A most Val-uable president

Originally Published: October 22, 2004
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Back in August 1996, Val Ackerman got the job of WNBA president. This meant, of course, that there was actually going to be a WNBA, which I ran around in my head over and over. I was still not quite sure I believed it. After we'd waited so long for a pro women's basketball league, suddenly things seemed to be happening so fast.

Sue Bird
Val Ackerman saw the league through expansion, contraction, the introduction of free agency -- and the infusion of enormous talent.
I'd first seen Ackerman a few months earlier at the 1996 Final Four in Charlotte, talking about the league's strong possibility of launching. Also giving a presentation that year at the Final Four was the group of investors who founded the ABL.

After sitting through both of these, it was clear to anyone not blinded by the ABL's unrealistic idealism that the WNBA was the only legitimate shot that women's pro hoops had.

The WNBA had the NBA's clout, cash and corporate sponsorships. It accepted that the league had to play in the summer. It was prepared to sell something even when it couldn't be sure how many buyers were out there.

The final step was the Summer Olympics magic that happened for the U.S. women's hoops team in Atlanta. I slipped away from my job in Virginia for a few days in July to watch the team as a spectator. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. The 30,000-plus at the Georgia Dome for the U.S. games, topped by the gold medal, made for the last clicks of the combination that unlocked the door to the WNBA.

So then it was August, and I called Virginia alum Ackerman to write a column about her starting this new venture. One of the things I most remember is that she sounded pretty exhausted. She talked about her two little girls, and balancing taking care of them with hundreds of details she'd have to nail down before the league would launch that following summer.

Now, we'll fast-forward to this Thursday. Just a week after the WNBA wrapped up its eighth season with a sold-out finals won by Seattle -- an expansion team -- Ackerman was talking about her daughters again. This time, though, she was saying it was time for someone else to take care of the WNBA.

Ackerman announced officially she was stepping away from her job as league president to spend more time with her family. She struggled with her emotions at the beginning of a teleconference call. She acknowledged the WNBA was like "a third child" to her, but one that she needed to leave in other hands.

Anyone, parent or not, can empathize with the difficult choices working parents have to make. Ackerman has made hers, and I applaud her for it. She has more than gotten this basketball "child" off to a good start in life and deserves tremendous credit for that.

Ackerman has taken her share of heat from some fans. The ABL diehards, living in their financial fantasy world, didn't like her because they didn't like the WNBA. I think most of that useless sentiment, finally, has gone away.

Val Ackerman
Under Ackerman's leadership, the 'WNBA has grown from concept to a successful and thriving enterprise,' David Stern said.
Other women's basketball fans would say things like Ackerman was "just a figurehead" and that everything was decided by NBA commissioner David Stern.

Well, of course Stern had the final say on things. Does anybody have a boss who doesn't have the final say? Such criticism was silly and it ignored just how important it was that someone of Ackerman's intelligence, background, dedication and commitment was there on the inside of the NBA at the time she was. It was amazing good luck for women's basketball.

Certainly, the WNBA could never have happened without Stern's backing and commitment. But I don't see how it could have happened without Ackerman, either.

Ackerman says when she was hired by the NBA in 1988, she had no vision of the WNBA truly existing anytime soon, let alone it being what it is today, just 16 years later. Yet the important thing was, she cared enough about the women's game that she was open to its possibilities as they came along.

She was on USA Basketball's board of directors and helped spearhead the move to fund the national team that traveled globally in preparation for the 1996 Summer Games. That decision was a crucial step on the way to the WNBA.

Having played college basketball herself, Ackerman had an understanding and a real love of her sport. And so she has been the right mix of savvy businesswoman and true believer. She established herself in the NBA, so that she was listened to when it came time to seriously consider the possibility of expanding operations to a women's pro league.

You can't make everything happen instantly, no matter how much you want it to. Ackerman had to bide her time, accept certain compromises -- knowing that in the long run, the benefits of patience would pay off.

One thing no one really teaches you in college is how much people's passion for their jobs affects their performance. You learn that once you're in the work force. If you really care about something, you rarely even notice the extra hours and work you put in when it's needed. You just do it; protecting, defending, promoting and nurturing that work becomes instinctual.

But that does take a lot out of a person. And when that work is something in the sports field, which typically involves a lot of travel and night/weekend time commitments ... well, it makes parenting all the more taxing.

Ackerman said Thursday that she, her daughters and her husband, Charlie Rappaport, have been a "high-wire act" for almost a decade. Now, she's "grounding" herself for a while.

She stressed she in no way wanted her move to be seen as some kind of "indictment" of working motherhood. She has just been balancing this particular job with her kids for long enough.

Ackerman will leave a pretty good ship for her successor to pilot. The WNBA operations certainly aren't flawless, but overall a lot has been done right. The new president won't be tending to a "baby" WNBA the way Ackerman did, but the league still has some childhood and its entire adolescence to face. There will be different challenges.

Selling the WNBA is still such a big part of the job, and a dynamic presence in the president's role would be very beneficial to the WNBA -- provided that person also excels at all the nuts-and-bolts work. I'll say right now it doesn't matter if that person is female or male -- so long as it's someone who truly enjoys and loves women's basketball. Not just "basketball" or just "sports." Women's basketball, specifically.

Because the WNBA isn't just another business, another "thing" to sell. Sure, it's necessary to run it with a firm eye on the bottom line ... but also with a fully committed heart. Ackerman knew that all along. Whoever takes her place better never forget it, either.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.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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