The Past, Present, and Future of Women’s Basketball
Celebrating 25 years of National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
By Ben York / @bjyork
“It will be great when we don’t have to recognize it,” – Phoenix Mercury assistant coach, Bridget Pettis, regarding National Girls and Women in Sports Day in an interview with the Arizona Republic.
I’ve written many articles defending women’s basketball over the years. I make no apologies for doing so; it is a passion of mine and something I deeply believe in.
The fact is, though, a thousand articles could be written with different perspectives from much better writers and it still would not make the lasting impact we long for. We would inevitably end up being dismissed as too defensive or excessively optimistic. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
Today, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of National Girls and Women in Sports Day, I’m somewhat conflicted. On one hand, I’m proud that we have a day set aside to recognize the accomplishments of women in sports. Conversely, it saddens me that a formal day is even needed in the first place. Shouldn’t we, in 2011, be passed this as a society? When will women’s basketball get the respect it deserves?
While reflecting on the advancements that women’s basketball has made over the past 25 years, I had something of an epiphany – the only thing that will lead to the ultimate respect of women’s basketball is commitment.
Simple as that.
Now, when I say commitment, I mean it in every sense of the word. This needs to be a commitment of time, energy, and effort to growing the game at an early age. Coaches need to drill their players, over and over again, in the basics of the game. Schools need to have an equally important commitment to girl’s basketball as they do to boy’s basketball. Perhaps more importantly, this needs to start at the grade-school level and not just in club ball.
Commitment of this magnitude comes in diverse subcategories. The most important of these are time, dedication, effort, enthusiasm, loyalty, and perseverance. For women’s basketball to flourish, these abilities need to manifest themselves at every level of every school in every state in every country.
Unfortunately, as it stands today, this isn’t happening.
Don’t get me wrong, we are seeing gradual strides in the women’s game in high school and college (see Brittney Griner). The talent pool is rising and we’ve witnessed the impact these players have had at the professional level (see Tina Charles). But as a whole, the women’s game continues to get overlooked. Before Title IX was enacted in 1972, the opportunities to play weren’t nearly as accessible for young women as they are now (and even today, it’s nowhere near perfect).
“When Title IX came into effect, it changed everything,” says women’s basketball pioneer and Phoenix Mercury President, Ann Meyers Drysdale. “It changed the fabric of women’s sports. Now, we have women that get to do this for a living. It’s absolutely wonderful for young girls and boys to see this. They are more than just professional athletes. They get to be a part of their community and are helping improve lives.”
Meyers Drysdale is one of the most significant figures in women’s basketball history and grew up during Title IX. She became the first woman to sign a free-agent contract with an NBA team when she inked a deal with the Indiana Pacers in 1979. Although we can all agree that opportunities for women in sports in today’s society are still lacking, it is clearly a vast improvement from when Meyers Drysdale played in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The adversity Meyers Drysdale, and many other female athletes, went through is a testament to their character and belief in sport.
“Sports was a great teacher for me,” Meyers Drysdale says of enduring hardships while playing the game. “I always go back to my family. My parents and siblings were key in helping me get through a lot of things. I credit Billie Jean King as really being the frontrunner in getting recognition for women athletes. She was kind of the epiphany for everything women athletes did.”
As the WNBA heads into its 15th season, it is easy to see tangible progress from its first year in 1997. Viewership is up, sponsors continue to back the league, and television ratings are getting progressively better. However, because of its short history, we often forget to credit and thank the women who paved the way for the WNBA to thrive and be as successful as it is today.
“I see the contributions of Ann Meyers Drysdale, Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Teresa Edwards and all of the previous stars as being huge to the success of the WNBA,” says WNBA All-Star, Tamika Catchings. “Without players like them we wouldn’t have seen greatness in the women’s game and we wouldn’t have had the role models to look up to. They played when women’s basketball was not the norm. By branching out and working on their skills they showed all of us current ballers what we could look forward to. We are those examples for the kids of today.”
Sadly, in pop culture, there is still a nagging collective sense that women’s basketball has something to prove; that people still don’t see its value. More specifically, that it needs to be “fixed.” Many people have accepted the false notion that there is something wrong with the game.
It’s ridiculous to criticize the level of play in the WNBA after less than two decades of operation. It hasn’t been afforded the chance to grow the game at a much younger age like the NBA has. There is little doubt the WNBA is leaps and bounds ahead of where the NBA was during its first 15 years in existence. Even still, the talent in the WNBA is extraordinary and immensely underappreciated. To this day, I get emails from guys saying they could take a WNBA player one on one with ease.
“Women’s sports have come incredibly far,” says a reflective Catchings. “Really, I don’t remember watching basketball until my high school years other than watching Pat Summitt and her team when I was in 8th grade. My mother played tennis so we watched a lot of tennis. But, nowadays it’s great to see tennis, golf, basketball, track and field and so many more women’s sports out there. That’s important in the growth of our young girls today.”
Catchings brings up a great point here when she mentioned the growth of “young girls.” This is the demographic that needs to be impacted the most. Young women need to have someone they can look up to (like, for example, Tamika Catchings) and aspire to. If women’s basketball wants to continue its steady growth, it is imperative that participation in all sports, not just basketball, continues to rise.
I have the wonderful fortune of being an assistant girl’s basketball coach at a middle school in Phoenix, AZ. Bridget Pettis, Director of Basketball Operations for the Phoenix Mercury and former WNBA star, is the head coach. From our very first practice, we’ve tried to instill the mere basics of basketball in our players. There have been some practices where, literally, all we’ve done are layups and passing drills. Not because they don’t have the ability to grasp more, far from it; it’s because there have been very few coaches who have taken the time to go through these things with them – and this is precisely what they need when they reach higher levels of competition.
In one of our recent games, we noticed the team we were playing had a difficult time performing the basic operations of the game. From dribbling and passing to lining up at the foul line correctly, the girls weren’t sure what to do or where to go. They played hard and had a ton of talent but no one had taken the time to go over the fundamental principles with them at any point in their life. Bridget and I looked at each other and couldn’t help but feel for these young women. Here are a great group of girls who have made an unfailing commitment on their own to getting better and learning the game but the dedication isn’t being reciprocated.
We cannot continue to let this happen.
The result of this can be catastrophic. Young women start to lose interest in the game, or worse, sports in general. This could lead to a lower sense of self and personal value. What ends up happening is these girls get to high school or even college through raw athleticism rather than an acute understanding of how the game is played. Obviously, this also happens with the boy’s game but not nearly as frequently as it does with girls. This directly correlates with a lack of commitment to helping these young women understand the basics of basketball at a young age – and this is our fault.
Eventually, the doubters will be silenced. The game will continue to grow and more fans will be added. To get to this point, however, will require an increased commitment to the women’s game at a younger age.
The good news? We’re on the right track.