The WNBA was founded in 1996 and play began in 1997.
The league has provided an avenue for women to play basketball after college without having to look solely overseas for opportunities.
Before the WNBA, professional opportunities were limited—there were failed start-ups and short-lived leagues where women could play professionally.
One of those leagues was the Women’s Professional Basketball League which operated between 1978 and 1981.
During its existence, the WBL saw a number of talented players light up the scoreboard.
Molly Bolin was a fan favorite and would become the face of the league during her playing days.
— Women's Basketball -DAILY- (@WBBDaily) April 10, 2019
Nicknamed “Machine Gun” for her propensity to score points, Bolin used her talents as well as her appearance to excite fans and fill arenas.
This is the story of “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin.
A Phenom From Iowa
Molly Bolin was born Monna Lea Van Benthuysen on November 13, 1957, in Dryden, Ontario, Canada.
— IGHSAU (@IGHSAU) September 20, 2017
When she was a child, her family moved to Moravia, Iowa where she quickly caught the basketball bug since the sport was popular in the state.
Girls’ basketball has always been a big deal in Iowa and Van Benthuysen was hooked when she attended a Moravia High School game while in elementary school.
The sights, sounds, players, and action on the court were powerful and young Molly was entranced.
“When it (the game) was over, I knew I had to do this,” Molly said. “I had to play basketball.”
By the time she got to high school, Van Benthuysen was well versed in the unique six-player game that was the standard for Iowa girls’ basketball at the time.
The six-player game, which hasn’t been played in Iowa for decades, was essentially half-court basketball.
On one half of the court, a team would have three forwards and the other half of the court consisted of three guards for the team who was defending.
Only forwards were allowed to shoot the ball and teams would take possession at half-court.
Ball handlers were permitted only two dribbles before passing.
“Iowa was in the forefront of involving Iowa girls in athletics,” said Gary Ross, basketball administrator for the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. “It was what you did on a Tuesday or Friday night in the winter. It brought the community together.”
Van Benthuysen played for the junior varsity team as a freshman and then joined the varsity team as a sophomore.
Scoring in Buckets
For the next three years, Van Benthuysen’s obsession with hoops drove her to become one of the state’s best basketball players.
She scored 50 or more points in 30 single games and even scored an astounding 83 points during a game in early 1975.
Her scoring average would become the stuff of legends.
“I became a star in the state of Iowa with my height. I set scoring records, averaged 55 points a game,” Molly said.
When she was 17, Van Benthuysen was invited to try out for the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team.
She didn’t make the team but did get the opportunity to play in college at Grand View College (which has since become Grand View University) in Des Moines, Iowa.
A Difficult Transition
Although Van Benthuysen had been a high school star, the transition from the six-player game to the standard five-person game was a hurdle.
Grand View only played five-person basketball and the game was full-court—something Van Benthuysen wasn’t used to.
“I didn’t really know how to dribble down the court and make a layup,” she said.
After struggling to learn the traditional game of basketball as a freshman, Van Benthuysen took a break from college for a year.
“I sat out my second year, got married, had a baby and came back my third year to a different coach,” Molly said.
Now going by Molly Bolin, she returned to Grand View and got a better handle on the full-court game.
Molly Bolin’s story is INSANE.
Not only were her stats out of control –
63 points in a high school game?
1,000 points in just two college seasons?
– but later her basketball prowess & efforts to play pro were weaponized against her as a mother. Just awful. #37Words
— Sarah Spain (@SarahSpain) June 22, 2022
Bolin would end the year averaging 24.6 points per game, which included one contest where she tallied 42 points.
In just two seasons of college basketball, Bolin scored 1,000 points.
The Cornets and WBL Come Calling
Before Bolin’s time, playing professional basketball after college was a far-fetched idea for women.
Thankfully, as Bolin was leaving college, a new women’s professional basketball league was being formed.
It just so happened that Iowa was putting together a team in the new Women’s Professional Basketball League and the coach of the team was someone who knew Bolin well.
“When I finished my second year of eligibility, the WBL started and the GM turned out to be my first college coach and so I was one of the first people he recruited,” Molly said.
Rod Lein, the coach for the new Iowa Cornets, offered Bolin a contract and she accepted.
LOB, Inc. VP Molly Bolin Kazmer was featured by the WBHOF. One of many WBL "firsts"
#ArtifactFriday! This is a pennant flag for the Iowa Cornets signed by Molly Bolin. Did you know that Bolin was the first player to be signed by any team in the WBL with the Cornets. pic.twitter.com/2dlh6glUKf
— LEGENDS OF THE BALL, INC. (@legends_lobinc) January 23, 2021
The announcement was formally made during a presentation at the Iowa state capitol with then-governor Bob Ray.
Bolin became the first woman to sign a contract with the WBL.
In an effort to build interest in the league, Cornets owner George Nissen, who had invented the trampoline, financed a short film named Dribble.
The focus of the film was actually on “Pistol” Pete Maravich, but the Cornets were used as extras.
Highs and Lows
As the first season of the WBL got underway, Bolin and her teammates couldn’t help but be excited about the opportunity.
“We knew we were paving the way for the future and I believed in it,” said Molly.
Her first contract was for $6,000 and she averaged about $900 per month.
Initially, Bolin had to work out some kinks with the five-person game.
The pro game was much faster than college and she was still learning the nuances of five-on-five basketball.
It's pioneering pro hoops w/Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) players & Legends of the Ball founders Liz Galloway, Adrian Mitchell, Charlene McWhorter & "Machine Gun" Molly Bolin Kazmer; NOW wherever you pod, or: https://t.co/f2fi7sdTnT #GoodSeats 🏀🎟️🎙️🎧 pic.twitter.com/6yjHOQYfX4
— GoodSeatsStillAvail (@GoodSeatsStill) April 15, 2022
It didn’t take her long to finally get in the groove and Bolin would average 16.7 points per game during her first year.
She aided her average by scoring 53 points in one game and, eventually, the Cornets made the WBL championship series against the Houston Angels where they lost.
While Bolin and the Cornets were succeeding on the court, the league itself was already in financial trouble.
Players from other franchises weren’t paid consistently and many paychecks bounced.
Travel was hard and the accommodations were sketchy at best.
The Cornets had it a little better than their counterparts because of Nissen’s money.
They were a popular team because of Bolin and the team bus, nicknamed the “Corn Dog,” became well known.
Mary Schrad (‘74) joined us this week to discuss her journey from Heelan to the pros as she played for the WBL’s Iowa Cornets. Listen here or wherever you podhttps://t.co/RHFSLsuntl pic.twitter.com/MeYTdHaMB0
— Knights Of Old (@KnightsOfOldPod) January 22, 2019
When Bolin was traveling in the Corn Dog, motorists would honk and wave and ask her to stick her head out a window.
Although she enjoyed what she was doing, Bolin struggled off the court.
“I was like the only wife and mother,” Molly said. “That was hard because the more successful I got, the more points I scored, the more I was in demand.”
The Cornets were doing okay financially, but Bolin wanted to help.
To promote the team, she offered to pose for a series of posters that featured her in various outfits.
Bolin’s blonde hair and blue eyes made her attractive to fans.
"Machine Gun" Molly Bolin was one of the greatest shooters in basketball history. She was the first woman signed to a professional contract by the Women's Professional Basketball League. Her story is among those profiled in ESPN's wonderful documentary "37 Words." pic.twitter.com/RrNkl1f63D
— Moondoggie ☮️🕊️✌️☯️🧘❤️⚽📽️📺📚🎵🐕 (@MoondogRick2) June 23, 2022
In fact, when the Cornets began selling her posters (Bolin kept the profits), other teams asked to use the posters to promote the league in their arenas.
The posters worked to bring in fans that might not have otherwise attended a women’s professional basketball game.
However, there was also backlash from some who didn’t think Bolin’s posters promoted a wholesome image.
“I took pictures in my uniform. And I tried this and I tried that. And then when the prints came out, I picked out one [in] my uniform and one just sitting down in a tank top and shorts with my ball. And shoes and all that, sitting there. And oh, my gosh, you would have thought that I posed nude it created such a ripple effect. People were freaking out,” she said.
Bolin didn’t see the issue with the posters, especially since they were her brainchild.
“I guess you could call them exploitative, but I don’t feel exploited because it was my idea,” she said. “I was an active participant.”
Bolin’s second year with the Cornets was even more exciting than her first.
Her shooting skills were on display every night as she scored countless points against her opponents.
From 1980: #Iowa Cornets star Molly Bolin prepares to shoot an underhand free throw, then cracks up laughing, during a game of HORSE with former #NBA star @Rick24Barry, right, and former @DrakeBulldogsMB player Dolph Pulliam. pic.twitter.com/AkGh3OM55r
— Des Moines Register Vault (@DMRegisterVault) January 14, 2020
During the 1979-80 season, Bolin scored an average of 32.8 points per game and had a 55-point game in early 1980 that set a record for professional women’s hoops.
As the season progressed, Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post nicknamed Bolin “Machine Gun” for her ability to score in rapid-fire succession.
The Cornets returned to the league finals again but lost to the New York Stars.
Unfortunately, the Cornets folded after the season due to financial issues, and Bolin had to find a new team.
Bolin’s WBL Playing Career Ends
It didn’t take long before Bolin found a new opportunity.
A competitor league, the Ladies Professional Basketball Association, was beginning and Bolin was sought by a team in California.
“I had somebody aggressively recruiting me,” Molly said. “They flew me to California and promised me the sun and the stars and $30,000 and I took it.”
Just as soon as the LPBA started, it ended after only seven games due to financial difficulties.
Bolin stayed in California and was signed by the San Francisco Pioneers of the WBL.
She promoted herself and the Pioneers when she appeared on a new poster carrying an actual machine gun.
As I’m compiling the stats for the pioneering Women’s Pro Basketball League of 1978-81, I’m getting reacquainted with the legend of “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, star with the Iowa Cornets and San Francisco Pioneers pic.twitter.com/9TdYbfFxFM
— Only The Ball Was Brown (@inthelowpost) December 11, 2021
By the end of the 1980-81 season, the WBL could no longer afford to stay afloat and shut down permanently.
With no more basketball, Bolin returned home to Iowa and her husband.
The opportunities to play professional basketball after the WBL folded were almost non-existent.
There were teams and leagues overseas, but Bolin did not want to live that far from her husband and young son, Damien.
She wanted to return to California but Bolin’s husband, Dennie, did not.
They had arguments while she was in the WBL, but their disagreements became more frequent to the point where divorce was imminent.
While going through divorce proceedings, Molly believed that she would get at least partial custody of Damien, but Dennie had other ideas.
Dennie and his lawyers highlighted Molly’s busy playing schedule and then showed the court her promotional pictures.
“They promoted and marketed me as a blonde, you know, pinup, and that got attention,” Molly said. “I was OK with that. I was the leading scorer in the league. I had no problem taking pictures because if they came to the game, they could see I could play.”
Dennie showed the posters to portray Molly as an unfit mother who left her family frequently and who used her looks to attract attention.
“When we got divorced, they used the fact that I was the breadwinner and played pro basketball against me,” Molly remembered.
Shockingly, the tactic worked and Dennie was awarded full custody of Damien.
Thankfully, the Iowa Supreme Court overruled the lower court a year later and Molly was awarded joint custody of her son.
Remarriage and Life After Basketball
With her divorce finally behind her, Molly continued seeking opportunities to play basketball.
“After winning custody, I was unable to play pro overseas, but I did resume my pro basketball career, played in an Olympic tour and did a commercial with Larry Bird in 1984 followed by another shot at a pro league, the [Women’s American Basketball Association] WABA,” Molly told The Next.
Her season with the Columbus Minks of the WABA was uneventful and the new league disbanded after only one year.
— Honest☘️Larry (@HonestLarry1) February 3, 2021
Without basketball, Molly worked in construction, home renovation, as a house painter, and as a real estate agent.
She eventually married a man named John Kazmer, who played college basketball.
The couple has two children.
Kazmer never did get a shot to really shine on a national or international stage.
Regardless, she is still recognized as one of the early pioneers of women’s professional basketball.
Kazmer was inducted into the Iowa Girls High School Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Grandview College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.
She was also a consultant with Fox Sports in the mid-90s during Fox’s attempt to start a new women’s pro basketball league.
Kazmer and her WBL colleagues have been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as trailblazers.
“We didn’t last long, but what we did was important,” she said. “We need to collect the game tapes and radio broadcasts and photos. We need to remember who came first.”