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Dispatches from the W: NBA Summer School

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This past NBA season ended with a bang. It’s not every Finals that there’s a Game 7, but this year felt more like the last day of school than the finale of a fireworks show. Already, LeBron James‘s late-game shot-making feels as inevitable as a math class crush writing a boilerplate salutation in my yearbook. LeBron just got his 20th Sports Illustrated cover to go with his second Finals MVP, and the Vegas Vacation of NBA Summer League isn’t until the middle of next month. The unpredictable but seemingly inconsequential 2013 draft happened yesterday, and while some teams might be excited about a prospect, the thick air of summer has brought with it a general malaise without men’s basketball. So besides repeating clips of Kevin Durant at the Goodman League and under-19 FIBA games, I’ve been getting my fix from women’s basketball, specifically the funky incarnation that is the WNBA in its 17th season.

Bethlehem Shoals, the main founder of the FreeDarko basketball blog, has compared the WNBA to the early days of the NBA in the ’50s and ’60s. While I think he was onto something concerning the development of the business side and how motivated kids are to join the league, the relative weirdness and the odd relationship with the NBA makes me think of the good old American Basketball Association. But rather than competing with an existing league to get its paws on the NBA’s money like the ABA did, the WNBA started as an off-shoot of the NBA with the hope of distinguishing itself into something sustainable. After the first generation of stars like Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie have retired, the league has found itself with a more open game and a new set of stars. With each new draft class, the WNBA continues to both individualize itself and shorten the gap between the NBA. There may not be any wrestling bears at halftime, no mustaches, and very few afros, but there are Zumba fitness halftime shows and some of the wildest hairdos to ever step on a basketball court. It’s also pretty cool to see pantsuits and dresses in huddles.

Since the WNBA started in 1997, it has been a punchline for people who see women’s sports as either a mockery or pointless. The athletes are smaller and less athletic than the men in a sport where height and athleticism are paramount, and the league exists in a world where not enough people are willing to accept it at face value. Within a culture filled with male hegemony, too few young girls pick up a basketball and too few fans support the league to make it as enviable and profitable as the NBA. Of course the league is a joke. Women’s rights are a joke. Ask Lilly Ledbetter or Wendy Davis or the women of Wisconsin or Virginia or Ohio or any one of the 35 states where a woman must be “counseled” before getting an abortion. Too many basketball fans, like politicians, don’t know that it’s okay for women to be distinctive. Nowhere is the WNBA’s comparable discrepancy more apparent than the pay grades. The average WNBA salary is about $72,000 – less than that of an average veterinarian – compared to just over five million dollars in the NBA. The “just over” being double a WNBA salary on top of the five mil. The inability to make a living is a significant issue for most women’s sports leagues the world over 1 , but just as old Celtics fans and followers of indie rock know, sometimes the most fun is had when it’s not about the money and very few are watching.

I’ve personally kept a blind eye on the WNBA throughout most of its history. I remember some of the early players’ names, though only the names, nothing more. I remember when Lisa Leslie dunked in an all-star game and when the Sacramento Monarchs folded four years after they won a championship. The first time the league really piqued my interest however, was at the height of Seven Seconds or Less Suns and right before Kevin Garnett moved to Boston, when the other Phoenix team created a Big Three of Cappie Pondexter, Penny Taylor and my personal favorite WNBA player, Diana Taurasi. The league moved to a 24-second shot clock in 2006, and the Phoenix Mercury brought in the up-tempo style of former NBA coach Paul Westhead. They played fast and loose, capitalizing on the scoring and playmaking abilities of each of their big three. The team won two championships between 2007-2009, missing out in 2008 when Taylor took the year off and the team missed the playoffs. Current head coach Corey Gaines has continued the pace, but after 2009 their offense-heavy attack has faced similar problems as those of Steve Nash’s Suns. The Mercury traded Pondexter and got smacked by Lauren Jackson and the Seattle Storm in 2010. Since, they’ve evolved into an exciting, if blunted, team with Taylor as a versatile point forward and Taurasi putting the “shooting” in shooting guard, with other pieces like Candice Dupri‘s hard-nosed rebounding and DeWanna Bonner‘s long-armed chaos supporting.

The Phoenix Mercury have fortunately become interesting again this year. They have a star rookie in Brittney Griner, a 6’8″ center who has already become the first WNBA player to dunk more than once in one game. Griner is a physical specimen in a league that doesn’t always require it. She’s quick and fast, capable of running the floor and timing blocks. She has a chance to be one of the best ever, and at times displays an on-court superiority reminiscent of the early days of Wilt Chamberlain or even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in college, but she also shows many typical signs of a rookie. The closest comparison I can come up with is Anthony Davis, who has flashed defensive brilliance on plays people had only ever dreamed of, as well as demonstrated a typical rookie learning curve while getting acclimated to the speed and talent of the new league. With the way she dunks, Griner may end up becoming one of the most dominant players ever, but the WNBA has proven it is not that easy to dominate. Penny Taylor has missed every game thus far this year with a torn ACL, and in her place, Taurasi has emerged as the de facto point guard. It’s reminiscent of Kobe Bryant‘s weird season this past year, where he was forced to create shots for everyone while Steve Nash was hurt. Taurasi is looking to pass early and gun late, and it’s fantastic to watch her carve up defenses in the pick-and-roll, hit baseline fadeaways and launch the most 3-point attempts in the league. The Mercury’s record is middle-of-the-pack right now, but they’ve dusted off their slow start and hit a bit of a stride all while Taylor is working her way back onto the court.

Early during last night’s riveting, controversial Phoenix win over the Mystics, Mercury forward Charde Houston was set to be the first substitute for her team, until she realized she forgot to take her earrings out. She had to wait for the next time stoppage to enter the game. That doesn’t happen in the NBA; not because men don’t wear earrings, but because there are enough eyes and handlers to make sure the product broadcast on television is perfectly in line with what the corporation wants. The political correctness sillyness that most big corporations are forced to participate in, such as a dress code, are mostly nonexistant. Never was this discrepancy more blatant than when Washington Wizards center Jason Collins came out as gay earlier this year. He is the only NBA player under contract ever out as gay. Contrast this with the WNBA, where this year’s first overall pick has casually been out of the closet for years 2. The WNBA exists on its own liberal plane where gay players are no big deal and the crowds at games not only skew away from conservatives’ preferred white majority, but also contain a large number of women and no doubt, gay people. This mix of fans all cheer together right on the broadcast, as they are usually only in the lower-bowl of arenas for women’s games.

There are moments like the inability to save a high-bouncing ball out of bounds or a flurry of missed shots under the basket where the dimensions limit the game and immediately make me think about the differences in size and athleticism. I’ve found that it is difficult to have a conversation about the WNBA without first having to acknowledge that it is a completely different game from the NBA. These things aren’t likely to change soon, but my personal idea of what ballers and swagger means has changed. Diana Taurasi is my favorite player because I love do-everything shooting guards and because she plays with the kind of cocky emotion I’m used to seeing in men’s leagues. But my opinion on the latter reason has evolved the more and more I watch these amazing women. As I familiarize myself with high buns and in-game lipstick, the less important I find the posturing, complaining and chest-pounding I’m so used to in the men’s game. I still want all that testosterone in the NBA, but I rarely find myself complaining at its relative lack thereof in the WNBA.

The women’s game is slower, grounded and more subtle. No one’s being met at the rim and there are few crossovers capable of breaking ankles. I’ll never consider the WNBA as being my main interest for basketball and it sucks that the league will always be put down for its differences from the NBA, but that’s how it will always be. Women’s athletics will never draw the revenue their male counterparts will. And until Rick Perry is elected president and basketball fans all start watching the Lingerie Basketball League, the WNBA will continue to fight for its right to exist. While the ABA used its eccentricities to get under the shadow and into the NBA’s money, the WNBA is using its eccentricities to get out from the shadow. The money won’t sustain it in the way it has sustained the NBA since Michael Jordan started selling all those shoes, but many of these ladies are happy with the way it is. It’s rather amazing to see all these women play their hearts out in a league that is both seemingly on the brink of folding while also being on the forefront of female athletic expression.

Notes:

  1. Most women’s basketball players spend offseasons in Europe, where they make significantly more than they do in America, but still much less than NBA players
  2. though her college tried to keep it under wraps