Four Scorers, Seven Years Ago

PHOENIX, SOMETIME IN THE PAST - Let's take a trip... a trip back through the (brief) annals of WNBA lore to the last time the Phoenix Mercury were in the WNBA Playoffs. The year was 2000 and, well, it was a completely different time.

Britney Spears ruled the pop charts (now she's just off-the-charts), Elian Gonzalez lived in Florida, Vice President Al Gore was leading in the polls (now he looks like he ate the state of Florida), everyone was talking about how Tom Hanks spent three years on that island in Cast Away (a terrible movie, in retrospect), Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin had just become Raja of Perlis (though his reign as Yang di-Pertuan Agong did not begin until a year later) and I was just figuring out how to correctly spell the word "millennium" (though I had clearly forgotten and just had to look that up).

In the world of the WNBA, there was no basketball in Chicago or San Antonio, the Seattle Storm was a last-place team, Nykesha Sales played in Orlando, Margo Dydek played in Utah, Tully Bevilaqua played in Portland, Sheri Sam played in Miami, Tamika Catchings wore orange and Sue Bird wore blue. Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Katie Smith were All-Star starters (none were All-Stars in 2007). And I could probably count the number of WNBA games I had seen live and in person on two, maybe three hands (cut me some slack, I was a poor, recent college graduate trying to make ends meet).

The Mercury of yesteryear were led by Michele Timms, who was never able to lead the Mercury to a title.
Todd Warshaw/NBAE/Getty Images
By the year 2000, the Comets' Big Three of Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson were superstars and household names. The Comets were already a dynasty (three trophies in the display case with a fourth on the way), but several other teams were inching closer to dethroning them. One such team was the Phoenix Mercury, coached by Hall-of-Famer Cheryl Miller (whose great quotes we, the writers, still miss). Tough, tenacious and physical, the Mercury weren't going to run on you (they averaged 70.1 ppg), but they might run you over. They were just two years removed from a 1998 WNBA Finals loss to the Houston Comets. The Mercury went on to win 20 games in 2000, finish in fourth place in the Western Conference and would ultimately qualify for their third playoff berth in four seasons.

The Mercury were more of a defense-oriented team, giving up 65.7 ppg that season (fourth best in 2000, compared to the 85.4 ppg allowed this season - dead last). Forward Brandy Reed was the team's primary offensive weapon, averaging 19.0 points per game (third behind league M.V.P. Sheryl Swoopes' 20.7 ppg). Reed spent a season with the Mercury in 1998, was the Minnesota Lynx' first pick in the 1999 Expansion Draft and averaged 16.1 ppg and 5.8 rpg that season, but was then traded back to Phoenix before the 2000 season.

No one seemed to mind Reed's tough image. She was brash, cocky and explosive (both in terms of play and in personality) and she would go on to be an All-Star in 2000 (which the Mercury actually hosted). It seemed that she had the talent to take over as the star for years to come in Phoenix. Unfortunately, Reed would be out of the league a year later as a result of (well-documented, though often inaccurate) personal and legal issues.

The Mercury also had a player by the name of Michele Timms (another inaugural All-Star in 1999), a feisty guard who really became the first international star in the WNBA. She averaged 12.1 points per game in 1997 and was the face of the franchise for its first few years in Phoenix. Timms paved the way for Australian stars like Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson to make the WNBA a career destination. In an interview I did with former WNBA President Val Ackerman last year, she credited Timms as one of the important stars in those early years and even named Timms to her unofficial All-Decade Team.

"...A player who didn't play very long but was critical to us, particularly early on, was Michele Timms," Ackerman said last August. "She was symbolic of this sort of player who wore her heart on her sleeve. They were so endearing that way, and so connected with the fans that they sort of become symbols of everything the league aspired to be in the mindsets of the fans."

With her energy, Timms embodied everything that the WNBA was trying to put out there to capture the hearts and minds of fans. Who can forget the image of Timmsy standing on the scorer's table waving a Mercury flag and constantly thanking the fans? But by 2000, her best days were behind her. She played just eight games in 2000 and announced her retirement a year later (she returned to Phoenix for a year as an assistant coach in 2005). On August 7, 2002, her number "7" jersey became the first to be retired by the Phoenix Mercury, and only the 2nd jersey ever retired by the WNBA. Upon her retirement, she was the Mercury's career leader in assists.

Among the other players who were on the court when the Mercury last played in a postseason game, Bridget Pettis was on that 2000 roster and returned this season as an assistant coach to Paul Westhead. Lisa Harrison is another former Mercury player who was on that 2000 roster who would go on to become an assistant coach with the Mercury. Harrison averaged 11.0 ppg in the two playoff games.

A baby-faced Maria Stepanova played only 15 games that season while Jennifer Gillom was the true anchor in the post. Gillom was the star for the Mercury in those first few years. She averaged 15.2 ppg in her six seasons with Phoenix and played in the inaugural WNBA All-Star Game in New York in 1999. She was an All-WNBA selection in both 1997 and 1998 and remains the all-time leading scorer in Mercury history. The only player currently playing in the WNBA who was a member of that team is Monarchs reserve center Adrian Williams, who was a second round pick of the Mercury in 2000.

And of course the fans were the true X-factor back in those days. Literally. The fans actually took to calling themselves the X-Factors. The fans were as loud and enthusiastic as any WNBA team's fans ever were before or since. The arena was packed pretty much every game (including those two nuns, whether they were real or just dressing the part, who were at every game).

But despite the talent on the roster and a nucleus of potential stars, the Mercury team did not dethrone the Comets. It would take another year for the Comets reign to end and a new team to become the next great team in the WNBA (that distinction would go to the Los Angeles Sparks). Instead, the Mercury were swept out of the first round of the 2000 WNBA Playoffs by the L.A. Sparks and have not played a postseason game since.

The WNBA has a new "Big Three" as Penny Taylor, Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter combined to score 54.2 ppg.
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images

But it is new era in the WNBA. It took awhile, but the Phoenix Mercury are back in contention. Nowadays, the Mercury have a Big Three of their own. Of the current Mercury stars, you can see just how far they have come in seven years. Back in 2000, Diana Taurasi was just an awkward high school student in Southern California (a "tomboyish dork," by her own admission), Cappie Pondexter had yet to emblazon herself with the bold WNBA logo tattoo on her right arm (she got that her junior year in high school) and Penny Taylor had yet to play a game of basketball in the United States (She was selected 11th overall by the Cleveland Rockers in the first round of the 2001 WNBA Draft).

Only one player currently on the Mercury roster was even in the WNBA back in 2000 (Tangela Smith enjoyed her breakout season with the Monarchs that year).

The 2007 Mercury won their first Western Conference regular season crown since 1997 (Houston and New York were both in the Eastern Conference back then) and established a new franchise record with 23 wins. And the crowds are back. The last game of the regular season against the Monarchs this past Sunday night was loud and rocking, reminiscent of those games seven years ago. (Every team that visits the U.S. Airways Center will be reintroduced to the X-Factor from here on out).

With those fans on their side and home-court advantage until The Finals, the high-flying, high-scoring Phoenix Mercury of 2007 have a chance to honor the team's first group of stars, erase the recent disappointment and take this once-proud franchise to a place it has never been before (Disneyland?).

That quest resumes Friday night in Seattle (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV).