Two perfect games

Updated: March 30, 2004, 6:46 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Not everything in sports arrives with a detonator and a fuse, not that you could be faulted for believing otherwise. Most of the time, if it doesn't come complete with a prearranged product-placement blitz and a billboard on Times Square, the majority of the jockocracy figures it doesn't rate.

And that makes this little juxtaposition all the sweeter. In the same time frame in which women's athletics was said to have taken a giant vault forward via a Big Bang kind of moment, something entirely as interesting and perhaps more significant over the long haul took place halfway across the country, accompanied by the following fanfare: None.

Maybe that's because basketball is basketball and bowling is bowling. Maybe it's because what Candace Parker did on Monday night in Oklahoma, beating out five male competitors to win the Slam Dunk contest at the McDonald's High School All-American Game, is the kind of breakthrough individual performance that you almost have to have in order for a Movement to be christened.

But out in Seattle, the Professional Bowlers Association made news -- or at least ought to have. With few headlines and absolutely nothing spelled in neon, the PBA announced quite simply that women may join its membership immediately -- and may compete on the PBA Tour, assuming they can meet the same requirements that men have been meeting for years.

It's a stiff requirement: anyone who wishes to become a member has to maintain at least a 200 average for two consecutive 66-game league seasons. After that, a member is free to compete in any PBA Regional event, from which top bowlers can move on to the weekly PBA Tour pre-tournament qualifiers and maybe -- maybe -- on to the Tour event itself.

In other words, nothing's guaranteed. But that, of course, is the beauty of the thing.

What Candace Parker did with a basketball and her incredible hops, in a gym in Midwest City, Okla., may or may not be long remembered. She is a 6-foot-4 hoops prodigy who is headed for Tennessee, and she's the goods. She had already dunked twice in high-school games and is revered as a prep athlete, and it's at least conceivable that Parker could change the face of women's college basketball if she becomes a reverse-jamming, spin-slamming machine while playing for Pat Summitt.

(We'd argue that perhaps the finest dimension of the Parker story is the one people haven't yet begun talking about: The fact that she accomplished these flying feats while essentially still dealing with the after-effects of an ACL tear Parker suffered last summer, effects that were preventing her from dunking as recently as earlier this year.)

But as big a splash as a young woman winning the McDonald's competition might seem, consider what the PBA just made possible. In a sport in which a top female bowler may reasonably expect to hold her own with a top male counterpart, the tour is setting up exactly that scenario -- and it has done so without chest-pounding self-importance. It simply announced the change and got on with its life.

And right you are, Cynic-in Chief: Bowling ain't basketball. It also isn't football, in which sheer physical mass is one of those attributes that can't be coached. Nor is it tennis or golf, in which power can matter and golf courses can be made long enough to allow physiology to exert its influence.

Bowling is bowling. Generally speaking, if you can knock pins down, you can knock 'em down. They don't have different lanes for men and women. Furthermore, the PBA's new format makes for shorter tournaments and more match play, which dilutes the advantage that traditionally has gone to the bowler who can essentially stand up the longest and count on sheer endurance to get him home.

The women's bowling tour collapsed last summer. The PBA, as commissioner Fred Schreyer made clear, isn't attempting to raise another women's tour. Instead, it's simply opening its doors to any bowler who's good enough to walk through them.

"We thought about it for a long time and concluded, why not?" Schreyer said. "We currently allow non-members to participate in our tournaments on a regular basis, and we felt that if a woman can meet the same criteria, she should be allowed to compete and become a member."

Not exactly the language you'll hear booming from the microphone around, say, the PGA Tour anytime soon. Then again, there isn't a whole lot about women in sports right now that feels like it should be set in stone.

It's quite a year going on here. Not even 12 months ago, Annika Sorenstam was being both extolled and excoriated on her way to becoming the first woman in decades to play in a PGA Tour event. Today, you can't throw a sponsor's exemption across the room without it landing on Michelle Wie, who may be the Candace Parker of golf.

Or vice versa; it gets hard to tell.

If the women's movement in sports knows about anything beyond everything, it is the nature of false starts and of promise unfulfilled -- but that promise keeps piling up, in ways both large and small. Candace Parker played above the rim this week. The PBA, by contrast, laid low. Sometimes, maybe, you don't need the fuse and detonator to bring down the house.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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