Posted: Thursday May 25, 2006 3:19PM; Updated: Thursday May 25, 2006 4:48PM
Sheryl Swoopes is the Michael Jordan of the WNBA, but few sports fans seem to care.
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Have you seen her? Please tell me you've watched her play at least once in the past 10 years. That you've witnessed Sheryl Swoopes' swarming defense and trademark three-pointers to seal a win. Or that you've seen clips of Lisa Leslie recording the first WNBA dunk, in 2002.
Well, maybe you haven't. Maybe the thought of a woman playing a man's game frightens you. Maybe you missed that the WNBA tipped off its 10th season last Saturday. Maybe you have yet to go to a game. Maybe you're like the typical middle-aged male sports fan who's been grumbling the past 12 months about steroids. Maybe, despite all of your displeasure with today's male-dominated sports, you've just been too pigheaded to give the women's game a chance.
And that's a shame, because you are missing out. After calling "We Got Next" in the summer of 1997, the WNBA has been pushing the ball up court and quietly turning itself into a formidable entity. No professional women's sports league in the last half-century has lasted longer. It avoided a lockout in 1999 and survived the rival American Basketball League, which folded after only two seasons. Moreover, the WNBA has expanded (and also contracted a little) from eight teams in its first season to the present-day 14. It has overcome sexual-orientation biases, settled on collective-bargaining agreements and even dealt with a few maternity leaves. The league has persevered despite the snarls of all the naysayers and chauvinists.
But if you put your biases aside and closely examine the WNBA, you'll see that it's just like any of the major sports leagues. It has its superstars, such as the aforementioned Swoopes (MVP in 2000, '02 and '05) and Leslie (MVP in 2001 and '04) and Sue Bird. It's had Patriots-esque dynasties, such as the Houston Comets, who won the first four WNBA championships, from '97 through 2000. It's had bitter rivalries, such as the Comets versus the New York Liberty and the Seattle Storm versus the Sacramento Monarchs, or Lisa Leslie versus Lauren Jackson. (Leslie hasn't forgiven Jackson for pulling out her hair extensions in a game between the U.S. and Australia at the 2000 Olympics.)
Most importantly, the WNBA features good basketball. The game is about fundamentals, and it's played below the rim. WNBA players defend in earnest throughout the entire game, not just in the last two minutes of each period. Unlike in the NBA, where you're likely to be dazzled and then bored to death by dunk after dunk or Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson shooting 40 times a game, the WNBA is about teamwork. It's about a Swoopes jump shot or Tina Thompson setting a wicked screen or Bird running the pick-and-roll or Alana Beard stripping the ball. It's about everything we were taught basketball was supposed to be, minus the selfishness and the shake-and-bake. Plus, the games are fan-friendly and the superstars are likable and accessible.
And according to Detroit Shock coach and former NBA vet Bill Laimbeer, it's only getting better. "The players are bigger, stronger and better now than ever," says Laimbeer. "I'd equate it to the [NBA's] early '80s, where you have this transition to a higher-paced basketball, talented and marquee players coming out of college. The depth of these teams right now is at its peak. It's very, very difficult to get a roster spot in this league because the talent and quality of play is so high."
Still, some critics slice up the WNBA as if it were some freak sideshow and men's basketball was the be-all and end-all. One reason some basketball fans stay away is that the WNBA is constantly compared to the men's game. Its stars are forever weighed against the male hoop legends of yesteryear, which is just wrong. Lisa Leslie is not Magic, Sheryl Swoopes is not Jordan and Sue Bird is not Larry. And they shouldn't have to be. These are women who play the game and play it well. These ladies still got next, and it's about time we took notice.