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Thursday, September 1, 2005
I've got next

By Graham Hays
Page 2

There are some issues in life that are simply too important to overlook, causes too important not to champion in the face of overwhelming opposition. There are injustices too great to let fester any longer in a society that claims for itself the high ground in any ethical debate. Confronted with such circumstances, we must not sit idly by, but instead must stand up and fight for that which promises to make us better as a collective people.

And you know what? This debate isn't about one of those issues. So relax, this is just about basketball and business.

Sue Bird
Larry isn't the only Bird trying to put "saving a league" on their resume.
The WNBA is the preeminent professional women's basketball league in the world, no matter how many times Maria Stepanova bails on her contract with Phoenix to play in Russia (don't worry, WNBA humor isn't all that much funnier even if you know the league). And while it may owe its existence to the deep pockets of the NBA, it is not because of the NBA that it's the preeminent pro league. It has that distinction because it's home to the best women's basketball players on the planet. The NBA created the league, but it didn't create the talent.

That's it. That's all the WNBA is. So what's all the fuss?

Yes, the league represents more than that to some groups, whether they're inspired or infuriated by its existence, but it's no more an instrument of societal change than any other professional league or corporate monolith. Societal movements begin at the grassroots level, and they rarely come equipped with big, fuzzy mascots and dance teams.

So for anyone expecting a bitter, vitriolic rant about the evils of sports fans drunk on their own testosterone, you've come to the wrong place. For the most part. To begin with, my editors cut out most of that part, leaving me to defend the league with logic, numbers and wit.

In other words, I could be in a spot of trouble.

If you want to talk numbers, there are always numbers. Sloppy play? Five players in the 15-team WNBA averaged three or more turnovers per game this season, led by Diana Taurasi with 3.4 turnovers per game. In the 30-team NBA, 11 players averaged at least three turnovers per game, led by Allen Iverson at 4.6 turnovers per game. The most careless team in the WNBA averaged 16.8 turnovers per game; the most careless team in the NBA averaged 16.1 turnovers per game. Lousy shooting? The worst team in the WNBA shot 40 percent from the floor; the worst team in the NBA shot 41.5 percent.

Yes, the shooting percentages are marginally lower, and the turnovers come in a game that's eight minutes shorter, but it's tough to make a case that, relative to the competition, WNBA basketball is any sloppier or less competitive than the NBA variety. Although given a game between the Hawks and Hornets, that may be faint praise.

I know why I love the game, and it's not because the turnover rate is on par with the NBA. It's seeing that basketball can still be played with flair below the rim, even as each year's rookie class seems to bring the game closer and closer to new heights of athleticism.

It's the creativity of the whirling dervish that is Lindsay Whalen driving through the lane. Or the way Taurasi manages to exude a mix of grace and cockiness in an act as simple as dribbling the ball up court.

It's Helen Darling's giving birth to triplets and returning to the court the next season to play for less money than it probably takes to keep those kids in diapers. And it's Dawn Staley's annually coaching Temple to the NCAA Tournament, only to hang up the suit every summer and show her college charges how it's really done.

It's arenas full of kids, some of whom even watch the game between seven or eight trips to the souvenir and concession stands. And rows of good seats devoid of people wearing sunglasses and talking to clients, agents or managers. It's professional sports where the athletes aren't bigger than the game, and the fans respect them a heck of a lot more because of it.

And hey, it's even about the shortest lines you've ever seen in a men's restroom at a sporting event.

But none of those charming anecdotes may resonate with you as reasons to tune in on Friday night when the Connecticut Sun look to knock the Detroit Shock out of the playoffs. To each his own. There's a whole continent of seemingly rational people who might substitute rugby and vegemite for baseball and apple pie, and I have no idea what they see in such a brutal and nasty endeavor. And rugby's no easy task, either.

And that's the point. You're entitled to not like the WNBA. You're even entitled to dislike the WNBA. But do it for reasons that go beyond lame jokes, misogynistic insecurities and tired talking points. Do it for what's on the court. Because there's way too much time spent debating what the WNBA is off the court.

The truth is that the WNBA makes for both a weak villain and a weak victim. Picking on the league is the equivalent of scheduling Sam Houston State and Indiana State for your nonconference football schedule (not to cast any aspersions on the good folks at Texas Tech). It excites the alumni and angers the opposing coach when you put up 70 points on the scoreboard, but nobody else pays much attention.

But on the flip side, sticking up for the corporate side of the WNBA is about as much fun as sticking up for Burger King against McDonald's. While it's home to some wonderful players and compelling basketball, there's nothing glorious or altruistic about the WNBA. It's a business ultimately out to make money, and that means marketing. Lots of marketing.

Just like every other business.

You're tired of having the WNBA forced down your throat? You would be content to ignore the league, if only the folks on television would let you? Welcome to the United States, the line for complaints forms to the right.

Lauren Jackson
If you say you like basketball, how can you not love Lauren Jackson's game?
Sorry, but since when have we been squeamish about promotion in this society? We live in a world saturated with people selling things. Have you ever heard a NASCAR driver manage to give equal weight to Jesus Christ and the guys at AC Delco in a postrace interview? And the whole talking duck bit has gotten a little old at this point, but I'm not ready to beat down the doors of a certain insurance company just because they keep running the ads.

But out of all the ills that plague sports today, this is where you're going to make your stand? Over a promo during a timeout of an NBA playoff game? Or Lauren Jackson's making SportsCenter's top plays while the lads of Major League Lacrosse got ignored yet again?

And are we really going to attempt to have a serious discussion about the heinous nature of the NBA's bringing in WNBA players for one or two events during the annual All-Star festivities? As if watching Lisa Leslie hoist some shots ruins the artistic integrity of Steve Nash's jogging through a contrived labyrinth of plastic cones from the Dollar Store during the point guard skills contest?

Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings aren't the reason your life as a fan is spent navigating through endless commercials and promos. So stop jumping up and down on the WNBA for acting like a business.

There's no magic bullet in this argument. The WNBA is neither a cure for what ails society nor a ragtag underdog worth rooting for against the establishment. It's a business backed by the enormous power and money of the NBA, and it will ultimately succeed or fail based on its long-term ability to generate revenue.

But it's also home to about 200 of the best women's basketball players in the world. They fight through screens, execute pick-and-rolls and rotate on defense. They play basketball with skill and passion. And either you're interested in watching that, or you're not.

The rest is just noise.

Graham Hays is an editor for ESPN.com SportsNation when he isn't moonlighting for Page 2. He can be reached at graham.hays@espn3.com.