The Ones to Root For
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Cleveland, April 3 -- "With the first pick..."

The most important thing an athlete may ever hear in his or her life begins with these words.

It marks the beginning of their professional careers, it symbolizes the realization of a dream they have worked hard to achieve, it means that someone believes in you and wants to make you a part of their team and ultimately validates all of the sacrifices (years of parents driving to and from practice, washing uniforms in the middle of the night and wearing homemade t-shirts with their kid's face on it).

For NBA players, it leads to a lifetime of fame and fortune. But the chance to keep playing at the ultimate level is something they may have taken for granted.

But, for the women who played high school and college basketball at the highest level, the WNBA is their only chance to keep playing basketball full-time. Plus, they are gracious and grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Remember that while the NBA has been around for 60 years, women did not always have the option to play professionally. (Believe it or not, the world was not always as awesome a place to live as it is now.) For the past 10 years, the WNBA has given little girls who play basketball something to strive for. Almost three million girls participated in high school sports in 2005-06, an all-time record, and the No. 1 sport is basketball (at least that's what they tell me). And if you don't think that's important, then you don't have a daughter (or a sister, niece, cousin, girlfriend, etc.).

The WNBA is the longest-running, most successful womenís professional team sport in America (remarkably, ice dancing is neither considered a team sport or captivated the attention of the American public as I would have hoped). That is why the WNBA Draft is such a momentous event. Every year, approximately 40 of the top college seniors (13 teams times three rounds) are given the chance to extend their careers and hold off on accepting the harsh reality of getting real jobs (like me!) for a few more years.

For those who watch the NBA and WNBA Drafts, there is nothing more entertaining (and nerve-wracking) than watching athletes anxiously await their fate. With their families and coaches by their side for support, the top prospects are invited to attend, get fully decked in their finest outfits (the only real rule is that no tuxedo t-shirts are allowed) and try to look as calm and cool as possible while waiting to learn their future.

Of the 40 draft picks who will be picked today in the 2007 WNBA Draft (1 p.m. ET on ESPN2), history indicates that less than half will actually make a roster. But only about 20 women will be at the Draft live and in person (to shake hands with WNBA President Donna Orender).

The top picks are likely safe and will make teams. A few might even play in an All-Star Game in their career, which means you should familiarize yourself with players like Duke's Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales, Mississippi's Arminitie Price, Ohio State's Jessica Davenport, North Carolina's Ivory Latta and a few more. (A record four rookies participated in the All-Star Game in 2006.)

For everyone else, making a WNBA roster will be the hardest thing they will ever do in their athletic careers (assuming they don't become marathoners later in life). It's as much about getting lucky and fitting in with a team that needs a particular player as much as it is a matter of working hard. But when you meet these young women at Pre-Draft Camp (as I did), when you hear their stories and when you see how badly they want to keep playing, you cannot help but root for all of them.

Point guard Rudy Sims went to a small school, Arkansas State, and competed against some bigger and more well-known guards at the combine, but would be undersized compared to point guards in the WNBA (not that I've measured them all). Yet she still holds fast to her dream.

"I am excited about the Draft. It is going to be fun to see who goes where," Sims said. "I'll be watching at home in Memphis with family and friends. But I'm going to miss having my teammates as my family. It was fun growing up with them and I'll miss them most."

Likewise, South Dakota State guard Megan Vogel is another prospect who will have to fight to make a roster spot if drafted. A lights-out shooter who helped take her program into Division I when she arrived on campus four years ago, Vogel hopes to bring passion, intensity and energy to a WNBA team (and in case you're curious just what that means, she'd be happy to explain it to you very loudly).

"In playing with passion, you have to love what you do," Vogel said at Pre-Draft Camp over the weekend. "Otherwise there is no way you can get to your full potential. Energy, another thing we talk about with our team is being an 'energy-giver.' No matter if it's my basket or another player's basket, I try to get them hyped up and excited about what they're doing. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Intensity means I hate to lose. I don't lose well. I don't want others to work harder than me."

Players who come from small schools may be at a disadvange in that they get less attention from the media and the national viewing public, but WNBA teams are certainly aware of them. The real question is how they will fare against the better competition, which you won't know until after they are drafted (if they actually do get drafted).

"I know they will be a lot bigger and stronger than I am used to but I thrive off challenges," Lachelle Lyles said. "But I haven't dwelt on it too much as far as players or the competition. I just want to go out and play and show that I belong."

Most of these hopefuls with legitimate WNBA aspirations won't make it (19 of 42 players drafted made rosters out of training camp last year). But all of them are on pace to graduate and will have a degree to fall back on.

"Getting a scholarship to college is a life-changing experience," Texas-Arlington guard Terra Wallace said. "It makes you a better person to say that you completed four years and got a degree. It was amazing."

The WNBA Draft is a "catalyst for the next generation of WNBA stars and plays an important role in shaping the future of this league and the womenís sports landscape" (I copied that out of the draft handbook that is given to the players who attend the Draft). But the fact that not everyone can realize their dream of making the WNBA only serves to prove just how strong a league it really is and how talented the players currently in the league actually are.