early in the inaugural half of the inaugural game of the Women's National Basketball Association's inaugural season, Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie prepared to attempt the league's inaugural slam dunk. The 6-foot-5 Leslie eyed the basket, palmed the specially designed orange-and-off-white-striped WNBA ball and leapt toward the rim. But the woman considered by many the world's best female player could not rise high enough to get the ball over the metal cylinder, and it bounced away harmlessly down the court.
The attempt was meant to show the world that women players weren't content to play merely below the rim. The miss showed that their game still has a little ways to go. Most significant, however, was the number of people who watched the part-time Wilhemina model's shot -- a near sellout of 14,284 at the Inglewood Forum and more than 4 million on national television. Throughout the season, attendance averaged an astoundingly high 9,600 per game, with over 1 million fans crowding into the various arenas. If women players can't -- yet -- jump that high, the performance of the WNBA in its first season underscores not only how well organizers -- the men's NBA -- have marketed it but how deep the potential audience appears to be and how sanguine the prospects are for the league's survival.
The two-month WNBA season wrapped up last Saturday as the Houston Comets defeated the New York Liberty, 65-51, in a championship game in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 16,285. The final was typical of many WNBA games: intensely-played yet somewhat sloppy with only occasional flashes of brilliance. It was ultimately decided by the individual athletic prowess of the league's Most Valuable Player, 34-year-old Comets guard Cynthia Cooper, who scored 25 points with a combination of acrobatic driving layups and quick-release, long-range jump shots.
What was striking about the WNBA, to those who expected the women's game to be "different," were the similarities of the style of play, showmanship and sportsmanship to the men's game. That the fairer sex's version would automatically be kinder and gentler was dispelled early on: Before the league had even reached its halfway point, two of the original eight head coaches had already been fired.
The new league had ridden the wave of good will and excitement generated by the 1996 Olympic gold medal-winning Women's Dream Team, whose appeal stemmed almost as much from what they appeared not to be -- part of an increasingly selfish, mercenary and inaccessible male professional sports world. In contrast to the high-flying, individualistic exploits of the men, the women's game would stress below-the-rim, fundamental excellence. In radio ads, the New York Liberty touted their "100 percent pure ... team game"; a handmade sign often seen inside arenas this summer claimed: "Men Invented Basketball, Women Perfected It."
I was one of those early basketball "difference" believers. Before the Olympics, I challenged Dream Team star Sheryl Swoopes -- who joined the Comets after missing half of the season to give birth to a baby boy -- to a game of one-on-one for Self magazine. The resulting article's lead paragraph read: "I love the way women play basketball. Shrewdly. Gracefully. Below the rim. The classic game as it existed before slam-dunkers dumbed it down." Also, Swoopes trounced me, 21-11.
Leslie's slam-dunk bid and Cooper's dazzling offensive moves quickly dispelled the notion that the WNBA would just be a gravity-challenged, slow-motion counterpoint to the men's game. (Another indication may be that Swoopes named her son Jordan.) In addition, the classiness and collaboration shown by such male players as the Bulls' Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and the Jazz's Karl Malone and John Stockton continue to provide an object lesson in a "team game" to either sex. The WNBA teams have seemed unsure whether to aim for that 100 percent pure team play or for one-on-one NBA athleticism. The result for much of the season was a lot of errant passing, out-of-control dribbling and shaky shooting. The quality of play improved as the summer went on, but there were still a number of WNBA contests that resembled rec center pickup games.
The WNBA is not the only game in town. A competitor, the American Basketball League, completed its five-month season in nine smaller cities this past winter. The ABL's longer schedule attracted a number of top players, thinning the overall quality for both leagues. However, it does not have the WNBA's deep pockets or management expertise, and though the ABL drew respectable crowds, its sponsorship and broadcast deals are limited. In the sports world of the '90s, if a jump shot falls in the basket, but no one sees it on television, it didn't really fall.
That's why WNBA organizers have focused more on assuring the league's financial footing than its basketball footwork. Orchestrated by the unparalleled marketing machine of the NBA, the league's launch in June was backed by multimillion-dollar blue-chip corporate sponsorship deals and national television contracts with ESPN, Lifetime and NBC. Leslie's dunk might have failed, but that didn't stop several WNBA players from dunking Chicken McNuggets in a national McDonald's commercial.
But if the play has not been entirely the thing, the fans didn't seem to mind. "The games I've seen so far have been pretty sloppy," said 21-year-old Talaya Centeno from her Madison Square Garden loge seat during a recent Liberty matchup. "But the idea that there even is a women's pro league is the most important thing. At this point, skills are secondary. They'll come in time." And for this Knicks fan at least, accustomed to a sea of middle-aged men in pinstripes, it's refreshing to see the Garden filled with young girls in braids.
But if the Knicks could use lessons on sportsmanship and self-control, the Liberty are in no position to tutor. Neither Rebecca Lobo, the team's ex-Olympian, a 6-4 workhorse, nor guard Theresa "Teaspoon" Weatherspoon, a Garden favorite with her slashing drives to the hoop and theatrical "no-look" passes, were shy about expressing open disdain with referees. During one game, forward Vickie Johnson had to be separated from coming to blows with the Phoenix Mercury's Nancy Lieberman-Cline.
What does it all portend? It turns out that, just like the men's game, there are a wide range of personalities, backgrounds and styles. And it's that diversity that makes the WNBA's future so bright. Leslie, Swoopes, Cooper, Lobo, Weatherspoon, all very different players, are the first high-profile faces of feminism to successfully cut across age, race, gender and ideology: role models to girls and boys; admired by women; palatable to younger men who grew up with athletic girls and to dads who are now as rabid about their daughters' on-court exploits as their sons'.