WNBA Has Come a Long Way, Baby
Sept. 12, 2007
Nine years ago I covered the Mercury in the WNBA Finals and was astonished by how bad the basketball was.
The women couldn’t shoot, hold onto the ball or run a simple play. Even if you tried not to compare the WNBA to the NBA, it was hard to watch.
Tuesday, I took a seat along press row for Game 3 of the Finals and was surprised again.
This time, by how far the women’s game has come.
The Detroit Shock’s 88-83 victory over the Mercury was basketball played at a high level. And if that sounds like a make-up call, consider the words of one fan at courtside who knows a thing or two about the game.
“I don’t know what they’re putting in these kids’ breakfast cereals, but man, can they play,” said Jennifer Gillom, the starting center on the 1998 Mercury team that reached the Finals but lost to the Houston Comets.
About the only part of the WNBA that hasn’t gotten better is the officiating. There were so many bad calls Tuesday I swear I saw Tim Donaghy with a whistle around his neck.
Thankfully, the players have grown along with the game. Houston’s Cynthia Cooper was the WNBA’s best player in the late 1990s, but she’d get killed in a one-onone game with the Mercury’s Diana Taurasi.
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She’s not a woman who happens to be pretty good at basketball. She’s a basketball player who happens to be a woman.
And that’s happening all over the league.
Detroit forward Katie Smith is a whirling dervish who made 4 of 8 3-point shots Tuesday. Center Cheryl Ford is 6-foot-3 and can run the floor like a guard when she’s healthy. Phoenix guard Cappie Pondexter had an off night — making just 5 of 15 shots — but when she’s on her game she’s a distaff version of Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady.
“The athleticism is night and day from when I played,” Gillom said.
Mercury assistant coach Bridget Pettis was part of the WNBA’s rookie class in 1997 and played in the league for eight years, seven of them for Phoenix. Ask her about the evolution of the game — and the players — and she just shakes her head and smiles.
“Sometimes I’m amazed,” Pettis said. “I’ll see something and I’ll think, ‘I couldn’t even think of doing that.’ I thought we were good, but these girls are phenomenal.”
It’s a natural growth process. Women like Taurasi and Pondexter grew up watching Cooper and other WNBA pioneers like Lisa Leslie. Inspired by their play and the opportunity that was in front of them, they hit the playground and the gym and worked on their game.
The result: It’s not just the athleticism of the players that’s improved; their knowledge of the game has taken a quantum leap.
Detroit shredded Phoenix’s zone defense Tuesday with wonderful ball movement and rotation. Ten years ago, that doesn’t happen.
“The game we played had an impact on the younger generation,” Pettis said.
There always will be a segment of the population that doesn’t give the WNBA a chance. And I’d be lying if I said I’m going to rush out and buy season tickets.
But if you have a moment, sit down in front of the television Thursday night for Game 4 and open your mind.
You might like what you see.
COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.