We Have Heroes: The Story of Karen Bryant
I am getting old.
I am starting to creak where once I was springy, starting to need constant upkeep; refurbishments where I once sparkled. My floorboards, once meticulously snapped together and lacquered into place, have been polished and re-polished into mirror-like perfection over these past decades. I've been covered in ice, in tarp, painted in every hue of green and yellow, seen both elation and heartbreak occur on my surface. I've hung banners in my rafters; felt drops of sweat and tears on my surface. I've housed love, then loss. I've even been renamed--the Coliseum, the Pavilion, The Key.
I've felt many shoes walk, sprint, bounce, squeak, and jump across me in these last 52 years. They were all the same to me, varying only by their weight.
Fifteen years ago, though, something changed. I felt a tangible shift in energy; in the very atmosphere around me once this particular set of shoes lightly stepped across my surface. Sensible dress shoes. A slight limp, maybe from sore knees or hips, or the ghost of an old foot injury.
An icon recognizes an icon. A constant figure in a community recognizes when things are about to change. Once Karen Bryant walked across my boards, I knew I'd never be the same.
Part Four: Out of the Ashes
When Force 10 Hoops co-founder Lisa Brummel recounts the story of how the Storm stayed in Seattle, her confidence in Seattle's passionate fans makes it sound like it was an easy victory:
"Seven, probably eight years ago now, (myself and fellow Force 10 co-founders) were fans of the Storm. We were also cognizant of the fact that the Sonics were potentially going to leave town. We kind of watched from afar, and then we got to talking about whether it actually made sense to have the Storm here. We would meet at every halftime the season before (we bought the team) and kind of talked about our thoughts and opinions on the team and the logistics of going for it.
We eventually decided, 'Hey, if we can figure out how to contact the right people we want to keep the Storm here."
Through an acquaintance of an acquaintance, we got a meeting with Clay Bennett, and started discussions with him, and the rest was history.
He was initially very interested in bringing the Storm to Oklahoma with the Sonics. He knew they had a great fan base down there and had an investor group that was very interested in women's basketball. He said his preference would be to bring the team with him (in the transition).
But we respectfully disagreed. We said 'Hey, here is the fan base. It's here. Here is the opportunity we have to continue this. If you go to Oklahoma, you have to start your fan base from scratch. You have to start figuring out how to draw your women's group in, and frankly, you're just starting up your men's team! And they're going to be good, but when you start up a new team in a new place there's a huge investment to make. Do you really want to make the investment in both?'
That general argument helped, and he was really impressed with the fans here. He said he could tell we had something good. I think when you look at it, he knew our interest was genuine and he knew the fans wanted us to stay here.
The fans were the number one reason the team stayed, and he knew it," Brummel said.
New beginnings had emerged in the wake of the loss of the Sonics. Now independently owned, the Storm had to learn how to survive in a very shaky market.
The rest of the league was patchy. Some ground had been gained by certain organizations, like the 2008 Los Angeles Sparks, who'd drafted a barrier-shattering player named Candace Parker. As a college player at Tennessee, Parker made headlines as the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game and as the first to dunk twice in the regular season. She also became the object of national attention four years prior when she won the Slam-Dunk contest in the McDonald's High School All-American game against four male competitors.
But in other organizations, things were falling apart. The Houston Comets were in a downward spiral after new ownership in 2007 and a stadium change that lost them fans.
The Comets were put on the market for $10 million in 2008, and nobody wanted to buy. A team that was one of the most successful franchises in sports history was now defunct.
"Our previous owner wanted to sell the team, and sold it to someone who couldn't afford it," said Tina Thompson, who still played for the Comets at the time. "Previously we had dispelled worry with our ticket sales and fan base. (After the team dissolved) I think it put a lot of doubt in a lot of people's heads about whether the WNBA would survive."
Thompson and her other teammates were filtered to other teams through a dispersal draft. And among those in Seattle, there was a thought: If it could happen to the team that started it all, it could happen to us.
Not if Brummel, Bryant, and the fans had anything to say about it.
"Our fans were too strong," said Brummel.
Added Bryant, "We watched it happen and we were sad for the organization and the players. But there was never a thought in my mind that it would happen to us. It just wasn't."
So the Storm continued to grow. New additions to the team included a new head coach in Brian Agler, the re-signing of Lauren Jackson and Tanisha Wright, and the signing of Swin Cash and Camille Little. Despite a few bumps along the way (like a Jackson injury), Seattle proved both Brummel and Bryant right about its strong fan support: The Storm went 21-0 at home and 7-0 in the playoffs to take home a second WNBA Championship title.
And Bryant herself had even more to be proud of: She'd given birth to a beautiful baby girl named Lindsay in 2008. Now, alongside raising a team, she was also raising a child.
Life had gone on in Seattle despite of the loss of the Supersonics, and it had done so beautifully.
As for the rest of the league, it was finally starting to find its marketing strategy that was more independently focused on its own players, and not dependent on "big brother teams".
Players like Maya Moore entered the WNBA amid massive amounts of hype. Moore not only became a household name among all basketball fans (not just women's basketball fans), she became the first woman to obtain sponsorship from the coveted Jordan brand.
In 2013, the "Three to See" campaign revolved hype around Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins, both personalizing and heavily publicizing the actual WNBA Draft. The WNBA also launched a 2014 Pride campaign in partnership with Covergirl and was the first of any national sports organization to do so. Players like Moore, Diggins, Griner, and newcomer Shoni Schimmel are the new age of female athlete, and new markets for the league's advertising efforts. Now, the WNBA is able to tap into the players themselves as potential markets, and not solely rely on NBA marketing efforts to promote their seasons.
It's a mark of unprecedented success for women's sports. New television contracts with ESPN and NBATV solidified that. There's even impressive crossover: San Antonio veteran guard Becky Hammon was just hired as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. And perhaps the most telling sign of the blossoming of this new age of equality came at a Seattle Storm game in 2014, when Griner and the Mercury came to town.
A young boy, maybe 14 or 15 years old, stood in the stands by where the Phoenix players would both enter and leave their locker room. He had on a Nike basketball t-shirt.
"Dunk Like A Girl," it said.