For the first time since 1997, when the Houston Comets won the inaugural WNBA title in their only year in the Eastern Conference, the East sent a powerhouse to the Finals. Though the decisive third game took place after SI went to press, the Shock matched the size, speed and star power of the Lisa Leslie-led Sparks with a 61-60 Game 2 win in Detroit on Sunday. Despite the loss, Los Angeles coach Michael Cooper was giddy about the competition. "I am enjoying this so much because the WNBA has gone to another level," he said. "What a great game!"
Much as it must pain him, Cooper has to credit Detroit's rise to an old NBA rival he can still barely bring himself to shake hands with—former Pistons provocateur Bill Laimbeer. When the ex-Bad Boy took over the Shock last summer, the team was midway through a 9-23 season, last in attendance and facing a possible relocation. In the off-season Laimbeer built a bruising front line around 6'2" forward Swin Cash by taking Karl Malone's daughter, 6'3", 215-pound Cheryl Ford, who would earn Rookie of the Year honors, with the third pick in the draft, and 6'5" Ruth Riley with the first pick in the dispersal draft. He also dealt a draft pick to Sacramento for veteran guard Kedra Holland-Corn.
Even though it is the youngest team in the league (average age: 23.7), Detroit finished first in scoring, rebounding, three-point shooting, field goal percentage and wins this season. While everyone else in the East will have to get bigger and more athletic if they expect to challenge the Shock, Laimbeer is ahead of them on two counts: The opportunity to rebuild a team through a dispersal draft isn't likely to happen again soon, and his players have already developed the swagger of champions. That may be bad news for the East, but it's a great development for a league in desperate need of a compelling rivalry.