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 Two: Tempest
She hoped it wouldn't end after the first season.
Karen Bryant and the Reign crew had just experienced a rollicking whirlwind of a year. Riding high on the sudden women's basketball boom and spurred onward by the gold medal-winning 1996 Women's Olympic Basketball Team, Bryant and company had successfully created a professional sports team from scratch in a little over four months.
But the ABL wasn't the only group of forward thinking sports executives at the time. Unbeknownst to most, the National Basketball Association had been planning a women's professional league for almost a decade. This, they thought, would be the perfect time to launch it.
The ABL had the head start. Many would agree they had the talent, too, with many Olympians in the league. But the WNBA had the juggernaut-like power of one of the most successful sports franchises in history behind it, and that meant money, marketing power, and exposure. ESPN was contracted through agreements with the NBA, a as was NBC and Lifetime. The ABL had mostly regional television coverage, and some broadcasts on Black Entertainment Television. And while the WNBA was piggybacking on dozens of NBA sponsors as a base to also collect new deals, the ABL had just four big-name corporate sponsors, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer (philly.com) article written by Edward Moran in 1997.
The WNBA would also be collecting talent out of a pool rising in popularity: NCAA Women's Basketball. Its first stop? Legendary collegiate players like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson.
Thompson, the first official draft pick of the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft, says that being the number one pick "wasn't really a surprise at all."
Of course it wasn't. The WNBA, in conjunction with its eight teams, had orchestrated the first draft for historical purposes. Each player essentially knew the teams they'd go to before their names were announced.
"I knew I was going number one before the actual draft," said Thompson. "What these girls go through now is a lot different than what we did. What you see in videos...that's mostly acting."
Media outlets at the time swore up and down that there must be a sense of competition between the two leagues; resentment perhaps from the groundbreaking, grassroots creation toward the powerful competition. Bryant says that's just not true.
"We did watch the launch of the WNBA closely, but I don't think there was a lot of resentment there," she said. "There was competition, of course."
Yet it became painfully clear that there was one main reason why the WNBA would succeed and the ABL dissolve: the timing of the season. Don't forget, the ABL's season coincided directly with the NBA's, men and women's college basketball, and the NHL.
"At the time, if someone was going to choose to go to either an NBA game or a women's basketball game, they were most likely going to go to the men's game," said Thompson.
The gap for women's professional basketball was sizeable enough for a professional league, but two leagues competing for a niche of attention would be like squeezing two heads through a shrunken sweater.
"There were several moments (going into the second season) where conversations got a lot more serious in terms of where we were (in terms of capital)," said Bryant. "We watched the success of the launch of WNBA, you know, they were averaging 10,000 fans at games and playing on ABC, and we could start to see the writing on the wall."
Going into the 1997-1998 season, there was a conference call between the leaders of the league. Bryant and the other GMs were asked if they even wanted to begin the upcoming season, and were informed that there wasn't enough money to make it through the entire year. There was some hope, however, that a couple sponsorships would pull through and the team could continue, but nothing was certain.
So Bryant and the organization collectively decided to go for it. They bet on themselves, and kept pushing.
"We never gave up the fight," she said. "We fought until our very last day."
The Reign dissolved around Christmastime, and the ABL shortly after, declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
"The toughest part was that because we folded at the time we did, all of our players were scattered all around the country," said Bryant. "Some of them found out for the first time through their television set or in an airport. And I remember even trying to fight off media cameras in our front lobby, because we had to first and foremost talk to our players. We grieved together. I saw most of them, and it was very emotional.
We hadn't even had the time to contact them beforehand because it had happened so fast. I had to tell some of them over the phone. It was a really tough time."
Surprisingly, the ultra-competitive Bryant didn't necessarily see the dissolution of the ABL as a devastating blow to her own personal win-loss chart.
"I did quickly turn my support to the WNBA," she said. "We're all on the same team, in the big picture. This was another chance for the sport to grow. And I was nothing but proud of what we did (with the ABL). We gave it everything we had."
Meanwhile in Texas, Thompson and the Houston Comets were on the cusp of history.
Not only did the powerhouse win the first WNBA Championship in 1997, they also won the next three championships of the league's existence from 1998-2000.
They had the Big Three (Swoopes, Thompson, and Cynthia Cooper) and the feisty Van Chancellor at the Head Coach helm. They started to attract major attention nationally and a major fan base locally, attracting sellout crowds and courtside NBA players.
"We were one of the few franchises that would have celebrities and NBA players at our games," said Thompson.
The Comets were a huge part of why the league was so successful. Exciting to watch with a fantastic in-game experience, many other teams tried to model themselves after Houston.
In Seattle, Bryant had come to terms with the loss of the Reign and was on to a new project: the Seattle Storm.
"(The Supersonics organization) called and had followed the success of the Reign, and said they were really interested in joining the WNBA and wanted to talk to me," said Bryant. "Then very quickly it turned into 'Hey, we want to really do this'."
Bryant was hired in her first face-to-face meeting with the Ackerley family and the Supersonics organization. From there, she began to map out the future of Seattle's WNBA team.
"We worked with the Sonics' marketing team (to think of a name) and it was down to either the Spirit or the Storm," she said. "It was a pretty obvious choice because we wanted to demonstrate the strength by which we were coming onto the scene."
Then Doppler, the Storm's fuzzily huggable mascot, was created.
"Doppler has been the same all the way through," Bryant said. "I was at a Houston Comet's game with our Vice President of Marketing and their mascot, Haley the Comet, came out onto the floor. We already had the name and we saw Haley and it was just this awesome, electric atmosphere. Then Rob Martin pulled out his napkin and we sketched out Doppler and the anemometer!"
They knew a big part of the fan base would be families, and so wanted Doppler to be a first symbol of the Storm's playfulness and accessibility.
"We just wanted to be really visible and vocal about inviting families to be a part of our organization," said Bryant. "Doppler was a huge part of the representation of our ideals right from the start."
The core values of the organization were set, but two huge components needed to be worked out: A team, and a coach.
And on the horizon and on the other side of the world, a tall, blonde (at the time), grinning Australian started attracting considerable attention in the basketball world.