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
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
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
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,
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.'"