Special trio among seven original players left
NEW YORK -- Sheryl Swoopes has little trouble remembering the birthdate of the WNBA.
It coincides with the birth of her son, Jordan.
"I think about my son because he is as old as the league is,'' said Swoopes, one of seven original players still in the 10-year-old league. "And I remember how public my pregnancy was. That's definitely something that stands out in my mind.''
Swoopes won four consecutive championships with the Houston Comets. Along with Houston teammate Tina Thompson and Los Angeles star Lisa Leslie, both also original WNBA members, the three have combined for six WNBA championships, five MVP awards and three consecutive Olympic gold medals.
And the talented trio of All-Stars still induce shudders and praise from WNBA opponents.
"Three of the five top players in the world, probably,'' said New York Liberty guard Becky Hammon. "They've done so much for women's basketball. Sheryl and Lisa especially, on that '96 Olympic team, really catapulted women's basketball.
"They've held the torch for us for so long. They're unbelievable basketball players, unbelievable leaders with an unbelievable desire to win.''
Vickie Johnson and Wendy Palmer-Daniel of the San Antonio Silver Stars, Mwadi Mabika of the Los Angeles Sparks and Tamecka Dixon of the Comets round out the original seven.
From the first tipoff to the first dunk, Leslie has been integral to the history of the WNBA. She participated in the inaugural tip on June 21, 1997, in Los Angeles against Kym Hampton of the Liberty and recorded the first WNBA dunk in 2002 against the now-defunct Miami Sol.
Leslie plans to throw one down this season, having recovered from a groin injury that hampered her play last year. She went overseas for the first time during the offseason, sharpening her skills in Russia.
"It shows the evolution of the game and the improvement of overall skills,'' Leslie said of the dunk. "It's pretty cool to be the first. I'm looking forward to [another dunk] this year.''
Her other top memories include a blocked shot she pinned to the backboard against Utah, and a triple-double against Detroit. Her 29 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocks in September 2004 came a year after the Shock stopped the Sparks' effort to win a third consecutive WNBA title.
Leslie said one of her toughest opponents in the post has been Thompson. Leslie and Thompson played together at Morningside High School in Inglewood, Calif., and later at Southern California. They've had their battles when Thompson, a forward/center who can shoot from outside, posts up in the paint.
"One thing Tina and I learned early on is to be versatile, " Leslie said.
The 34-year-old Swoopes is coming off an MVP season, her third overall. She also came out as a lesbian last fall when she announced her endorsement of a vacation and travel company that caters to women. Swoopes averaged a league-high 18.6 points, 4.3 assists and 2.0 steals last season.
Seattle Storm coach Anne Donovan, who will guide the U.S national team at the 2008 Olympics, marvels at the work ethic and discipline of the trio. In the offseason, Swoopes played in Italy and Thompson played in South Korea before joining the U.S. team for exhibition games in Europe and Australia this spring.
"Sheryl, still at her age, to be able to pick passes off,'' Donovan said. "It's not so much her speed any more, it's just how smart she is as a player, her timing.''
Swoopes was bothered by a knee injury and hadn't practiced for a month when she joined the national team.
"She struggled through a couple of practices,'' Donovan said.
"But when the lights came on and we put our uniforms on for the first competitive game, Sheryl is leading the way and drilling it from the outside. She's a total gamer.''
Thompson had a baby early last summer, and returned to average 10.1 points in 15 games. She said her son, Dylan, keeps everything in perspective.
"Physically it hasn't changed my game, but I think from a mental standpoint it has,'' Thompson said. "There are so many things that were trivial at one time, which I don't really spend too much time worrying about now, like a certain play or the play before that.''
Leslie is thinking ahead to the league's 20th anniversary. She'd like to see two changes -- more television exposure and increased salaries.
"Our league is going in the right direction in terms of fans and corporate sponsorship,'' Leslie said. "But salaries should go up with time and inflation. We're not trying to compare ourselves to the guys, but there needs to be a percentage that's reasonable in compensation.''
The NBA minimum salary is $398,000. The WNBA minimum is $31,800, and Leslie makes the maximum at $91,000. Last year, half the players in the four-month league -- now comprised of 14 teams with the addition of the expansion Chicago Sky -- made $42,000.
NBA commissioner David Stern expects more teams, a longer season and more games on TV when the WNBA celebrates its 20th season.
"I would say, 10 years from now, there would be somewhere between 20 and 24 teams,'' Stern said.
For now, Stern thinks the number of games on television is adequate. Last year, 35 of 221 games (16 percent) were shown on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, including the playoffs and All-Star Game.
"We're going to have as many as 36 games on ABC and ESPN2,'' Stern said. "That's a huge network presence. And the number of people tuning into those games will continue to grow.''
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press