Lynette Woodard, the first female player in the Harlem Globetrotters' 60-year history, flashed a 1000-watt smile as she showed off her ball-handling magic. But before you could whistle Sweet Georgia Brown, her male teammates decided her time on Cloud 9 was up. It's okay to rent space there, they figured, but not to move in—not just yet. "Girl," commanded 6'5" veteran Ovie Dotson, flipping Woodard a red, white and blue basketball, "take this home and practice!"

Practice? It's a wonder she could walk. Woodard, 26, the 6' captain of the 1984 U.S. gold medal Olympic team, had to scrap to survive the rib-crunching, week-long final tryouts against nine other women. But when the dust cleared and the Ben-Gay settled, it was Woodard, an assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Kansas, who was chosen for her consistency and all-around talent. Woodard, who played professionally—and unhappily—in Italy in 1981, called the Globetrotters' job, which will reportedly pay her at least $35,000 this season, "the opportunity of the century," though it obviously won't make her rich. "It's beautiful to watch the excitement this team creates," she says. "To be part of that will be wonderful."

A female Globetrotter? Is nothing sacred? Not, you can bet, where the box office is concerned. The razzle-dazzle squad that once packed 75,000 fans into Berlin's Olympic Stadium for an exhibition has slumped badly at the gate since the mid-'70s. Blame it on TV sports saturation, the NBA or just plain changing times. Whatever the reason, says team marketing consultant Tom Crangle, the Trotters had become "a white, upper-middle-class, father-and-son event." Once known as much for their fundamental skills as their showmanship, the team seemed mired in slow-paced slapstick. Earl Duryea, the group's cost-cutting new president, had been toying with the idea of adding a woman for more than a year. Not just any woman—he wanted "somebody we could send to France who would know the difference between Mitterrand and Perrier."

When rumors of a female player first got around last spring, old-line Globies grumbled. "A dark cloud descended over the team bus," recalls veteran Jimmy Blacklock. "I was skeptical, man, skeptical." Throughout the summer, long-distance phone lines sizzled as the veterans sized up each other's reactions. Eventually, says Blacklock, they came to an accommodating—and pragmatic—consensus: "It was another first, and we would be part of it." Not everybody was happy, of course. "The Globetrotters have a tradition to live up to," said former player-coach Larry "Gator" Rivers. "I don't want to be part of the group that assassinated Santa Claus."

Woodard, a former University of Kansas ail-American, came into the final tryouts as the favorite, but she never let herself believe she was a shoo-in. "Every time I heard that, I just ran a little harder," she says. For six weeks before the final playdown at Los Angeles Lutheran High School in Burbank, she dutifully rose at 5:30 a.m. for weight lifting, wind sprints and up to five miles of running.

She needed all the muscle power she could get. "These are the most competitive girls I've ever seen," said male try-out Tyrone Brown. "Either you play them close or they make you look baaad." So naturally the guys played them close. In one scrimmage, 5'7" Sandra Hodge and 7' Dedrick Reffigee dived for a loose ball, tumbled off the court and slammed hard into the folding wooden stands. Later, gritty 5'9" Cheryl Cook found herself up against 6'8" Harold Hubbard. As he launched a layup, Hubbard's left knee caught Cook in the ribs and put her on the floor for nearly five minutes. Things really got ferocious when the women went against each other. "There's only one job and everybody wants it," said former LSU all-American Joyce Walker.

Woodard knows something about competition. The fourth and youngest child of a retired fireman and his wife, Lynette led her Wichita North High School team to two state championships with 59 wins and only three losses. At KU, where she graduated in 1981 with a degree in speech communications, she broke 24 of the school's 32 women's basketball records. It didn't happen by accident; the twig, in her case, was bent early. A strict Baptist (who prays before all meals, even in restaurants), she wasn't allowed to hang out after school and took to playing "sockball" with her older brother Darrell. "We'd roll socks up for a ball and shoot off the bedroom door," she says.

But it was cousin Geese Ausbie, a Globetrotter star who left the team last spring, who first turned her on to Trotter magic. "Geese showed us how to spin a basketball on our fingers and do all those Globetrotter tricks," she remembers. "It was just joy to my heart." Two weeks ago, as the team left for Australia to kick off its grueling 185-game season, the joy was still there, along with some butterflies. Privately, Woodard has confided to her teammates that she is worried whether she will play effectively against the men. But she knows what she has to do to make good. Explains Lynette, drawing an analogy to another favorite sport, track: "I love the quarter mile because it says so much about life. Everybody's got what it takes until they come around the curve. Then there's nothing left. Whoever's going to win has to do it on guts."

  • Contributors:
  • Jack Kelley.