Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Thursday, June 5, 2003
Why are men afraid of the WNBA?

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

There is no "I" in team, and there is no "Y" in basketball. No Y chromosome, that is.

Lisa Leslie
Lisa Leslie doesn't need to dunk to be impressive.
The idea that only men can produce enjoyable professional basketball shoots right past the absurd and knocks on the door of offensive.

Not to come across as a raging feminist, if that's physiologically possible, but the biggest problem most men have with the WNBA is that it scares the heck out of them to see women invading what has long been predominantly male territory. Face it, fellas, as a gender we're pretty much one big Augusta National. Maybe we don't need a formalized club to revel in our masculinity, or maybe the majority of us simply can't afford to join Hootie and the boys, but we still believe that sports ought to serve as the last bastion of socially acceptable chauvinism.

Many guys will argue their aversion to women's basketball has nothing to do with gender, that they enjoy watching women's tennis or volleyball (by which they invariably mean beach volleyball). All of which is pretty much akin to the "some of my best friends are ..." argument. On some level, female athletes are acceptable as long as they're distinctly feminine. But a basketball uniform is a basketball uniform, and there's nothing "feminine" about fighting through a screen or throwing elbows in the post.

Aside from being perturbed, apparently, at not knowing which garage to park in at the Mohegan Sun Casino (hint -- it's the one all the other cars are heading toward) or when to double down in blackjack, Page 2 columnist Stacey Pressman's objections to the WNBA appear to boil down to that same familiar catch-all excuse: it's a boring game played by inferior athletes.

She doesn't think the WNBA provides enough bang for her buck (or wouldn't if she weren't attending games on press credentials). She says sports are about creating an entertaining product. Really? Since when did we start asking the cart to pull the horse? Sports aren't about creating entertainment. That's professional wrestling. Real sports are entertainment. Competition, skill, strategy, effort, hustle. Any of this sound familiar? We keep score for a reason. Dance recitals and art exhibits are about artistic expression and subjective judgment. Basketball is about trying to score more points than the opponent.

While Page 2 didn't offer to send me to the Mohegan Sun for this side of the story, I did enjoy Tuesday's Phoenix-Houston game from the comfort of my couch (yes guys, it's not a bad thing to admit you know where Oxygen is on your cable lineup). Deprived of Chaka Khan, timeout gimmicks and sleeping cohorts, I managed to actually watch the basketball action.

Sheryl Swoopes
It's refreshing to see a superstar like Sheryl Swoopes sacrifice for the good of the team.
What I did see was a more talented Houston team overcome Phoenix while trying to find cohesion in its first game without the injured Cynthia Cooper. Sheryl Swoopes -- one of the league's best players -- sacrificed her scoring to take on some of Cooper's playmaking duties. Swoopes finished with 10 assists, including -- gasp -- a couple of nifty no-look interior feeds. Janeth Arcain stepped up to quell a late Phoenix rally by knocking down a heavily-contested jumper and then burying a 3-pointer just seconds later. For Phoenix, lightning-quick point guard Tamicha Jackson blew past defenders, only to frustrate fans and teammates by showing the shot selection of a young Stephon Marbury.

In other words, I saw a perfectly ordinary and perfectly entertaining regular-season game. There wasn't a single dunk -- Oxygen didn't show the mascot jumping off the trampoline -- and yet there were still 40 minutes of basketball action from the best women's players in the world. Strange how that worked out.

And you know what? WNBA games are even better in person. Pressman might have noted that she was sitting amongst the humble Brownie troops and lesbian couples, but there's something pleasant about being in an arena where the vast majority of fans are actually happy to be there. They're not bitter about paying too much for a ticket -- $16 will put you in the lower bowl at a Connecticut Sun game -- and they're not looking to take out their life frustrations on some hapless player who has the audacity to miss a free throw.

Looking to the court for expressions of democratic values and egalitarianism misses the point. What's happening on the court at WNBA games is about basketball. And that's exactly why what's happening in the stands is about progress. Try finding those sorts of vibes in the homogenous crowds at a typical NBA game.

Whether in college or the pros, women don't play basketball at the same athletic level as their male counterparts.

Period.

They aren't as big or as strong, and they don't jump as high or run as fast as their male peers.

Conceded.

Chamique Holdsclaw
Chamique Holdsclaw isn't as good as Kobe Bryant. And neither are any of the thousands of guys in the NCAA.
While Annika Sorenstam proved at the Colonial that the gap might not be as great in some sports as many imagined, physical differences are why men and women don't compete against each other at the professional level. Female figure skaters don't pull off the same jumps as male figure skaters. Female soccer players don't kick the ball with the same force as Roberto Carlos. And Marion Jones wouldn't even make the finals of the typical men's 100-meter race at the international level. We're all agreed there are physical differences.

So what?

As basketball fans, we make concessions to inferior physical skills all the time. And I'm not even talking about the 5,000 people who have nothing better to do with their money than attend a Denver Nuggets game.

Why do so many people watch college basketball, when it's clear even the Syracuse Orangemen wouldn't be able to hang within 40 points of the Spurs or Nets? Why watch Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone when we could be watching Kenyon Martin flush a no-look half-court alley-oop from Jason Kidd? Because we can accept that the skill level is inferior ... and still find the competition enthralling.

Right, the argument goes, but at least there are exciting plays in men's college hoops. They still play above the rim from time to time. Who doesn't remember Pitt's Jerome Lane shattering the backboard on a dunk, or Bill Raftery's call of the play. You don't see that in the WNBA. And "that" is the dunk.

Well, it's true, the jam remains the great dividing line between men and women. When people talk about women's basketball being boring because the women aren't as talented, they're rarely talking about assist-to-turnover ratios, shooting percentages, or rebounding margins ... they're talking about the dunk.

Pardon me, but when did the dunk become the definition of elite basketball? The dunk is thrilling. It is mesmerizing and even awe-inspiring. But it's worth two freaking points, the same as Sue Bird slipping into the lane and flipping up a left-handed layup, or a 12-foot Chamique Holdsclaw twine-tickler.

If the dunk is really what it takes to keep you interested in a game, then you're both easily amused and missing the point of Dr. Naismith's game.

But on-court legitimacy isn't the only thing that makes WNBA games worth watching.

Some WNBA stars might pull in close to seven figures when their endorsements are counted up, but the rank-and-file player earns a salary that probably falls in line with what you're making for sitting in your cube and reading Page 2.

Helen Darling
Cleveland's Helen Darling, left, not only goes hard to the basket, she's also the mother of triplets. Now that's impressive.
Given the salaries and career longevity, the vast majority of WNBA players can't count on basketball to carry them through life. That's a little sad when compared to the money involved in the men's game, but it also guarantees that the women in the league are tuned in to reality. Phoenix's Tamicha Jackson teaches fifth grade in the offseason. Charlotte's Dawn Staley is the head coach of Temple's women's team, where she might one day face Cleveland's Jennifer Rizzotti, who coaches at the University of Hartford. Helen Darling, Rizzotti's teammate, is both the proud mother of triplets and a starting point guard. Houston's Ukari Figgs nearly didn't return for her fifth season in order to take an engineering job. It's not that Figgs doesn't love basketball, but she had to think about her future.

Go out to eat after a WNBA game and you're likely to see a couple of players ordering off the same value menu. Approach them for autographs and they won't have a personal detail of hangers-on to keep you at a distance. And oddly enough, this usually leads to respectful exchanges between fans and the players they enjoy watching. You see, it's a package deal. When you make the players bigger than the game, they start acting like they're bigger than the game.

Does having athletes with manageable egos and other marketable skills make WNBA basketball more interesting and compelling to watch? I guess that depends on exactly how much you enjoy watching guys like Ruben Patterson leap out of the gym to slam down another dunk.

But if you love the game of basketball, and not just media-driven personalities or 30-second highlight clips, it might be worth your while to check out the WNBA this summer -- either on television or in person. (The two-time defending champion Sparks host Sacramento tonight at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2.)

This country has the best women's basketball in the world, and it's scary to think that's not good enough for some fans. And yes, it helps if you aren't scared to death that women will leave the kitchen for the playing field.

Still think women's basketball sucks? Don't worry, the next game will be over soon enough, and then Magnus ver Magnusson will be back carrying around boulders at the regularly-scheduled time.

I bet Sue Bird can't do that.

Graham Hays is a columnist for ESPN.com Fantasy Games and season-ticket holder for the WNBA.