How a Kansas woman travelled the yellow brick road to Harlem Globetrotters history

Lynette Woodard had a childhood dream to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, even when it was fully made up of men. It became reality in 1985, when she became the first woman to don the famed jersey.

Lynette Woodard, an Olympic gold medallist, broke gender barrier on famed team

A woman in a black turtleneck holds up a WNBA basketball.
Lynette Woodard has spent her life as a basketball trailblazer, from becoming the NCAA's all-time leading scorer to suiting up as the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. (Sarah Jenkins/CBC Sports)

It was Lynette Woodard's childhood dream to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Her cousin, Hubert "Geese" Ausbie, played for the Globetrotters. She had the poster on her wall, and she'd be in the stands every time they visited her hometown of Wichita.

But as a Kansas native, whose mother Dorothy once had a dog named Toto, Woodard knew she'd have to travel her own yellow brick road to history.

"In Kansas, it's indoctrinated into you, you learn about the Wizard of Oz. So I just kind of took it and made it my own story, but that was a dream that I had that no one believed," Woodard told CBC Sports.

In 1985, Woodard's dream became reality. She was one of 60 women to respond to a Globetrotters newspaper ad. She was one of about 20 to move onto the second stage of tryouts in California.

And she was the only one to make the team, the first woman player in the history of the Harlem Globetrotters.

"I'd see the magic, the wizardry, and they were just always in my heart. And I don't know, I just started to say I was going to do it," Woodard said. "And that was my dream. I held it and then it came true. So dreams do come true."

'These women can play'

By the time she joined the Globetrotters, Woodard, who's now 63, had already enjoyed an esteemed four-year college career with the Kansas Jayhawks where she became the all-time leading scorer in women's college basketball, a record she still holds today.

Woodard made the 1980 U.S. Olympic basketball team but did not compete because of the Western boycott of those Moscow Games. She returned as captain for the 1984 squad, leading the Americans to gold in Los Angeles.

A basketball player in a red USA jersey spins a basketball on her finger.
Woodard won Olympic gold as part of Team USA in 1984. (Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images)

That's where the idea of turning co-ed first occurred to the Globetrotters. Still, not all team members were necessarily open at first — not that Woodard noticed.

"I thought that all the guys were accepting it. I didn't find out until I got there that maybe a couple of them might not have thought it was a great idea. Even my cousin Geese, he said, 'I don't know about the road being a place for a woman.' I didn't know what that meant," she said.

"I was innocent in this state. And so it kind of went over my head. I'm glad I didn't listen. But at the tryout, I could hear the guys say, 'Wow, these women can play.'"

Woodard stayed on the team for two years, by the end of which she had earned the full respect of her colleagues.

"That last game, they rallied around me. It really brought tears to my eyes because I understood that they were watching and I didn't know that they really cared that much. And so anyway, it was beautiful."

WNBA pioneer

Woodard's basketball career didn't end there. She went on to play professionally in Japan, Italy and elsewhere before she returned home for the inaugural WNBA season in 1997.

She played two years for the Detroit Shock and Cleveland Rockers before retiring.

"All those nights I was in Italy or Japan, I dreamed, 'Hey why can't we have this in the States? It works here, it should work there.' And then one day it happened," Woodard said. "So you just have to keep doing what you can do at the moment. And I was doing that by keeping my game at a level that if it did happen I could go and participate."

A woman in a Globetrotters jumpsuit walks onto the basketball court and waves to the crowd.
Woodard appears during a Globetrotters game in 1986. (Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images)

In 2023, Canadian women's basketball players remain stuck in a similar situation to Woodard's in the 1990s. Those talented enough can play in the WNBA, but most are forced overseas if they want to pursue professional basketball.

However, there's been a recent movement to create a domestic league, not only in basketball but hockey and soccer too Instead of offering advice to the creators of those leagues, Woodard made a plea to the audience.

"Support them. They love what they're doing. This is their craft. This is their art. It's different. But support them and you'll be proud of them one day."

Support in Canada

The WNBA is staging its first-ever game in Canada in May, when the Minnesota Lynx (featuring Bridget Carleton of Chatham, Ont.) play the Chicago Sky in an exhibition in Toronto.

Interest in the sport was laid bare when tickets were hard to come by mere minutes after their release.

"The whole stadium is going to be filled to the brim for women's game, an exhibition. Are you kidding me? That's big time. I would take pictures all over that. That's going to be a moment to remember," Woodard said.

Woodard added that children at the game would have the opportunity to form the same dream she did while watching the Globetrotters.

"It's going to be an energy and just a vibration that's going to carry them forth in whatever they want to do for a long, long time."

Woodard works as a special adviser to the Globetrotters, who now feature six women, plus one more on the Washington Generals, the Globetrotters' perennial opponent.

"You've got men in management. They've got to have an ear. And there are some challenges that we face out there that have to be talked about. And I want to help it be better for them in every way possible.

"Maybe one day it'll be all female team. Who knows?"

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