A nod to 2009, a look to 2010
Questions loom after one of the best seasons (and WNBA Finals) in league history
It is kind of a strange thing, how quick the transition comes. The players involved in the WNBA Finals either celebrate or commiserate with each other when the series is over for a very short time. Then, for most of them, it's off to the next "gig." They head overseas to cash in on their earning potential while they can.
And women's basketball followers move on to the upcoming college season, for which practice is soon to start. But I found myself resisting the immediate pull to college, at least for a couple of days. Because I wanted to savor and dissect this past WNBA season and look ahead to 2010.
I'm still trying to get a gauge on how many college hoops supporters don't pay much attention to the WNBA and why not. I'd guess it comes down to two things: location and time of year.
I realize some people just have a hard time getting involved in the WNBA if they don't have a team nearby. And summer is when they like to be outdoors, take trips and spend time on activities they can't do in the winter months.
But I'm here to tell you that if you like women's basketball and you're not following the WNBA, you're really missing out. It's worth fitting it into your summer schedule.
I absolutely believe the pool of "women's basketball fans" -- those people who follow the college and pro games as a whole, not just one or two teams -- is steadily growing.
In obvious ways, it's even easier to develop that kind of fan in the WNBA simply because you're dealing with only 13 (possibly 14 in 2010) teams. That's just like following one conference in the college game.
Everybody plays everybody in the WNBA, so if you're a fan of one team, it's just more automatic that you are going to have interest in all the opponents.
I hope that the WNBA Finals -- if not the entire season -- brought in a few more college fans to the pro league this year. Television ratings were up over last year for this year's best-of-five series that went five games, with the Phoenix Mercury defeating the Indiana Fever. This makes sense considering the three-game Finals sweep in 2008. Still, that ratings jump still means something, no matter the reasons.
The Finals had the advantage of having the league's regular-season MVP, Diana Taurasi, involved. And the fact that the city of Indianapolis got strongly behind the Fever made a big difference in how the Finals were perceived, too.
"It's awesome to have so many people supporting us," Indiana's Tamika Catchings said. "I know some people might say, 'Well, they weren't out here all season. Where did they come from?'
"But it doesn't matter when they come, as long as they come."
As for the larger picture in 2009, there were several noteworthy stories that contributed to why it was such an interesting season. Atlanta, which endured an almost Tampa Bay Buccaneers-like debut season in 2008 (I said "almost" -- the Dream did win four games), came back in a big way in 2009.
The Dream went 18-16 and made the playoffs. Atlanta's chances in the postseason against Detroit would have been better if the Dream hadn't lost rookie Shalee Lehning to a shoulder injury in the regular-season finale and if Chamique Holdsclaw (knee) had been fully healthy. Still, it was a big step forward for Atlanta, which can benefit from the relatively not-far-away Tennessee fan base in Knoxville.
It's awesome to have so many people supporting us. I know some people might say, 'Well, they weren't out here all season. Where did they come from?' But it doesn't matter when they come, as long as they come.” -- Indiana's Tamika Catchings
But speaking of injuries, they are always a big part of the story in all professional sports. Just as Atlanta's injuries affected its postseason hopes, Detroit had to deal with them, too. The Shock lost Plenette Pierson (shoulder) at the beginning of the regular season and Katie Smith (back) near the end.
Two other huge injuries in 2009 were the twin demons that plague basketball: the ACL and the ruptured Achilles tendon. The former took out Minnesota's Seimone Augustus for the season, and the latter did the same to Indiana's Yolanda Griffith (which ended her career, as this was her retirement season).
Griffith was brought in as an experienced veteran presence for the Fever, but Indiana was able to make it to the WNBA Finals for the first time even without her playing. Indiana wasn't totally "without" her, though; Griffith, who wants to be a coach, was around to disperse helpful advice for the team all season.
Augustus was to be the linchpin player on a young Lynx team looking to get back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. But even without her, Minnesota made a push right to the end of the regular season, finishing a game behind fourth-place San Antonio.
The Lynx have stacked up youthful talent; will coach Jennifer Gillom make it pay off next season with a healthy Augustus back?
Gillom, a former WNBA player, was one of the new head coaches in the WNBA this past season. So was Rick Mahorn in Detroit and Julie Plank in Washington. Anne Donovan and John Whisenant stepped back into head-coaching roles; Donovan replaced the fired Pat Coyle in New York, while Whisenant replaced Jenny Boucek with himself in Sacramento.
Whisenant said there was too much talent in Sacramento for the Monarchs not to make the playoffs, and that Boucek wasn't doing enough to get them there. But under Whisenant, they didn't move from last place in the West.
On the bright side for Sacramento, having the worst record in the league might earn the franchise its first No. 1 draft pick. In April, Connecticut's Tina Charles and Stanford's Jayne Appel are likely the top prospects, plus we'll see how Epiphanny Prince will be evaluated after leaving Rutgers a year early to play professionally overseas.
There are faces so familiar as to be ubiquitous in the WNBA that will be gone next season: Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie and San Antonio's Vickie Johnson. Both were with the league from the start and retired after this season.
Leslie isn't the only one leaving the Sparks Michael Cooper is, too; he has taken the women's basketball head-coaching job at Southern Cal. So now we wait to see who the next leader of the Sparks will be, while also wondering about the status of L.A. veteran forward Tina Thompson.
Like Leslie, Thompson is a native of Southern California who has played in the WNBA from its inception. After the Sparks' loss to Phoenix in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, we knew Leslie's career was over. But what about Thompson's?
She had not said anything all year about this potentially being her last season, but she has spoken in the past about being near retirement. In the visitors' locker room in Phoenix at the conclusion of the West finals, Thompson said that she would take some time to think about whether she wanted to continue in 2010. She added she would make that decision in time for the Sparks to plan accordingly.
I mentioned to her that if nothing else, it would be nice for her to have a kind of "farewell" season the way Leslie did so fans could say their goodbyes. Thompson is appreciative of the fan support, but said her decision likely would be based on how she felt physically.
"It's taken a toll on my body probably for the last four or five years," she said. "I'm going to do like I do every offseason and just see how I feel. See if I have another season in me.
"As for having a 'send-off' season, I don't think I'd be losing anything if I didn't have that. Because I think that fans show me their appreciation all the time. In every arena I've gone to, I've always gotten a welcoming reception. I think they appreciate what I've been able to do playing the game."
If Thompson does return, she'll join Candace Parker as L.A.'s top two players. Provided that happens, what does Thompson think of the Sparks' chances for 2010?
"It's not a story that you can tell right now; there's too much that can happen," Thompson said. "Losing Lisa is definitely a big change, and you can't replace her. Hopefully, someone can play that role; Candace, of course, will be a big focal point."
One thing that certainly will be different about the WNBA next season is the start and end times. Both will be earlier than in 2009 because of next year's World Championship in the Czech Republic from Sept. 23-Oct. 3.
So will the 2009 WNBA finalists have a chance to repeat their performances as conference champions next season? Provided there are no serious injuries, they should. Both teams expect to have their nuclei back.
The biggest question might be with Phoenix's Penny Taylor regarding her commitment to the Australian national team and how that would impact her being with the Mercury. But she said after Phoenix won Game 5 of the WNBA Finals that she really hoped to be back with the Mercury for 2010.
Will the new fans who came on board at various stages of the 2009 season return next year? That's part of the hope that all the players share: that the positives of each season build on each other for the following season.
"Playing professional basketball in America is a privilege," Thompson said. "And we want to show that by going out and working hard every single game we play. I, personally, want people to look at me and know that I have a high level of respect for the game.
"All people don't have what we do: to be able to work at jobs that we actually love and that come almost naturally to us. So when you do that, it's a big blessing. And we don't take it for granted."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
MORE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Whitaker begins new role as Texas Tech coach
- Diggins gets Mercedes from Jay-Z's company
- WNBA GMs predict that Mercury will win title
- Sparks complete staff with Pettis, two others