The 11th semi-annual WNBA All-Star Game starts at 3:30 Eastern on ABC and not unlike most other all-star games, it will feature the best talent in the world goofing off for a while and then maybe a high level of competition if the score is close at the end. It’s been a marquee year for the W with three big-name rookies possibly saving the league from collapse. As such, it should be the most exciting game in years–there will be dunks, swagger, some crazy haircuts, intermittent quality basketball, and a showcase of the weirdest pro sports league in America. This is not a “Should I watch the WNBA?’ novelty column. Do whatever you want, I’m not your fucking mom. With more women’s sports added to the Olympics every two years, more countries sending women, more girls joining more organized leagues around the country and world means more people are familiar with women’s sports, either as a legitimate concept or something that their daughter or sister or spouse or mother or even grandmother (my grandma played basketball while she was in high school in Alabama during the Great Depression) does.
If you’re looking for “What happens when they get pregnant?” or “Which ones dive muff?” you can look to other, more reputable sources. I’m just a basketball fan spending a Friday painting Cappie Pondexter’s crossover with acrylics. Here are some infrequently asked questions (because women’s sports is rarely a topic of conversation! Get it?) about the WNBA that could be useful for people craving pick-and-pops while nursing Friday’s hangover.
Does the WNBA matter?
That depends on your definition of “matter.” The WNBA absolutely matters to basketball as the league is the absolute best the world can offer in terms of women’s play as well as being the only women’s team sport with a major league in the country. It matters that girls get to see women on television physically competing with one another without wearing skirts or polo shirts. It matters to the NBA’s bottom line and it matters to me personally that there is quality, stylistic basketball happening during the few months of the year that the highest quality and most stylistic basketball in the world takes a break. It matters for equality and organized basketball aficionados. Does it matter to the drunk baseball fan heckling the saloon television or the stubborn sexist who laughs when others miss layups to feel better about his own inadequacy? Probably not.
How is it different from the NBA?
Well, for one it is played by women, who are in fact different from men. Women are physically built differently because they’re unfortunately still the only ones who can birth children, so they are smaller in stature and with less muscle mass. Stature and muscle mass happen to be pretty important in the game of basketball. Fortunately however, women do have more than enough stature and muscle to go along with their competitiveness and love of basketball to ball. They can’t jump as high or run as fast or throw the ball as hard as men. It is very noticeable if you’re used to watching men play. From a strictly aesthetic view, it’s more exciting to see bigger objects fly faster and higher around my TV screen than smaller, slower ones. So facial dunks, chase-down blocks and triple-clutch fallaway layups will not show up on the WNBA mobile app. Sorry. Go watch Jonas Valanciunas and Ian Clarke.
Look, there are no posterizations, no meetings at the summit, and no alley-oops. There are a number of missed lay-ups and it’s jarring to watch how little time WNBA players have when they jump with the ball before they know what to do with it. It is immediately off-putting to be used to a certain style of play and then see another. However, basketball is still an angry ballet of bodies trying to toss a ball through an elevated circle. Women playing does not make the sport lesser. There’s more than one way to skin a leather Spalding. I know I laugh heartily at college basketball every year. Most NBA fans might chortle at the shooting percentages of the early years of the Association. Laughing at the WNBA just lets everyone know that you savor Jay Leno’s Lewinsky jokes and other awesome late ’90s sexism.
Perhaps the most important thing for an NBA fan to know when watching the WNBA is that the two current games should not be compared. The motion-based offenses, below-the-rim and constant ball-movement has been compared to the early years of the NBA. In 1965, 17 years into the NBA, there were nine teams, including the Chicago Packers, so there should be room for growing pains. If anything, with the multi-colored balls and wacky hairdos, the WNBA is more like the ABA, if the ABA were made to be an offseason league with less mustaches. Most WNBA players play overseas during the NBA season, making considerably more money than they do stateside. Someone like Candace Parker is making around a half a million playing in Russia, while getting the max WNBA salary of $105,000 during the summer. The W has everything an old white Hoosier would love–team play, lay-ups, underpaid players doing it for the love of the game, and plenty of fundamentals. Of course, I like overpaid players and individual play, so hopefully with new crops of stars, their pay will catch up to their abilities.
How has the WNBA changed since 1997?
I myself was too preoccupied with pogs and learning cursive to avidly watch the league from its inception, but the WNBA has certainly evolved from when I saw my first Monarchs game. Players like Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, and Sheryl Swoopes were legends in their day, but the league has improved across the board, from the stars to 11th women. For one, there have been rule changes. Most notably, they changed the awkward 30-second shot clock to an NBA-friendly 24 seconds.
This has sped the game up and allowed the little sibling of Mike D’Antoni’s Suns, the Phoenix Mercury, to create a miniature dynasty running and gunning with their star wing players Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi, and Penny Taylor. Taurasi and Pondexter especially embody the league’s evolution with their styles of play. Pondexter is the owner of the wickedest crossover to ever touch the WNBA hardwood, and after winning two titles with the Mercury, asked to be traded to New York to have her own team and open her connects in the fashion industry, ’cause she can do that. Taurasi has used her status as an all-time great for more leeway with the refs than anyone currently has. She’s cussing, shading and yelling in refs faces up and down the floor, and rarely gets called for it.
It’s often so over the top, it’s like if a law against murder wasn’t in the town charter and the Pleasantville citizens didn’t know what to do. It’s called respect. The W is not bound to the self-serving Puritan moralizing of products popular enough to garner family values groups to boycott. There aren’t repeating Sportscenters talking about any of these women’s “decisions,” and its better for it. Chris Bosh gay jokes are so medieval that while Jason Collins was on his huge media tour, 2013 number one overall pick Brittney Griner calmly lifted her head to tell everyone she been had come out of the closet. The fans make up a liberal utopia in the bleachers.
Stars like Seattle’s Lauren Jackson and Indiana’s Tamika Catchings have carried the torch into the league’s second decade adeptly. The players, coaching and execution have all meliorated as each season passes. Never has that been more apparent than when watching the number one pick from 2009, Angel McCoughtry. She nabbed the Rookie of the Year award while still being a relatively raw prospect because her athleticism had never been seen in the women’s game before. If cyborg time-traveler Russell Westbrook had appeared in the NBA in the late ’60s rather than present day, you might get an idea of McCoughtry’s game. She flies around her opponents, gets to the lane like nobody’s business, and wreaks havoc on defense–darting into passing lanes and blocking shots out of nowhere. Did I mention she has Westbrook’s attitude too? McCoughtry plays with one of the most intimidating scowls on her face, and at times seems less frustrated with her opponents, doubters or referees, and more so with the physics of the world. She already bends space and gravity to her will, and after physical drives to the basket, she looks more mad at the universe for giving her a taste of superhuman abilities and not the whole cake. It’s like if Icarus kept smashing into the sun like a fly to a window.
This is not your gay aunt’s WNBA.
How financially successful is the WNBA?
The Women’s United Soccer Association along with the softball league Women’s Pro Fastpitch were introduced to America along with the WNBA in the late ’90s following numerous successful women’s outings in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Pro Fastpitch lasted one year, WUSA lasted three. The WNBA is right smack in the middle of its 17th season, and things seem to finally be picking up. There’s no doubt the WNBA would have folded were it not for David Stern spreading the gospel of basketball and the NBA’s considerable financial wingspan.
After the immediate boom in the early aughts, the WNBA’s attendance steadily declined, even as new stars started taking over and the style of play became increasingly more exciting. The NBA is notoriously mum about the league’s financial losses like it were Stern’s gambling habit, but as recently as last year, only three teams were turning a profit.
Much like the ridiculous few NBA games played in London each year and the unwavering talking point about the league being “global,” the NBA has made it a priority to see Stern’s visions through. And while the WNBA does lose the NBA money, so do poorly run small market NBA teams and a Collective Bargaining Agreement that breaks up dynasties and waters down the final product. Losing money is not as big of a deal as it seems when players are paid like teacher’s aides and many owners stand to gain more than money.
However, 2013 might just be the year that pays off for Stern. He is set to retire in February and some thought that meant Adam Silver would immediately cut the losses like if Ron Paul were voted president or something. First off, there’s no way Silver looks to distance himself from the Greatest Commissioner in Sports like that, certainly not right away in 2014. Second, these same money dummies thought the Raiders would leave Oakland as soon as Al Davis was in the dirt. Thirdly, 2013 has already proven to be a banner draft class for the WNBA.
Not unlike 2003′s NBA class roundhouse kicking the post-Jordan era into gear, these rookies might yet lead the WNBA into profitability. Dubbed the “3 to See,” the top three WNBA picks this year have already impacted attendance, viewership and jersey sales.
Top pick by the Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner was quite possibly the biggest college basketball star last year, men or women, and she has immediately wowed spectators the country over. She dunked twice in her first game–marking the first time that multiple dunks ever occurred in a WNBA game–and has drawn comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain with her physical dominance.
The Tulsa Shock’s Skylar Diggins was the other marquee name after her success at Notre Dame and all the hype that goes along with Jay-Z’s management company. Diggins hasn’t set the league on fire like she was expected to, but rookies are allowed to struggle through their first few games. And most encouragingly, Diggins wasn’t voted to the All-Star Game on just face value, due to her her lackluster stats and team struggling with a losing record. She finished third in voting for Western Conference guards and was left off the reserves list. She’ll need to put the horse first for the rest of the season.
WNBA All-Star voters have proven themselves in judging talent. Rather than give the most votes to established stars, the top vote-getter this year was the last of the “3 to See” and the most impressive thus far. Chicago Sky rookie Elena Delle Donne has taken the league by storm with her versatility. Now, versatility is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the WNBA, with centers shooting threes and power forwards running pick and rolls, but Delle Donne is in another stratosphere. She was drafted by a team that severely underachieved last year due to injuries and has now dropped her into the perfect situation.
Never having to overexert herself, she’s been able to pick her spots and blend right in with her contender veteran roster. On top of all that though, Delle Donne has shown the skill to completely take over games when needed and use all her gifts to lead Chicago to the top seed in the East. At 6’5’’, she towers over her All-Star frontcourt partners by four inches yet is listed as guard/forward, being maybe the only player to potentially play the same position in either men’s or women’s leagues Unfortunately, Elena Da Don suffered a concussion Wednesday against the Mystics and is due to sit out the ASG.
Could any women eventually play in the NBA?
No. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban successfully made headlines by telling someone with a camera he might consider Griner for his training camp. This was more grabbing ahold of the Griner hype leading into this WNBA season than any actual commitment. The first WNBA dunk took place in 2002 on a fast break.
The crowd lost its collective shit and the game stopped for hugs. Griner’s one and two-handed slams are not lightyears ahead of Lisa Leslie, but they are 11 years away and it’s obvious the direction we’re headed. Taller and stronger women will continue to come into the WNBA with more skills than their predecessors. The sport is growing around the world. However, the same is true for the NBA, and the women simply will never catch up, mostly due to anatomy.
Griner is an imposing force in her league, she stands at a monsterous 6 foot 8 inches and is incredibly agile for her size. However, LeBron James is 6’8″ and has another 50 pounds on Griner. There’s just no way a center with her skills could survive as a small forward. Any WNBA player under six feet is out as there’s no way for them to create their own shot against NBA competition, especially with women tending to have a lower release point on their jump shots than men.
That leaves power forwards and centers to be what would ostensibly be NBA guards. Parker at 6’4″ or Delle Donne at 6’5″ would be off guards giving up 40-50 pounds to even 6’3″ Eric Gordon. The inability to hide on defense combined with the upper body strength to finish near the rim and get off a quick high jump shot before the defense rotates plainly makes this unfeasible until our idea of gender as binary changes or at least until scientists start breeding superhumans.