Fifteen years of the WNBA
Fifteen seasons ago tonight, the WNBA opened its doors to paying customers for the first time, as the Los Angeles Sparks hosted the New York Liberty at the Great Western Forum in the league's inaugural game. I was there, tossing up the ball for the ceremonial opening tip between Lisa Leslie and Kym Hampton. (To avoid embarrassment, I practiced many times before the cameras rolled).
A lot of that day was a blur, but clear images remain fixed in my mind: convincing the Sparks' owner that I (and not his girlfriend) was the right person to handle the opening jump ball honors; scrambling to locate a recording of the national anthem after the scheduled performer got stuck in traffic and failed to arrive on time; Penny Toler of the Sparks scoring the first basket in WNBA history; Lisa Leslie missing a dunk; nervous players showing the effects of their much-hyped moment in the spotlight; and an arena filled with ecstatic fans, many of them women and girls, who bought up every last commemorative item we'd stocked at the Forum concession stands.
The game was the culmination of months of work and years of dreams, and most of all I remember feeling a sense of relief that we had pulled it off: Balls were bouncing, referees were blowing their whistles and fans were finally getting to see what "We Got Next" was all about.
The Liberty-Sparks game was the first of a four-city swing of home openers I took in during that memorable week. From L.A., I traveled to Salt Lake City, then to Phoenix and Houston, and at each stop I found an outpouring of interest, excitement, curiosity and pent-up anticipation, the likes of which women's basketball had never seen before.
At the end of the week, the Liberty hosted their first game in Madison Square Garden, and I remember sitting wide-eyed in a courtside section with my husband, Charlie; my young daughters; my mother; my mother-in-law; David and Dianne Stern; and Ahmad Rashad and his then-wife, Phylicia.
The atmosphere in the Garden was electric, and as fans poured into the building before the game's start, I looked over at David. He was eyeing the quickly filling upper decks with a look of disbelief, intense satisfaction and pride. It was then that it occurred to me that we might be on to something big.
For me, the year leading up to the WNBA's launch was both exhausting and exhilarating. Looking back, I sometimes wonder how I had the energy to make it to the league's launch in June. Every day felt like one long to-do list, with five items added for every one crossed off. Many of the tasks were monumental -- choosing cities, creating team names and logos, designing uniforms, hiring referees, signing sponsors, selling tickets and finding players, to name a few -- and the devil was always lurking in the details.
For me, the blur of that first year was compounded by the high-wire act of being a working parent. My daughters were 4 and 2 at the time, and the WNBA's relentless demands on my time and energy frequently clashed with my daily attempts to be a responsible mom. Were it not for the "village" of Charlie, our full-time babysitter, my executive assistant and my girls' two doting grandmothers, who fortunately lived nearby, I'm not sure I would have been able to do my job, or even make it to opening day.
But somehow it all came together, and the thrill of being on the WNBA's ground floor made it the professional opportunity of a lifetime for me and my colleagues at the NBA. Our unexpected successes, which continued beyond that first campaign, produced an unforgettable chapter in the saga of women's sports, and at every turn we felt like we were part of history.
The WNBA has seen much change in the past 15 years. While we had our share of entertaining games in the early years, the quality of play in the league today is distinctly better. The players are faster and stronger, and they shoot and handle the ball with noticeably greater skill. The young girls who watched the WNBA on TV in 1997 are now old enough to play in the league themselves, and the images they absorbed as they took in those early games seem to be reflected in the confidence and the ever-improving talent levels they bring to the sport.
The curiosity factor, which helped fuel the onslaught of publicity in the first year, is long gone, but the league has endured and is now an established part of the American sports landscape. People have accepted -- and treat as perfectly normal -- the fact that women play basketball for a living. The opening-season novelty has been replaced, I think, by an appreciation of the league for what it represents: It's not the NBA, and it's not really like men's basketball at all, but the players offer up an appealing mix of teamwork, sportsmanship, athletic ability and competitive passion that many sports fans can and do appreciate. The league has more than proved that it deserves its place at the table.
The WNBA has had its setbacks, for sure -- but so did the NBA, which drew a modest following for decades before the lid blew off the can in the late '80s and Magic, Michael, Larry and, later, the Dream Team propelled the league to unprecedented heights. In its 14th season, the NBA's average league-wide attendance was only 5,008 (the WNBA's was 7,835), and it took the "brother league" 30 seasons to average more than 10,000 fans per game (10,179 in 1975-76, to be exact; the WNBA eclipsed that number in its second and third seasons). We predicted in 1997 that it might take a generation for the WNBA to truly make its mark, and if the NBA itself is a benchmark, those words could well prove true.
The WNBA's constants since the first year have been the intense connections between its players and fans and what the league represents as an example of achievement for women everywhere. As new WNBA president Laurel Richie leads the league through its 15th season and beyond, she goes out armed with amazing athletes, powerful imagery and a record that no women's team sport has even come close to matching. Those of us there to witness the league's first jump ball can't wait to see what they got next.