by Lang Whitaker

If you’re a sportswriter, the easiest column in the world to write is the old “The WNBA Sucks” masterpiece. You don’t even have to actually watch the WNBA, you can just make a few simple jokes, draw a few vague parallels, talk about the turnovers…next thing you know you’ve got a column that your editor will love!

The key part there is not having to watch. Because as it turns out, hardly anyone watches the WNBA. The ratings are terrible; attendance isn’t much to write home about. Maybe people gave it a chance once, but it appears that most basketball fans in America have tuned it out.

I’m a part of that group of people who tuned it out. I tried watching a few years ago, and I actually went to a New York Liberty game, but I just couldn’t get into it. To me, from a quality standpoint, it seemed like a high school boys game — turnovers, missed jumpers, lots of lay-ups.

So last night, after maybe five years of ignoring the WNBA, I tuned in to the WNBA All-Star Game, in an attempt to give the league another chance. And I was surprised.

There are times when the WNBA is a lot like the NBA, at least in the general sense and particularly in the halfcourt offense. Within ten minutes of turning on the game, one of the teams came down and set up a pick and roll, with the uninvolved people standing around the perimeter. Just like the NBA. There are players (like Margo Dydek) who are obviously only playing basketball because they’re really tall — Dydek was really unskilled and couldn’t catch any pass unless it hit her in the hands, yet there she was, the starting All-Star center for the East. The passing was better than I remembered it being, although there were still plenty of turnovers and bad passes. (Granted, that could be because it was a bunch of players who don’t normally play together trying to play together.) They had the same arena announcer who does the Knicks games, they threw out t-shirts to the crowd. And that was about it as far as the similarities.

There were moments when the action made me ooh or ahh. Lindsay Whalen made a few fearlesss drives to the rim that were nice, and Lauren Jackson effortlessly grabbed one rebound and dribbled end to end, like Dirk Nowitzki. The best player in the game by far, at least to me, was Katie Douglas, who looked like she could play in the NBA — or at least the summer leagues — right now. Her passes were brilliant if simple, she seemed to understand spacing and the way the floor needs to be spread to create opportunities, and she was money on her jumpers, even if she does have the same shooting form as Jason McElwain.

It seemed the WNBA is largely a perimeter game, because the post play was at best sloppy. Even the names the casual fans know — Lisa Leslie, for example — didn’t seem to be so much skilled in the post as much as just taller than everyone else.

The worst part of the game, by far, was ESPN’s coverage of it. At halftime, commentator Anne Meyers couldn’t remember Yolanda Griffith‘s name (she called her “Yolanda…Yo…you know, Yo-Yo”) live on the air. Several of the players and coaches were wearing microphones, but the ESPN truck never seemed to never turn the microphones off, so there was a constant buzz of noise blaring away and drowning out the announcers. Sideline reporter Heather Cox thanked several players for all that they’d given to the league, as though she worked for the WNBA. Color commentator Doris Burke constantly told viewers (including three times on one play!) that Cheryl Ford is Karl Malone‘s daughter.

What was funny was that while watching the game, I felt like I was watching one of those black-and-white tapes of the NBA from the 1950s, when incredible athletes had to yet to take over and make it a league dominated by play above the rim. In 50 years, could the WNBA be where the NBA is now, in terms of playing style? Absolutely. But while the NBA is around, unless you’re a female basketball player hoping to have a career in the WNBA, why would you want to watch what the game used to be when you could just as easily watch what the game is right now? Last night’s game — and I’m assuming it was a fair representation of WNBA basketball — was OK. But I wouldn’t buy a ticket to go see a game at that skill level.

Well, unless Katie Douglas is playing.