WNBA: Lisa's Legacy Tour

(Guru's note: Parts of this Associated Press story will probably appear elsewhere. But here it is in full. The Guru will return to New York for the L.A. game Thursday night and be at the local summer league Wednesday.)

 AP National Writer

    The opportunities for female athletes were so minimal back
then it was no wonder Lisa Leslie had modest expectations when
she first heard about the WNBA. She envisioned a summer league,
with games in small gyms and players wearing reversible jerseys.
    “When I saw our locker room was the same locker room that
Magic and Kareem and James Worthy had once come out of, I was
just overwhelmed with the possibilities,” she said.
    Critics gave the WNBA little chance when it began,
predicting it would join the WBL, ABL and soccer’s WUSA on the
trash heap of failed women’s leagues. Even the support — and the
deep pockets — of the NBA wouldn’t be enough to make it
    Now here it is, 13 years later. Leslie is the league’s
all-time leading scorer and last of its founding stars and, as
she prepares to say goodbye, the WNBA is not only surviving but
    “I don’t remember there not being a league,” said Candace
Parker, who was 10 when the WNBA started and is now Leslie’s
teammate on the Los Angeles Sparks. “And that’s a great thing.”
    Leslie was unstoppable at USC, the Pac-10’s all-time leader
in points, rebounds and blocked shots. She was thrilled at the
prospect of representing the United States at the Atlanta
Olympics, two years after she finished school, but figured that
would be the end of her basketball career.
    There was, after all, nothing more for her in America.
    Professional leagues for women operated overseas, so women
who wanted to keep playing had no choice but to become
international travelers. Sheryl Swoopes, dubbed the “female
Michael Jordan,” played in Italy and Russia. Cynthia Cooper
spent 11 years in Italy and Spain. Teresa Witherspoon was a
six-time All-Star in Italy, and played another two years in
    Leslie decided to stay in the United States, signing with
the Wilhelmina modeling agency and planning a career in
    Then, in April 1996, the NBA’s Board of Governors announced
the creation of the WNBA.
    “I wasn’t quite as sensitive to the gender discrimination
until we launched the league and everyone said it was going to
fail because it was women. That’s ridiculous,” NBA commissioner
David Stern said.
    As irked as Stern gets now about gender equity — the ho-hum
reaction the U.S. women got for winning their fourth straight
gold medal in Beijing compared to the adulation showered on the
men’s team is “enough to make you into a feminist” — it was
economics that drove the creation of the WNBA.
    The original WNBA franchises were initially affiliated with
their local NBA teams, giving owners a new revenue stream and
keeping their arenas occupied in the summer. Regional TV
networks got additional programming. Everyone was looking for
new ways to capitalize on women’s buying power, which was
steadily increasing.
    The players didn’t care what the reasoning was. They just
knew they had their own league and it was built for the long
    “It’s not our fault we’re girls,” Leslie said. “We just
wanted to play, too. We’re just trying to find our spot in the
    Ads trumpeting “We Got Next” outnumbered Dennis Rodman’s
tattoos during the 1997 NBA Finals, and the WNBA was on TV from
the very first tip. Not some random channel at 3 a.m., either,
but the big-time, NBC and ESPN. In its second season, the league
averaged an impressive 10,800 in attendance.
    “You’re talking about a group of ladies that were hungry. It
was something we wanted very badly,” said Witherspoon, still
third in all-time assists. “Of course we took full advantage.”
    Leslie remembers being in awe of the first-class treatment
they got, the big arenas and the fans cheering for them. She
also remembers — and still does — feeling a responsibility to
repay those fans by signing autographs or do community
    “We’re all role models,” she said. “It’s still important
what that impression is for that one child, that one fan.”
    Like any new venture, there were bound to be growing pains.
Five franchises have folded, including the Houston Comets,
winners of the first four WNBA titles. Attendance dipped in the
early 2000s. Rosters have been trimmed from 13 to 11 this
season, a concession to the economic downturn.
    “If there was a problem for us, it was that it got very
successful very fast in the first year or so, and it was
perceived as more successful than it actually was,” Stern said.
“When it sank back ... the handwringing began, and all of those
people who in the first year predicted we’d be gone by the
second and in the second year predicted we’d be gone by the
third said, ’OK, here it comes.’
    “But it’s found it’s spot, it’s growing.”
    Indeed, attendance last year rose for a second straight
season and is up nearly 3 percent so far this year — impressive
numbers during the recession. Merchandise sales are up, and
LifeLock is reportedly paying at least $1 million a year for the
right to have its name on the Phoenix Mercury’s jerseys. The
level of play has risen, and Stern said there is interest in
expansion teams.
    In what might be the most impressive sign of the league’s
staying power, the WNBA is in the first season of an eight-year
contract with ESPN/ABC that, for the first time, pays those
all-important rights fees.
    “It has its own spot,” Witherspoon said. “We have our own
position, we have our own fan base. That’s the beauty for us,
it’s our own. We have something our young girls can wake up to,
turn their television on and visualize their dream.”
    And girls who once watched Witherspoon and Cooper and Ruthie
Bolton and dreamed of the day they could play, too, are doing
just that.
    Young players like Parker and Diana Taurasi, Cappie
Pondexter and Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus have stepped up
just as their role models once did, allowing the league to make
a smooth transition from those golden girls of Atlanta into a
second decade.
    “It’s very powerful, but it’s also a tremendous
responsibility. As a mom of a girl, I want her to have every
opportunity that a boy would have,” said Parker, who played in
her first game Sunday since the May 13 birth of daughter,
    Who knows? Maybe Lailaa and Leslie’s daughter, Lauren, will
be playing alongside one another as the WNBA celebrates its 35th
    “I’m glad at least her generation will have a choice,”
Leslie said. “It’s all a process. I just try to do my part so
hopefully we can continue to leave it in a better place.”