In Roberts' absence, Marie Kocurek, also 6'1", has been the Fillies' center. Last year she was All-Pro and Minnesota's leading scorer with 20.3 points a game. This year she has been sharing the lead with 6'2" Forward Patty Montgomery from Portland, Ore. and Utah State. Kocurek, the daughter of a Corpus Christi, Texas longshoreman, was molded into a basketball player at Wayland Baptist, the longtime women's college basketball power in Plainview, Texas. She was twice an All-America and was Wayland's MVP in 1977. Montgomery, on the other hand, learned basketball on the playgrounds of Portland. She has the strength of a discus thrower and shotputter, which she was in college, and she has the instinct for being in the right place at the right time.
Though seven of the 11 Fillies are Southerners who are tormented by Minnesota's winter weather, none of them suffers louder or longer than K.O. Owens. One afternoon as she sat on a table in the locker room having her foot taped before a game, someone remarked that her legs needed shaving. Looking down, she said, "It's cold in Minnesota. I'm gonna keep everything I got."
K.O. learned her basketball and most other games as well from her older brother, Rondy, whose aim in life was to be a pitcher. "I'd catch till my hands were all red," says K.O., "and he'd say, 'If you don't keep on catchin' I'll beat you up.' So I'd be playin' and cryin' and playin' and cryin'."
Homesick during the Christmas holidays, the 6'5" K.O. went back home to Roseboro, N.C., and didn't return for 13 days, missing three games. Nevers then suspended her and made her reinstatement conditional upon her paying a meaningful fine and straightening things out with her teammates, who were not happy about her absence.
DeBoer, who starts at forward opposite Montgomery, grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., the second of five children of an academically oriented family. Her father is a professor of theology at Calvin College; her mother is a librarian. DeBoer graduated summa cum laude from Michigan State in sociology and was on her way to graduate school at the University of Oregon when the WBL was formed. She jumped at the chance to play a while longer.
DeBoer, who is 5'10", would like to go to law school eventually, but intends to play basketball "until I get too small for the game or the game gets too big for me. We don't earn a lot of money (the average WBL salary is $10,000), but we make enough to get by and we're still doing the thing we like to do best." Like all the other Fillies, she puzzles a good deal over the lack of interest in the team in the Twin Cities. "We've spent our lives playing for ourselves because no one much cared," she says. "We're still doing that. Our standard line is: 'We're going to play just as hard if nobody's there.' But that's not quite true. When a gym is full, the excitement is infectious for the athletes. You think you're playing just as hard, but you're not. I understand that for this league to work, people have to be sold on women's sports. So you do a clinic somewhere or you make a speech, but you don't see results. There are not 2,000 more people there at the next game. There are maybe two. But we go ahead and do it because we know it's important."
Everybody in the Twin Cities has a different idea about why the Fillies are not a better draw. Robert T. Smith, who does a three-day-a-week general column in the Tribune, thinks the reason is sociological. "This is a conservative state, not politically, but in life-style," he says. "The women's movement has not done well here. The women of this state are frightened by liberation and anything that goes with it, and it spills over into sports. Their attitude is: 'What are those women doing playing a man's game?' " But Smith also has a theory that change is coming fast because of the effect Title IX legislation has had on the sports curricula in the Minnesota schools. He says, "Men like sports they have played. Girls will be like that now. You can't like something you don't know anything about. When they grow up, these girls are going to be the damnedest fans you ever saw."
With a little luck the Fillies will still be around waiting for them.