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.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The best of the best

By Kate Burkholder

After getting home late last night from the Garden and waking up early today to go to my other job, I just had the energy to blog about the All-Star game now. One of the most interesting things I noticed, though, in addition to also seeing this in Boston at USA Basketball practice, is the wide variation in age that you see competing. I guess it's like that in every league but for some reason it stands out to me here and that's why I keep writing about it. I also was extremely impressed with the environment last night, both from the outpouring of fan support and the way the players interacted with each other and seemed to just be having a good time on the floor. It was nice to see a competitive basketball game that was also just enjoyable to watch. I think the fans of the WNBA -- while they may still be trying to get more people interested -- seem so dedicated to this sport and it shows. I know fans of baseball or men's basketball who don't care to watch those all-star games, but the atmosphere last night was just a lot of people truly passionate about this thing and happy to be there to help the league grow and flourish for another ten years and more. And where else can you see Lisa Leslie doing the cha-cha-slide, really? That alone made my 2 1/2 hour train ride worth it.

NEW YORK -- Just three months separated the NCAA women’s Final Four this past April from the WNBA All-Star game Wednesday night -- both of which were stops for standout guard Seimone Augustus.

But in that short time, the LSU product and reigning Player of the Year’s emotions have run the gamut as she went from star of the collegiate show to rookie all over again.

“Before we came out here tonight, I was so nervous,” Augustus said after her Western Conference squad fell 98-82 to the East at Madison Square Garden. “But after things got going I calmed down and it was fun, to get to be out on the floor with some of the best players. I’ve never been to anything like this so it was just a great atmosphere.”

That atmosphere and not the score -- although there was a refreshing competitiveness to the game -- is likely what Augustus and the others will remember, because it cast this women’s professional basketball league in a positive and exciting light moving forward from the ten-year mark.

“Any time you get to interact with the fans, it’s always great,” Augustus said. “They show us a lot of love, went out to the Summer Jam, were there at the autograph session, and that always makes me feel good that people are really interested and buying into women’s basketball.”

Augustus’ 16 points led the West and tied her with MVP Katie Douglas for the game high.

The other three rookies combined for 14 among them, and it was undoubtedly a similar kind of experience for Augustus’ first-year counterparts Sophia Young, Cappie Pondexter, and Candice Dupree.

“It was great, being able to bond with all the great players in this league,” Pondexter said. “It was definitely a fun experience to be a part of, but of course you always have that competitive side, too.”

Dupree -- the 2006 Temple grad and the lone representative of the Eastern Conference’s expansion Chicago Sky -- learned of her all-star selection at the last minute when she was picked as a replacement, resulting in some chaos that ultimately turned out OK.

“It was a shock because it was so last minute,” Dupree (8 points) said of her selection. “I only got up here [Tuesday morning] and my bags got lost, my flight was delayed and everything else, but it was worth it. I had a lot of fun and we got a win out of it.”

Like Augustus, Dupree’s favorite moments seemed to be those that transpired off the court.

“There was a lot of goofing around,” she said. “We did some photo shoots and commercial shoots, and just a lot of laughing at each other.”

Before the game started, hometown favorite and New York Liberty point guard Becky Hammon addressed the Big Apple crowd of 12,998, welcoming them to the world’s most famous arena and inciting them to enjoy the evening.

Hammon suffered an ankle sprain in last Sunday’s game against the visiting Phoenix Mercury and had to sit out the contest after being voted a starter.

The teams battled each other evenly at the start, but all it took was a 28-16 third-quarter run by the East to lock up its first-ever all-star victory, slowly pulling away from that point on.

The night also featured a little razzle-dazzle in addition to the seriousness, as center Margo Dydek of the East came up with four huge blocks – two of which came at the expense of the 5-foot-9 inch Pondexter, while the final seconds of the game saw players taking turns attempting fancy dunks.

Western Conference point guard Dawn Staley of the Houston Comets dished her share of behind-the-back passes and gave the crowd a chance to “ooh” and “aah,” in addition to the hot three-point shooting of Douglas and the entertainment of seeing the players joke with each other between plays.

Staley – who also coaches the Temple Owls during the college season – will retire after this year, but knows that she is leaving the league in worthy hands.

“I’m just thrilled at the opportunity [the WNBA] gives women,” Staley said after the game. “I look at Cappie Pondexter, who has ‘Future WNBA’ tattooed on her arm, and ten years ago she was just dreaming, dreaming… I think this really shows women’s basketball, the WNBA, providing opportunities for women and having them realize their dreams. It’s a beautiful thing to see unfold.”

And Pondexter is just as quick to use an experience like her first All-Star game (of which will certainly be many) to appreciate the veterans who she got to play with but also who have paved the way for her.

“Those players mean so much, they’re the pioneers of women’s basketball,” Pondexter said of the Rebecca Lobos, Lisa Leslies, and Dawn Staleys that preceded her. “They got us the attention we have now and they’re the faces you’ve been seeing the last 10 or however many years. They got a lot of exposure for us and we watched them when we were growing up.”

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