Weekly Countdown: A woman's place could soon be in the NBA
David Stern believes a woman could be playing in NBA within the next 10 years
Integration of women hampered by physical nature of game, respect of players
More topics: Gambling worries, who's to blame for Knicks mess, Bucks' plan
This will be the sports equivalent of putting a man on the moon ... and I'm not the only believer.
5 reasons to believe a woman will play in the NBA
David Stern thinks it will happen. On Tuesday in the conference room outside his NBA office in Manhattan, I asked the commissioner whether we'll see a woman playing in his league someday.
"Sure," he said matter-of-factly. "I think that's well within the range of probability."
He went on to explain his reasoning as well as jokingly ask that I seek out other opinions, so that he wouldn't appear to be pushing this most progressive and liberating pursuit down the throats of his players, coaches and executives. But he knows, I know and now you know there is a good chance it's going to happen, simply because the most important man in basketball has hereby declared it could and should happen.
The context is important, because this was not some kind of pet project that he leaked to me. Last month an SI editor asked me to come up with several thoughts on professional basketball for the next decade, and one of my predictions was that a woman will be playing in the NBA. Then I decided to ask Stern about it. Last week I requested a meeting with Stern and I made sure to mention that I would be asking him about the possibility of a woman playing in his league, because I didn't want to catch him off guard. You'll be able to see that he had thought about this, and that he fully realized the impact of what he was saying.
How else was he going to answer such a question? If he'd said no -- that there will be no women playing in the NBA -- then he might have been viewed as criticizing or diminishing the talent of his own WNBA. Therefore, some will respond to Stern's declaration by accusing him of cynically trying to prop up the women's league.
My own impression is that Stern was not seeking to take on the goal of signing a woman to play in the NBA. But now that he has answered the question, I am certain he will embrace the mission.
Stern's entire career demonstrates that his perspective and ambitions eclipse the needs of the WNBA. If a woman were to play in his league -- and play well -- it would have the liberating impact of Jackie Robinson's 1947 breakthrough of baseball's color barrier, but on a much greater scale. This would make news around the world. Thanks to Stern's stubborn success in feeding NBA video to every continent, women almost everywhere would have access to and be personally inspired by the pictures of a woman playing in the league of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. It would be an athletic achievement without precedent.
I asked if we might see a woman playing NBA basketball within a decade.
"I think we might," said Stern. "I don't want to get into all kinds of arguments with players and coaches about the likelihood. But I really think it's a good possibility."
It would be a huge story. "It would be a ridiculous story,'' agreed Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, meaning that the level of interest would be preposterous. "It would be great for everyone ... if it can happen. The key is whether the person is playing, or is she just on the team? The story will die down if she's just on the team and not playing a lot. But if she is playing and helping the team improve and win, then it really is a huge story."
The ultimate goal of developing a woman player is an unexpected but natural progression for Stern, who has used social initiatives such as Basketball Without Borders -- in which NBA players run clinics and camps around the world -- to help grow his business internationally. The success of a woman player would introduce the NBA to enormous audiences who wouldn't otherwise have been interested.
"The public would be excited about it," said New Jersey Nets general manager and interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe. "Whether you're in China or Europe or Africa, basketball is a common language and it breaks barriers. It's a language that's spoken all over the world, and this is another barrier that it would bring down. It's exciting, and it's a logical next step."
The pursuit of "the first woman" will also create new respect for the WNBA. From now on every great player in that league will be viewed from a new perspective. Is she good enough to play with the men? What does she need to improve in order to make that leap?
Some NBA owners will be interested in hiring the first woman player, even if it's only to sell tickets. "That would work if you had the right woman, and particularly if she were a player who played," said Nets president Rod Thorn. "Initially it would be, 'Wow, I've got to see this, I never thought this would happen so I've got to see it ...' If she were a solid player and a contributor, then definitely it would help."
Women's basketball continues to improve tremendously. When I asked Dallas Mavericks All-Star Dirk Nowitzki whether a woman could play in the NBA, he asked me if I was serious. I don't think he meant disrespect; it was just that he had never considered the possibility. "Skills-wise, yeah," he said, meaning they could shoot and handle the ball at an NBA level. "But physical-wise, it's tough. Even all the little guys are pretty strong in this league and pretty athletic."
Many in the league will doubt whether a woman can match the speed and strength of the world's best male players. "I don't think its going to be physically possible," said a league GM who asked to remain anonymous. "I think they have the necessary skill sets: If you give me the best of the best in the WNBA and put them on the (free throw) line with the best of the NBA, I think you'll see they shoot the ball as well as men.
"But think about the overall speed, athleticism and strength (in the NBA). They can't take the pounding, the wear and tear, the quickness, the strength. It's not possible for them right now. Why does (women's coach) Pat Summit at Tennessee have boy managers? It's because she wanted her team to play against the boy managers (in practice) because they're better than the girls on her bench. Many programs across the country have done that.
"I love the discussion, it's great for basketball and it doesn't hurt the NBA one bit. Would someone do it for PR? Maybe. But it's not going to happen. They can't play."
Stern acknowledged the skepticism while tempering it. "If you look at world records, let's say in track and field, you'll see how the women have moved up to what would have been records several decades ago for men," said Stern. "And you watch [the WNBA] and you see the shooting percentages, the passing and the like.
"An issue that I have is when you look at tennis, and this is the argument against me," continued Stern. "As great as the women are, and actually in some cases I think their serves are served at a higher speed than men on the tour, like Serena's (Williams) first serve --you still get the sense that they wouldn't do well on the men's side of the tour.
"But in basketball, where it's a five-person game and you have zones and you can do a variety of other things -- a fast person with a good shot that can play on the team? I think we could see it in the next decade or so ... I'll leave it to the real experts to talk about the muscle factor. But there's going to be a very strong woman who has all the moves, who's going to want to play, and she's going to be good."
Thorn emphasized that the terms of the debate will continue to change because women players keep improving. "I'm a fan of the WNBA -- I go to games, I watch games -- and the athletic ability of women basketball players has made such a jump up in the last five or six years it's unbelievable," said Thorn. "I don't think it's a complete leap of faith to say somewhere down the road someplace there may be somebody that's good enough to play.''
Who is to say that the women's equivalent of LeBron James won't show up as a freshman at Tennessee or Connecticut four or five years from now? By launching the discussion now, Stern will has abruptly created an environment in which pro and con will hash it out, and in that way the league will prepare itself eventually for the day when a woman shows up for the opening of NBA summer league in Las Vegas.
NBA rules changes have opened the door. This discussion would not have been possible a decade ago, when the NBA enabled a more physical style of play on the perimeter 15 feet beyond the basket. "With the hand check, the strong defenders could just stop you," said Thorn, 68. "K.C. Jones -- I remember him my first year in the league -- he would put his hand on your waist and just move you wherever he wanted to move you. Now if you tried that, you'd have three fouls before you'd get started and you'd be on the bench."
Now when you see smaller NBA guards running free on the three-point line, think about whether an athletic woman could do the same things. "That was designed to create opportunities for skilled players," said Stern of the abolition of hand-checking. "So the question becomes: When the woman comes with the high skill set, will she be able to play? And I think the answer is yes, I think so."
The model may be WNBA MVP Diana Taurasi, the 6-foot swingman who led the Phoenix Mercury to the league championship. She can shoot, handle the ball, she's strong and -- as important as anything -- she is aggressive. In order to overcome the physical deficiencies, the first woman in the NBA would be a terrific shooter and ballhandler with the vision to make plays for others, and she would have to be fearless and confident and outrageously athletic, by WNBA standards.
"But you don't know" said Vandeweghe."We have a lot of guys in our league who are specialty players -- they come in and can just flat shoot it. Who's to say that somebody from the WNBA couldn't do the same thing?"
Much as Branch Rickey carefully chose Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier based on his skills as well as his temperament, so is Stern likely to urge his teams to be patient in making sure the first woman is equipped to succeed. Maybe she'll be the next generation of Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker, or Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever.
"I wouldn't say it's implausible because I think people have been saying that about different groups of people forever and they've been proven wrong," said New York Knicks president Donnie Walsh. "I'm sure there'll be a girl who'll be on this level, and if there is, she'll probably play in the NBA.
"I look at the WNBA games and I'm amazed at how good these girls are," continued Walsh, 68. "I told Larry Brown once, 'I think they're better than you and I were in college.' He got mad at me, but I was serious. I said, 'Larry, they're just like we were. They play under the rim, they're not jumpers, they can't dunk and all that. But they know how to play and they can drive, they can shoot. They're good.'"
The first woman will be greeted with newfound respect. Ann Meyers Drysdale, now GM of the WNBA champion Mercury, remains the only woman to sign an NBA contract. She had been a three-time All-America guard at UCLA before signing in 1979 with the Indiana Pacers, who released her before that season.
"I had been liked by the media at that time," said the 5-9 Meyers, but that changed when she joined the Pacers. "I recall at the press conference that I was attacked pretty good by the media. You know: what are you doing, you're taking some guy's job, you can't compete, you're too slow, you're going to get hurt, you're too small, da-ta-da. But somebody gives you an opportunity, you're supposed to say no?"
It will be different this time because of players like Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman, who will coach the new NBA D-League franchise in Dallas after a playing career that included games in the men's minor-league USBL as well as on the summer league teams of the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz. The escalation of women's basketball over the last decade has made Taurasi and Parker stars in their own right, to the point that you now see LeBron James and Kobe Bryant attending U.S. women's games at the Olympics.
But it's important that the NBA get this right the first time. "If she was truly a full-time player rather than a modern day Eddie Gaedel," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban of the dwarf who played major league baseball in a 1951 publicity stunt, "it would be enormous."
Would the other players respect her?
"If she could play," answered Cuban. "If it was a marketing ploy, they would resent her taking a job."
That's why, in order for this to have universal meaning, I'm convinced Stern and the NBA will wait for the right player to come along. If she really is the LeBron James of women's basketball, then she'll be welcomed by the stars throughout the NBA, and in turn the best players on her NBA team will have no choice but to respect her.
If anyone is going to be nervous, it will be the opponents playing against her. "That's right, the guys trying to guard her won't want to get beat," said Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey. "I see the women's game coming closer and closer to the men's game. You see NBA coaches who are now coaching in the WNBA and you see them using a lot of the same principles -- offensive schemes, pick and roll, defensive sets. The physical part will be the worst for a woman, and it will be on defense more than anything else.
"But technically, all of the things they need are already there," said Casey, 52. "Before I leave this earth I'll see it -- or at least I'll be close to seeing it."
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