slow time for Woodard’s investment firm), she took up professional basketball once again. After competing one year for the Rockers and another for the Detroit Shock, she decided to hang up her high tops, return home to Kansas, and pursue a new career as an assistant women’s basketball coach at her alma mater.
On Mount Oread, Woodard served as the team’s academic liaison, coordinating team travel, and, of course, assisting with practice sessions and recruiting. As a player, she was so gifted that she almost intuitively understood the game; as a coach, she learned that what a person knows is not nearly as important as what he or she communicates. During an interview in August 2001, Woodard used the metaphor of a person who can play an instrument by ear versus one who can read music to explain her approach to coaching basketball. “I could always play by ear,” she explained. “[Head] Coach [Marion] Washington taught me to read music.”
While Woodard’s celebrity as an athlete undoubtedly assisted her recruiting efforts, it also presented a unique and recurring problem in diplomacy. Nearly every year, she had to tactfully dissuade several fathers of prospective Jayhawk women, who could not resist challenging the greatest basketball player in collegiate women’s history to a game of one-on-one.
Woodard remained at KU as an assistant coach through the 2003-2004 season, and briefly took over the reigns of the program, serving as interim head coach when health issues forced Marion Washington to step down suddenly and unexpectedly in January 2004.
In March of that year, KU announced the hiring of Virginia Tech’s Bonnie Henrickson as the new women’s basketball coach. And shortly after the close of the season, Woodard returned to her native Wichita where she again entered the world of finance, accepting a position with the A.G. Edwards investment firm.
But as she hung up her basketball shoes (maybe for the last time) and returned to her childhood hometown where she had first dreamed of becoming a basketball superstar, Woodard also received the highest honor a basketball player can be awarded. In September 2004 she was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. (Woodard and NBA legend Clyde Drexler were the only two members of the Hall of Fame Class of 2004 to be inducted in their first year of eligibility – a high honor indeed.)
Any number of distinguished labels might be rightly appended to Lynette Woodard’s name: all-time collegiate women’s basketball’s leading scorer; professional athlete; Olympic gold medallist; Harlem Globetrotter; Hall of Famer; legend; but for one in particular, those on Mount Oread will always be grateful: Jayhawk.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas