Interview: Ann Meyers Drysdale and Joni Ravenna
Ann Meyers Drysdale’s biography You Let Some Girl Beat You?, written by Joni Ravenna, placed as a runner-up in the 2020 Book Pipeline Adaptation season.
As someone who’s pretty fluent in sports—and I admit this painfully aware of my own sports history shortcomings—I wasn’t all that familiar with Ann’s background. But it’s a legitimately extraordinary one. It’s a story that captures a specific time period, but is timeless in its messaging. Outside of the checkboxes required of a biography, what were some of the primary ideas you wanted to get across? How did you see this translating to screen?
Ann Meyers Drysdale (AMD): From what I remember, first, just convincing me to do my story in the first place! I wasn’t sure in the beginning how and what we wanted to say. Personally, I was uncomfortable “showing myself” to the world and felt that my sister and other family members had achieved as much as I. I wasn’t very confident in myself that people would want to know my story. And the biggest challenge I’m sure for you, Joni, was trying to draw stories out of me, and convincing me (days later) that a certain story should be included. I was afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or making someone (especially in the family) look bad. I’m sure it was more work on your end, Joni, that you had to think up questions and kindly coerce me to speak about something. And by the way, you did an excellent job!
Joni Ravenna (JR): Annie’s story writes itself. You’ve got this huge family of gifted athletes all vying for their athletic father’s attention, and the middle child is the most gifted of them all. But she just happens to be this pretty blond who looks more like a model than an athlete. Yet, she’s so talented she can beat her brothers at tennis, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and even hold her own in football. She won’t take ‘no‘ for an answer on the courts, but off them she’s quiet, almost shy. And all of this is happening at a time when the culture is redefining women—tossing aside Harriet and Lucy for Maude and Mary Tyler Moore—and deciding that female student-athletes should have access to the same benefits as the guys (with the passage of Title IX). So naturally, Ann became the poster child for Title IX. But she didn’t want that. All she wanted was to be allowed to compete with the best. So, like most everything in Ann’s life, there’s always been this juxtaposition of opposing factors that I found fascinating against this culturally changing backdrop. The other thing that flows throughout the balance of her story is how she handles life’s wins and losses. She’s had so many blessings, but suffered so much loss, and she’s handled both with such grace.
As for the primary idea to get across in the book, for me it was that a woman really can have it all IF SHE WANTS IT ENOUGH AND SHE’S WILLING TO WORK HER ASS OFF. And by “have it all” I don’t just mean be a superstar athlete, executive, wife, mother, broadcaster … I mean do it all gracefully, with integrity, without sacrificing anything. Sure, Ann will tell you there were plenty of times she was torn, having to be in one place when her heart was in another—every working mother knows that feeling. But to pull off the balancing act and not make enemies or break hearts or lose yourself in the process? That’s near impossible. And Ann did it as a single mother of three after Don’s death.
It feels like Ann has led six different lives compared to a “normal” person. Joni, was there ever an issue of what to include and what to exclude in the book? Were there unique challenges to this biography compared to other work you’ve written?
JR: Well, Annie’s an athlete, I’m a writer. I’ve interviewed plenty of athletes over the years. I’ve also interviewed plenty of artists. The two see life very differently. So, yes, there were times we were at odds. I knew if we got into the weeds about every sporting event in her life, the book would be 1000 pages. Ultimately, I learned so much from Ann and her story. She’s a warrior not a worrier. And maybe that, in a nutshell, is the difference between artists and athletes. There’s a single-mindedness of focus in great athletes that doesn’t allow for ‘what ifs’ on the way to achieving their goals.
As for an arc, a young woman who wants everything that a man’s world has to offer, but also wants everything a woman can attain—and how she overcomes obstacles to achieve that—is a helluva an arc.
The loss of your husband [Dodgers legend Don Drysdale] was obviously a significant turning point. In terms of both your career and personal life, how did you stay on this upward path?
AMD: I had a great support system already in place. My Mom and sisters and brothers. Seeing the things my Mom went through, and as difficult as things were for her, she never lost her faith. I looked to Mom and her strength. And the support of everyone stepping up and helping with the kids when I went to work on a broadcast. Family was always there for me! As was Don’s Mom and Dad.
We had nannies when Don was alive, and I went through a slew of them trying to take the dependence off of my family. Looking back now, I’m sure the kids felt like they were on a yoyo. When is Mom coming back? Why isn’t Mom here? Who is this person watching us (when it wasn’t family)? I felt guilty all the time leaving them and putting the responsibility on someone else to watch my children. But I have always tried to stay positive. I’m sure being an athlete and very competitive that I was not going to let others dictate to me on a career I had worked very hard to establish and had been very supported by so many. Especially Don. With so many positive people in my life and the sacrifices they made for me, I didn’t want to let Don or the kids down.
So many people have helped me heal: my Mom, my brothers and sisters, the O’Malley Family, the LA Dodgers, UCLA, NBC, ESPN, and the Phoenix Mercury and Suns. And so many people that are and were in basketball & baseball.
I always ask our authors about the publication process, if it was relatively easy or difficult. One would think, given the enormity of Ann’s contributions to basketball alone, her story would be a no-brainer for a publisher. Was that the case? What advice would you give other biographers and those with incredible true stories as far as finding publication?
AMD: We had several choices for a publisher. I was very unfamiliar with being a part of a book, and Joni was the one that knew what we needed to do for a publisher. She was great, though, in giving me the information about the different publishing companies, and what they wanted from me. There were some good choices, and ultimately, I liked Behler, because they were a small, Southern California company that knew who I was. And I felt they might pay more attention to my story.
JR: When it comes to finding a publisher, my advice is to first find a good agent. We had a great agent, David Fugate, who gravitated to Ann’s story in part because he had a young daughter and he wanted her to know that if she really loved doing something, she should pursue it, giving it everything she had and expect to be every bit as successful as any man. David also made sure there was some competitive interest in the book so we had choices. He did a great job, especially considering that while we’ve come a long way over the years thanks to women like Annie, biographies about female athletes remain a tough sell.
It’s obvious what’s changed in women’s sports since the 1970s. What’s less obvious, perhaps, is what hasn’t changed. What advances do you think are still to be made? Things that we (as a culture that puts so much emphasis on athletics) have to “fix” in order to better allow true talent—no matter the sport—to rise to the top? And not only rise to the top, but allow for limitless potential?
AMD: That is a “catch-22” question for me. As much as sports in this country has changed and grown for girls and women, they haven’t changed at all. Yes, more women’s sports are on TV, mostly college and WNBA basketball. If it’s swimming, track, or gymnastics, usually it’s on channels you can’t find, or it’s only during championships and Olympics. Tennis, we all know Serena Williams, but are we familiar with many of the other players? Or on the LPGA? There is pro soccer, basketball, football, softball, volleyball, surfing, tennis, golf, and I’m sure some sports that I’m missing. The WNBA has been successful because of the support from the NBA. There is more respect because fathers are having daughters, brothers are coaching their sisters, and husbands are running races with wives. Since Title IX, more women who played sports are making a difference in the corporate world.
Yes, there is more media coverage of women on the internet and TV, but quite frankly not enough. The old ideas die hard. Hence, the name of the book, You Let Some Girl Beat You? In our society, it is not cool for a male to lose to a female. Whether it is in sports, politics, business, or the classroom. Derogatory female names are thrown at the male to demean him. Which means one is demeaning girls or women. Equal Pay? HA! Not in sports and not in the business world. Leadership roles in high positions? Usually a white male or a male.
For example, Athletic Directors of colleges and high schools are mostly men. Before Title IX, 75% of girls and women’s sports were coached by women. Since Title IX, those same jobs are over 60% coached by men. There is more money, and men that can’t get jobs on the men’s side go over to coach girls and women. And on the club level of girl’s sports, the majority of teams in ALL girl’s sports are coached by men. But sports have been a huge platform for women athletes to use to talk about racial, social, and gender injustice. Mothers are having their children, and then they come back to compete after giving birth. Men don’t have to take time off when they become fathers. There are still stereotypes. In a marriage, it seems that the expectations of a woman in the household should be cooking the meals, where in the business world, the majority of men are cooks & chefs in restaurants. I have heard parents say, “I don’t want my daughter to play sports. They will become gay, or look too masculine.” Not true. Are there lesbians playing sports? Yes, but not all girls and women that compete in sports are gay. But, that’s another social issue that women are able to talk about more than men are.
This is a tangent, but we’re curious: Ann, what was the one moment in your career you look back on and think, “Wow—this is what I’m most proud of accomplishing?”
AMD: That is not an easy question to answer. First and foremost, it’s our children—Don Jr. (DJ), Darren, and our daughter Drew. Athletically and broadcasting: just being a part of a team. There are WAY, WAY TOO MANY accomplishments to only say one thing! I would have to start with all the wonderful people that I have met along the way, from competing in seven different sports in high school, all my coaches, teammates, opponents, and anyone that said, “you can’t.” The game of basketball has been good to me in so many ways—a game that I love, and continue to be close to, through being an executive and broadcaster.
JR: I think she should be most proud of her place in history as the only woman ever to sign a no-cut contract with the NBA and the fact that she’s one of a very small handful of athletes ever who have been able to compete and triumph in multiple sports on a national stage. Another thing that amazes me about Annie is that of all the people I interviewed for the book—famous people, other athletes, competitors, as well as her friends and family—there wasn’t one who had an unkind thing to say about her. Annie has no enemies. She’s accomplished so much without stepping on anyone along the way. And that in itself is a feat.
At 5’9”, Ann Meyers Drysdale looked more like a model than an athlete, yet she went on to become one of the greatest female athletes of all time. Time Magazine named her on of “The Ten Greatest Female Sports Pioneers.” From an early age, she competed with her brothers, then went on to beat the boys in grade school, whether that was on the track, football, baseball or basketball field. Meyers could do it all.
She’d become the first high school student to compete in the Nationals, the first female student to play on the championship high school boys’ basketball team, and the first female to receive a full athletic scholarship to a Division one school (UCLA). She’d become the first female four-time All American, started on the first Olympic Women’s Basketball Team helping bring home the Silver, and she’d led UCLA Women’s Basketball to what remains their one and only Championship. She is still the only woman ever to sign a no-cut contract with the NBA (Pacers). Today Meyers-Drysdale is a broadcaster having worked with every major TV network while also acting as VP of The Phoenix Suns and the Phoenix Mercury. Meyers-Drysdale continues to break barriers, reminding women everywhere that the way to the Boardroom is through the Locker Room. But it’s never easy. Her life had heartache as well as triumph. Her husband, Dodger great, Don Drysdale died suddenly in ’93, leaving her with two young sons and a new-born daughter to raise. She was only 38 years old. Through it all, she never stopped.
“Sure, life is filled with suffering and heartbreak and great loss; but it’s also filled with so much joy and so many good things. And it’s those good things we must celebrate and remember.” When asked how it feels to have been the first woman to have done this or that, she is quick to say that others have come before her to open up doors, then adds, “What matters is not that I was first, but that I not be the last.”
“Annie was one of the best players ever. I didn’t say male or female; I said, ever.” – Celtics Great, Bill Russell
TV writer, author, playwright and journalist, Ravenna was editor of the OC Woman section of Parenting Magazine from 2004 to 2014 while also producing the TV series “Earth Trek” for PBS National. She has had the honor of working with such luminaries as David Lynch, Forrest Whitaker, Sean Astin, Deepak Chopra, and many others. Her TV writing credits include: “Great Sports Vacations,” (a 36 part Cable-Ace nominated TV series for the Travel Channel), “The Donovan Concert, Live at the Kodak” for PBS, “Hello Paradise”, (a 72 part series for KVCR-PBS), “Judy, Frank and Dean” and “Latin Legends at the Orpheus.” (PBS). Over the years, Ravenna has interviewed leaders in various fields including: Sean Connery, Marianne Williamson, Jim Brown, Julius Erving, Johnny Bench, Sugar Ray Leonard, Elgin Baylor, Dyan Cannon, Kirk Douglas, and Brad Pitt to name a few. She found the most inspiring of all, however, to be Ann. When Ravenna learned that most people didn’t recognize the name Ann Meyers Drysdale – a woman who has shattered more glass-ceilings than any other, ever – Ravenna knew she had to change that. “You Let Some GIRL Beat You? – The Story of Ann Meyers Drysdale,” (Behler, 2012) was called “A stunning portrayal of one of today’s legendary women’s basketball treasures,” by Alan Glass, Forbes Magazine.
Some of Ravenna’s notable plays, include, The Green Grocer (Winner Best Play, Dublin Festival) For Pete’s Sake (Brooklyn Publishers under the name JR Sussman at Chance Theatre in Anaheim – Winner Best Play, CV-Weekly; Best New Play Palm Springs Writers Guild; Nominated Best New Play, OC Weekly; Finalist, Playwrights’ Circle International Playwriting Competition). Her play Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies (New Works of Merit Honoree) is based on the true story of black music-appreciation professor, Kabin Thomas, who was fired after a white student complained about the inclusion of a graphic image depicting a lynching in connection with his lesson on Billie Holiday and the song, Strange Fruit, has been produced all over the country. Due to COVID, it was produced in 2020 by Open Door Playhouse in North Hollywood as a podcast starring Amir Abdulla (Empire, Chicago Fire).
Joni’s articles on health and wellness appear regularly in the international Epoch Times Newspaper, NYC.
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