For the Love of the Game

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

University of Kansas alum Lynette Woodard broke barriers for women in basketball, even becoming the first woman on the Harlem Globetrotters.  Photo courtesy Kansas Athletics, Inc.

University of Kansas player Lynette Woodard broke barriers for women in basketball, even becoming the first woman on the Harlem Globetrotters. Photo courtesy Kansas Athletics, Inc.

Professional sports are often thought of as a young person’s game.

There’s a lot of truth to that idea: the average age of players on NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA teams seems to be somewhere in the mid- to late 20s. It’s harder to find statistics for women’s professional sports, but for WNBA players, at least, this study also puts average age in the mid-20s.

And then there’s Wichita native Lynette Woodard, whose WNBA career began at the age of 38.

Not just anyone could have done it, but then, Woodard isn’t just anyone. She’s one of the most dedicated and talented players of all time.

Her love for the game started early, when her older brother taught her how to shoot using a stuffed sock. After leading her high school team to a state championship, she enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1977. In four seasons and 139 games with the Lady Jayhawks, Woodard put up 3,649 points—a record that still stands today.

After graduating from KU in 1981, Woodard followed her love of the game around the world. Whenever and wherever she got the chance to play, there she would go: to European and Japanese professional leagues throughout the 1980s and early 1990s; to the 1984 Olympic games, where she captained the U.S. women’s team and won a gold medal; even to the Harlem Globetrotters, with whom she spent two years—the first woman ever to join the team.

But her dream was to play professional women’s basketball in her home country, so when the WNBA formed in 1996, Woodard found herself suiting up once again. She played two seasons, one with the Cleveland Rockers and one with the Detroit Shock, before retiring from the league just shy of her fortieth birthday.

Woodard made reference to the length of her career in her 2005 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech, thanking the WNBA leaders “for giving the older players a chance to come back to the league.”

“Although it came at the end of my career,” she added, “it was just great to have the opportunity to play in that league.”