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There is no WNBA star who, having recovered from cancer, is now shooting for her sixth title. There have been no WNBA players implicated in the BALCO scandal. There is no WNBA star who once maniacally hurled equipment at an opponent during a game and then suddenly had to play nicely with said opponent at an All-Star Game. There was no petulant WNBA star guard who couldn't co-exist with her star center but managed to extort a new contract worth nearly $140 million -- all while facing heavy-duty criminal proceedings.
Against that backdrop, it was no surprise that the WNBA was relegated to agate type in newspapers and absent from most highlight shows last week. The WNBA is eight years into its existence, and here's the good news: It's eight years into its existence. Here's the bad news: There's a sense that the league is headed for the hospice center. The television ratings make the NHL's ratings look like the Friends finale; players compete in front of pastures of empty seats; and the league's cultural importance -- the ineffable "buzz factor" -- is lower than negligible.
In New York, the Liberty recently fired their long-time coach, Richie Adubato, and it didn't merit a full story in most newspapers. (These are the same publications that recently devoted untold column inches to Donald Trump's dissing of Kaz Matsui.) The incomparable Diana Taurasi may be an MVP candidate for the Phoenix Mercury, but most casual fans haven't heard her name uttered since UConn's final game.
Here, perhaps, is the ultimate sign of the league's irrelevance: One of the better players in the WNBA's brief history, a key contributor for the defending championship team, was suspended last season for her alleged role in a sexual assault on a teammate. She has yet to be heard from again. And no one cares. To repeat: A player was suspended for an alleged sexual assault on her own teammate, and it barely pierced the public consciousness. There's probably a team flack who got a promotion for burying this one under the rug and spinning a potential p.r. disaster into oblivion. But really it's no feat at all. When the same sports media that hightail it to Colorado for every Kobe Bryant pre-trial motion can't be bothered to chase a story this potentially explosive, it speaks volumes about your league.
As it stands, the league's coverage is trapped in a vicious cycle. WNBA executives assert that more fans would care if the media took a greater interest. The media would contend it can't justify devoting the inches and airtime to a sport that interests so few. And so it goes.
The shame of it is there's plenty of reason to care about the WNBA. Those basketball purists -- prone to bellyaching about the NBA's poverty of fundamentals, the indifference to defense and the yawn-inducing isolation game -- would love the way WNBA teams swing the ball and sacrifice non-vital organs for loose balls. ...
The games are great for kids and thoroughly affordable. (I speak from experience, having recently gone with my wife and two kids to a Liberty game for less money than it costs for the worst single ticket to a Knicks game.) The players are easy to root for and will sign autographs until their hands are bleeding. And unlike their NBA brethren, they have little familiarity with the legal system. (The aforementioned alleged sexual predator notwithstanding, of course.) A WNBA player has yet to be slapped with a paternity suit.
Like most sports with a summer season, the Olympics is wreaking havoc with the WNBA's schedule. The annual All-Star Game, usually held around this time, has moved to next month. And it is a novelty act -- held at Radio City Music Hall, no less -- that will pit the WNBA players headed to Athens against a team of WNBA grandees who are not. Nevertheless, we figured this would be an ideal time to catch you up on season No. 8.
Herewith the answers to five burning questions:
If the season ended tomorrow, who'd win the MVP award?
Probably a toss-up between Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw and Seattle's Lauren Jackson. Holdsclaw, whom most casual fans will remember from her star turn at Tennessee, needed a few seasons to really find traction. This year, though, she has been lights out, second in the league in scoring and ranking third in rebounding. Last year's MVP, Jackson is first in scoring and has replaced her nemesis, Lisa Leslie, as the league's best interior player.
Will the Detroit Shock bring Bill Davidson yet another title?
Um. No. After their Piston-like run to the title in 2003 -- a scrappy, democratic team knocked off the behemoths from L.A. -- the Shock have been shockingly average and are under .500.
So will the title revert to the L.A. Sparks?
In all likelihood. But keep an eye on Seattle. Jackson and former UConn star Sue Bird might be the league's best inside-outside combo, and the Storm have some nice complementary players, including Betty Lennox and former All-Star Sheri Sam.
How's Taurasi doing?
Great. Though she's essentially been playing non-stop since the fall, she is fifth in the league in scoring and a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year.
Who's the one player we should make a point to watch play?
Minnesota's Katie Smith. She's a perennial All-Star but never gets her due. Big-time scorer, great shooter, some flashy moves and a great basketball cortex. The best WNBA player you've never heard of. Which, sadly, is probably saying something. ...
Other jottings: Continuing the recent blog discussion about obscure songs being co-opted incongruously by Corporate America, anyone else get a kick of The Smiths' typically angst-heavy How Soon is Now? ("I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar ...") being used to push yuppie Nissan Sedans? Reminds me of Pete Sampras' retirement ceremony at last year's U.S. Open. As Sampras orbited the court with his young son in his arms, inexplicably, Pearl Jam's Alive blasted from the speakers. ...
Speaking of tennis, you haven't experienced pain until you've watched an episode of John McEnroe's show on CNBC. Magic Johnson looks like Terry Gross by comparison. ...
The denouement (we can only hope) of L'Affaire Lakers obscured some other recent NBA moves of significance. Detroit's picking up Antonio McDyess could pay huge dividends. (Particularly if he gets an artificial knee.) Kenyon Martin to Denver simultaneously bolsters the Nuggets and tanks the Nets. If Phoenix lands Quentin Richardson in addition to Steve Nash the Suns become an intriguing team. Laugh now but Jerry West's stealth acquisition of terminally underrated Brian Cardinal will go down as yet another one of his steals. And yet another Golden State blunder. ...
If Teddy Atlas were calling it live, we would watch two chipmunks fight over an acorn. ... Enjoy Johnny Socko.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.