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Sports

On top by staying on ball

Barely a month into her job as president of the WNBA,

Donna Orender is already getting good write-ups. She read from a recent one

that said, "The people you work with are very nice and you are great at it,

too." The correspondent went on to say, "I am doing good in school ... Me and

Jacob miss you a lot."

That positive review came from one of the people whose opinion counts most

to Orender: her son Zachary, one of twin boys who will turn 8 next week. "And

look," she said, pointing to the note that she brought back from a trip home on

Mother's Day, "he drew me a WNBA ball."

It is part of the latest upward bounce for the former Donna Chait of Elmont

and Queens College (Class of '78). She will try to be a wife and mother to her

family in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., while running a women's professional

basketball league in New York. She will be on planes a lot, she is on the phone

every morning (checking on homework) and she believes she is on the right

track.

She left a responsible, high-level job as senior vice president with the

thriving PGA Tour for a league that could use a shot in the arm as it opens its

ninth season Saturday. She will get to see her husband, M.G. Orender, the

former president of the PGA of America, whenever their schedules coincide. The

other day, she found herself writing a letter to him, thanking him profusely

for being so understanding.

She just sees a higher purpose with this job.

Once a girl who had to win her place on the boys high school tennis team

and who didn't have a whole lot of corporate role models, she knows the doors

that opened to her because she played basketball. She knows what came of her

seasons earning $5,500 a year for the New York Stars and two other teams in the

old WBL and she thinks more girls ought to find those doors. "There's this

spiritual nature to this," she said in her Fifth Avenue office. "It's about

inspiration and aspiration."

M.G., a former teaching pro who now runs seven golf courses in Florida,

couldn't move to Manhattan. So he is staying down south with Zachary and Jacob

and the fishing boat they're going to buy. "Once you are on a certain track,

there aren't that many opportunities in sports."

A familiar figure to pro golfers (he was the one who handed Vijay Singh the

trophy at the close of last year's PGA Championship), M.G. has fielded a lot

of questions about this arrangement.

"I tell them, 'You guys are on the road 40 weeks of the year,'" he said.

For a year after Donna and M.G. were married in 1994, they didn't live

together. His business was in Orlando, hers was near Jacksonville and they met

whenever they could.

"Our whole life together we have worked at [scheduling] and prioritized it.

It has added an element of intrigue and fun," she said. "So this is not that

different."

Except this is a different calling. She got emotional at her first WNBA

draft, when she saw players' moms getting teary with pride.

"Every single day since I've started has been filled with moments of

affirmation," she said. "I can't tell you how many guys find out what I do and

want to tell me about their daughters. Everybody has a story."

Unlike Jerry and Sherry Chait's other two daughters, Donna became a sports

enthusiast. She figures it was because her father liked sports and she wanted

to engage him.

As a 14-year-old, she used to sneak out of the house and go to Harlem to

play basketball. At Elmont High, she tried field hockey, softball, volleyball,

track and tennis. Because there was no girls squad in the latter sport, she

asked coach Bill Snizek if she could play with the boys.

"It was a day and age in which he didn't have to do it, yet he did," she

said. "I had to beat one of the boys - it was actually a boy I really liked,

too."

Basketball was her best sport and first love. It brought her to Queens

College, where she said she learned the value of dedication and determination

in coach Lucille Kyvallos' intense practices. The player got so hooked on the

sport that she dropped out of graduate school at Adelphi to play pro ball.

She made enough contacts doing that to get some radio work, then a job at

Sports- Phone (Remember "Stay with us!"?), then another at SportsChannel, then

one with ABC at Monday Night Football, then one with PGA Tour Productions and

ultimately one in commissioner Tim Finchem's office, handling every aspect of

the golf business.

"What amazes me is her passion, whether it is in basketball, golf or the

newest technology on the PGA Tour," said Brian Kemp, a former Tour employee who

now is director of Long Island's Commerce Bank Championship. He recalls

getting posted up by her in Thursday night staff games. "She is one of those

people who just doesn't fail."

Orender had been rumored to be the next commissioner of the LPGA Tour, the

women's golf circuit, but she believes in women's basketball and its

opportunities. "Not only from a market sense is it the right thing to do, but

from a moral and ethical sense it's the right thing to do," said the woman who

is among the founders of Beth El-The Beaches Synagogue in Jacksonville (Jerry

and Sherry, transplanted Long Islanders, are in the congregation).

Not that she sees her league merely as some cause. She believes the WNBA,

at the core, is good, affordable entertainment.

She already has made one convert. "Oh my gosh," she said, "Jacob said,

'Mom, I want to know as much about basketball as you do.'"

New York Sports