Friday, March 19, 2004
Add 'Dee' to WNBA and what do you get?
By Eric Adelson ESPN The Magazine
Skip the question about whether Diana Taurasi can win another NCAA title, because she can.
Skip the question about whether Taurasi is the greatest women's college basketball player ever, because -- with apologies to Chamique Holdsclaw and Cheryl Miller -- she is.
Stop at this question: Will we continue to revel in Taurasi's glow after she leaves Storrs, Conn., or will she disappear into the oblivion known as the WNBA?
Put simply, can Diana Taurasi save women's pro basketball?
Can Diana Taurasi's high-flying game save the WNBA?
Taurasi will be the first player taken in the deepest WNBA draft ever. That will put her in Phoenix, which is not exactly a sports mecca. For the first time since she arrived in the Nutmeg State four years ago, she will have to win an audience. A male audience.
As a Husky, Taurasi's uniform was enough incentive for most SUV-driving dads to watch. But as a WNBA player, all she'll have is her unparalleled game and her unequaled personality. That might be enough to hold onto the 80 percent of WNBA followers who have two X chromosomes, but will it reel in the male fanship that every sports league needs? More than five million people watched Taurasi and UConn face Stacey Dales and Oklahoma in 2002, but who wants to watch Taurasi and the Mercury play Alana Beard and the Mystics?
Taurasi is not the first media darling to emerge from UConn. Jen Rizzotti, with equal parts grit and grin, became impossible not to root for back when the Huskies won their first title in '95. Svetlana Abrosimova, who nearly tipped all of Connecticut into a full seizure when she changed her hairstyle, brought grace to a game infused with gawkiness. And Sue Bird, who was cooler than being cool in every game situation, proved as smart a point guard as can be found in any men's game.
These are three of the most popular women ever to play basketball, and none of them could raise the WNBA out of its ratings and attendance doldrums. While attendance for women's college basketball rose for the 19th straight time last year, the average number of fans on hand to see a WNBA game slipped below 9,000 for the first time.
Which raises the possibility that women's college basketball appeals to fans not because of the players, but because of the teams. More specifically, the coaches. And even more specifically, the rivalry between UConn coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee's Pat Summitt. Maybe Geno and Pat hate each other. Maybe they don't. But the perception of deep and heated competition between the two coaches gives their sport the juice -- and media coverage -- the WNBA lacks.
Abrosimova and Bird and Chamique and Tamika Catchings were all wonderful to watch in college, but none of them said too much that made it to the office water cooler. That was fine in a team-driven world like the NCAA. But not in the bland-is-good WNBA, which somehow asks for individuality without allowing it to happen. And so mainstream sports fans (read: men) have rarely heard from the greats of UConn vs. Tennessee past. Except for the time Bird made a bet that involved spanking. For some reason, men seemed to pay attention to that.
Taurasi is different. She is charismatic without being adorable. She is not image conscious. She is not afraid to speak her mind -- as we witnessed when she snapped at Auriemma on the bench earlier this season -- and she is not afraid to take the odd controversial position. Put simply, Taurasi is not just another one of Geno's Girls. She has the type of bravado that draws male audiences to barrier-breakers like Annika Sorenstam and Serena Williams. And for that reason, she is marketable. Can you think of a better female athlete to hawk chicken wings or iPods than Dee?
Sadly, that all means nothing if Taurasi is in any way deterred from voicing her opinion when she gets to the WNBA. If something can be done to improve the league, Taurasi will mention it. Memo to WNBA coaches and administrators: let her speak. Taurasi made all sorts of magazine covers over the last two years, and Beard did not. Is that because Connecticut sits so close to Bristol and New York City? Partially. But it's also because Taurasi got male fans (and journalists) to listen up. Here's hoping someone in the WNBA was also paying attention.
And it would be nice if Taurasi had a rival once she gets to the league. Magic needed Bird, Jordan needed Isiah, Pat needed Geno, Michael Cooper needed Bill Laimbeer (which explains why the Shock/Sparks final drew so well), and Taurasi will need someone to spar with. Maybe it's Beard, who has recently come into her own as an ambassador for the game. Maybe it's Cheryl Ford, who has a winning team and a coach who understands the value of a soundbyte. Maybe it'll even be the great Chamique herself.
This is not a call for catfights or more radio station pranks. Nor is it a call for bared midriffs or lingerie calendars. This is the hope that the WNBA will finally have what every other major sport has: drama. Diana Taurasi is, because of her game and her personality, the most dramatic female basketball player in history. That flair has made her the best ever, and now it has made her the last best hope for the WNBA.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.