A story of determination and perseverance: Flint's first pro women's basketball player

FLINT, Michigan — Dreams of playing professional basketball have spanned generations of young people in Flint — the city’s legacy as one of the nation’s best at producing basketball talent has long served as inspiration on courts across the community.

Linnell Jones-McKenney grew up with that dream — but not an easy path to achieving it, especially as a young girl in Flint in the 1960s and 70s. Her pursuit of that goal instilled her with a tenacity that she has used in accomplishments on and off the court. 

“It was a dream at the age of 8 to play professionally,” said Jones-McKenney, who is one of an all-star team of inspiring Flint natives on slate to share her story of determination and success at the annual GearUp4Success Conference on March 19.  

The challenge, however, is that Flint didn’t have a girls sports program at the time, so she had to play on boys teams until high school. Jones-McKenney was undaunted by that challenge — she took whatever opportunities she could find to play and was unwavering in chasing her dreams, even in the face of adversity.

“I believed God had gave me a dream to play professional basketball even though there was no girls programs,” she said. “I was bullied, and told it would never happen. I played on the boys team and in middle school three boys followed me home because they were upset that I was playing on the team. But I held onto my dream. In high school, a school administrator told me to give up because I would never make it, I was told that I was too small. Also they did not have scholarships for women to play college sports. In spite of all the negativity surrounding me, I held onto my dream.”

Jones-McKenney graduated from Flint Northwestern in 1976 and played collegiately at Ferris State, Saginaw Valley State, and Kentucky State. She paid for college her first year, received a partial scholarship her second year, and earned a full scholarship her final two years. 

In 1980, she was offered the chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic team — she took it, even in the face of naysayers who said that she shouldn’t try. She made it all the way to the final round of cuts, and also learned about a future opportunity: a coach to whom she’d confided her dream of playing professionally told her about a new league, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) and helped her connect to a team.

A coach with the St. Louis Streaks called her a week later and offered her a tryout — her dream of playing professionally was close to reality. 

“I was so excited, that I ran down the dorm hallway screaming knowing that finally my dream was about to come true,” Jones-McKenney said.

She became Flint’s first woman to play professional basketball when she was selected by the Streaks with the fourth pick in the 1980 draft, and later played professionally in Italy when the WBL folded. Her list of on-court accomplishments are vast: She was a three-time MVP and five-time All-Star in Italy; she once scored 84 points in a single game; she was one of the first of 15 Americans to play in the European Women’s Professional Basketball League.

Her success made her an important pioneer in Flint’s storied sports history.

“At that time I had no idea I was paving the way for thousands of other young ladies,” Jones-McKenney said. “After coaching and personal training, and also offering basketball camps to young ladies and young men to (help them) be able to receive college scholarships and eventually play on a professional level, I was able to see the benefit of me having that experience and imparting it to the athletes.”

Jones-McKenney’s professional career was just a piece of her dream, though. Her other passion was her community, and providing avenues to help young people in Flint achieve their dreams and find opportunities to succeed. Her experience growing up in the city included access to resources that helped her accomplish her goals.

“Even though there wasn't a girls sports program, I had an opportunity to play with the boys, whether at the park, in the driveway, and in the streets,” she said. “Most importantly the gyms were always open for youth to go to and play daily at teen clubs, summer Olympian games, etc. And the community education programs that originated here in Flint was a big boost for the Flint community that eventually went nationwide and provided opportunities for many athletes to develop their talents and become elite players in most sports. Flint produced more professional athletes than any city in America. It's still on record. And I believe it has a lot to do with the Community Education program, parks, open gymnasiums, and summer programs.”

Today, she is engaged in Flint as a coach and mentor through her School of Champions Sports Academy program at the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village (SBEV). The program, open to boys and girls ages 8-17, gives participants access to professional mentors and opportunities to develop athletic and academic talents in sports programs, art, music, technology, health, and business. 

“Those who qualify as an elite athlete will play on our elite club that travels across the country to tournaments where college coaches frequent to offer youth scholarships. We also offer tutoring for students to become student/athletes of excellence,” she said. “Some students may want to focus on becoming a junior chef, artist, musician, dancer, journalist, tap dancer, computer programmer, and more. At the School of Champions program, it's there for every child to ‘dream their dream’ the way I had an opportunity to dream."

The GearUp4Success Conference is hosted by GearUp2Lead, a nonprofit in Genesee County focused on teaching students to develop a mindset to accomplish their goals, graduate high school and succeed in life. It will also feature speakers Isaiah Oliver, Cherisse Bradley, James Mayfield and others. 

About 1,000 students from throughout Genesee County are expected to attend. Tickets and sponsorships are available for the March 19 event at the University of Michigan-Flint. 

Jones-McKenney said her talk will focus on the following themes: What’s your dream?; What are your gifts?; What’s your passion?; What’s your assignment?; Develop your gifts and talents you’re passionate about; Always focus on your assignment; and Never give up. 

“Life is about purpose,” she said. “If we all know our purpose for living and the gift we have to accomplish our purpose, there would be less depression. Everyone would live with passion and intentionally focus on our goals and working towards a particular end. For me, I ask the question, why was I born, what's my gift, and where is my assignment? I knew my assignment, my gifts, talents, and where and who I would influence when I was 8 years old. And even though I traveled around the world to accomplish my dream, I never lost focus on my assignment and what I know my purpose is for living. Leaving a legacy to the youth in the city of Flint.”
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