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Shaun Powell

With Lisa Leslie (left) now retired, Candace Parker and other young stars are the new hope of the WNBA.
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

WNBA outlives early growing pains, sees bright days ahead

Posted Jul 22 2011 10:57AM

The WNBA is celebrating 15 years, quite an accomplishment if you gave weight to cynics who said the league wouldn't last 15 minutes. The last decade and a half hasn't been without some pain, but everyone can agree the league has learned how to get through it.

Some franchises folded, others shifted. In order to generate cash -- always a challenge in a male-dominated professional sports market -- jerseys now serve as billboards, with "Bing" replacing "Seattle" for one example.

And yet, the league outlasted a rival (ABL) and still serves as a haven for women wishing to play beyond college.

The WNBA now hopes to springboard past Lisa Leslie, the dynastic-but-now-gone Houston Comets and other players and events that served as the foundation. It's all about new faces and adventures as the league unites in San Antonio this weekend for the All-Star Game.

So we asked five of the league's best 25-and-under players their thoughts on the game, the league, the future and women's sports.

Judging from the answers, here's what we can surmise about these players, the faces of the next 15 years:

• They care deeply about the league and the game, almost fiercely protective of both.

• They believe it's their sworn duty not only to play their best, but also to market the league and promote when possible.

• They're non-controversial, which seems to come naturally. There's no Charles Barkley in the bunch. Good luck getting them to touch on a hot-button issue. Candace Parker skipped half the questions, which were softball-type. You get the feeling none of them would choose peanut butter if it made jelly feel neglected, and vice-versa.

• They're non-threatening and respectful. But doesn't that come with the territory of being female?

Here's who made up our panel:

Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks: Already considered the most skilled all-around post player who ever lived (with all due respects to Leslie). Winner of the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in 2008, she made an immediate splash. Has a knack for making the difficult seem easy, and unfortunately, getting hurt.

Tina Charles, Connecticut Sun: Tough and smart on the blocks, she's definitely a hard check. She's been a winner all of her life, which is usually the case when you laced up for UConn.

Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx: Came into the league with tremendous hype and is now getting around to living up to it. Did it all in college and was just as steady off the floor. She's the Barack Obama of basketball, although he can't hit the 3 as well as she does.

Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky: Somehow escaped attention in college despite becoming the first player of either gender to amass 2,000 points and 1,000 assists. Had she been a male, she would've been a Jimmer Fredette-like media darling. Anyway, has a chance to be the John Stockton of the WNBA; they both attended Gonzaga.

Crystal Langhorne, Washington Mystics: Starting to generate major buzz after a solid start this season. She's definitely one of the more under-appreciated players of either gender, although that will change soon.

On to the questions and answers:

The WNBA began 15 years ago, right around the time many of you started playing ball. Was there a player from the WNBA's early days who inspired you?

Parker: "I remember watching the WNBA 15 years ago and aspiring to play professionally. I loved the Houston Comets at the time; who wasn't a fan of them? My first WNBA jersey was Cynthia Cooper's and I actually lost a coin toss to a teammate on my AAU team to wear her number. Who knows, if that coin landed differently, I might be CP14."

Charles: "Lisa Leslie."

Langhorne: "Lisa Leslie. Not only was she a great post player, she continued to get better every year, and that's something I strive to do as a player."

Moore: "Cynthia Cooper. That's an easy one. She brought a lot of excitement to the game. She was definitely a player I looked up to."

Vandersloot: "I really admired Sue Bird's game. Being from Seattle I started watching many Storm games and being a point guard I was really drawn to her style of play."

What was the hard part, if any, about growing up as a star female player?

Vandersloot: "If I had to name one I might say the pressure to play to other people's standards they set for me as a player."

Langhorne: "Trying to get the respect as men athletes get. You just have to work hard to let people to know you're an athlete, whether you're a girl or a guy."

Charles: "I never thought that I was a star and that led me to working harder and expecting more of myself to become better."

Parker: "I never really stopped to think `I'm a star.' In high school and even college I was constantly concerned with improving my game and taking it to the next level."

If Title IX never existed, what would be the state of women's basketball?

Charles: "It would not be what it is today, and it would not have impacted our lives and opened doors the way it has for all female athletes."

Parker: "There would probably be no WNBA."

Vandersloot: "I'm not sure there would be basketball for women. I might be non-existent."

Langhorne: "I know where the game is at right now because of Title IX."

What can you do to bring more fans to the game?

Moore: "Continue to play a high level of basketball. There is a lot of talent all over the world, especially in the WNBA, so just continue to make it competitive, show our talent, continue to play really, really `together' basketball and continue to get more exposure so people can see us play and want to come back to the games and see us again."

Parker: "Bringing awareness to the women's game and getting people to come to the game. Once they attend one game, they are sure to return."

Langhorne: "Just get men to come to a game, and get them to watch instead of stereotyping us."

Vandersloot: "If there was more attention from the media and more games on mainstream channels, I think more people would be interested, as they would be exposed to our game."

Seeing how men make up the vast majority of sports viewers, how can you get more men to watch, or is that not really the goal?

Langhorne: "Just get the men to come to a game, and get them to watch us and appreciate us instead of stereotyping us, as some do."

Moore: "Exposure can really help draw fans whether they're females, whether they're males. 'Cause when they're around us for a period of time and see our work ethic, see how hard we play, and see how much we respect the game and compete, they'll want to come back. So that's all we can do, continue to compete and play great basketball, male or female, that should appeal to everyone."

Vandersloot: "I don't think getting more men to watch is necessarily a goal. We want all our fans to have a good experience. It's important for us to have a fan base of all different types of people."

Charles: "The goal isn't to specifically get men to view our games. I would rather have fans who love watching us play, and who can inform their households about how we carry ourselves on and off the court."

Women's soccer just enjoyed tremendous attention and acclaim for the World Cup, but will now go "underground" again. How can any women's sport sustain that level of interest?

Charles: "Women's sports can sustain a level of interest by keeping up with fans and by writing blogs; I think social media helps athletes keep in touch with our fans."

Moore: "The length of our season. The more we play, the more opportunities for us to receive that attention. When you're not in-season, it's harder to get game coverage."

Langhorne: "Marketing. So many people know those (soccer) players now, Hope Solo and the rest. Just keeping their faces in the public so people are aware of them."

If you were WNBA commissioner for a day, what changes if any would you make?

(Boy, this was a touchy question. Most didn't want to answer.)

Vandersloot: "Extend the roster and allow more players into the league. There are so many great athletes who could not show their talents because of the smaller rosters and it also makes it hard for teams when they have injuries and don't have enough people to practice."

Charles: "Change the amount of players on the rosters from 11 to 13."

Langhorne: "I wouldn't make any changes. We're going in the right direction and have a great person leading the way."

How much does society require female athletes to be both talented and glamorous?

(This was also a hot-button question. Parker, who's considered one of the most glamorous players in the league if not all of women's sports, wouldn't go near it.)

Vandersloot: "I think it's important for women as role models to show positive attributes both on and off the court."

Moore: "We're definitely in a society where women are judged more in the media by how they look more than anything else so I think it's just a matter of people making an individual choice to appreciate everything about a female whether it be their outside beauty, their competitiveness, their talent, their leadership, the tangible and intangible things."

Langhorne: "People want women to be attractive. That's the way people are always going to look at girls. They're going to judge you on basketball and always going to judge you on your looks as well."

Fantasy question: If WNBA players were paid similar wages as NBA players and treated as icons as well, would we see the corruption that money often brings (selfish play, ego, etc.)?

Moore: "That's a tough question to answer. I would like to think that everyone has the ability to stay humble regardless of how much money they have. To say that females are (less selfish) than males, I don't know if I can make that judgment. But I definitely think there is an element of love of the game -- not to say that there is less love of the game on the NBA level -- but because it's not as much money, you definitely know there is a love of the game at both levels."

Charles: "No."

Vandersloot: "The players in this league are committed to making their team and their franchise the best they can; adding more money would just give them more motivation to better their teams as well as themselves."

Langhorne: "Women are different."

Could you make a decent living if opportunities to play abroad didn't exist?

(In the past, NFL players worked 9-to-5 jobs in the offseason, and for some, it was their major source of income. Most WNBA players stayed all four years in college and earned degrees, so they keep a realistic view of their athletic careers and how far it will take them, financially and otherwise.)

Charles: "I could play in the WNBA and I also majored in psychology. I plan to pursue a career in that field when I am finished playing."

If the WNBA didn't exist, would you just play abroad, or retire?

(Everyone said they'd play overseas, the only option when it comes to pro basketball for women.)

Moore: "I'd definitely play abroad to continue to play the game I love and the chance to travel the world."

What seems a more satisfying goal: an Olympic gold medal or WNBA championship? Pick one.

Moore: "Depends on what part of the year it is. If it's in the middle of the WNBA season, a championship. If it's Olympic time, a gold medal. Obviously the Olympics is the biggest stage and more teams are involved."

Parker: "Olympic gold medal ... it's the biggest event in sports and on the biggest stage."

Vandersloot: "An Olympic gold medal. Although a WNBA championship ring would be satisfying, being able to represent your country would be an absolute honor and one that so few people have the chance to achieve."

Charles: "An Olympic gold medal. To receive one and represent the USA in competition, and to be one of the best in your sport and at your position is a great accomplishment."

Not voting for yourself, who's the best ambassador for the women's game right now?

Charles: "Tamika Catchings."

Langhorne: "Tamika Catchings. She's a great player, a great person, I like the way she represents the game. She plays hard. A positive role model."

Vandersloot: "Sue Bird. She's not only a very talented player, but a true leader and possesses all of the qualities to be a successful and one-of-a-kind role model."

Moore: "There's more than one, I think. You could pick a handful of players from Olympians to WNBA players from championship teams."

If for some reason you couldn't coach basketball, what would you be doing if pro basketball for women didn't exist here or abroad?

Moore: "I'd probably be involved with music or something. It's another one of my passions."

Vandersloot: "I'd be doing all I could to provide a league for women to give them the same opportunities that males have."

Charles: "I would get my masters in psychology and criminology and work towards becoming a warden."

Parker: "I love children, so I have a feeling I would be teaching and educating kids."

Your gut feeling: Will there be an WNBA be 15 years from now, and if so, what will be the state of the league?

Moore: "The talent will be greater. Hopefully more teams, a more established presence in the global sports market."

Langhorne: "We'll continue to grow and move into the right direction."

Vandersloot: "The level of play continues to grow and the league is going to continue to grow with it."

Parker: "The WNBA will remain the top professional sports league for women and be a lot more recognizable."

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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