The season began just where you hope it will end, with the country's top two teams meeting in a tip-off "classic." Of course, this particular game was promoted by an insurance company, and not all aspects of the tip-off were truly classic. Still, what better way to extend the franchise created by the 1996 Olympic gold medal team than to start the college season with a Stanford-Alabama matchup?
Men's college basketball doesn't get tip-offs like this. Season openers are usually just complicated scrimmages for the guys; November and December amount to exhibition play. But the women play a bolder game. They are eager—almost desperate—to attract as much attention as possible to their burgeoning sport. They seem pressured to build on the popularity that the 60-0 U.S. all-stars established last August.
"We hoped," said Alabama coach Rick Moody, whose team was picked No. 2 to Stanford's No. 1, "we could do justice to the game, 'cause it's really ready to take off."
These women do not shy from such pressure. "Number 1 versus Number 2?" asked Stanford guard Jamila Wideman. "It can't get more exciting."
To a woman, and the one man, everybody was looking forward to the State Farm Tip-Off Classic in Palo Alto, Calif., less as a do-or-die harbinger of the season to come than as an opportunity to create even more exposure for women's basketball. TV, national media—come on down! Stanford guard Kate Starbird, a returning All-America, said last Saturday, "This is obviously a big thing, all this coverage." She seemed to like it.
She liked it even more on Sunday afternoon when Stanford, with 10 players from last season's Final Four squad, held off a much more physical Alabama team 74-65. The game was not quite what the matchup promised: Stanford had a double-digit lead most of the time, and Alabama shot 29% from the field. But for a season opener, you could do a lot worse.
Anyway, this game seemed less about a team than it did about a sport. Every women's game these days is a reverberation of that amazingly successful Olympic campaign (two professional leagues have even been developed to catch that wave of popularity). This match had an added tie-in: The Stanford coach, Tara VanDerveer, had coached the U.S. Olympic team. If there had been any more reverberation in Maples Pavilion, State Farm would have had to pay off on new glass backboards.
VanDerveer, who brought two national championships to Stanford before taking on the world, has tried to downplay her Olympic sabbatical. When the editors of Stanford's media guide chose a cover picture of her in her USA shirt, she made them airbrush out the letters and write in Stanford. "I have to show this team that they are now my priority," she said. But global success and its implications cannot be airbrushed away.
"That whole Olympic thing," says Wide-man, "legitimized the women's game in a lot of ways. You always heard complaints about the game not being above the rim, but when they were able to show this incredible level of athleticism, well, it got everybody thinking."
Wideman is just one of the players basking in the Olympic afterglow. Starbird, who had a quiet eight points to Wideman's more noticeable 12 against Alabama, says she isn't just thinking about this season. "Three years ago," Starbird says, "I never really thought of playing basketball after college. Now I don't think I can do anything else."