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On the whole, the female pros aren't just better behaved than their male counterparts. They're smarter and cooler, too. With no early entry permitted, the vast majority of WNBA players are college graduates, and many have advanced degrees. For the most part the players are likable, self-possessed and care about how they're perceived. In short, the league is the antidote for legions of fans weary of rooting for felons, thugs and whining millionaires.
It's late evening when the team checks into the Radisson and the players get their keys—two players to a room. Some of the women order room service; a few amble around downtown Minneapolis looking for a restaurant and possibly a mall to hit the next day. "Wild times in the WNBA," says Rizzotti. "Sometimes we really get crazy and cram into one room and rent a pay-per-view movie." Strolling the streets, Taylor is informed that this is where the opening sequence to The Mary Tyler Moore Show was filmed. A blank look registers on Taylor's face. With that, her companions burst into song: We're gonna make it after all.
WEDNESDAY, July 17
At 10:45 a.m. the Rockers board a bus for the two-block trip to the Target Center. Unlike NBA game-day shootarounds, which often serve as glorified wake-up calls, the Rockers' session is utterly businesslike. By 12:30 the team is back at the Radisson. Some players head to a nearby Italian joint for lunch, some nap, others make the obligatory trip to the mall. "I swear," says Rizzotti, "some of these girls think we get mail money, not meal money." A bit of a nervous wreck, the 46-year-old Hughes retreats to his suite on the 15th floor, where he whiles away the hours wearing out the pause button on his VCR, staring at game tapes of both the Rockers and the Lynx. As he watches footage of Katie Smith, Minnesota's best player and the league's leading scorer, he mutters, "Man, she can play. We've got to get out on her."
Later the coach summons rookie point guard Brandi McCain for a tutorial. Before Hughes, McCain never played for a male coach; but she doesn't much mind. "Women coaches can dig too deep," she says. "They want a reason for everything. 'Why did you have a bad game? Is everything O.K. in your life?' With [Hughes] it's just about basketball." A hoops lifer who has coached at all levels, Hughes asserts that his style in Cleveland is little different from when he coached men. If he seems detached from the social fabric of the team, it is by design. "My job is to prepare my players to be successful on the court," he says. "I want them to think that I care about them as people, that they can come to me. But as far as personal stuff and the gossip, I just don't want to hear it."
Fortunately for the Rockers, they are catching Minnesota at the right time. Yesterday the Lynx fired coach Brian Agler and promoted assistant Heidi VanDerveer. (Women now coach nine of the WNBA's 16 teams.) Even though Agler wasn't particularly popular among his players, the Lynx locker room is shrouded in gloom. "We're talking about someone's job," says Smith. "We should all feel a little bit responsible."
The chaos behind the scenes has little effect on the spirit of the crowd. An hour before tip-off the Target Center floor is overrun by kids of all shapes and hues. Dozens of girls from St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., congregate under a banner reading WHEN I GROW UP...I WANT TO PLAY IN THE WNBA. (According to WNBA president Val Ackerman, roughly 80% of the league's in-arena fans are female.) The church is holding its annual Girls in Sports Night. Before the game the kids line up to give the Lynx high fives.
Meanwhile, a half dozen other girls have commandeered the Lynx bench, sitting on the metal folding chairs while the team warms up. This ability to get up close and personal and forge a connection with the players is a major reason fans like Terry Friedlander and his daughters, Taylor, 13, and Mira, 10, are season-ticket holders. "Some of the players know my daughters by their first names. Could you ever imagine that in the NBA?" says Friedlander, a Minneapolis marketing director. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd ever be yelling, 'Take it to the hoop, Svetlana!' But I'm completely hooked on this league."
As in most WNBA markets, there is also a large contingent of lesbian fans at the Target Center. Some teams, such as the Los Angeles Sparks and the Miami Sol, have recognized gay women as a core demographic and marketed to that community. Still, it is a thorny subject around the league. Before the Sparks adopted their current marketing strategy, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center was told it could not use the words gay and lesbian on display advertising at the arena. Ushers in New York have repeatedly tried to confiscate LESBIANS FOR LIBERTY banners. The Monarchs declined to permit the Davis Dykes to be listed on the scoreboard along with other groups that bought blocks of tickets. ( Sacramento management later apologized and held a gay pride night.)
There are more subtle signs, too. Both on telecasts of games and on arena Jumbotrons, crowd invariably zoom in on young children with their parents. Rarely, if ever, are same-sex couples shown. Many lesbian fans say they view the league's "family friendly" billing as a suggestion that gays are unwelcome. Lesbians for Liberty has even scheduled a "kiss-in" during timeouts of the team's Aug. 2 game to protest what it perceives as shabby treatment from the league and the organization. Though gay fans at the Target Center don't seem to share that level of outrage, many of them, too, feel marginalized. "Here it's more 'Don't ask, don't tell,' " says Tracy Queen, a Minneapolis sales consultant. "That only makes me want to show my face at games that much more." (Says Ackerman, "I'm not aware of any complaints. We have encouraged our teams to market in ways that they think will be effective locally")