Ann Meyers Drysdale: Sports great in teaching about life

She’s spent 30 years on camera, her voice and analysis pumped into living rooms across the country. She’s been in the spotlight even longer, for close to 40 years, her name as much a household name as any female athlete’s.

Even so, Ann Meyers Drysdale was still a bit awed by her latest invitation. It was not on TV, and the audience was only in the thousands, but when she took the podium on June 14 at each of UCLA’s two commencement ceremonies at Pauley Pavilion, Meyers Drysdale knew her words would count. She knew she has just a few minutes to make an impact, and she hoped she imparted something memorable.

A week before, she was still tweaking the speech, still practicing, still reading other speakers’ words and hoping their eloquence would rub off. She’s made plenty of speeches before, uttered millions of words to the masses, but these kids – no, adults, she corrects herself – were a special case.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has spoken at UCLA’s ceremony before, in 2007, she’s quick to point out. This is quite the company she joined, and Meyers Drysdale uses that fact as an example of why she was underqualified; really, though, it was much more apparent that she was just the next in a logical succession of the school’s sports legends. She held herself to a high standard, though, as evidenced by one half-joking caveat she brings up: “I’m not as eloquent as Coach Wooden.”

A four-time All-American, Meyers Drysdale was the first female student-athlete inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, having led the Bruins women’s basketball team to a national championship in 1978. (She also played volleyball and ran track.) She was one of the first nationally recognized faces of women’s basketball, and since her career ended – earlier than it should have, thanks to the climate of women’s pro sports in the 1980s – she’s been a galvanizing force in basketball in a variety of ways.

Meyers Drysdale’s name has been in the news more frequently of late, and it’s easy – too easy – to draw a connection between the increased attention on the women’s game (and Brittney Griner) and UCLA’s invitation to speak. Sure, women’s basketball is a talking point now more than it has been in a decade, and sure, Meyers Drysdale is the president of the Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s team. Sure, she was the first and only woman to earn an NBA tryout, and Griner may well be the next, but still. This is not some direct line, from Meyers Drysdale to Griner, from one talking point in the women’s game to the next.

Meyers Drysdale has no shortage of opinions about the women’s game. The most interesting are her lists, names after names of female stars whom the average fan has never heard of. She’s listing heights and dates and teams, illuminating a history that’s so basic to her and so foreign to even the most die-hard of sports fans.

It’s not that she’s trying to rank these women who have come before, or to place herself on some timeline that’s now culminated in Griner and this renewed attention. In fact, she scoffs at the idea of comparisons at all in sports, both between generations and between the sexes.

And as for the Griner comparisons, she’s not going there. Remembered for all time as the woman who got the four-day tryout with the Pacers in 1979, Meyers Drysdale got a flurry of calls after the initial “Griner could play in the NBA” speculation began in April, which was before her Mercury had even drafted their No. 1 pick. Her message never wavered: “Whether she does or doesn’t, whether she can or can’t… somebody’s giving her an opportunity.”

To Meyers Drysdale, that’s what matters: that women are getting chances, that they’re entering into the conversation. It’s not that she went through a tryout all those years ago, not that she saw some version of the hype and pressure that’s been hovering like a cloud around Griner for years. In fact, Meyers Drysdale said, she doesn’t even think Griner has a clue who she is.

In that, she’s wrong. Before a June 6 game in Minnesota, Griner told FOX Sports exactly how much Meyers Drysdale’s presence and legacy has meant to her in her short career.

“She’s at a lot of our practices,” Griner said. “She’ll send me a text and give me little pointers, little helpers that she sees in practice, so we’ve been in very close contact.

“She’s a great role model, honestly. Getting to know her and everything she did for basketball. Hands down, hats off to her.”

Meyers Drysdale’s ongoing legacy, though, is hardly limited to what she did on the court. Once her short professional career was over, she moved quickly into broadcasting, a field that at the time was even more dominated by men than it is today. Her first full-time gig, as a radio analyst for the University of Hawaii’s men’s basketball team in 1980-81, sounds like a lifetime ago; now, she can list work for ESPN, covering the Olympics and calling both NBA and WNBA games on her resume.

It wasn’t always easy, though.

“I had to work my way here, and try to open a door here, and have it shut in my face, and open a door here, and have it shut in my face,” Meyers Drysdale said. “Believe me, I had the door shut in my face a lot and still do. But that’s life. That’s why I think sports is such a great equalizer in teaching you about life.”

For Meyers Drysdale, life has certainly been couched in sports. She said she could never have imagined herself following the path she has, one in which she almost fell into broadcasting and climbed her way to the top, but now, after years of both playing and talking about the game, she’s earned her opinions. She’s earned the lessons she hopes to teach and the memories she wants to pass on.

She acknowledges the progress, and she knows her role in it, but she can’t help but bring up what still amazes her — in a negative way — about the women’s game. It’s back to those lists, of everyone from Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie, the big names, to the lesser-known, 7-foot-2 Margo Dydek.

She’s worried little girls today won’t know those lists, even that today’s pros are oblivious.

“Here’s the thing that’s really discouraging to me,” she said. “You today, you go to the AAUs, you go to the high schools, you go to the colleges, and you ask the majority of these women who’s their favorite player, who’s their favorite team. What do you think they say?”

The answer, all too often, is a man, or a men’s team. LeBron James. The Heat. Kobe Bryant. The Lakers.

And then there are those comparisons, and the inherent judgments. Meyers Drysdale has been doing this too long and at too many levels to discriminate, and as the one woman to get a chance to bridge the gap between the women’s and men’s games, she sees how similar basketball is in all of its forms.

“Sometimes you’d get some guys, and you knew they didn’t respect the women’s game as much as they respected the men’s game,” Meyers Drysdale said of some of her past broadcast partners. “You just want to say to them, basketball it basketball. It doesn’t matter what gender. It doesn’t matter what age. It doesn’t matter what religion or race. This is a game. Whether I had a bunch of 12-year-old boys out here, or 30-year-old women, or 50-year-old men, you’re going to call the game.”

Ann Meyers Drysdale has witnessed perhaps the greatest evolution of women’s athletics in her lifetime, from the perspective of both the participant and the media and team insider. She came before the evolution, or at least before it hit its stride, and now she’s still trying to further it, hoping for more.