Thrice As Nice
By Lina Balciunas

We always dreamed of it being a permanent league that would stand its own ground the way that it has. But I really thought it would be a summer league where they opened gyms and put fans all on one side -- kind of an open-door thing. I had no idea we would play in the arenas like we do and that it would be such a first-class league. -- Lisa Leslie, Los Angeles Sparks

The WNBA had its foundation laid dollar-by-dollar back in 1996, but the rosters for All-Star 2001 show what truly cemented the success of this league. Of the 24 players participating on July 16 in Orlando, nearly half will be making their third All-Star appearances in as many years of the game's existence. Coupled with the financial support, a solid base of superstars has built the WNBA into an architectural marvel by its fifth birthday.

Which is why, for these superstars, it's like putting the cart before the horse to talk about the All-Star Game. The trees drowning out the forest, the icing superceding the cake. Pick your cliche. The players come to Orlando reveling in the knowledge that they arrived from, and will be returning to, a regular season of competition in an elite women's professional basketball league. Right here in the United States. The All-Star Game? Shoot, that's a dimension to the dream that goes beyond its wildest.

"I think it was just exciting to have because we've always watched the NBA's and baseball's All-Star Game," Sparks center and 1999 All-Star MVP Lisa Leslie said. "And so to bring all of the talent from around the league together and put them on one team, it's a cool feeling."

Leslie joins Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray, Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith and Tichia Penicheiro, Orlando's Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Houston's Tina Thompson, New York's Teresa Weatherspoon, Cleveland's Merlakia Jones and Utah's Natalie Williams as the WNBA's three-time All-Stars.

And not that they have that far to reflect back, but there is a special sentiment toward the 1999 inaugural game in New York City.

"It was great because actually we didn't think there was ever going to be one and then they finally found a way to get an All-Star game put together," Griffith said. "I think it was great for the fans. A lot of people got a chance to see the players who haven't been visible around the world."

"The first one, just the national anthem being sung by Whitney Houston ... at Madison Square Garden ... with all the butterflies, you were just pinching yourself to see if you were dreaming," Penicheiro remembered. "For all that to happen at All-Star, being in that environment with one of the best female singers ever, it was just unbelievable."

While the midseason classic has grown in the ensuing two years, the weekend has, as of yet, refrained from following the events mayhem of its male counterpart. Thus the game becomes a highly anticipated break from the pressure of the regular season.

"It is really a time for us to relax and play the game of basketball, not even be worried about a scouting report or who I'm going to guard," Penicheiro said. "And of course, you just want to play well, look good, enjoy it and just make sure the fans and the people watching at home have a good time."

"I think maybe it will get to the point where a lot of fans come and it's mostly about partying," Leslie added. "But for me, I just use it as a time to relax, go and play, shoot around and hang around with some of the girls."

Still, don't think that our three-peaters have a cavalier attitude about the event or the meaning behind being named to each of the All-Star teams in the WNBA's history, short as it may be. And to be a three-time starter carries extra significance.

"To me it's always precious, simply because of who's voting for you," Weatherspoon said. "The fans are voting and obviously they see something decent in you as a player and think that you might be able to come to the All-Star Game and give the crowd what they're looking for and that's excitement. For me it's just an honor, a blessing and I'm just proud to be there."

The structural strength of the WNBA comes from its ability to offer a good product with players who embrace their fans as closely as they have embraced the game. So when the best of the best meet in Orlando on Monday for the most fan-oriented of sporting events, the WNBA All-Stars continue building a history for their league ... and thus ensuring its lengthy future.


Starters announced for 2001 WNBA All-Star Game

Reserves announced for 2001 WNBA All-Star Game