Celebrating The WNBA Decade

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - June 07, 2006
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Way back in 1996 the idea of a new women’s professional basketball league seemed like a risky - if not naive - venture. True, the collegiate game had grown from an afterthought to a major money maker at a number of universities, but it was still a big gamble.

Even with the powerful backing of the NBA, would the league blossom into a viable product, or would it soon collapse under the weight of fan disinterest?

After all, there have been numerous attempts at women’s pro leagues in this country - 13 in basketball alone - and very few became more than historical footnotes.

That is until now.

The WNBA is celebrating its 10th season, and while not everything is perfect, it doesn’t seem to be in danger of going away in the immediate future. And if the folks in charge can find a way to get more television exposure and therefore more fans, the league could find itself racking up anniversaries for years to come. The athletes are more skilled, the competitive balance between the teams has never been better, and the game is just flat-out better. If only the men’s league could make the same claim.

The brainchild of NBA commissioner David Stern, the league got off the ground saying “We Got Next” in October 1996. Big crowds and even bigger hype followed as the eight inaugural teams divided up 16 of the top collegiate and international players including Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes, the very first, UConn’s Rebecca Lobo at No. 2 and maybe the very best of them all, center Lisa Leslie. After the big stars were in place a regular draft was held.

From there the league had typical growing pains as some teams flourished (Houston Comets, L.A. Sparks, New York Liberty) others changed addresses (Orlando to Connecticut, Utah to San Antonio) and a few even got out of the business (Portland Fire and Miami Sol). By 2000, the league had doubled in size and fans became a bit harder to come by. Later opinions would suggest expansion came too soon and exceeded fan interest.

Attendance dropped from its 1998 high of 10,800 per game to 8,174 last season, TV ratings have stagnated and sponsors have come and gone. But hope is not lost.

With heavy interest from owners such as Gavin and Joe Maloof (Sacramento Monarchs) and the Washington Mystics’ Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET, league officials are expecting even better times to come.

Whether that will happen is anyone’s guess. What we can say for sure is that there have been some damn good ball players over the years. And with that thought in mind, here is one ignorant man’s list of the all-time WNBA All Star Team.

Center: Lisa Leslie. One of the two no-brainers on the list. In her illustrious career, Leslie has been named to the all WNBA first team six times, has collected two MVP awards, one defensive player of the year award and is the league’s all-time leader in points and rebounds.

Forward: Sheryl Swoops. The other no-brainer. With five all WNBA first teams selections to go with her three MVPs and three defensive player of the year awards, she may be the only player to challenge Leslie as the greatest of all time.

Forward: Tamika Catchings. Although still young, the 27-year-old with only four complete seasons under her belt is already 26th all time in scoring, 21st in rebounds and 12th in steals. Figure those out on a per game basis. And she ranks fifth, sixth and second respectively. She has also finished second in MVP voting in 2002 and 2003.

Guard: Cynthia Cooper. There is no telling what Cooper could have accomplished had she been born only a few years earlier. Entering the league at 34 years old, Cooper had enough left in her to win the WNBA finals MVP four times and was first team all-league four times. She may have done more, but retired in 2000 at the age of 37. She did come back three years later and had enough to average 16 points and 5.5 assists before a torn rotator cuff tendon effectively ended her career after four games.

Guard: Sue Bird. Another youngster in maybe the most competitive position on the team. Substitute her with Teresa Weatherspoon or Dawn Staley and no one will argue. But the numbers go to Bird. In points, steals, assists, rebounds, free-throw percentage and 3-point shooting, Bird tops Staley in every category and Weatherspoon in four out of six.

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