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They Got Next
Steve Lopez
June 30, 1997
Tipping off to large crowds and great expectations, the hyper-hyped WNBA fell short only on the court
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June 30, 1997

They Got Next

Tipping off to large crowds and great expectations, the hyper-hyped WNBA fell short only on the court

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Christine Leslie-Espinoza got so tired of it. She'd be watching her daughter, Lisa, a 6-foot seventh-grader, playing in a basketball game, and people would come up to her shaking their heads. " 'Gosh,' they'd say. 'Lisa is so good, it's a shame she's not a boy,' " Christine says. "Can you believe that? They might as well have told me I ought to grow a penis. I always told them I love Lisa the way she is, and that her day would come."

Mom knew.

On Saturday, June 21, 1997, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif., 14,284 fans stood and cheered when Lisa Leslie and the rest of the Los Angeles Sparks were introduced. Less than a minute later Sparks guard Penny Toler put a move on New York Liberty defender Vickie Johnson and hit an 11-foot jump shot. These points will forever be the first scored in the Women's National Basketball Association, and women who saw history asked, Do you know what this means?

Later that day in Salt Lake City, Utah Starzz guard Tammi Reiss flew downcourt with the Sacramento Monarchs giving chase and hit a three-pointer to a deafening roar from a WNBA-capacity crowd of 8,915 at the Delta Center, and women who were watching asked, Do you really, really understand the significance?

"It's the anniversary of Title IX, and look at this," Lynn Barry, a special adviser to the WNBA, said on Sunday as she gazed up at a crowd of 16,102 in Phoenix's America West Arena (capacity: 19,063), where the hometown Mercury was playing the Charlotte Sting. "This is how far we've come in 25 years."

In Cleveland it didn't matter that the hometown Rockers were never in the game last Saturday against the Houston Comets. Men, women and children, 11,455 of them in the WNBA capacity crowd at Gund Arena, went nuts from the moment the announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the WNBA."

And they did.

Hyped, choreographed and heavily bankrolled, the new league blew away all attendance expectations in its first weekend. (The league is playing in NBA arenas, many of which have been downsized by blocking off large sections of seats.) "Are you as amazed as I am that we're drawing 12,000 here tonight and that we're expecting 12,000 back in Houston on Tuesday?" Comets coach Van Chancellor asked in Cleveland. "Never in my wildest dreams did I see this happening."

Or this: NBC's coverage of the Los Angeles-New York game beat out all other national sports competitions in last Saturday's Nielsen TV ratings race. The WNBA opener received a 3.8 overnight rating, outdrawing regional telecasts of major league baseball on Fox, the PGA's Buick Classic on CBS and the Auto Club 200 on ABC, among others. The Charlotte-Phoenix game on Sunday drew a respectable overnight rating of 3.0. With those results the women's game completed an evolution from three dribbles and a mandatory pass to three dribbles and a mandatory shoe commercial. It crossed the line from pure sport to a sports/entertainment/product-promotion phenomenon, with 10 WNBA corporate sponsors smiling all the way. Most amazing was this: The games weren't very good, but nobody seemed to care.

The WNBA is the kid sister of the NBA, which is backing the new league. The game on the floor is only one part of an entertainment package that last weekend included light shows, outdoor carnivals, indoor fireworks and celebrity sightings. Los Angeles Lakers regulars Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon blew off the Sparks, but Tyra Banks was at the Forum, along with Magic Johnson, Penny Marshall, Arsenio Hall and Christopher Darden, in no particular order of importance.

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