The American Basketball League had much to celebrate at its inaugural All-Star Game in Hartford last weekend. The fledgling women's professional league, born in the giddy aftermath of the U.S. team's 14-month pre-Olympic road show and subsequent gold medal run in Atlanta, is drawing several hundred fans more than its goal of 3,000 per game. Players such as Teresa Edwards, Nikki McCray and Dawn Staley are hits in the eight-team ABL's mostly midsized markets, like Hartford-Springfield, Portland, Richmond and San Jose. "Corporate sponsors aren't only returning our calls now," says league cofounder Gary Cavalli, "they're calling us first."
But as players, coaches and league personnel were gathering for the game, a three-point shooting contest and a whirl of catered functions, a threat was looming from the outfit that first turned the concept of All-Star Weekend into a sort of hoops high holy days. Just down the road, in New York City, NBA commissioner David Stern is fine-tuning plans to launch his own women's league, the WNBA, in June. Were anyone else behind that effort, there might be no cause for concern. The WNBA season will be only two months long, and the league will feature teams in huge markets like New York and Los Angeles, where women's basketball risks being swallowed up. But Stern didn't transform the NBA from a dying, drug-ridden entity that couldn't get its Finals on prime-time TV into a global brand name by being a live-and-let-live sensitive New Age guy. Stern has squished superstations and a state lottery. He has all but annexed the league's players' union and the game's international governing body, FIBA. No way he'll readily cede the gender that more than half the people on the planet call their own.
So as you gird for battle, ABL, here's some advice on how you can coexist with the NBA beast.
•Remember that you're not a league, you 're a movement. "If the NBA starts a league, the men will always come first," Staley. an Olympian and the star of the Richmond Rage, said last summer. She's right: WNBA franchises will play in the NBA off-season and be run out of the front offices of NBA teams. So play the sisterhood card. Point out that before the NCAA (once an implacable enemy of Title IX) devoured the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, 90% of the coaches in women's college sports were females; now the figure is about 48%. In contrast to the WNBA's top-down approach, with its big markets and TV deals with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime, your philosophy is grassroots. It's working—that's why the teams with the worst records, the New England Blizzard and the Portland Power, are drawing the most fans—so stick with it.
•Make sure you're the ABL, not the ACL. Your first months were pockmarked by knee injuries to such stars as Clarissa Davis-Wrightsill, Venus Lacy, Saudia Roundtree and Natalie Williams. Examine all possible causes of this epidemic—from a too short preseason, to overly permissive officiating, to 10-player rosters—and move quickly to address the problem.
•Enforce professionalism among coaches and players. "A lot in the ABL is really positive," says Olympic coach Tara VanDerveer, who's back in the college ranks, guiding No. 1 Stanford. "But I see some players not recognizing their responsibility as pro athletes. They're out of shape." VanDerveer says the WNBA has noticed this, and recent college stars gone to seed won't get contract offers. If there's another weakness in your league, it's the quality of the coaches. The nation's best—including VanDerveer, Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and Vanderbilt's Jim Foster—have already been mentioned as possibilities for WNBA clubs. Rest assured, they won't want to coach a bunch of lard butts.
•There's nothing the NBA can't be expected to do. You think it's a coincidence that ESPN has a deal with the WNBA and SportsCenter won't air your scores? Your greatest weapon is the clause in your standard contract prohibiting ABL players from suiting up for another league. That ensures that you'll develop the Edwardses and Staleys as ABL products. Sure, your smug counterpart has no such clause, but if you even think of relaxing yours, expect the WNBA to slap one on, crippling you.
•In German, Stem means "star." The NBA knows that pro basketball is a game of stars. You failed to land four of the five Olympic starters. You've missed out on signing electric foreigners like Australia's Michele Timms, who's now in Stern's stable. And on Dec. 10, when Atlanta's Edwards was setting an ABL record with 41 points in the Glory's 95-86 win at San Jose, the Lasers' P.A. announcer waited until the game was over to tell the crowd, and Atlanta coach Trish Roberts kept Edwards on the court to the end, instead of pulling her out and letting fans shower her with applause. If that happens again, fine both clubs. The NBA would.
Heed these Stern warnings and your future looks promising. You and the WNBA are in different markets and seasons, with different philosophies and corporate backers. There's no reason you can't coexist and vindicate the words of that great suffragette Mae West: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."