WNBA’s originals leave league in good shape

The opportunities for female athletes were so minimal back then it was no wonder Lisa Leslie had modest expectations when she first heard about the WNBA. She envisioned a summer league, with games in small gyms and players wearing reversible jerseys.

“When I saw our locker room was the same locker room that Magic and Kareem and James Worthy had once come out of, I was just overwhelmed with the possibilities,” she said.

Critics gave the WNBA little chance when it began, predicting it would join the WBL, ABL and soccer’s WUSA on the trash heap of failed women’s leagues. Even the support – and the deep pockets – of the NBA wouldn’t be enough to make it relevant.

Now here it is, 13 years later. Leslie is the league’s all-time leading scorer and last of its founding stars and, as she prepares to say goodbye, the WNBA is not only surviving but thriving.

“I don’t remember there not being a league,” said Candace Parker, who was 10 when the WNBA started and is now Leslie’s teammate on the Los Angeles Sparks. “And that’s a great thing.”

Leslie was unstoppable at USC, the Pac-10’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and blocked shots. She was thrilled at the prospect of representing the United States at the Atlanta Olympics, two years after she finished school, but figured that would be the end of her basketball career.

There was, after all, nothing more for her in America.

Professional leagues for women operated overseas, so women who wanted to keep playing had no choice but to become international travelers. Sheryl Swoopes, dubbed the “female Michael Jordan,” played in Italy and Russia. Cynthia Cooper spent 11 years in Italy and Spain. Teresa Witherspoon was a six-time All-Star in Italy, and played another two years in Russia.

Leslie decided to stay in the United States, signing with the Wilhelmina modeling agency and planning a career in broadcasting.

Then, in April 1996, the NBA’s Board of Governors announced the creation of the WNBA.

“I wasn’t quite as sensitive to the gender discrimination until we launched the league and everyone said it was going to fail because it was women. That’s ridiculous,” NBA commissioner David Stern said.

As irked as Stern gets now about gender equity – the ho-hum reaction the U.S. women got for winning their fourth straight gold medal in Beijing compared to the adulation showered on the men’s team is “enough to make you into a feminist” – it was economics that drove the creation of the WNBA.

The original WNBA franchises were initially affiliated with their local NBA teams, giving owners a new revenue stream and keeping their arenas occupied in the summer. Regional TV networks got additional programming. Everyone was looking for new ways to capitalize on women’s buying power, which was steadily increasing.

The players didn’t care what the reasoning was. They just knew they had their own league and it was built for the long haul.

“It’s not our fault we’re girls,” Leslie said. “We just wanted to play, too. We’re just trying to find our spot in the world.”

Ads trumpeting “We Got Next” outnumbered Dennis Rodman’s tattoos during the 1997 NBA Finals, and the WNBA was on TV from the very first tip. Not some random channel at 3 a.m., either, but the big-time, NBC and ESPN. In its second season, the league averaged an impressive 10,800 in attendance.

“You’re talking about a group of ladies that were hungry. It was something we wanted very badly,” said Witherspoon, still third in all-time assists. “Of course we took full advantage.”

Leslie remembers being in awe of the first-class treatment they got, the big arenas and the fans cheering for them. She also remembers – and still does – feeling a responsibility to repay those fans by signing autographs or do community appearances.

“We’re all role models,” she said. “It’s still important what that impression is for that one child, that one fan.”

Like any new venture, there were bound to be growing pains. Five franchises have folded, including the Houston Comets, winners of the first four WNBA titles. Attendance dipped in the early 2000s. Rosters have been trimmed from 13 to 11 this season, a concession to the economic downturn.

“If there was a problem for us, it was that it got very successful very fast in the first year or so, and it was perceived as more successful than it actually was,” Stern said. “When it sank back … the handwringing began, and all of those people who in the first year predicted we’d be gone by the second and in the second year predicted we’d be gone by the third said, ‘OK, here it comes.’

“But it’s found it’s spot, it’s growing.”

Indeed, attendance last year rose for a second straight season and is up nearly 3 percent so far this year – impressive numbers during the recession. Merchandise sales are up, and LifeLock is reportedly paying at least $1 million a year for the right to have its name on the Phoenix Mercury’s jerseys. The level of play has risen, and Stern said there is interest in expansion teams.

In what might be the most impressive sign of the league’s staying power, the WNBA is in the first season of an eight-year contract with ESPN/ABC that, for the first time, pays those all-important rights fees.

“It has its own spot,” Witherspoon said. “We have our own position, we have our own fan base. That’s the beauty for us, it’s our own. We have something our young girls can wake up to, turn their television on and visualize their dream.”

And girls who once watched Witherspoon and Cooper and Ruthie Bolton and dreamed of the day they could play, too, are doing just that.

Young players like Parker and Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus have stepped up just as their role models once did, allowing the league to make a smooth transition from those golden girls of Atlanta into a second decade.

“It’s very powerful, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility. As a mom of a girl, I want her to have every opportunity that a boy would have,” said Parker, who played in her first game Sunday since the May 13 birth of daughter, Lailaa.

Who knows? Maybe Lailaa and Leslie’s daughter, Lauren, will be playing alongside one another as the WNBA celebrates its 35th anniversary.

“I’m glad at least her generation will have a choice,” Leslie said. “It’s all a process. I just try to do my part so hopefully we can continue to leave it in a better place.”

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