Commentary

As usual, Val Ackerman leads the way

Former WNBA president among six Women's Basketball Hall of Fame 2011 inductees

Originally Published: June 6, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

When Val Ackerman walks into the ceremonies honoring her this weekend as one of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame inductees, she'll be escorted by her two children. And her third "child" is a big part of why she'll be there.

[+] EnlargeStern/Ackerman
Randy Belice/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe ever-deferential Val Ackerman, president of the WNBA for eight years, calls David Stern "one of the most important figures in the history of women's sports."

Ackerman was the first WNBA president and a crucial figure in the development of the league. She "raised" the WNBA until it was an 8-year-old … and then came to the difficult but rewarding decision that two little girls, ages 11 and 9, had to take precedence.

Emily is now 18 and a freshman at Yale. Sally is 16 and just completed her sophomore year in high school. When Ackerman stepped away from the WNBA after the 2004 season, she stressed that it was completely her choice after a high-wire act that she and husband Charlie Rappaport had been doing for a decade, managing two busy careers in New York and bringing up two daughters.

Yet even when making such an understandable move, Ackerman stressed that it was not meant in any way as some indictment on working motherhood. It was just that presiding over a professional sports league consumed so much energy and time away from home, she had reached a point where something had to give.

Ackerman will enter the WBHOF in Knoxville along with two former players, Vicky Bullett and Ruthie Bolton, who got the chance to play in the WNBA, and two others, Pearl Moore and Lometa Odom, who did not. Moore's college career was in the 1970s at Francis Marion, where she played for current North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell. Odom played for the Wayland Baptist College (now University) Flying Queens in the 1950s.

The other member of this induction class also competed too early for the WNBA, but has been impacted by the league as a coach. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw has sent the likes of Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey to the WNBA.

When you ask Ackerman if the WNBA is where she thought it might be in its 15th season, she gives you the honest answer that there was no specific plan for what the league would look like circa 2011.

"We weren't really thinking that far ahead, except in the most general of ways," she said this week. "We wanted to still be around in 15 years. It was more about wanting to be in business than achieving certain metrics. That was the overarching goal.

"So many leagues that had preceded us had gone under, and in most cases, really quickly. We saw in longevity a barometer of success. In addition, we had the NBA's numbers to look back on, and they were really modest for upwards of 25-30 years."

In fact, in 1977, when Ackerman started her college playing career at Virginia, the NBA was still in a bleak period. But the league found a needed spark with the help of legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and the leadership of eventual commissioner David Stern. And by the mid-1990s, the NBA was ready to sponsor the WNBA.

Ackerman, an attorney who went to work for the NBA in 1988, was instrumental in helping shepherd in the existence of the WNBA. But she really does not take any credit for that; rather, she praises Stern.

"He made it happen," Ackerman said. "He's one of the most important figures in the history of women's sports, and I don't think he ever gets enough recognition for that."

I appreciate that sentiment, and I hope Stern is also honored one day in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. But I've always thought that Ackerman was a pivotal figure -- the right person at the right time -- in women's sports history, too.

[+] EnlargeRuthie Bolton
Getty ImagesRuthie Bolton is a two-time Olympic gold medalist who scored more than 2,000 career points.

She would never say that. I seriously doubt she has even thought about it. Ackerman is your standard high-achieving over-scheduler; someone who probably needs two Blackberries just to keep up with all her activities.

She's now co-teaching a graduate course in sports management at Columbia University, along with former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson. She's a consultant with the NHL in regard to how that league can support the continued growth of women's ice hockey. She writes articles on a variety of subjects. She serves on nine boards, for the likes of USA Basketball, FIBA, the Knight Commission, the Naismith Hall of Fame, the NCAA and her alma mater, Virginia.

There's really not any topic currently facing college or pro sports that Ackerman isn't somehow involved with.

She has to come up with a Hall of Fame speech, which is contrary to her constant push to be looking forward to everything she still has on her plate, rather than back at what she has already done.

"For sure, there have been some moments of reflection," Ackerman said. "There are a lot of people I plan to thank. To put it mildly, I'm very grateful for the recognition. I didn't expect it."

The reflection really is just momentary, though, relatively speaking. Ackerman's mind moves expediently, weaving around subjects with the dexterity of a professional driver on a do-not-try-this-yourself course.

"I'd like to think there's much more I can do," Ackerman said. "I remain very interested in working in women's sports. The NHL project fits in with that.

"With international basketball, we want to move it further along. The World Championships is an event that many of us think is underachieving, but to improve it will require some amount of compromising from a lot of organizations. And more can be done at the girls' grassroots level; I don't think as many folks are paying attention to that right now."

[+] EnlargeMuffet McGraw
US PresswireCoach Muffet McGraw led Notre Dame to the 2001 NCAA title and the 2011 national championship game.

Helping the process of aligning all the rules/dimensions and overall policies of women's basketball at the various elite levels -- college, international, overseas professional, WNBA -- is on Ackerman's agenda. She is the United States' representative for both the men's and women's games to basketball's world governing body, FIBA. She recently was re-elected to that post and is serving another term that runs through 2014.

The academic and athletic missions at Virginia -- the school has had improved sports success of late, including an NCAA title in men's lacrosse -- are among Ackerman's somewhat "micro" focuses, as she has maintained strong ties to the school where she once was a student-athlete.

Her women's basketball coach, Debbie Ryan, stepped down in the spring and was replaced by Joanne Boyle. Ackerman was back in Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend for her 30th class reunion, which for her, again, was more a time to think about the future than the past.

"I did not know Joanne before, but I have crossed paths with her recently," Ackerman said. "She knows she has big shoes to fill with Debbie leaving. Her background matches up; she's always worked at schools where academics have been rigorous. Virginia seems to have very high hopes; there were some glory years in the 1990s, and they'd like to see that happen again. The athletic department is committed to winning, and doing it in the right way."

That -- winning the so-called "right" way -- is as compelling a topic as there is right now in college sports. Bad news has dominated the headlines: Ohio State's football scandal, Southern California's surrender of the 2004 BCS championship, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton stepping down after a series of major problems.

Ackerman points out that the Knight Commission, a body focusing on reform in college athletics, works only in an advisory capacity. That's one thing I've always admired about Ackerman: She never presents herself as already having all the answers, but rather as someone trying to work with others in figuring things out.

She is often in "gathering-information-and-processing" mode, which is really not the way a lot of people who are or have been in positions of authority present themselves. They can seem aloof and all-knowing, as if they no longer really need to listen. Ackerman always has her ears and her mind open, knowing that there are rarely simple and entirely pain-free solutions to anything.

The WNBA stewardship passed from Ackerman to Donna Orender and now is with Laurel J. Richie, the new league president. As the WNBA continues to establish itself, there are elements of Richie's task that are similar, still, to what Ackerman faced. But Richie has 14 seasons of history -- with its positives, negatives and lessons learned -- to work with and build upon.

Ackerman had a concept that hadn't worked for any sustained period previously in the United States. She had, briefly, a rival league in the ABL that diluted the WNBA talent level for the first two seasons. She had to be both a cheerleading optimist and a bottom-line realist with her third "child," the WNBA. She was an insider who had to have the heart of a revolutionary.

In my view, she deserves a resounding "well done" for what she has contributed already to women's athletics. But since she's not anywhere near done, maybe she'd actually prefer this kind of evaluation before she enters the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame: "So far, so good. Keep going."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

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