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The Untold Stories of Forgotten Teams

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#18 Iowa Cornets

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1978-79 Cornets pose in front of The Corn Dog

They can rightfully claim to be the first women’s professional basketball team ever formed in the United States.  They travelled the small cities of Iowa and beyond in a custom 1964 Greyhound bus known as “The Corn Dog”.  Team members co-starred with Pistol Pete Maravich in a box-office flop from the auteur who brought you UFO: Target Earth and Bloodbath in Psychotown.  And they were pretty good too.  During their short two-year history, the Iowa Cornets appeared in two championship series and produced one of the earliest stars of the women’s game.

George Nissen purchased the first franchise in the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League on March 21st, 1978 for the sum of $50,000.  Nissen was a star gymnast at the University of Iowa in the 1930’s who pioneered the manufacture and sale of the modern trampoline at his Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Co. in Cedar Rapids.

The state of Iowa had a unique fervor for the sport of girls basketball, although not in a form that many of today’s fans would recognize or appreciate.  School girls in Iowa and a few other Midwestern states played a variation called “six-on-six”, with three forwards and three guards.  Forwards could not cross the half court line to defend and guards could not cross the boundary to participate in the offense.  Each player was limited to only two dribbles before they had to pass or shoot.  The Cornets and the WPBL, of course, would play the more conventional five-on-five rules familiar to the rest of the nation.

Nissen wanted the club to truly belong to the entire state.  The Cornets would split their 17-game home schedule among eight different venues throughout Iowa for the 1978-79 WPBL season.  The Cornets primary homes would be the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines and the newly constructed Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids.  The team also scheduled single game appearances in high school auditoriums in Bettendorf, Council Bluffs, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Spencer.

In June 1978, Moravia, Iowa native Molly Bolin inked the first Cornets player contract for $6,000 during a ceremony attended by Nissen, Cornets General Manager Rod Lein (Bolin’s former college coach) and Iowa Governor Robert Ray.   Bolin was an Iowa “six-on-six” high school legend who played just two seasons of college basketball at Grandview College in Des Moines.  Cornets officials seemed confident that Bolin could adjust to the fluid five-on-five game and equally confident that the attractive 21-year old blonde would help to promote the new team across the state.

Nissen had another idea to promote his newfound interest in women’s basketball.  As the WPBL formed in 1978, Nissen invested $1 million in Dribble, a basketball comedy about a women’s team called the Vixens playing against a men’s team led by NBA star Pete Maravich.  Cornets players appeared as the Vixens and the film was shot on location in Iowa.  The film’s screenwriter and director, Michael de Gaetano, had a pair of ultra low budget horror films to his credit.  Dribble proved to be an expensive flop for Nissen – it opened in Cedar Rapids for a screening in January 1979 and then vanished, until it was released on home video years later under the new title Scoring.  (Brief clips of a few scenes featuring Maravich are available on Youtube, but they were simply too boring to post here.)

Women’s professional basketball debuted at the Des Moines Auditorium on December 17, 1978 against the visiting New York Stars.  The Cornets were one of the best clubs in the new league, finishing tied with the Chicago Hustle atop the Midwest Division standings with a 21-13 record.  The team finished second in the league in scoring at 104.9 PPG, despite failing to place any players among the league’s top twelve scorers.  The offensive production was well distributed, with Bolin, Doris Draving, Denise Sharps, Debra Thomas and Joan Uhl all averaging in double figures.  The Cornets dispatched the Hustle in the semis before losing the inaugural WPBL championship series to the Houston Angels in the fifth and deciding match on May 1st, 1979 at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston.

The Cornets returned for the 1979-80 WPBL season with a different dynamic.  Bolin had led the Cornets in scoring with 16.7 points per per game in 1978-79, but in her second season she fully emerged as a scoring force, earning the nickname “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin.  During the 1979-80 season, Bolin led the league in scoring with 32.8 points per game, including a record 54 during a televised match against the Minnesota Fillies on January 13th, 1980.

The Cornets won the WPBL’s Midwest Division once again during the 1979-80 season with a 24-12 record.  They defeated the Fillies in the league semi-finals, only to fall once again the league championship series, this time to the New York Stars who defeated the Cornets 3 games to 1 in April 1980.  Bolin was named the league’s co-MVP along with Ann Meyers of the New Jersey Gems.

After the 1980 season, George Nissen attempted to sell the club to Des Moines-area disc jockey Dick Vance.  The sale fell through.  At league meetings in late September 1980, WPBL officials granted  the Cornets request for a hiatus from the league to sell or financially re-organize the team.  Effectively, the club ceased activity at this point and the Women’s Professional Basketball League itself would follow suit after a third and final season in the winter and spring of 1980-81.

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Connie Kunzmann was one of several Iowa natives to suit up for the Cornets.  At 6′ 2″, she was one of the tallest players on the team.  After the Cornets folded in 1980, she joined the expansion Nebraska Wranglers for the WPBL’s final season.  On February 7th, 1981 Kunzmann was murdered by an acquaintance, Lance Tibke, after celebrating a Wranglers victory in an Omaha bar.  Tibke threw Kunzmann’s body in the Missouri River and she was not recovered until late March 1981, although Tibke had confessed to the crime weeks earlier.  Tibke was sentenced in July 1981 and paroled in June 1990.

George Nissen passed away in 2010 at the age of 96.

Photo courtesy of Dave Cusick

Molly Bolin played for the San Franscisco Pioneers during the final season of the WPBL in 1980-81.  She also played briefly the Southern California Breeze and the Columbus Minks in a pair of unsuccesful rivals and offshoots of the original WPBL.  Today she sells real estate in California.

Downloads:

2011 Interview with Cornets star Molly Bolin

1979-80 Iowa Cornets WPBL Draft Selections

Written by andycrossley

May 23, 2011 at 4:07 pm

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