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Writing the biography of a legend: Molly Bolin

On Writing

Writing the biography of a legend: Molly Bolin

Stephen H. Provost

Some people read romance novels for pleasure. Others read science fiction. In my youth, I was smitten by the Tolkien bug and went on a binge of epic fantasy, but these days, I have a different guilty pleasure: I read rock star biographies. Sammy Hagar. Freddie Mercury. Zeppelin. All four members of KISS.

For a while, I’ve wanted to write a biography of my own. Not a memoir, and certainly not an autobiography. I’m not in the business of putting people to sleep.

My friend Anne R. Allen, an author one of the premier bloggers on the business of writing, makes some good points in a recent piece on memoirs. The three that stood out to me were:

  • Tell a page-turning story.

  • Focus on significant and unique personal experience, especially when tied to a well-known person or event (emphasis mine).

  • Remember that a memoir, like a novel, is read for entertainment.

The first and the third points are closely related, and all three together are the criteria I use when deciding to read a biography. Plain and simple: I want to find out more than I already know ... about someone I already know about. And I want that “more” to be entertaining.

But as an author, I want my stories to be original. I don’t have much interest in writing yet another biography about Freddie Mercury, no matter how big a fan I may be (and I am). That story’s been told, and no one needs me to tell it yet again. One of my main objectives as an author has always been originality. I wanted to write the definitive history of Fresno in the Baby Boom years in 2015 and of U.S. Highway 99 in 2017, because no one else had done it.  

As you might imagine, this quest for originality becomes more challenging in the realm of biography. If you write about a regular, average person, who wants to read that – unless the story is knock-your-socks-off incredible. But most well-known public figures have already been featured in biographies written by better-known authors than I. So, my desire to write a biography has always been unfulfilled as I waited for the “perfect” subject I suspected would never come along.

Then, she did. The result is The Legend of Molly Bolin.

Out of the blue

The irony is that this book came about because of another project that was more a labor of love than anything else. I didn’t write A Whole Different League (AWDL) to be a big seller; I wrote it because I had grown up as a sports fan and had always been fascinated about leagues that didn’t quite make it. I’d spent a decade working as a sportswriter at daily newspapers, yet I’d never written a sports book. I figured it was time to do so.

Writing AWDL, like reading rock star biographies, was something of a guilty pleasure for me – so much so that I wrote it in fits and starts over the course of two years, putting it down to write something I thought would be more marketable before picking it up again between projects. I had the first draft all but done when I remembered the Women’s Basketball League from the late 1970s, which had lasted three years and featured the likes of Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski, Nancy Lieberman ... and Molly Bolin.

The odd thing was, I’d never heard of Molly. But what made that even stranger is that she had scored more points than any of them. More points in a season. More points in a game. More points in a playoff game. More points in a half. More points in a career. The fact that the premier scorer in the first women’s pro basketball league had somehow flown under my radar piqued my interest, so I started doing some more research. I found out that she had remarried and was now Molly Kazmer, so I took a flyer and looked her up on social media.

Lo and behold, she answered my request and wound up providing me with some great firsthand information about the WBL for that final chapter. But the more she told me, the more I became convinced that her story alone would make a fascinating book. Had anyone else written one on her? Had she ever considered writing one herself?

By fortuitous happenstance, the answers were “no” and “yes,” respectively. In fact, she had been accumulating a wealth of photos, newspaper clips and other memorabilia to someday document her life and career. I suggested to her that “someday” might be now: Would she consider working with me to tell her story?

Again, the answer was “yes,” and for the next 10 weeks or so, we communicated almost daily as I wove together her life’s story from a combination of her many recollections, media resources and interviews with contemporaries – many of whom had amazing stories of their own to tell. There was Tanya Crevier, the 5-foot-3 ballhandling wizard who played three years of pro ball with Molly and still performs an amazing and inspirational show worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters for people around the world. Then there was Greg Williams, the only person to coach women’s championship teams in three different pro leagues, on top of an impressive Division I college resume. He not only was kind enough to sit for an extensive phone interview, but he agreed to write the foreword.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

An amazing story

Even with all that, though, Molly was the star of the show. Not only was she the top scorer in the first women’s pro league, she was the first player to ever sign. She went from a benchwarmer during the first half of her rookie season – to the team’s offensive star, even though she was young enough to have been a junior in college.

She adapted her game from Iowa’s old 6-on-6 rules (three offensive players always in the frontcourt; three defenders confined to the other half of the hardwood). But not only that, she turned it to her advantage by using a quick stop-and-shoot style that presaged the modern jump shot practiced by the likes of Stephen Curry – to whom she’s been compared. Or, perhaps, he’s been compared to her.

She even won a precedent-setting court case and helped pave the way for today’s merchandising boom by pro athletes such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James, when she came up with a marketing strategy that made her basketball’s answer to Farrah Fawcett. Stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Pete Maravich, Martina Navratilova and Rick Barry play a part in the narrative, too.

I won’t give anything more away (you’ve got to buy the book!), but I will say this: The Legend of Molly Bolin is everything a great biography should be – and not because I wrote it. It was simply a great story waiting to be told, and I had honor of being the one to tell it.

The story isn’t just about Molly. It’s about all the players, coaches and executives who made history by taking part in the WBL and other early women’s leagues. People like Althea Gwyn, Doris Draving, Cardte Hicks, Connie Kunzmann, Robin Tucker, Rita Easterling, Janie Fincher and Tanya Crevier. The league was inducted as a whole into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame last year as Trailblazers of the Game, and deservedly so.

But there are at least a few members of the old WBL who deserve to be inducted individually, as players like Meyers, Blazejowski, Lusia Harris and Lieberman have been. After all, if a Stevie Nicks can join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Fleetwood Mac and a solo artist, it only makes sense to bestow the same kind of honor on a Molly Bolin.

Like one of her jump shots, it ought to be a sure thing.