They had next. Five years ago eight teams backed by the muscle of the NBA made their debut, and the WNBA has held on to the court ever since. Armed with a network television contract and a roster of blue-chip sponsors, the league knocked off its lone competitor, the ABL, and has since swelled to 16 franchises. "A lot of people didn't think we'd still be around," says Houston Comets All-Star forward Tina Thompson. "Hey, here we are, and we have a pulse."
But exactly how strong is that pulse? The WNBA remains something of a niche sport, an unknown quantity even among many basketball fans. TV ratings are minuscule. Attendance, at roughly 8,700 per game, has plateaued. Teams walk unrecognized through their hometown airports. This season's biggest headlines have come from the suggestion of a players' strike when the collective bargaining agreement lapses two weeks after the championship series. As the WNBA continues to lose, if not hemorrhage, money—the league is tight-lipped about how much—there are even whispers about its possible demise.
One of the WNBA's axioms is that you have to attend games to fully appreciate the league. Herewith, a week with a middle-of-the-pack team, the Cleveland Rockers, in search of the soul of the WNBA.
TUESDAY, July 16
Crying? There's no crying in basketball. At least not among the Rockers. When your team has lost six of its last seven games, you stay positive. When your locker room is a spartan shoebox—while the plush, commodious quarters of the men's team, the Cavaliers, go unoccupied down the hall—you don't complain. When your coach calls a practice immediately before you have to catch a commercial flight to Minneapolis, you show up with a smile.
So it is that the Rockers converge on Gund Arena this afternoon. It is the first day back after the All-Star break, and the 12 players arrive from near and far. A few pile into two of the five Ford sedans the team provides and drive from the downtown apartment complex where most of the players live during the season. For others the commute is trickier. Point guard Jen Rizzotti, the women's coach at Hartford during the WNBA off-season, arrives from a recruiting trip in Atlanta. Forwards Rushia Brown and Deanna Jackson and center Tracy Henderson had a "girls' getaway" in Miami and caught a morning flight.
For forward Penny Taylor, the All-Star "break" was a busman's holiday. A sweet-shooting, 6'1" forward from Australia in her second season, Taylor, 21, was selected to the Eastern Conference team. She scored nine points during an electrifying game in Washington, D.C., but didn't get back to the hotel until nearly midnight-then rose four hours later for her return flight to Cleveland. Upon entering the locker room she is greeted like a returning soldier. "Girl, you were awesome!" shrieks assistant coach Janice Braxton. "Way to represent the Rockers!"
The team is leaving at 3 p.m. for a game against the Lynx, yet coach Dan Hughes is determined to squeeze in a practice. Though the Rockers had the conference's best record in 2001, they have been in disarray this season. The incumbent starting point guard, Helen Darling, gave birth to triplets in the spring and is on maternity leave. Her backup, Rizzotti, has missed the last seven games with a sprained right ankle. The team, struggling to coalesce on the court, is 7-12. "With the short training camp and the short, 32-game season, finding chemistry is hard enough in this league," says Hughes. "Add the changes we've had, and it's like starting from scratch."
WNBA players go to great lengths to avoid comparisons to their NBA brethren, but one quickly observes that the differences go far beyond sports bras and hyphenated surnames. When the Rockers make their familiar stroll down the Continental corridor of Cleveland International Airport for the flight to Minneapolis, there are no Gameboys, pagers or even Discmen in sight; every player is armed with a book, magazine or newspaper. "We're a team of readers," says Rizzotti, who recently finished Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
At roughly the same time the Rockers are finding their coach-class seats, Allen Iverson is surrendering to Philadelphia police, having allegedly thrown his naked wife out of their house, then brandished a loaded gun while trying to track her down. Some of the Rockers discuss the reasons that the male sports world is rife with miscreants: the preposterous salaries, the lifetime of entitlement and pampering, innate gender differences, a society that tolerates antisocial behavior from male athletes. Regardless, the notion of a WNBA player's engaging in similar behavior is unthinkable.