I love the month of May. I was born this month and something I love starts this month.
This WNBA is back and the 2021 season is special because it’s the league’s 25th season.
I’ve been a fan of “The W” since it proclaimed “We Got Next.” I’ve been a fan of women’s basketball for even longer. I was a kid when the old Women’s Pro Basketball League of 1979-1981 lived and died with a team in my hometown. As a student at Northwestern, watching and sometimes on the mic, as the Wildcat women’s basketball team battled across the Big Ten, there was news of something with lowered rims and skin-tight uniforms called the Liberty League. Thankfully, that hot mess died after one exhibition.
The bumpy ride of women’s pro basketball has seen gadgets, gimmicks, and a lot of potential in a growing college game graduating then disappearing unless the player made an Olympic team. The WNBA changed that.
It mattered that Cynthia Cooper was a Houston Comet, and not just agate type about her playing in Italy. Remember when Teresa Weatherspoon nailed it from half-court for my New York Liberty in the WNBA Finals after a decade playing overseas? I loved seeing Lisa Leslie dominating with the Los Angeles Sparks on national TV, instead of never getting a chance to see her play because she would be with some team in a faraway land an no coverage stateside.
It mattered for a kid I saw play in a high school all-star game during the 2000 Final Four. Six months later, I saw her again in uniform as a freshman at the University of Connecticut with a distinguished four years ahead. Some say Diana Taurasi is the best there’s ever been. We can have that debate in greater detail because we get to see the greatness as a Phoenix Mercury, instead of just hearing about her post-college exploits in Turkey and Russia in between Olympic Games.
It mattered just at the time when women’s college basketball was rising in popularity. It matters for the millions of girls from Pittsburgh to Portugal to St. Petersburg, who were perfecting their jump shots and killing that crossover.
It mattered that Janeth Arcain, Małgorzata Dydek, and Zheng Haixia played here. It mattered that Team USA’s Australian rivals such as Michelle Timms, Sandy Brondello, and Tully Bevilaqua, one of my all-time favorite WNBA players, played here.
It mattered that Lauren Jackson was one of the greatest to ever play here.
The sports talk jock naysayers and various flavors of largely male chauvinist bacon had something to say and much if it wasn’t nice. Their opinions paled next to seeing the best of a sport no matter where they came from or how they came up playing in the W.
I’ve been bullish on women’s basketball because I’ve seen it evolve. Each year all levels of the girl’s and women’s game keep getting better. The “what if” generations of All-Americans past are no more. Imagine not getting to see Sue Bird play ball, except for “every four years,” or Brittney Griner, or Candace Parker. I’m glad that we don’t have to imagine, and I’m glad that they begat a Breanna Stewart, an A’ja Wilson, a Charli Collier, and there’s more to come.
Seeing this not only bolstered this particular sport, these women pushed sport as a whole in a better direction, although some try to decry it. Bird discussed the negative perceptions some have on the WNBA, and how it falsely plays into support for the league, in an interview with CNN last year:
“Women’s soccer players generally are cute little White girls while WNBA players, we are all shapes and sizes… a lot of Black, gay, tall women… there is maybe an intimidation factor and people are quick to judge it and put it down,”
All those shapes and sizes reshaped this league in the last decade. Because the W’s gay players didn’t hide and their teammates stood with them, a league that once downplayed its LGBTQ fandom, rose to be the first major league to make the Pride Night concept a league-wide priority. Some of the top stars of the league are out and proud, even up to a two-time MVP in Elena Delle Donne. Spouses play against each other and team up. We can cheer, “awwww”, and shrug our shoulders about it all in one motion.
I was especially proud to see the league’s Black players taking the lead in this last year and seeing their teammates stand up and leading the whole sports world to stand up. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The WNBA was consistently doing that, albeit it took prodding for the league to get onboard, but they did.
It was Nneka Ogwumike and Layshia Clarendon’s leadership in the WNBA Players Association, including last year’s forward-thinking collective bargaining agreement. I saw Angel McCoughtry making #SayHerName, #BreonnaTaylor, and similar messages a staple on jerseys across the WNBA and the NBA last season at the height of growing mass movement against police brutality.
I saw WNBA players en masse stand up to former Atlanta owner and now former U.S. senator Kelly Loeffler openly opposing them. The situation ended with former Dream player Renee Montgomery being a part of the ownership group that bought the team. It also ended with Loeffler losing her Senate seat, thanks in part to WNBA players campaigning heavily for her opponent.
And there was Maya Moore, spending two years away from the game because justice meant more, and Natasha Cloud, who opted out of play, and into the movement.
The WNBA enters this anniversary season despite all the obstacles and all the doubters. I’ll be watching and cheering again with a small note of defiance mixed with gratitude. Defiance because the yearly news of the WNBA’s demise continues to be greatly exaggerated. and gratitude for every player who donned a uniform in this league and kept it alive and growing.
From “We Got Next” to “Bet on Women,” you’ve come a long way WNBA. We’re far from done together and somewhere Kim Perrot is looking down at the next tipoff and smiling.