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Chronicles of KC: The WBA and life before the WNBA

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Posted at 4:30 PM, Mar 23, 2021

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sarah Campbell loves to talk trash and she can back it up, too.

41 Action News anchor Kevin Holmes caught up with her on a basketball court to discuss hoops.

“What I’m doing to you now, I’ve done to many people before you and will continue after you," Campbell said.

After making that statement, she drove to the basket and scored.

Campbell was an All-American at Central High School, an All-American at Mizzou and played professionally for several years overseas – posterizing the competition in the process. Now it’s Campbell being posterized in an exhibit inside the Black Archives of Mid-America.

Campbell also is one of many pioneers who played professionally in a league that preceded the WNBA.

“I do see us as pioneers," she said.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams, executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America, said the Women's Basketball Association (WBA) was started by Lightning Mitchell.

“I didn’t know him. He showed up one day in my office to tell me about it," Williams said.

Mitchell recalled that conversation as well.

“You can’t hide the truth," Mitchell said. "My girls need to be acknowledged for what they done."

The league was founded in 1991. Mitchell started with eight teams in the league that played across the Midwest.

“The WBA was a league that gave American women an opportunity to play ball professionally in the United States,” Mitchell said.

Geography played a huge role in how the league was comprised.

“I selected the cities within the Midwest because I knew we couldn’t fly anywhere long-distance, ya know? Memphis, Chicago, Kansas City," Mitchell said.

A little more than a year into the league’s existence, Mitchell said he reached out to the NBA to see if the league had any interest in partnering with the WBA.

“I thought at that point in time, why not reach out to the NBA? I mean, they’re professional basketball. You would think they’d support the women," Mitchell said. "I had no idea, the NBA had Val Ackerman, an All-American from New York, working on the staff for David Stern.

"I told Val Ackerman what I was trying to accomplish. Val was excited about it. She said, 'This is great.' She said, 'I tell you what; we may not want to just jump in, but we may be able to be a third party and give you some part of support.' I thought, 'This is great. This is all I need.'”

When league play started, those involved said the stands were packed at stadiums across the Midwest, including Kansas City, where Sarah Campbell was one of the league's leading scorers.

“When we got to Municipal Stadium, crowds were just amazing," Campbell said. "We had a fan base."

After three seasons on the hardwood, the WBA folded. The following year, the WNBA was formed, and Val Ackerman was the league’s first commissioner.

“Maybe they thought, 'Well, we don’t need him,' you know what I’m saying? We got all the information, we see now it can work,” Mitchell said.

Campbell also is disappointed the WBA has not received the credit she feels it deserves.

“To not be recognized on the level, on the platform that it should be, that’s disheartening," she said.

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Kevin's Chronicles of KC is a year-long series looking at the history of Kansas City. You can read more about the project and other stories at kshb.com/chronicles.