The Class of ’97 Survivors
November 8 - First they were the pioneers. Now they are the survivors.
When the fledgling Women's National Basketball Association tipped off in the summer of 1997, approximately 100 women made up the rosters of the original eight teams. After eight seasons, only 12 players remain from that original crop of players.
Those original players found their way onto teams in a number of ways. Some of the marquee names signed with the league before there were any teams and were ultimately allocated to a team. Other veterans were then chosen by teams in the WNBA Elite Draft. Finally, the first ever WNBA college draft was held and the rosters were complete.
Eight full seasons later, those remaining have survived injuries, trades, new coaches, pregnancy, marriages, new owners, free agency, relocation, talented newcomers looking to bounce them our of a job, several rounds of league expansion and contraction, a merger of leagues, two Olympic Games and even a potential labor dispute. But here they are, some of the most well-known names in the game and in all of sports, still making a difference.
| Sheryl Swoopes, Houston Comets.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images
The Franchise Players
Sheryl Swoopes was signed by the WNBA, assigned to Houston in January of 1997 and has gone on to have one of the most successful careers in the history of women's basketball. Outgoing WNBA President Val Ackerman, another eight-year league veteran of sorts, still keeps Swoopes' first signed contract framed on the desk in her office in New York.
Her longtime teammate with the Comets, Tina Thompson, was selected in the first round as the first overall pick in the 1997 WNBA Draft. But despite winning four championships with Swoopes and the Comets, Thompson was not an immediate superstar. Injuries prevented her from winning her first Olympic gold medal until this year.
The current eight-year veterans were once the new kids on the block, most starting out as professional basketball players just as the WNBA was taking shape. They learned from their role models and have passed the message along.
"There was a gap between players like myself and Cynthia Cooper and Jennifer Gillom when I first started," Thompson said. "Cynthia had been a professional longer than I have been playing basketball and that is pretty incredible. But now there is also a gap between players like myself and the Sue Bird-Diana Taurasi generation. They probably look at me as an experienced veteran in this league for a long time and it's really great to see."
Thompson's college teammate at USC and longtime friend Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks has been one of the league's biggest name and most recognizable superstars since signing on in 1997. Remarkably, she was as good in 2004, if not better, than any point of her WNBA career, winning the 2004 WNBA MVP Award and leading the United States to the Olympic gold medal in Athens. Along with Swoopes and retired center Rebecca Lobo, Leslie signed with the WNBA as one of the original members.
Three of Leslie's Sparks teammates also comprise this list of eight-year survivors. Guard Tamecka Dixon was selected by the Sparks in the second round (14th overall) of the 1997 WNBA Draft while forward Mwadi Mabika was an All-Star in 2004 and has averaged 14.4 points per game over her illustrious career. Longtime-New York Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon, who became the first "big name" free agent to sign with another team prior to the 2004 season, spent seven years in New York before signing on with the Sparks. Weatherspoon's former backcourt mate with the Liberty, Vickie Johnson, was chosen by New York in WNBA Elite Draft in February 27 of 1997. "V.J." has averaged 11.7 points per game over her career.
Everything Old is New Again
"The growth of the league has been tremendous," Leslie said at a luncheon with WNBA sponsors and marketing partners last month. "Without a doubt, the biggest change has been the players. With all the talent coming in, you can see just how different it is and how far we have come."
"Ever since there was a league, being a part of it was always the goal," Bird said. "I wanted this from almost the beginning because it was an option all throughout my college experience."
| Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson.
Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE/Getty Images
"From the beginning back in 1997, there were more veterans and experienced players that had played overseas for 10-15 years," Johnson said. "Now, there are younger players coming into the League that have changed the game. In '97, there were 5-8 guards. Now there are 6-2 guards. The players coming in are more athletic. Just look at two of the rookies from this season. Taurasi and Alana Beard. They are a great example of it. They have made the game even better."
The younger players also look up to these veterans as teachers, leaders and mentors. And they are well aware of the responsibility that comes with their seniority.
"The thing that we help the young players to learn is that you are a professional athlete on and off the court," Johnson said. "You have to live like that and be a role model at all times because we represent our team and the WNBA. I think we are doing a great job as individuals and as a group leading the way for young kids and showing them the way both on and off the court."
Like Weatherspoon, Shock forward Merlakia Jones is the other player who spent her first seven seasons with one team only to find herself on a new team in 2004. Jones spent those first seven seasons with the Cleveland Rockers, including being named First Team All-WNBA in 2001 season, but was not eligible for the expansion draft when the Rockers disbanded this offseason and signed with the Shock prior to 2004 as a free agent. She must have felt like a rookie all over again.
"Anytime you go into a new situation, you have some self-doubt," Jones said. "You have to feel your way out as you go. But I came to Detroit early this season, got settled, did some community service and as the players came in, I really got to know them. Everyone here likes each other and we all go out and hang out together. Everyone made me feel at home and the new rookies coming in feel at home. Anytime you can have that type of relationship and environment with your teammates, it's going to be an easy transition.
But Jones has no problem relating to the younger players at all because she really is not that much older than they are.
| Merlakia Jones, Detroit Shock.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
"I understand what's going on in the world and I have younger brothers and sisters, so I'm still young at heart," Jones said. "Anytime you play this game and stay focused on it, you'll stay young at heart because this is something we have done all of our lives. I just have fun with them. I listen to their music and they listen to mine. They tease me because I am more into jazz and they are more into R & B and hip hop. It's good because it lets you know where you've come from and reminds you that there are still things that you need to do to stay one step ahead of them."
The Road More Traveled
Perhaps none of the eight year vets has traveled as much as Wendy Palmer has in her time in the WNBA. Originally selected by the Utah Starzz in the second round (ninth pick overall) of the 1997 WNBA Elite Draft, she was traded to the Detroit Shock in the middle of the 1999 season, then traded again to the Orlando Miracle in the middle of the 2002 campaign. The Miracle franchise relocated as the Connecticut Sun prior to the 2003 season and Palmer finally made her first trip to the WNBA Finals this season.
"To help the league continue to grow, we need to maintain a positive image and continue working hard," Palmer-Daniel said. "Especially in the offseason, which is so long. We must stay in shape and stay focused and then put your best game on the court when it comes in May. There is such a small window to showcase what the WNBA is all about, but for those four months during the summer, most people are just hanging loose and having a good time. We just have to get into their homes and get the message out that we are here and want to stay."
Basketball is such an integral part of Palmer's life that when she got married during the WNBA's midseason Olympic Break, Storm assistant coach Jenny Boucek, a former teammate from their days together at the University of Virginia, was in the wedding party. Of course, who did Palmer (now Palmer-Daniel) run into in the Finals? Boucek's Storm team, who ultimately bested the Sun in three tantalizing games.
| Wendy Palmer-Daniel, Connecticut Sun.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty Images
Rounding out the group are Ruthie Bolton, who has spent all eight seasons with the Sacramento Monarchs, including two All-WNBA First Team campaigns in 1999 and 1997, and her Monarchs teammate Lady Grooms, who has been with Sacramento for seven of those eight seasons. Andrea Stinson has also spent all eight of her seasons in Charlotte with the Sting and has averaged 13.1 points per game. New York's Elena Baranova is another veteran dating back to 1997, the first real Russian and international pioneer in the WNBA despite missing a couple of seasons in between due to injury and Olympic training.
Glory Days, They'll Pass You By
So how many of them remember back to those early days of the WNBA?
"1997 was a great year in that we finally had our own league here in the United States," Palmer said. "It has changed a lot for the better. You look around and don't see many of the faces that you saw a few years ago. And that kind of gets to you because there are only a handful of us left that remember the very first tip, the first moments on the floor and the very first game. That is something that I will always have."
While these players have endured, many "founding players" were victims of their own success, so to speak. As the league grew in popularity and women's college basketball programs grew as well, the athletes coming into the WNBA were more athletic and better prepared. But the ability of its players improving each year, the league only gets stronger and gains more respect.
"Another main difference between now and the beginning is the benefits that we have received through our negotiations with the league," Jones said. "The ones that are still here from the beginning, those few of us left, know and appreciate what it took to get here and how hard you have to work just to stay here. You are always going to have a new kid on the block that's trying to take your job, but if you work hard in this league, great things will happen for you."
Where We Go From Here
No one really knew what to expect when they first started out, and few could have ever imagined the rapid extent of the success and durability of the WNBA.
"I have been here from the beginning so I get a lot of questions from younger players about how things were back then," Palmer said. Players also learn from your actions. You are not moved by the back-to-back games or the travel. It's the job, it's what we do. You have to help some of the younger kids adjust to that, especially the ones just coming out of college. A lot of them think they can last eight years if they work hard and stay focused."
But none of these players are satisfied. With so much still to be done, these players are aware that their responsibility to the sport of women's basketball continues to be an important one. That is the primary reason that they continue to give all of themselves to selling the WNBA.
"Unfortunately, I don't think the league has grown as much as we would have expected and hoped eight years ago," Swoopes said. "I thought there would be more fans each year, but that hasn't been the case. We have so many great younger players in the league right now, so to be one of the few remaining original players left from 1997 is a great accomplishment, but we still have a long way to go. But we are definitely headed in the right direction."
But the time remaining to make an impact and support the growth and expansion of the league is slowly dwindling. As the league continues to grow and expand, the number of original players will shrink. But their legacy and impact on this game never will.