Were the Columbus Quest the Best?

The city's short-lived, underappreciated women's basketball team may have been one of the all-time greats.

Jarrett Van Meter
Columbus Quest coach Brian Agler celebrates with players after the team won the ABL championship game in 1998.

Basketball fans may remember the defunct Columbus Quest as a footnote, one of the city’s many star-crossed forays into pro sports. But reassessing the team’s legacy now, in what would be its 25th season, the Quest made a strong case for being the best in women’s basketball, right as two leagues sprung up simultaneously. 

When the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association tipped off in succession during the fall of 1996 and the summer of 1997, respectively, the Quest and the Houston Comets quickly asserted dominance. The Quest took the only two ABL crowns before the league folded in 1998, and the Comets claimed the first four WNBA championships. Yet the two best teams in American women’s basketball never faced off, rendering the argument of true supremacy speculative. Luckily, two notable people have insight into both leagues. 

Head coach Brian Agler and point guard Katie Smith, both Central Ohioans, pushed the Quest to the inaugural league championship in 1996–97, with noteworthy help from Nicki McCray, the ABL MVP. McCray departed for the WNBA after the season, yet Columbus players quickly settled into new roles and waltzed to a second championship in 1997–98. Adding to the accomplishment was the popular belief among many former ABL players that it was the tougher league. Most of the roster from the undefeated 1996 U.S. Olympic team joined the ABL, including McCray and Smith, an alternate for the Atlanta Games. 

“I do think our league was tougher top to bottom at that point than the WNBA,” says Smith, now an assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx. 

Katie Smith guards an opponent during a game in 1997.

When the ABL folded, Agler took over as head coach of the Lynx and brought several of his former players, including Smith, with him to the WNBA, where they faced off against the Comets later in their dynasty. Agler believes the Quest would have defeated the Comets in 1997 due to the strength of his McCray-led team, and because Comets star Sheryl Swoopes sat out the majority of that WNBA season, but he says his 1998 championship team would have had a stiffer challenge. “We were still good, and our record was better, but we didn’t have as much talent. We were just very confident. If we would have gotten to a series against Houston that second year, it would have been a dogfight.” 

After a few seasons in Minnesota, Agler and Smith enjoyed WNBA championship success elsewhere. Agler, now the coach of the Dallas Wings, earned one title each with the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks, and Smith won a pair with the Detroit Shock. The Comets, meanwhile, folded in 2008. So where do the Quest stack up among the great teams in the history of women’s hoops? 

“If you put us in a series, I put my money on that crew back then against anybody,” Smith says. 

The Quest’s attendance numbers never matched the team’s on-court success, but with the WNBA having solidified its position over two decades, Agler believes Columbus might be ready for another shot. “They have the arena now, the city has grown, women’s and girls’ sports in Columbus are growing. You never know, maybe that could be the last chapter for myself and Katie, get a chance to form a [WNBA] team back there.”