WNBA celebrates 15 seasons

LOS ANGELES -- Some days are just not meant to be about the details.

Because details, those are easy to find.

Just look 'em up. Like June 21, 1997, the day of the first WNBA game.

Or 14,284, the number of people who showed up at the Great Western Forum to watch the Los Angeles Sparks play the New York Liberty that day.

Or the fact that Penny Toler scored the first basket in league history.

Or that New York won that game 67-57.

Those are the mere details.

The feelings, that's where you find the good stuff -- even almost a decade and a half later.

Lisa Leslie, who was at the Staples Center on Tuesday night to help the WNBA celebrate the 15th anniversary of its inaugural season, remembers that she could barely get to sleep the night before the game.

She remembers that when she took the court at the Forum that day -- enough of a fantasy for any kid who grew up in Southern California -- she was "overwhelmed." Overwhelmed by the number of media members who were there, taken aback by the size of the crowd and the celebrities who were sitting courtside.

And she remembers, about halfway through the game, being very, very tired.

"I'm not sure I got it yet, what it was going to take to play professional basketball in the United States," Leslie said. "I think it took me a year to get it."

Rebecca Lobo was in the New York Liberty locker room that day feeling "really, really nervous."

The day before, on the team bus from Los Angeles International Airport to the hotel, she looked up and saw a huge billboard with her picture next to Leslie's and the words, "We've Got Next."

"It was the culmination of a year of doing a lot of publicity for the league," Lobo said. "All of the sudden the game was here and I'm in the Forum. I was a huge Celtics fan and I hated the Lakers and being in that building … it was dark. Darker than I thought it would be.

"It's all of that, those are the most vivid memories for me."

Toler said people ask her what it was like to score the first basket.

To her, It seems like an afterthought.

"There were so many emotions. As a female, you prayed there would be a league here and it was finally happening," Toler said. "It was unbelievable. It was like being in a dream but wide awake."

Unlike Leslie, Toler recalls getting a little sleep that first night. But the adrenaline began flowing before the game.

OK, so a few of the details from the court do float around. Lobo remembers banking in a 3-pointer from the baseline and wondering just how one does that.

"That's how far off that shot was," Lobo said.

Leslie remembers blocking the shot of Teresa Weatherspoon.

"I told her to get that crap out of here, but I don't think that's the word I used," Leslie said.

Toler remembers that at the final buzzer, you couldn't really tell who won or lost. It was tough to be disappointed.

The vantage point was entirely different for current Sparks guard Noelle Quinn, who was a 12-year-old girl sitting in the stands with her mother, who had purchased season tickets.

"I didn't know what it was," Quinn said. "I know there was a great atmosphere and a lot of excitement. I remember [then president] Val Ackerman tossing the ball for the tipoff and wondering what was going on. For me, I was in awe that there was something like this in L.A. But I probably didn't understand. I didn't know whether it would be around when I was old enough to play."

Much has changed in 15 seasons. Lobo, who was barely out of college when the league started, retired after six seasons. She is now a mother, with four young children.

Leslie retired two years ago and has two children and a career in broadcasting.

Quinn is in her third season on the Sparks roster, playing for her hometown team in front of her mother -- she still has her season tickets, even though her daughter can now get them for free.

"I used to sit in the stands and watch Lisa Leslie play and now my nieces come and watch me," Quinn said. "I think that's pretty cool."

Toler is the Sparks' general manager, not very far away from where she started.

Before Tuesday night's game, one of the team's 15-year season-ticket holders who has always sat behind the team bench handed Toler one of the original tickets from that first game. Save for a small crease, it was in great condition.

"I asked her if she was sure, but she said yes, so I'm taking it," Toler said with a big smile.

Tuesday night's game -- a spirited 96-91 win by the Sparks -- was a tribute to that historic debut.

The venue, the Staples Center, was newer. The crowd was considerably smaller. The basketball, frankly, was played at a much higher level.

Highlights of the Sparks' accomplishments ran on the big screen over center court before the game.

Leslie took the microphone and spoke to the crowd.

After thanking league officials, sponsors and fellow players, she finished with this message for the fans:

"We can't do it without you and your continued support. Let's make sure we have 15 more years for the little girls who are sitting out here who want to be like us."

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