‘The WNBA Changed My Life’

How the WNBA helped shape one man's views on inclusion, equality and acceptance.

by July 15, 2016

I don’t support the WNBA as much I would like to tell people.

This is officially the 20th season of the WNBA, so I’ve put in some effort to make sure I’m up to date on all the latest news and also watching games as often as possible. The quality of the WNBA hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s as great as it ever been; I’ve dropped the ball over the years. It takes a little effort, but there’s not a better quality game of basketball to be found.

On Sunday, June 26, I had the pleasure of attending the New York Liberty’s 20th anniversary game celebration against the Phoenix Mercury. One of the more historic franchises in the WNBA, the Mercury is part of the original eight for the league. I got there early to take in all the sites. It was my first game of the season, but with a new focus on the league, I was familiar with all of the players and what to expect from their play. I typically attend three games a season. The tickets are inexpensive and the quality of basketball is great, so there’s no reason for a basketball fan not to support the local team.

OK, back to my day in Madison Square Garden. I was alone, with no distractions. To kick off the celebration, the Liberty announced the original lineup from 20 years ago. The original team ran out to an amazing reception with an accompanying video montage.

When they announced Sophia Witherspoon, I got chills. While players like Rebecca Lobo and Teresa Weatherspoon are better known, I see them on TV and sidelines regularly. To see Sophia walk across the court in all her glory, all the memories came back to me.

liberty

In that instant, I remembered her being a great defender and a crowd favorite. I remember cheering against the Liberty, but loving their intensity. In that I was an 11-year-old kid again, watching my favorite sport. The gender of the players didn’t matter; only the quality of play on the hardwood.

With the game underway, the play and energy in the Garden was electric. Diana set the tone with a fury. The Liberty rallied back from the strong effort of Tina Charles’ eloquent post moves. With the lead in hand, the Liberty ran into the legendary duo of Penny Taylor and Taurasi, who lead the Mercury to an overtime victory.

taurasi

It was a great game. Geno Auriemma enjoyed it just as much as I did. He was there not as one of the leaders of basketball world, but a continued supporter of his players from the past, and they appreciated it. As the players exited the floor, all the former UConn players stopped by to speak with Geno and his wife. That was the moment I realized the WNBA and women’s basketball in general is really a family.

From the college ranks to highly regarded pros like Swin Cash and Brittany Griner, these women know they need each other to survive in the WNBA. As the quality of play continues to increase in the amateur ranks, these players become the next stars of the WNBA. With that mind state, the WNBA has been going strong for officially 20 years now and I’ m thankful for it.

Twenty seasons ago, when the WNBA tipped off between the Los Angeles Sparks and New York Liberty, I was an 11-year-old, highly impressionable, chubby post player for the Arkansas Lakers. My father was founder and sponsor of a summer circuit team called the Dooley All-Stars. Basketball was my life. I knew every stat before the analytics craze. I had all the basketball cards neatly organized in my tablets for easy trading. All the player centerfold posters were on my walls.

Then the WNBA came and made me reconsider everything. It made me aware of stereotyped gender roles in sports. There were no girls in my neighborhood. It was summer, so no playing with girls at school.

I saw one girl on a regular basis, Shawna Eckwood, and she loved basketball too. She was tall, athletic and pretty. She had me wrapped around her finger. When she let me know that the NBA was starting a league for women, and it would be called the WNBA. I was all in.

I honestly knew about some of the stars from the 1996 Olympic team: Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley. So this wasn’t completely out of the blue. with a cosign from my summer crush I had no choice but to stay up to date with the WNBA.

From that first tip between Kym Hampton and Lisa Leslie, I followed closely and stayed up to date on the stats of the day. I was introduced to great players like Weatherspoon, Tina Thompson, and the legend Cynthia Cooper-Dyke. With great careers already established overseas, these women came into my life as stars with incredible skills.

Around this time, I also started my love for UConn women’s basketball, so Lobo was not a foreign language to me. As the season started the summer months passed, I fell in love with basketball all over again. The WNBA showed me the fundamentals I didn’t know I was missing.

leslie_lobo

I’ve never been the most athletic player, so fundamentals were key. I knew the angles. I knew how to control tempo. Even at a young age, I knew my limits and where I excelled.

When I watched the NBA, I was in awe. When I watched the WNBA, the gender of the players rarely crossed my mind. Sure, friends and siblings teased me for watching WNBA games, but that didn’t deter me from watching the games regularly.

As time passed and I grew up, Shawna and I grew apart. I stopped playing organized basketball, and I stopped watching the WNBA closely. I was aware of the possible lockout, I noticed the expansion teams, I loved Ticha Penicheiro’s game, I knew Lauren Jackson was special, but I wasn’t committed. I didn’t know the stats like I used to. I wasn’t deep into the WNBA.

I was more focused on the college game, but still a lover of women’s basketball. Fading in and out of the WNBA spotlight can leave you lost. The turnover can be rapid and missing a couple seasons can leave you confused when you return. That’s where I was when I returned to really following the New York Liberty four years ago. I kind of knew the players, kind of knew the coaches (albeit moved around), and most of the same teams remained.

What I did know for sure, without a doubt, was this league helped shape my views of gender equality and sexuality acceptance. The league does a great job of inclusion of all walks of life. I learned quality of basketball doesn’t slack because the players don’t dunk on a regular basis. The WNBA has shown me, hometown heroes receive the same scrutiny, no matter the gender. And recently, I’ve learned the best post player in professional basketball might be in the WNBA with Charles across her back.

Stepping back from the screen, and seeing all I’ve learned from the league can leave me a at a loss for words. The WNBA was able to teach me that the gender of the worker didn’t matter; the only thing that matters is the final product.

The WNBA is a hell of a final product 20 years later. The league has taught me so much. As I continue to cheer on the New York Liberty to their first WNBA Championship, I will remember all the things this great league has taught me outside of the 94 feet and 10-foot hoops.

I hope they don’t change a thing.