Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Happy 10th Birthday, WNBA

By Kate Burkholder

When I think of the WNBA, I first think of the point in my childhood when women’s basketball players began to appear in the pages of my Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine.

The pin-up posters and perforated trading cards that had previously featured the likenesses of Brett Favre and Mark McGwire began to show new names and new faces – ones like Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, and Rebecca Lobo, and new team names like the Liberty and Comets (“who?”).

I was nine, a playground basketball player at best, and I guess most importantly, a little girl with the new idea that women could play professional sports if they were good enough. At the risk of sounding cliché, the WNBA’s ten-year lifespan has probably served that purpose for a lot of little girls.

I know firsthand about Rutgers graduate Cappie Pondexter’s tattoo on her arm that she got in high school, the WNBA logo and “The Future” in script. But she’s just one example of a kid with a dream, and now, accomplished women like Cappie are a part of a place where little girls can look on, even approach their favorite stars wearing their jerseys and say “I want to be like you one day.”

I never attended a WNBA game until last weekend when I went to the New York Liberty game as a member of the media, but in this short time of researching its history and observing those who have been a part of it all along, I have realized a little of the league’s importance.

The new rules (and even a new team) added this season were intended to make the league more exciting. Things like the striped basketball are marks that it is its own entity, separate from the NBA though linked financially. I know the players today are more athletic and the games more exciting than they were ten years ago, and that’s what makes it special.

The majority of my own newspaper experience has come with the women’s game on the college level, and I think it’s a great thing that those players have somewhere to go after college, a place to shoot for, and another chance to play. And, unlike some other professional women’s leagues, this one’s still around.

The college game is so exciting these days, and with women’s coverage getting better and the women’s NCAA Tournament growing to include a lot of the hype and fanfare that the men’s does, the WNBA can only benefit from the talent that keeps on coming and will continue to improve.

The biggest college names are still the ones to watch out for when they graduate, follow through the draft process and onto the professional scene, and it gives the athletes’ college fans another place to follow them once they leave school. I know the Rutgers fans are tracking Cappie’s progress with the Mercury carefully, and will continue to do so.

The WNBA is vastly different than the college game in the style of play and obviously the level of talent. The players have supreme athleticism and quickness and physicality, they’ve all been groomed through their respective universities and are joined now on a new plane. And honestly, it’s more fun than I expected it to be and they are truly the best of the best, true professionals in the way they play, carry themselves, and even respond to the media.

So, the NBA may attract more revenue, its players may be more well-known and paid more money, but the fact that women’s professional basketball is shown on national networks like ABC and a part of sports blogs and newspaper pages is something.

It may still be looking for a bigger fan base, more people to buy apparel and watch the games on TV, but I’d say the WNBA has come a long way from where it started and when I first saw it in my Sports Illustrated for Kids.

It's a goal for a lot of young athletes and for those that don't quite make it to that level, another place to watch a developing sport.

And just the fact that my mom sent me a text message from home yesterday saying “Cappie is on TV!” shows some of the strides the league has taken since 1997. People will keep watching to see Dawn Staley's last go-around, Lindsay Whalen's return to the court, and Seimone Augustus' run at Rookie of the Year.

Then, who knows where this will be in ten more years.

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