WNBA Conference Finals: A Blend of Old And New Blood

By Mel Greenberg

 As the WNBA's Eastern and Western Conferences launch their best-of-three championship series Wednesday night, a glance at the overall rosters reveals a passing of the torch to a newer generation in the 13-year history of the playoffs.

 Some of the big names from the early years of summer competition are still around, although in certain cases not much longer.

Obviously, the signature storyline in whether Lisa Leslie will be able to bid farewell with a third WNBA championship with the Los Angeles Sparks before her retirement. The former Southern Cal is the last of the three founding players in the runnerup of the league's inaugural 1997 season. Former New York Liberty star Rebecca Lobo is still in the house as a sideline reporter on the telecasts.

Sheryl Swoopes is gone, but her former teammate Tina Thompson is also on the Sparks' roster after signing as a free agent in the wake of the demise of the Houston Comets who won the first four WNBA titles.

In Leslie's path to a storybook finish is the high-powered rock and rolling Phoenix Mercury in the Western finals and then either the defending champion Detroit Shock or Indiana Fever from the Eastern side.

The Western finals are more of a statement of old and new, although both groups are well respresented in the Eastern series.

Ironically the most telling combination of newbie and veteran is right in the Sparks' frontcourt with Leslie and two-year pro Candace Parker, the overall No. 1 draft pick of 2008.

In a sense, Leslie begat Parker because her absence two years ago to have her first child was a major factor in the Sparks' plunge from lofty heights to get in position to win the lotto and rights to the No. 1 pick.

There must be some Pac-10 humor somewhere in the background because a Britany Spears concert is the Staples Center Wednesday night is forcing Los Angeles to use UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, the home of the arch-enemy Bruins when Leslie was doing her all-American thing for the Trojans.

Of course, if the Sparks survive, there will be one or two more Staples appearance for Leslie since the Eastern teams both hold rights to home court advantage over Los Angeles in the league championship best-of five finals. However, if it all goes right for the Sparks, they would be in position to win the title at home unless the finals go the distance.

Other Sparks close to the veteran status of Leslie are DeLisha Milton-Jones, who has played on the Olympic spaquad with her Los Angeles teammate. Thompson, incidentally, was right out of USC when she declared for the WNBA prior to the league's start in 1997.

Australia's Kristi Harrower was close to a contemporary of Leslie when she joined the league. Two other Aussies who are still in the playoffs are Tully Bevilaqua of the Fever, who turned 37 in July as did Leslie, and Penny Taylor, whose return to the Mercury helped Phoenix get back to the level of its first title run two seasons ago.

But the younger group on the Sparks have also made their presence felt besides Parker is Noelle Quinn, who will be back at her alma mater Wednesday, and former Tennessee star Shannon Bobbitt.

Meanwhile, Phoenix is dominated by the newer group fired up  by former Big East rivals Diana Taurasi, who won three championships with Connecticut, and Cappie Pondexter, the all-American out of Rutgers. Rookie DeWanna Bonner out of Auburn has made a major impact in her first season.

Reeling through the Mercury depth chart, other college grads of the current decade, most more recently, are Tameka Johnson (LSU), Kelly Mazzante (Penn State), Nicole Olde (Kansas State), Brooke Smith (Stanford) and Le'coe Willingham (Auburn).

But don't overlook veteran center Tangela Smith, the former Iowa star when C. Vivian Stringer, now at Rutgers, coached the Hawkeyes.

Two seasons ago, Phoenix took former Duke star Lindsey Harding as the No. 1 overall pick and then dealt her to Minnesota for Smith, who validated the transaction by becoming a key component in the Mercury's drive to the title.

Over in the East, the storyline is two-fold in whether Indiana can finally solve Detroit's mastery over the Fever in the postseason or whether the Shock can finish off a second-half surge on the same track as Los Angeles to get back into title contention.

The old-young mix on the Phoenix roster is more a middle-young combination in age.  While Bevilaqua is the most veteran, the Fever are propelled by the passion of former Tennessee star Tamika Catchings, and Kate Douglas, who came home to the Hoosier State a year ago after the former Purdue star had begun with the Orlando Miracle and then stayed with the franchise as it became the Connecticut Sun.

Former Rutgers center Tammy Sutton-Brown, who was on the Scarlet Knights' first Final Four team that advanced her in Philadelphia in 2000, has helped support Catchings in the Fever frontcourt.

Rookie Briann January out of Arizona State has made an impact in her first season, especially in the first game of the Washington series, while former Vanderbilt star Christina Wirth has also had her moments. Other recent college grads who performed at schools ranked in the top 20 are Jessica Davenport (Ohio State), who started out with the New York Liberty; Ebony Hoffman (USC), Eshaya Murphy (USC) and Jessica Moore.

Meanwhile Detroit is loaded with veterans but  they could already be out on the golf course were it not for the play provided by rookie Shavonte Zellous out of Pittsburgh who made a major contribution off the bench during the Shock comeback.

If there's a discussion about most of the original WNBA stars heading for the sunset, there still seems to be a number of stars of the former American Basketball League, particularly Katie Smith and Taj McWilliams, who helped Detroit in its run last season after being traded by Washington before the stretch drive.

There's also a presence of middle veterans here who have impacted the Shock in former Georgia stars Kara Braxton and the resilent Denna "Tweety," not to be confused with Twitter, Nolan. That group also includes Cheryl Ford, whose entrance as a rookie in 2003 helped Detroit pull the worst-to-first turnaround when the Shock won their first title. The rest of the roster is filled with names familiar from college such as Alexis Hornbuckle (Tennessee), Crystal Kelly (Western Kentucky), Plenette Pierson (Texas Tech), Olayinka Sanni (West Virginia) and Nikki Teasley (North Carolina).

Incidentally, if folks here in Philadelphia are looking for some local identity in the WNBA postseason, other than the former Rutgers players, Detroit assistant coach Cheryl Reeve, who also became the Shock general manager after former coach Bill Laimbeer's departure at the start of the season. is a former La Salle star from the late 1980s. 

             Southeastern Conference Domination

  While former Connecticut stars are among playoff headliners, the combined 44-player conference finals roster is ruled by alumnae of schools in the Southeastern Conference.

A total of 13 players from the SEC wars are still alive this season, while the Big East and Pac-10 each have seven former stars, and the Big Ten six. For those who like to continue the comparison, Tennessee has a 4-3 edge over UConn among individual schools.

                  Travel Advisory

      In a year of parity in which it has been virtually impossible to book plane tickets long-range for the finals, unless one really had the most faith in Phoenix, here's how the dates would play out in home courts among what's left.

  Going into Wednesday night, in terms of the finals, the pecking order is Phoenix, followed by Detroit or Indiana, and then Los Angeles.

 So for you internet savings hunters here's the potential night-by-night city lineup. The prority team before potential elimination is listed first.

  Game 1 (Tues., Sept. 29) at Phoenix (if alive) or Detroit or Indiana (if Los Angeles is alive.)

Game 2 (Thurs., Oct. 1) at Phoenix, Detroit or Indiana.

Game 3 (Sun, Oct. 4) at Detroit or Indiana (if Phoenix is alive) or Los Angeles.

Game 4 (Wed., Oct. 7 if necessary) at Detroit or Indiana (if Phoenix is alive), or Los Angeles.

Game 5 (Friday., Oct. 9 if necessary) at Phoenix (if alive), or Detroit or Indiana (if Los Angeles is alive).

                   USA Basketball Camp as the Alternative Travel Choice

  Then, again for those in the East who can't afford to get to any of those places, one can find a host of WNBA players and a few current college stars in Washington, especially at the public presentation on Oct. 4), where the first USA Basketball training camp for the next Olympic and World Championship quad will be held at American University's Bender Arena.

 If Taurasi's Phoenix team is ousted this weekend, she will be yet another participant of the UConn reunion in the nation's capital under the Huskies' Geno Auriemma, who is the Olympic coach.

Already listed is Sue Bird, whose Seattle team was dispatched by the Sparks in the first round, the Connecticut Sun's Ashja Jones, Seattle's Swin Cash and current Huskies senior center Tina Charles and Huskies junior Maya Moore.

Former Temple star Candice Dupree of the Chicago Sky and Willingboro's Crystal Langhorne, a former Maryland star with the Washington Mystics, have also accepted invitations.

   -- Mel