Lightning Mitchell: A Pioneer of Women’s Professional Basketball (Part 1)

John FarrellBy John Farrell14 Minutes

John Farrell: Before we start talking about the Women’s Basketball Association (WBA) and your impact on women’s basketball, you originally wanted to be a preacher. What changed that?

Lightning Mitchell: It never really changed. The only thing with that is that if the Lord wanted me to preach, I wanted Him to use me like He did Moses or one of the prophets. He would install in me what He wanted me to preach. In other words, I wouldn’t be taught to say this or that. What I would say would come directly from Him. That was my desire.

If I was going to preach, everything that came out of my mouth would come from Him. It wouldn’t come because I went to an institution or a school and I was trained to do it this way or that way.

JF: How did your time in the Vietnam War help you realize what you wanted to do with your life and what God meant to you in your life?

Lightning: I was drafted right out of high school. I was 18 or 19 when I went to Vietnam. I was preparing to go to college to play football for Eddie Robinson at Grambling State University. I was going to play there and then go to the NFL.

But when I got out of high school, I got drafted. It was a whole different world for me because you have a gun thrown in your hands. You know, shoot or be shot. It just put me in a whole different state of life.

When you’re in Vietnam, you didn’t know whether you were going to come home or not. You were scared 24-7, but God did some miraculous things for people in Vietnam.

I remember the first night I was going out into the field. They loaded us in the back of this military truck, but we had to stop at a stopping point for 30 minutes to an hour before you went into the field. They give you the freedom to go to the Officers’ Club to lounge around. A lot of the guys went to the Officer’s Club. The chapel wasn’t too far from so I thought I would go to the chapel and pray.

I went down to the chapel to pray. You can go inside the chapel anytime because the doors are wide open. I wanted to go into the chapel to pray, but when I got there it was really dark inside the chapel. I stood outside looking in through the chapel door, and I could see right down the middle of the aisle to where the pastor preached. On the pulpit, there was a cross on it.

When I looked into the chapel – and I could see this as clear as day – that cross was lit up like daylight. It was shining. It was a simple cross, but it was shining like there were spotlights on it. It scared me to death. I was scared to go in. I thought, I’ll just sit out here on the steps. God will understand if I don’t want to go in.

Then I thought, Why am I scared of God? This is God’s house. I said “Lord, help me. I’m scared. Do something so I can go in and pray.”

Immediately, the phone starts ringing in the chapel, and it’s right by the door. If a phone starts ringing and you’re in the area, you’re supposed to answer it. But when the phone rang I was so scared. I was like cement. I was glued to those steps.

As I sat there, I began to cry, because I know that was my sign to go into the chapel. The phone must have rung seven or eight times and I wasn’t moving. I sat there for a moment and then got up because I thought, Why am I crying? This is God’s house? If something’s going to happen to me, what better place for it to happen than right here?

I got up and caught myself trying to build up enough courage to walk in, but I wasn’t moving. Then the thought came to my mind again, Lord, could You do something to help? Immediately the phone starts ringing again.

When I took my first step inside – the minute my foot hit the floor inside – that phone shut off. I don’t think it rang more than one time.

JF: That was God calling you into the church.

Lightning: Right! At that point, my fear had left me. I was preparing to go into the field. Whatever was going to happen was gonna happen. I was going to trust God with it that night. And thank God because we went out and there was enemy movement in our area, but we had no heavy hits.

JF: Glad to hear that. So, fast-forward several years to the 1990s. Where did the idea for the WBA emanate?

Lightning: That’s when I was playing minor league football. They used to have a minor league for the NFL, and I was playing on a minor league team up in Delavan, Wisconsin, around Madison and Milwaukee.

While I was playing up there, my intention was to get a tryout with the Green Bay Packers. I actually got a chance to go meet and talk with Coach Forrest Gregg. He was one of the coaches for Green Bay.

I was playing ball there. If you’re playing minor league ball, you also had to do something else because you didn’t get paid a lot of money. So, I also worked at a metal factory in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

While I was working one night at the factory, I cried out to God, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I thought God would help me get into professional sports, and I felt God understood what I was talking about, because He helped me get into professional sports.

We were on lunch break, I was back in a little area by myself, and as I was sitting there the thought came into my heart and my mind that was as plain as daylight to create a women’s professional basketball league. It was so real. It was like somebody was talking to me. So, I got scared, like when you get scared you get little chill bumps. I get up to look around to see if somebody else is there. There was nobody there.

I sat back down and thought Man, I must be getting tired. I got to get more rest. The Lord helped me to get into professional sports – the NFL – and now he wanted me to start this women’s professional basketball league. This time it was so thick. It really got my attention.

I got up and went to the other area where people were eating because I was scared. As we were going back to work, I was troubled. I said, “Lord, if this is something You are telling me to do, okay.” But, I was just playing a game with God. That’s what I was doing.

On my way home, I had two other guys riding with me. I told God, “If this is something you want me to do, I’m going to mention it to these two guys and if they start laughing, I’m going to laugh right along with them. But if they don’t laugh, I know this is something you want me to do.”

We got off about nine that night. When we get in the car, everybody’s talking about how the night went. One of them turns the radio up loud to hear a song they like.

As I’m driving, I’m thinking how am I going to say this to these guys? I reach over to turn the radio down, and they say, “What are you doing? I like that song. Don’t turn that down.”

I said, ” I want to share something with you guys.” They said, “Hurry up, hurry up. What is it?” I said, “I’m thinking about quitting.”

One of the guys said, “Man, what are you talking about quitting? We got the best job in the world. We don’t do nothing. We get paid good.”

I said, “I know.” They said, “What are you going to do if you quit, Lightning?” I said, “I’m thinking about starting a women’s professional basketball league.”

I’m waiting on these guys to start laughing because I was gonna laugh along with them and say I was just joking, but nobody’s laughing. The first thing out of one their mouths was, “Man, that’s a good idea.” And the other one said, “Yeah, because the women don’t have anywhere to play.”

I thought to myself, Well, I said, ‘God, if they don’t laugh, I know it’s from You.’

But that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t do anything, and two weeks go by. They – my brother and the other guy – had to go into work early one day. I came in at the regular time. That night, I was driving home by myself. I was thinking that if God came to me, is this something I was supposed to do?

It’s pitch black and I’m driving down this country road. I’m looking at the stars in the sky. It’s pretty, and you could see the stars real good because it was really dark that night. As I’m driving, I said, “Lord, if this is something you really want me to do, do something, please show me something. Show me a sign.”

All of a sudden, I saw a shooting star. The minute I said, “Show me a sign,” that shooting star came out. The star was so bright. I thought this is unusual because the star looks different than all the other shooting stars. But the minute that I saw the shooting star a thought came to that was the enemy saying, You see shooting stars all the time. But the minute that thought came to my mind, I saw three or four shooting stars in a row. I knew from that point that God wanted me to go forward with creating this women’s professional basketball league. Everything that I did or started He made happen.