Philosophically there's also tension. The WNBA perceives itself as the manifestation of Title IX, a pioneering league predicated on gender equality and female empowerment. Yet reminders abound that the WNBA is indebted to—and riding the coat-tails of—its male counterpart. Who knows whether the sponsors are genuinely supportive of the WNBA or are there because of the NBA's considerable leverage? The season can't start until the boys are through using the gym. Some players go so far as to suggest that the WNBA is a loss leader for the NBA, luring in new basketball enthusiasts who will one day be buying court-side seats not for the Sparks and the Liberty but for the Lakers and the Knicks.
Then again, perhaps it's impossible for a women's league to make it without relinquishing some soul and independence—the ABL, which had no big brother, went belly-up after 21 months. That the WNBA has discussed expanding into markets like Hartford, where there is no NBA team, suggests the league may slowly be gaining autonomy. Still, the players are growing restless. "It's like how you view your parents in puberty," says Tina Thompson. "We don't want to cut off ties [with the NBA] entirely, but we need to branch out and become more independent."
The players' biggest point of contention is pay. According to the players' association the average salary is roughly $46,000 for the four-month season. The WNBA claims it's closer to $57,000, factoring in the $850,000 in bonus money available to 16 stars handpicked by the league. Using either estimate, the wages are low for topflight professional athletes, so after each WNBA season there's a mass migration overseas, where players supplement their income—some make as much as $300,000—in various leagues. It also torques the players that their salaries are dwarfed by those of some coaches and administrators. For instance, according to SI sources, the Washington Mystics, the league's lone profitable team, pay Tennessee coach Pat Summitt an annual consulting fee exceeding $200,000—more than the base salaries of the top three players.
Players are quick to make clear that they're not asking for the monumental paychecks of their NBA brethren. Yet they point out that if every player in the league were given a 50% bump—a raise recently advocated by Sparks president Johnny Buss—it would cost owners less than the $4.5 million average salary in the NBA.
The players' restlessness puts management in a precarious position. The league is, understandably, eager to trumpet its success, reassuring sponsors and networks that it has invested wisely. Ackerman, who assesses the WNBA's health as "good," often notes that six seasons into the NBA's existence its teams weren't drawing anywhere near 9,000 fans a game. But, lest she give the players' association too much ammunition, her optimism is couched in corporatespeak such as "investment stage" and "growing process."
While the WNBA is notoriously reluctant to traffic in numbers—"Do they make money? Do they not? How much does the NBA foot the bill? None of us know that," says Katie Smith—executives admit that the league is in the red. But as Pam Wheeler, the players' association's director of operations, notes, "It's funny how the closer we get to collective bargaining, the worse the league seems to be doing."
FRIDAY, July 19
By 10:30 the team has arrived in the locker room for what will be a hellish morning practice. Tomorrow's opponent, Los Angeles, is the WNBA's defending champion and owner of the league's best record, 16-4. The Rockers aren't quite in must-win mode, but it's their biggest game of the summer to date. That it will be on NBC—Cleveland's only network appearance this season—adds to the sense of importance.
When practice ends, the players are exhausted, but they don't leave. It's Team Poster Day, and they are expected to change into casual clothes-denim and/or leather is the dress code—let down their hair and apply copious makeup. One by one, each goes to the second floor to pose for a glamour shot. Through the magic of computer software, the individual photos will be melded into a team photo and given to fans at the Rockers' final home game.
As usual, the players make the best of the situation, helping each other with makeup—"I haven't done this since my wedding," says Bader Binford—exchanging fashion tips and dispensing compliments liberally. Some seem genuinely to enjoy it and project confidence in their bodies. "I'm going to look like a woman," vows center Chasity Melvin. Others are clearly uncomfortable. Strong and graceful on the court moments earlier, they are suddenly awkward and self-conscious, unaccustomed to using their physiques this way. "They want us to look like girls," says one veteran, rolling her eyes.