Roundtable Discussion: WNBA Top 15 Players of All Time

Jul 24 2011 12:38AM
San Antonio, Texas – The greatest WNBA stars from the past 15 years were unveiled on a star-studded stage on Saturday.

The WNBA announced its Top 15 players of all time at halftime of this year’s All-Star Game in San Antonio, Texas. Among the names include a mixture of premiere talent from the past and present.

Each of the 10 players selected to the All-Decade Team in 2006 made this current list, including Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Cynthia Cooper, Yolanda Griffith, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Katie Smith, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. The newcomers include honorable mentions from that team, Ticha Penicheiro, Diana Taurasi and Teresa Weatherspoon, as well as Becky Hammon and Cappie Pondexter.

The Top 15 players were voted on by current players and coaches, the media and fans on WNBA.com. Each of the greats were in attendance for the announcement and received a clear, glass plaque with engraving on it from WNBA president Laurel Richie.

“The 15 athletes honored today represent an extraordinarily accomplished group and the very best in women’s professional basketball from around the world,” said Richie.

WNBA.com’s Scott Stanchak spoke with 10 – six current and four retired -- of the Top 15 -- to get some reflection on their careers, as well as their assessment on the current state of the league.

What were your initial thoughts when you found out you were named one of the Top 15 greatest players in WNBA history?

Sue Bird: “It’s an honor. It’s a huge honor. You walk into the room right before we got introduced to the crowd and look around, you look at the names. The same way when I got the call. I thought about the others who were probably going to make it. It’s just a tremendous honor just to be in the same breath as those names. There’s no way to describe it. It’s just surreal to be on that list.”

Tamika Catchings: “Honored definitely. I feel blessed to be recognized in the first 10 years. That’s one of the signs that people obviously appreciate the way you play. Then, of course, moving into the 15 years and thinking of 15 players and the selection of players that were on that initial list that they narrowed down. For me, it’s just a privilege, definitely a privilege to be known as one of the top players to play in the WNBA. I think about all the players that aren’t on the list, current, former and even a player who won way back when. When you think of all the great players that women’s basketball has seen and to be one of the Top 15 of those players is one of those things that makes you feel honored.”

Cynthia Cooper: “I was hoping that I would make the 15. Sometimes, especially when you’ve been away from the game for a while, some of the younger generations don’t really remember you and some of the things that you as a part of a team accomplished. I was a little concerned. Just to see how energetic Twitter was, the Facebook and it was just really competitive to get your 15. Everybody wanted to give their version of the 15. But what was consistent was a lot of people thought I should be part of that 15 and that made me feel special. It made me feel like I actually did make a mark on the WNBA and women’s basketball. That was very special to me.”

Becky Hammon: “That’s a special thing right there. That’s a special thing. I feel like I’ve dedicated 13 years of my life to this league, a few more hopefully. I’ve just been so fortunate and so fortunate to have played with so many great people and so many great teammates and so many great coaches. That really helped me along the way. It’s kind of a really cool to reflect on all the people who have helped me in my life and gotten me to this point, because I certainly didn’t get here myself. There’s been a lot of people that have invested a lot of time and helped me along the way. I have a lot of thank yous to send to people to the fans, coaches, teammates, all those people who helped me get to where I am. It is (surreal). My journey from 1999 to this is special. It’s special and it’s not something I take for granted. It’s pretty cool. It’s very cool.”

Lisa Leslie: “I think that (15 is) probably not enough because it’s hard not to look at who’s not here. I really thought Michele Timms was a phenomenal WNBA player who had a large impact on Phoenix and their success. That’s just to name one. I could go down the line. Mwadi Mabika was a phenomenal WNBA player. Tamecka Dixon. I have so many teammates. DeLisha Milton-Jones. I just would have hoped we could have had a little bit more even though I know the NBA had 50 players in 50 years. It’s sort of relative to the years that we’re in.”

Cappie Pondexter: “I’m still amazing to just be around pioneers and women I grew up watching., tailoring my game around To be a part of that and still active -- this is only my sixth season -- it feels good. It gives me motivation to continue to work hard and hopefully I can keep being motivation and stay in that Top 15 greatest of all time.”

Sheryl Swoopes: “It’s funny because I had people coming up to me before I even knew saying, ‘you’re going to make it.’ I said, ‘make what?’ They said, ‘the Top 15.’ My initial thought was just to be considered as one of the Top 15 to have ever played in the WNBA in its first 15 years is such an honor. There’s been so many great players, past and present, that have been in this league. I think it says a lot about my commitment to always wanting to be better and never being satisfied with just being good or just being okay. I also think it just shows the appreciation of the fans. To me, when other players have an opportunity to vote, I think that really says it all because those are the ones that are playing against you every day, practicing against you. That’s where you really either gain or lose your respect. To be on the list with so many great players and to be in the Top 15 is definitely a special honor.”

Dawn Staley: “I’m always honored. I think as an athlete you want to compete and you want to be the best at what you do. Certainly, being the best isn’t something necessarily that comes from within. I think other people show you that you’re one of the best and the WNBA is a league that everybody strives to play for, especially little, young girls. To be one of the 15 is an incredible thing. I like the camaraderie that you see in the green room, to come back and hear some of the stories from when we played. Also just the friendships that were made over the years playing in the league. I enjoy that part of it, but also as a competitor, you want to know that you did your very best in your profession.”

Diana Taurasi: “It’s always an honor, especially when players vote on it, people that you’ve played against and with. It means a lot.”

Teresa Weatherspoon: “I didn’t even think about, I’m telling you, because when you’re voted in by fans it has a great meaning. It has a really awesome meaning to be voted in by them because those are the ones you played in front of night in and night out. I really just sat back to see what would happen. I really didn’t watch it. I just sat back to see what would happen and I was fortunate enough to be named in.”

What is the most memorable moment of your career?

Sue Bird: “Just winning. It seems like a cop-out answer. The experience of winning a WNBA championship is… I don’t know if there’s anything like that in basketball right now, aside from the Olympics. I just think it’s the toughest league. It’s got the best talent and winning is not easy. Anyone who’s done it will tell you that. Anyone who’s trying to do that will tell you that. That’s why those two championships stand out.”

Tamika Catchings: “My top moment would be when I win a WNBA championship. I haven’t had a top, top moment. I think as a player your ultimate goal and dreams are to win a championship. I’m still waiting for that.”

Cynthia Cooper: “I don’t know if I have a top moment. I could say winning all four of the first championships, being the first to win in the very first WNBA championship; winning the first championship of the new millennium. Probably my most gratifying moments are sharing those championships and tough times of a season, the tough practices and games, with my teammates. Being able to come back after spending 11 years playing overseas; to be able to come back and play in America in front of your family and friends, and win championships, for me that was special. That was very, very special.”

Becky Hammon: “I’ve been in a lot of big situations. Spoon, the shot. That was a special moment. That was 1999; I was a rookie. That was the first moment of the WNBA. There’s been many special moments beyond that. Sophia Young hitting the shot here a few years ago to force a Game 3 in the Western Conference Finals. There’s been some really special moments. If I had to say anything, the relationship that we have with each other and that camaraderie we have as a collective WNBA unit. We’re all in it together and we’re all going with the same purpose and goal.”

Lisa Leslie: “Aside from winning the championships and the MVP trophies, my best moments are the ones with my teammates, the camaraderie that we’ve built over the years, whether it was in the locker rooms or on the bus and even the All-Star games.

Cappie Pondexter: “I think it would have to be last year in the playoffs. We defeated Indiana in Game 3. I hit the go-ahead winning basket behind the backboard to put us up and win the game. That was a huge moment in my career, not only for me, but the fans of New York. Feeling The Garden erupt like it did, the whole organization, it just gave them confidence.”

Sheryl Swoopes: “A top, no. I have several. I guess if I had to pick one it would probably be when the league first started, simply because there were all these expectations that I had on myself and then I was pregnant and missed pretty much the entire season and had my son. Then being able to come back from that and share, even though I was out of shape and was not down to my playing size, but being able to come back and share that first year, the inaugural season, with my teammates and with him, was probably one of the top moments.”

Dawn Staley: “I do. It’s actually the year that we started 1-10 and everybody thought we were the laughing stock of the league. Then we ended up going to the WNBA Finals. I think that was 2001.”

Diana Taurasi: “Hopefully I haven’t reached it. Whenever you win a championship it’s a great feeling.”

Teresa Weatherspoon: “No. Believe it or not, the moment for me was just putting my uniform on, tying my shoes and being able to play. That’s my moment. That was for eight years and that was the best moment of my life. Being in Madison Square Garden, you can’t beat that.”

What is the significance of 15 years of WNBA basketball?

Sue Bird: “It kind of goes both ways. There is some significance. It does mean a great deal for this league to make it to your 15. At the same time, it’s more of just a quick celebration knowing that there’s going to probably be 15 more years and 15 more after that. I think this league is headed in the right direction. The talent just gets better and better. Therefore, the product gets better and better.”

Tamika Catchings: “Just thinking back to the first couple years and how people thought that we weren’t going to make it and this league wouldn’t survive. Now here we are at 15 years and still going strong. I think the significance is just thinking about all the young girls that are out there. Even for this class that came in this year, they had an opportunity to grow up with the WNBA around and to be able to watch it and say, ‘I want to be like her.’ Now you see that, all the young girls out there playing, hooping and getting better and their skill level.”

Cynthia Cooper: “I think it’s huge. Every milestone the WNBA reaches is huge because there was no professional league in America for a reason. They had not been very successful. When you see a league that strong and successful and it has maintained that status even though there have been tough times in the economy and other things that have gone on, that is the mark of a league that has a strong foundation. My whole goal when I played was to make sure that the little kid that dreams of playing professional basketball doesn’t have to only think about going overseas, that she can actually dream of playing professional basketball here in front of her family and her friends.”

Becky Hammon: “I think it’s huge for women’s basketball. I think it’s huge for girls in general. Not just in America, but around the world. The WNBA has fans all around the world. Just to be here in America, it’s just really special. I know that’s why most of these girls play here because it is here in our home country. We care about the next generation and being good role models. That’s why we play.”

Lisa Leslie: “I think it’s showing that there is a market for professional women’s sports. People thought we wouldn’t survive and make it this long and here we are 15 years young and we hope to be 15 years more.”

Cappie Pondexter: “I think it just shows you our state in terms of where we are as women basketball players. In my opinion, I think 15 years to be around is pretty cool, especially since there’s not too many women professional leagues around. To be around, I think it’s key and shows you that we continue to improve. Of course, the skill set is going to be better in terms of players coming into the league and that shows you we can be around for a long time, and hopefully, me being a pioneer I can help accomplish that so the next 15 years down the line, I can come back and see other great players playing.”

Sheryl Swoopes: “I think it says a lot about the growth of women’s basketball, first of all. Without the fans there’s no WNBA; let’s be real. Without good college players bringing their talents to the WNBA, there’s still not really a WNBA. For the league to still be around in 15 years and see how far it’s grown, to me that’s a short amount of time. Fifteen years isn’t really a long time. To see where the league started in ‘97 and for it to still be around and how much it’s grown in 14 years says a lot about the commitment that everyone involved with the WNBA, the commitment that they have in wanting to see it grow and wanting to put the best talent, the best product, because that’s what we are, the best product for the fans to see. I think it says a lot about where we’re headed. I think a lot of people kind of doubted the WNBA would be around today.”

Dawn Staley: “I think the significance is no one thought our league could get off the ground, number one, but let alone see 15 years in our country. It’s an incredible feat. Because of it our talent is better. Because of it people were able to realize their dreams. Because of it, a lot of people got jobs. Not just playing either. People that want to aspire to play now have an opportunity. If they aren’t able to play, they’re allowed to be a part of it. It’s given people opportunity to live out their dreams in some kind of fashion.”

Diana Taurasi: “It shows the longevity of the league. It shows people love it, people want to see you out there. The product has gotten a little bit better every year and that’s what you want from a business plan.”

Teresa Weatherspoon: “That’s big. That’s big, man. When we first got started, ‘oh, this won’t last. Oh, we’re just going to go see how good they are.’ Second year, ‘oh, they’re alright, they’re okay.’ Third year, ‘oh, it’s going to flop.’ We’re at 15. We’re at 15 simply because of the effort given on a nightly basis, an effort that we give to better ourselves and what we put between those four lines night in and night out. That’s why it’s going to continue to grow. The talent level continues to grow every year. It’s definitely gotten better as we go forward. As we as the older crew move forward, the torch was handed off very well. The torch is being handled very well.”

Which players from the past most influenced you?

Sue Bird: “If I were to pick it would be my ’04 Olympic experience and Dawn (Staley) was on that team. It was her last Olympics. She was the leader of that team. Watching her and playing alongside her and being able to talk to her was a great experience for me.”

Tamika Catchings: “For me, personally, just looking at the Olympic teams, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie. Those were the three that I was like, ‘oh, my God, if I get a chance to play with them that would be great.’ Of course, as I continued, the WNBA came around and you started seeing these players and were like, ‘oh, she’s good, she’s good, she’s good.’ For me, it was Tina Thompson who has always been one of my, I call her my little sister. She’s one I always watched. Yolanda Griffith. Truthfully, all the players that are here it is so cool to be able to see them and play with them. It helps you as a player, too, especially from the different leadership styles.”

Becky Hammon: “If you just caught on to the WNBA in the last three or four years, I don’t think you fully understand or appreciate how good those players were, especially in their prime. They were unbelievable players and unbelievable minds for the game. Really, they just passed the torch on and have done it so gracefully. They’re just winners all the way around. If you want building blocks and a foundation to build off of, that group is what you do it off.”

Cappie Pondexter: “Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley. I always remember the Swoopes shoe. It was that first women’s Nike basketball shoe that I could remember that got everybody a crazy. Everybody was crazy about the Swoopes. Dawn Staley was just that point guard that everybody dreamed of being. Those two were the players, and Cynthia Cooper, as well. She just had this energy about herself that I will always remember. Raise the roof, we got next, those things just went hand and hand. Those three were definitely my favorites.”

Diana Taurasi: “Tina (Thompson), Lisa (Leslie), Sheryl (Swoopes), Dawn (Staley), those are the guys that meant a lot to be with because they showed me the way. I got to see them play and play with them.”

Which current players do you enjoy watching the most?

Cynthia Cooper: “There is a laundry list of current players. I’ll start with the most current and that’s Maya Moore. Maya Moore, Danielle Adams, (Diana) Taurasi, everyone knows what she’s capable and what she does on a daily basis. Cappie Pondexter. Cappie is probably the closest player that I see myself in. She is just phenomenal. For me, Cappie is incredible. Sylvia Fowles. Candace Parker. There’s just a laundry list of talented players and it feels good to be able to pass that torch to the next generation when you know they’re that strong.”

Lisa Leslie: “I’m really impressed with the fact that Minnesota, who drafted Maya Moore, is in first place in the West. It’s not easy to be 10-4 at the break. Obviously, Tina Charles is making a huge impact in the paint. I’m excited about the future.”

Sheryl Swoopes: “Tina Charles. There’s so many. I like her work ethic. I guess when I look at the current players today, the younger players today, I don’t just look at their performance in their game. I look at their work ethic, how discipline they are. Do they just play one end of the floor? Do they play both ends of the floor? Because that’s the way I was all of my career. I wasn’t satisfied with just being a good offensive player or defensive player. I wanted to be an all-around player. If I had to pick, I would say Tina Charles is just a beast. Maya (Moore) is so smooth and it seems effortless. I think the thing that scares me about Maya is she doesn't even realizes her potential, just how good she really can be. I think it’s unfair to just start naming certain players because there are a lot in the league today that there is something about their game that I can appreciate.”

Dawn Staley: “I was fortunate to go to the Minnesota and Connecticut game. I’m a point guard so to see Lindsey Whalen runs the show, she does it in a fashion that she allows the stars on her teams to be stars, yet she’s probably the glue to that team. Some of the people coming off the bench could easily be starters. You have a talent pool that you have to manage. I enjoy watching them play.”

Teresa Weatherspoon: “I’m a Cappie Pondexter fan. I always have been, I always will be.”

Follow Scott Stanchak on Twitter (@ScottStanchak)