Posted Jul 23 2011 12:15AM
SAN ANTONIO -- They were smiling and laughing together, a group of professional basketball players and their boss thrilled to be in an NBA arena and preparing for an All-Star Game.
This was the scene Friday afternoon at a light-hearted practice session inside the AT&T Center, site of Saturday's WNBA showpiece game. Players from the East and West squads wore happy-to-be-here expressions, and more than a few stars made a point to give, newly-minted league president Laurel Richie, already a beloved commish-she-ner, a warm greeting. But can this scene possibly repeat itself with a different cast of characters next February in Orlando?
That's when the NBA is supposed to hold its All-Star Weekend, which traditionally is a frolicking affair where players and owners and David Stern all sip from the same champagne flute. Except this time, February seems so far away right now, both from the bargaining table and San Antonio.
Will there be an NBA season by then? Or at least enough games completed to justify an All-Star Game? If there's no basketball by mid-December, then there's probably no All-Star Game in February. And if there isn't basketball by February, well, you know what that means.
As NBA players and owners continue to tug-of-war with a billion-dollar rope, with seemingly no urgency or resolution in sight, the women own the only game in town. It's a strange position to be in for the WNBA, a league thankful for the exclusive spotlight it will occupy Saturday but still looking to be something more than a niche sport with a loyal but compact audience.
"Hopefully people who love basketball and miss it right now will turn out and watch us," said Diana Taurasi, quite possibly the No. 1 attraction in the WNBA. "That'll be cool."
The WNBA may not enjoy the same cache as the NBA, but at least there will be labor peace through 2013, the final year of the current agreement. That deal was somewhat surprisingly made with generous concessions from the NBA, which created the WNBA, served as its sugar daddy and held the hammer in contract talks. Yet, the players were granted free agency, annual raises and a measure of revenue sharing. Today, a handful of veterans earn six figures, not bad for four month's work. It was an offer they couldn't refuse, and if they did, they'd be earning all of their salaries overseas right now, instead of a portion of it.
The WNBA doesn't sit under the NBA's thumb as much as it did when that deal was signed in 2008. A handful of teams are now owned independent of NBA teams. And because ESPN, with its multiple channels, needed airtime to fill in the slow summertime months, the TV contract runs through 2015.
So the league, while not exactly swimming in profits, stands on its firmest footing ever here in its 15th year, and ready to showcase the best talent ever. Seriously: Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles, twin terrors in the post, are the next Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson. Taurasi sells tickets, same for Candace Parker whenever she's healthy, and now here comes Maya Moore with the biggest-selling jersey.
"We have a lot for people to see," said Tamika Catchings, the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game. "Our game is only getting stronger, so maybe the audience will, too."
It would be a mistake to suggest the WNBA will ever replace the NBA. These are leagues on separate planets, with separate fan bases and seasons that don't overlap in the fall. If the NBA is caught in the throes of a lockout by November, the women will be earning Euros by then, and also wondering what we'll be wondering.
"You're going to miss the NBA, if that happens," said Swin Cash, who helped lead Seattle to the title last season. "At the same time, I'm on the executive board of the WNBA and I understand that business is business and basketball is basketball. Hopefully the guys can handle their business and get back on the court."
Yes, there's a sense of solidarity among players, regardless of gender. For as much as the women are fans of the NBA, it goes the other way as well, with NBA players often sprinkled among the crowd at WNBA games. The angst, then, of a lost NBA season would reverberate in the "other" league.
"It affects you as a fan," said Taurasi. "A lot of people who love the NBA plan their lives around the NBA. When I was home in the winter I was planning my days around Kobe. I wanted to know when he was playing? When's LeBron's playing? Dirk's on Wednesday night? I'm home."
Right now, the basketball fan has no idea when Kobe or LeBron or Dirk will play. Nor does anyone else. Still, an All-Star Game is being held, anyway. And anyone willing to put aside an appetite for dunks and watch a different game played by different players will find a league that's all too happy to be open for business.
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