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Fast Times in THE WNBA
L. Jon Wertheim
August 05, 2002
What's life like in a league that has no charter flights or million-dollar salaries? After following the Cleveland Rockers for a week, we'd say it's a lot of fun
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August 05, 2002

Fast Times In The Wnba

What's life like in a league that has no charter flights or million-dollar salaries? After following the Cleveland Rockers for a week, we'd say it's a lot of fun

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Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Women in Sport at Minnesota and a consultant to the Lynx, says this exercise is typical of what she calls "the hyperheterosexualization" of women's sports. "There's such homophobia," she adds. "[ WNBA officials] believe that if they're ever truly going to make it, they need to emphasize traditional femininity because the institutions that have power and control will find it more palatable."

Indeed, the league often seems to implicitly promote straight players. Team media guides, for example, unfailingly list players' spouses and offspring. Despite a sizable contingent of gay players in the league—"I can't say how many," Liberty center Sue Wicks told The Village Voice two years ago, "but it would be easier to count the straight ones"—no 2002 media guide mentions a player's girlfriend or domestic partner. Three seasons ago Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski took the commendable step of noting in the media guide that she "lives with her partner, Joyce, and their two kids." This season's guide states, more ambiguously, that she lives "with her family, Joyce, Lainey and Luke." (Blazejowski declined to comment on the change.)

Wicks has also railed against the league's unwillingness to promote players who are committed to same-sex relationships as zealously as players who are wives and mothers. Now, she wishes the focus could simply be on hoops. "I'm not ashamed of who I am, but I don't think it has anything to do with basketball," says Wicks, one of the few—if not the lone—"out" players in the WNBA. "You're a wife, a mother, a lesbian, who cares? The real victory will come when people just view us as athletes."

SATURDAY, July 20

Watching basketball indoors doesn't spring to mind as the best way to spend an afternoon as gorgeous as this one. The franchise knows this and provides fans with enough attractions that the game can seem anticlimactic. An hour before tip-off the section behind the visitors' basket is like an indoor carnival, crawling with kids who have come to shoot hoops, make beaded Rockers bracelets and get temporary tattoos.

The size of the crowd is respectable, though nowhere near the announced attendance of 10,420. With the upper levels cordoned off with a black curtain, the arena feels less cavernous, the noise more concentrated. What the fan base lacks in size it makes up for in intensity and volume. Not only are there the obligatory NOBODY BEATS CLEVELAND signs to wave before NBC cameras, but there are also dozens of placards that pay homage to various Rockers. "In the NBA the front rows are filled with stars and money people, and the real fans are in the rafters," says Sparks coach and former Lakers star Michael Cooper. "In the WNBA all the fans are rafters fans."

The Cleveland faithful are particularly L.A. center Lisa Leslie. The league's reigning MVP and a part-time model, Leslie is a cynosure with the league's marketing wonks. Among hard-core WNBA fans, however, she is decidedly less popular. The perception is that her physical dominance, like that of her NBA counterpart in L.A, Shaquille O'Neal, is abetted by preferential treatment from the officials. When Leslie walked off with the All-Star MVP award, she was booed mercilessly by fans. Some of Leslie's teammates called the treatment classless, but ultimately it might be a good sign for the league. Booing, after all, is part of big-time sports. It also says that a player has forged enough of an identity to arouse passion.

The Rockers play a competitive first half and trail by two. In the locker room Hughes encourages the team to challenge Leslie, who has three fouls. But in the second half the Rockers simply can't find the rim. It doesn't help Cleveland that the officiating is comically poor—felonious conduct, mostly committed by the Sparks, fails to provoke whistles while phantom calls are the order of the day. After losing 63-50, the Rockers are despondent. Thestand 8-13 with 11 games left, their momentum halted.

In keeping with a league rule requiring two members of the home team to sign autographs after Merlakia Jones and Bader Binford shower then head to the mezzanine section, where a gaggle of fans awaits. The players sign all manner of souvenirs, giving not the slightest indication that they are being inconvenienced. Toward the end of the session a girl no older than 10 says, "The refs stank today." Jones smiles and responds, "But when you don't hit your shots, you're not going to win many games."

SUNDAY, July 21

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