What a weekend for women's sports

Updated: September 12, 2006, 12:57 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

This WNBA season -- you might have heard it was the 10th anniversary, by the way -- just ended. The World Championship is beginning in Brazil. The Detroit Shock's Katie Smith is bound to wake up there some morning in the next few days not sure what city she's in at first, and then think, "Wow, I really do have an WNBA title now, don't I?"

Martina Navratilova
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesA wonderful weekend for women in sports included Martina Navratilova (and Bob Bryan) winning the mixed doubles title at the U.S. Open.

Lots of WNBA players are preparing to go report to their overseas leagues. GMs and coaches are strategizing about who's coming back and who isn't, doing the salary-cap shuffle.

WNBA president Donna Orender will, we assume, keep talking to the folks in Bentonville, Ark., and anybody else who's interested in an expansion team. She'll also work to try to eliminate the wiggle room, as she put it, in the league's guidelines for the use of WNBA teams' arenas during playoff time.

Of course, that "wiggle room" allowed the Palace of Auburn Hills to turn into a "jiggle room" for Mariah Carey, moving Game 5 of the Finals to Joe Louis Arena. Previously during the WNBA playoffs, the gathering of a bunch of Mariah wannabes, aka "American Idol," was the reason for the other "dislocation": Los Angeles and Sacramento played Game 2 of the Western Conference finals in Anaheim instead of the Sparks' home, the Staples Center.

I must say the Detroit switcheroo worked out just fine for me: The Joe was packed and ended up being a terrific place to watch a game, plus my upper-story hotel-room view of downtown Detroit was more interesting than the parking lot vista I had at ground level in Auburn Hills. Not to mention there was an entertaining floor show at the downtown hotel, as one night a drunk guy was yelling at the staff about a supposed problem with the elevator doors or something, saying, "Listen to me! I'm a guest! I was at a wedding! You think I'm dressed this way for the fun of it?" I assumed the bride and groom were on the verge of their first fight as a married couple, debating whose family had invited this lout.

Anyway, the Finals weren't all "good basketball," let's admit that, but there were some really standout performances. And maybe Bill Laimbeer and ESPN will patch things up now in that contrived "dispute," combining to release a "Laimbeer's Laments: Uncensored on the Sidelines" DVD.

But … before closing the book on the WNBA Finals, I want to mention a few things that also happened this past weekend. They initially might not seem connected. But you'll see that, in fact, they are.

Not too long after the Shock beat Sacramento for the WNBA title Saturday in Detroit, Maria Sharapova won the U.S. Open women's singles championship in New York. Then she did something very commendable: She publicly thanked the woman whose vision and hard work made it possible for a kid such as Sharapova to pick up a $1.7 million check for winning a tennis title.

That's Billie Jean King, for whom the National Tennis Center was named at the start of the U.S. Open. There are not too many people who can look back at decisions they made and challenges they committed themselves to and then realize that they truly did change the world. What a remarkable feeling that must be.

And, yeah, I know there was all the ballyhoo over Sharapova's commercials and dresses and the whole goofy banana business … but let's give her credit for seeing the link between her own enormous bank account and BJK's efforts three decades ago. There are plenty of other players who've never taken the time to do that.

Right after Sharapova won, Martina Navratilova paired with Bob Bryan in her final competitive tennis match to win the mixed doubles title. Navratilova, you could say, took the relay baton from King and has done everything possible to make women's tennis, and tennis in general, better. She was both a brave explorer and a resolute settler; she helped build the house and got to live in it.

Then, Sunday morning, a pioneer from another sport passed away at age 88: Patty Berg. She was one of the 13 women who founded the LPGA in 1950. She grew up in Minneapolis, a rambunctious, freckled, red-haired girl who played football in the street and then took up golf, never letting it go.

Now, there are only six of those founders still living: Bettye Danoff, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Betty Jameson, Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Louise Suggs.

The most famous of the founders was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, one of the greatest sports legends in American history. The founders came from all over the country. Texas. South Dakota. Missouri. Kansas. Georgia. Michigan. Oklahoma. Minnesota.

They had a meeting in Wichita, Kan., that was the start of the LPGA. The youngest one there was Hagge, who was 16. The oldest was Opal Hill, who was 58. She had taken up golf at age 31, when doctors told her she had about three years left due to a kidney ailment -- but that physical activity might keep her alive a bit longer. She lived to 89.

There are a lot of great stories about the LPGA founders, even beyond the fact that they started a women's professional sports organization at a time when the idea of it being truly lucrative or long-lasting seemed very unlikely.

Helen Dettweiler was a WASP -- Women's Air Force Service Pilot -- and also a cryptographer during World War II. She later built a golf course and did baseball commentary for the Washington Senators. Helen Hicks was the first woman to travel the country doing clinics for Wilson Sporting Goods. Sally Sessions taught school and wrote operas.

And Patty Berg? She served three years in the Marine Corps during World War II, did traveling clinics for decades for Wilson and won 15 major titles, which remains an LPGA record. She was funny and friendly and had enough energy for about three lifetimes.

Berg made less money in all her decades of playing golf than many of the LPGA players today will make this year alone. For that matter, less than Sharapova made in two weeks on the tennis court. But if you feel "sorry" for Berg from that perspective, she wouldn't want you to. The thing about being a path-clearer is you don't follow a map, you make one. And that's priceless.

So … in the space of less than 24 hours, the WNBA had a Game 5 in the Finals for the first time, and a teenaged millionaire female athlete remembered to say thanks, and a women's tennis legend bid farewell to her sport, and a women's golf legend said goodbye to this Earth.

And on some field -- I don't know where exactly, but I'm sure it happened -- a 6-year-old broke from the pack, went the length of the pitch without tripping herself and scored her first goal in a soccer game. Mom knocked over her $7 cup of coffee in the excitement and Dad has the whole thing on video, except it's a little jumbled because he was leaping up and down.

You can connect all those dots.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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