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Shaun Powell

The WNBA celebrated its 15 years by naming its all-15-year team at Saturday's All-Star Game.
The WNBA celebrated its 15 years by naming its all-15-year team at Saturday's All-Star Game.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

WNBA climbing -- with big helping hand from pioneers


Posted Jul 24 2011 12:23AM

SAN ANTONIO -- Women will always tell you childbirth is something to truly behold and experience, and so just imagine how Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, Teresa Weatherspoon and others feel today about their WNBA baby, still bouncing at age 15.

"I can't tell you how rewarding it is," said Leslie. "I've received a lot of awards but it's more rewarding to be a role model and impact the lives of these children."

These "children" are Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Swin Cash, the latter the MVP of Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game, women fortunate to make a nice living from a league conceived by the pioneers before them. No question, David Stern is the sugar daddy of the WNBA. There would be no professional women's league in this country without his vision and persistence and the financial clout of the NBA. And yet, just as important was how Leslie and the others took the orange-and-white-paneled ball and ran with it, bounced it, shot it and carried it when it sometimes felt like lead.

"We fought the battles," said Weatherspoon, "so the ladies you see today and tomorrow won't have to, at least not as much."

The WNBA celebrated its 15 years by naming its all-15-year team, and the usual names made the cut: Leslie, T-Spoon, Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes among them. The idea of a pro women's league was considered a reach back in 1997, and the WNBA has fought to scrape up enough sponsors and crowds and TV revenue ever since. And yet, there are visible signs of progress today: The TV contract with ESPN runs four more years, a handful of franchises are owned independent of the NBA, and Moore endorses the Jordan Brand of Nike, which is usually reserved for A-list male sports stars.

These are little steps in some respects, big in others. Remember, it took the NBA a few decades to carve generous space for itself in the sports landscape, so the WNBA seems on schedule.

The increased awareness of the women's Final Four is proving to be a boon for the WNBA, just as the men's tournament serves as a farm league for the NBA. As a rookie, Moore, for example, is perhaps the most famous WNBA player only because she played at Connecticut and seemed to live on national TV for four years. Fans grew up with her, so naturally, those fans will follow her to the next level. Same with Candace Parker; she was good enough to leave Tennessee after three years, but not lucky enough to dodge injuries here in her early pro career.

The league, though, still seems preoccupied with tapping into the casual audience, as it should. Only until the WNBA can pull from those potential customers will it broaden its base beyond women, basketball-toting girls and a scattered amount of men. Also, until the WNBA makes a dent in the casual base, only then will the sponsors begin to pour the corporate bucks into the league's purse.

You ask the pioneers and the present-day players, and they all say the same thing: If fans (read: men) just attend a few games, they'll be hooked. Well, men with an open mind. It's hard not to develop a taste for women's basketball after a few bites. The game is amazingly affordable, which is crucial in this economy; $11 got you a lower-level seat Saturday in the AT&T Center for an All-Star Game. Players are approachable and free of scandal. And the skill level among a dozen or so, while it'll never approaching that of the men, is quite impressive.

"These girls were 7 and 8 years old and sitting on sofas, watching us play," said Leslie, maybe the greatest player in WNBA history. "This is what we hoped for, that when they were little, they'd watch us and work on their skills. And that's what you see now. The product is better."

Pause.

"Not that they're better than us. I mean, I am competitive," she said with a laugh. "But they're great."

Staley refused to ignore the obvious, on two fronts.

"The players are a lot better than 15 years ago," she said. "They had that carrot dangling in front of them, which allowed them to be more creative and work harder. The product is better, now we need the crowds to be better."

Even WNBA president Laurel Richie, while cheerfully reciting the league's marginal gains of the last few years, conceded that the league is somewhat trapped in a box. The season can't begin before the NBA Finals in mid-June because most teams still use NBA arenas, and doesn't dare risk going too deep into autumn, where football rules. There's too much competition from the dominant sports leagues for the WNBA to be anything more than a three-month run for players who make the meat of their living overseas.

"At this point," said T-Spoon, "we're just satisfied to see it grow. That's what you want it to do. Let the kids and the game evolve. It's an awesome thing to watch them, although when I do, I say `give me and Lisa and Dawn a uniform and let us have at them for a quarter or a half.' We can take them."

Laugh.

"Sorry, that's just the competitor in me coming out."

There's no need for T-Spoon or the other pioneers to dust off their sneakers. They did enough. They gave birth, and amazing thing is, felt no pain. Just gain, 15 years later.

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

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