Was this jockey the first professional female basketball player?
It’s rare for a publicity stunt to make a blip the day it’s performed, let alone more than 40 years later. But the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels may have done just that when they let Penny Ann Early play on their team. She became the first pro female basketball player.
Early was actually a jockey. At 5’3″ and 110 pounds (only a little lighter than Muggsy Bogues), she wanted to ride horses. However, male jockeys threatened to boycott the Kentucky Derby and she was effectively banned from competing. The media firestorm gave the Kentucky Colonels an opportunity for some free publicity, so they asked Penny to join their team in 1968.
The kicker? She actually played (for about ten seconds). As recalled on the excellent Remember The ABA, Early wore a sweater and mini-skirt to the game, warmed up with the players, and sat on the bench with the team. It could have been just a publicity stunt, but Coach Gene Rhodes was ordered to make Early actually play in the game. He called a timeout, Early inbounded the ball, and then Rhodes called another timeout. By taking that next step to inbound the ball, her stint on the Colonels entered the history books.
Of course, Early’s play definitely qualifies as trivia, since her game was still more stunt than strategy. Those curious about Penny’s real athletic career can read an article Life wrote about the jockey controversy, while basketball fans can read the WNBA’s history of women in basketball, which includes only true basketball athletes. Still, the ABA was a professional league, and because Early inbounded the ball, she can hold claim to a historic record in a sport that she didn’t even play.