The WNBA has reached another critical juncture.
None of y’all watched, but the WNBA All-Star Game went down without apology last Saturday afternoon in Uncasville, CT. Swin Cash bucketed plenty of MVP baskets, and Sylvia Fowles was all smiles as she flushed the final two points from above the rim. The WNBA is headed into a new era, and the players are enjoying every moment. Sure, money’s still tight, but the league now knows where its transitioning, and discovering its identity at the same time.–Ed.
There was a confusing moment at the WNBA All-Star Game last Saturday when the New York Liberty’s halftime dance troupe came out onto the Mohegan Sun Arena floor. They were old. They had gray hair and muffin-tops. And they were dancing to swing music. But then the lights changed. The sound guy sitting to my right pressed a button and a pulsating Black Eyed Peas song came on, and suddenly these old fogeys were gyrating and dipping and ripping off their tear-away pants. It was funny, and jarring, to see and hear such an immediate shift from the past to the present acted out before us.
It made me think of Tina Thompson.
Thompson is 34 years old and playing in her 13th season of professional basketball. On Saturday she started for the West in her ninth WNBA All-Star game and was on the court with eight first-time All-Stars, including three second-year players, when the West beat the East 130-118. Thompson played her first game with the Houston Rockets in 1997, when her West teammates Nicky Anosike and Charde Houston were 11 years old. So forgive me if it sounds as if I’m suggesting that Tina is anything like that halftime spectacle. She’s not. She’s averaging almost 15 points and 7 rebounds a game this season and she looks like she could play five more seasons with ease.
But the WNBA itself is certainly at a fascinating period of transition, with its long-established veteran stars playing alongside the girls—now women—who grew up idolizing them. The swing, if you will, is fading seamlessly into hip-hop, and it’s delivering a beautiful game.
“The WNBA is definitely in great hands,” Thompson said before the game. “The players that are on this team, they’ve made a statement early on coming into the league, and I see them continuing to carry the torch in the future.”
She laughed at herself for talking clichés about torches, but she’s right. The younger players all spoke of wanting to learn from their teammates. Shameka Christon of the New York Liberty admitted that one of her favorite players growing up was her East teammate Tamika Catchings, and the Mercury’s Diana Taurasi listed East guard Katie Smith as one of her early inspirations.
“I’m just enjoying the company of so many great players,” said Minnesota Lynx center Anosike, who graduated from Tennessee just 14 months ago. “It’s nice to be able to fit into this class of players.”
Swin Cash, who scored 22 points on 10-16 shooting and was named the game MVP, said in the post-game press conference that she found herself feeling somewhat jaded in her third career All-Star appearance.
“It hit me when we were in the locker room and Charde [Houston] and Nicky Anisoke were taking pictures holding their jerseys,” Cash explained. “I took the camera and went to take a picture and I was like, ‘I really feel old, because I don’t want my picture taken with my jersey right now.’ But that’s what you love to see; you love to see players who are here enjoying it and having fun. And obviously they’ll want to get back here.”
“[They don’t] realize how tiring it’s going to be, a week from now, how tired you are after,” Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm laughed after the game. The Storm and the Sparks arrived at practice on Friday just two days removed from a triple-overtime Seattle win.
Even the league president, Donna Orender, found herself at a crossroads of the old and the new this past weekend. She just returned from a trip to Tulsa, OK last week to meet with investors about a potential new franchise (or, as some speculate, to become the new home of the Indiana Fever or the Detroit Shock, who have struggled financially the most this year). She was sitting in the wings of the league’s most viable franchise, but her mind was already on the next one.
“They have an investor group that’s been very interested in the WNBA over the past year,” Orender said. “They have strong support from the city. They have strong corporate support. Now they’re bringing it to the fan base to see if they can put the whole package together.”
It goes without saying that Orender and the rest of the league have a trying year ahead. Even though Orender spoke optimistically about what lies ahead, it is likely that a team will be cut for the 2010 season, and rosters were already cut from 13 down to 11 players this year. A league that has developed steadily since its inception has reached a juncture where the game and its players are still evolving, but the business may be stalling.
I remember getting a book on the history of women’s basketball when I was in the fifth grade. The book said that when the first women’s games were played, at Smith College in 1892, the players were not allowed to leave their “zones” or dribble more than three times before passing. All of the young women in the photos wore stiff-looking dresses and ties. One of the accompanying illustrations, of a woman sitting cross-legged with a ball in her lap and dated 1911, included this verse:
Behold the maid who’s not afraid
Of athletic pleasure;
She heeds the call of basket ball,
And profits by her leisure.
I thought that was weird even when I was 11 years old. Especially the look on the girl’s face. She was smiling but her eyes were sad and vacant. But on Saturday I sat in the stands and beheld Sylvia Fowles of the Chicago Sky as she was given an open lane and two chances to throw down a one-handed dunk. It wasn’t the successful jam itself that got me, although I did stand and clap with the rest of the crowd. What I noticed in myself and in the arena was just this raw, unfiltered and tangible joy after Fowles’ feet hit the floor.
Look at the video. She comes down the lane with the goofiest, most unrestrained smile on her face, like she knows how little it matters that she missed the first attempt and how it matters even less that half of the people who see her do it will still talk shit, because any 6-6 man who can’t dunk doesn’t play professional basketball. Just like it can’t matter when you’re 60 years old and dancing to “Boom Boom Pow.” If you own it, your audience can feel it. And look at the other players on the court with her. Swin Cash pumps a fist and jumps up in glee. Tina Thompson comes off the bench with her arm in the air. Sue Bird slaps her back as she lopes to the other end of the court. The sold-out crowd goes nuts.
Profiting from her leisure? Maybe. The league has its obstacles ahead, of course. But the game has never been fresher or more confident—even if, sometimes, it takes two tries.