Commentary

WNBA is better than ever

League faces challenges, but All-Star Game was a triumph of competition

Originally Published: July 25, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- A good All-Star Game is just bad enough to remind you how close to the edge tremendous talent takes you. It's a reminder that played at its peak, basketball's margin for error more closely resembles brushing the wall at 200 miles per hour in a race car than cruising down the interstate in the family sedan.

By that measure, Saturday's All-Star Game was a rousing success, even if a potential race to the finish line fizzled into a victory lap for the Western Conference in a 130-118 win.

The league's best talent was on display, which is admittedly a far cry from saying it was at its best. But even in a shoot-first-play-defense-much-later exhibition, evidence was ample that whatever problems it faces, the WNBA's product is better than ever before.

Make no mistake, by the time the East's Sylvia Fowles successfully slammed home a dunk in the final minute, her second attempt of the closing seconds, the proceedings had started to feel a little like a two-hour junk food binge. It was fun in all its gloriously unparalleled offensive decadence, but it started to make you pine for something healthy, like perhaps help defense or a solid pick, by about the time the West cleared out and offered Fowles free passage for her high-flying finish.

[+] EnlargeAll Star
David Dow/Getty ImagesFor the first time in seven appearances, Katie Smith (middle) lost in the All-Star Game.

Defense was in shorter supply all day than do-overs at the Mohegan Sun's blackjack tables, and organization on either end was optional. But beyond even normal All-Star Game standards, both teams just kept running and shooting and scoring points.

"That's still a lot of points, over 200 points?" Becky Hammon said. "Just really good offensive players, and granted the defense isn't what it normally is, but you've still got to go out there and knock down shots. Both sides did that, and I thought so many people scored a lot of points. It was good; I think everybody had a really good time."

Perhaps that's easier concluded where Hammon sat in the winning locker room, but the sentiment was little different down the hallway with the Eastern Conference contingent.

"Everybody here in the East is a huge competitor, and that's the reason we've got this far," Katie Douglas said. "But I think at the same time, at least for me personally, I was definitely in awe of just being here, being surrounded by this much talent. There's just lots of fun young women, as well, so it's really cool just to be a part of this."

In no way on the downward side of her own career's trajectory, Douglas still noted that she paid attention to all the "first time" notations in pregame introductions. In all, eight players made their All-Star Game debuts in front of a sellout crowd Saturday.

When Douglas entered the league in 2001, most of the players who would join her on the court Saturday in Connecticut were still in college -- if not still choosing a college. Douglas, Tamika Catchings and Katie Smith were the only players on the East's roster born before 1980. Without Lisa Leslie, the West had just three such players of its own.

Even without Candace Parker on hand, this weekend was a celebration of equal parts present and future, where so many of the league's midseason games have justifiably been about the generation that founded the league and those who followed soon thereafter.

"You've got tremendous athletes who are playing this sport," Smith said. "I think women's athletics has come a long way. I think that people train differently, and also just the nature of the beast, people are growing and are bigger in general. So yeah, I think this league has definitely become more athletic from top to bottom. And better basketball players on top of that. Not only are they athletes, but they're better basketball players because they've been doing it for a very long time, working on their skills for a very long time."

Pick a player to prove her point. Even before her orchestrated, slightly anticlimactic dunk, the 6-foot-6 Fowles put on a show of athleticism, weaving her way through cones in the skills contest prior to tip off. In the game, it was Fowles feeling the defender on her outside shoulder and spinning hard to the basket in one continuous thought.

Talking about the league's early years, Hammon quickly checked off names like Andrea Stinson, Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Janeth Arcain in recalling players whose moves on the court regularly wowed peers and fans alike. But that was then and this is now, when giants like Fowles have some handle and Lauren Jackson drains 3-pointers like a guard.

"There were some players that did some really amazing stuff, but [now] you see one of those moves, like 'Ooh' -- an 'Oooh-wee' move -- pretty regularly," Hammon said, mimicking the almost pained look of amazement that is an athletic Pavlovian response. "So that's good to see. I think it's a great compliment to the evolution of the game."

One such play that Hammon picked out for special acknowledgment after the game came midway through the second quarter. The East's Alana Beard took a pass as she cut through the lane, and in one of the only instances of contact in the entire game, used her strength to fend off a foul while keeping her balance to finish for a three-point opportunity.

Not all of the growth in women's basketball, if any of it, needs to come above the rim.

"I'm so curious to see what it's going to look like 15, 20 years from now, what the players are going to look like and the style and how talented and skilled they are," Hammon said earlier in the day. "One thing, hopefully the new generation is being taught how to play basketball with their mind, instead of just getting by on the skill and athleticism and talent. I think that was a big difference between the two generations, and so hopefully we can kind of merge that.

"Like Sue [Bird], Diana [Taurasi] -- I think their generation is a good merge of that, knowing how to play but yet super talented."

One theme players on both sides kept coming back to was the increasing parity in the league. No longer, as Hammon noted, can you expect to win if you have a couple of go-to players. Partly because of smaller rosters and a smaller league, but largely because of an influx of talent, there are few easy games and few automatic All-Star berths for familiar names. Whatever your stance on the league's place in the free market, Saturday's game was a triumph of competition.

"There are a lot more kids, a lot more females and young girls, and boys as well, that are starting at an earlier age to get to this point," Catchings said. "So yeah, they're better, they're bigger, they're stronger and all that. But … when you look at '96, '97, when the league started, girls weren't really playing basketball. It was something that we did; it was fun, we played with the boys. But we didn't have something to grow up and look forward to. And now they have that."

One can only hope nobody of an impressionable age takes to heart the principles of the stand-and-watch defense and the uncontested transition layup on display Saturday. But perhaps they will spend time in the driveway mimicking Charde Houston's spin or Taurasi's no-look, behind-the-back pass. And just as the idea of watching Stinson, Cooper and Arcain play professional basketball spurred this generation to new heights, the next will take what they see from these players and improve it that much more.

"They definitely played fast, and I think both teams played fast," Douglas said. "And that's what fans want to see. They don't want to see us set up and run plays; they want to see some fast-moving, high-scoring event. So hopefully we provided that for the fans."

Once a year, it's not so bad to forget about the brake and keep a foot on the accelerator.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.