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, June 23, 2011

Guru's WNBA Musings: Memories of Opening Weekend And Year One

By Mel Greenberg

Since the Guru left The Inquirer a little more than a year ago many of his colleagues and associates have deplored him to write some kind of book considering his longtime experiences on the women's basketball beat.

In fact at the moment, believe it or not, he has been aiding one Valerie Walker, one of Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer's first superstars when Stringer coached Cheyney and guided the Wolves to the first NCAA Women's Final Four in 1982.

Walker is working on an academic study at Drexel producing a video presentation on how the media has impacted the growth of women's basketball through the last several decades. And so the interviewer has become the interviewee.

Anyhow, whether to do a book or not is a thought to put aside for now.

But since everyone is weighing in on the WNBA's 15th birthday, highlighted by the anniversary game between Los Angeles and New York in California on Tuesday, the Guru thought that since Wednesday was a quiet night on the league schedule, he would give you what could be a book chapter of recollections of his experiences that weekend.

The basketball itself has been well covered but this is one look at what the weekend was behind the scenes in the Guru's world.

The paper was formally sending one of the other writers to officially cover the game at the Great Western Forum in Englwood near the L.A. Airport, which the Guru had no problem with considering who was being sent and the Guru was going to be there in any event.

But early that week he received a phone call from Steve Lopez, who had been one of the paper's top columnists in the newsroom but had moved on to Time Inc., writing for Time, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly. He is now a columnist at the Los Angeles Times and has written several well-received books.

Anyhow, Lopez had recently done a piece for Sports Illustrated on the American Basketball League, focusing on the champion Columbus Quest, and had solicited the Guru for background information. Understand as a backdrop, this was when an organization such as Time had money to burn and burned it well.

But on that call to the Guru Lopez had related that his Sports Illustrated editors wanted him to go West to cover three games that weekend to get a flavor of the WNBA's launch. He said he told them, "I don't know that stuff."

They immediately responded, "Well, call that guy Greenberg and take him with you."

And so he related the schedule -- he was still living in Philadelphia -- Fly out Thursday -- as it turned out we were going to be at the same hotel in Marina Del Rey as the New York Liberty.

On Friday we had invitations to the opening party in Niketown in West L.A. and then we would do the game Saturday afternoon. Then we would quickly rush to the airport, fly to Utah where the Starzz later that night in Salt Lake City were going to play the Sacramento Monarchs, and then hop a flight to Phoenix, which on Sunday was going to play the Charlotte Sting, then coached by the Atlanta Dream's Marynell Meadors, incidentally.

Although Lopez was leaving messages at all three cities for credentials, he asked the Guru to also leave requests as a backup.

You should know that back then for all the prowess of the mighty NBA marketing machine, in many of the cities, dealing with team PR people, many of whom were spinoffs from the NBA parent teams, was an adventure. You would leave a message, never get a call back and then arrived at the willcall window not knowing whether or not a credential was there to pick up.

In fact, the PR person for Los Angeles, who actually was aware of the Guru, had been communicating prior to the opening but she got fired the night before the game.

That is the shortest known job stint in WNBA history, though the Guru's good friend Jason Southard at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, is a close runnerup. When the Connecticut Sun was transformed from the Orlando Miracle, Southard became the PR person but then had second thoughts and returned to his previous job, although he has been one of the game day aides over the years at Mohegan in Bill Tavares' well-oiled operation.

Anyhow, we arrived in L.A., immediately ran into former Rutgers star Sue Wicks in the lobby -- she was one of the Liberty's first stars -- as well as then-general manager Carol Blazejowski and then-coach Nancy Darsch, who is now an assistant with the Seattle Storm.

The Guru introduced Lopez so he could ask a few questions. By the way, the reason for the extended junket was to assess the scene in the different arenas beyond the glitz associated with the Los Angeles opener. The idea also was for the Guru to offer comparisons to what he had seen in the ABL cities.

That night Lopez knew some Spanish sports bar nearby where we went and ordered Mexican food while the Dodgers game aired on the TV in Spanish.

Friday we attended the party. Then Saturday we headed to the game. New York won, as is known, and then we darted to Lax to catch the flight to Utah. Lopez had set the trip so we could eliminate having to be in three different cities in three nights, the reason for the quick stop in Utah.

There was a flight delay, however, but we landed when it was almost halftime. A limousine awaited us, whisked us to the arena, and we took in about 15 minutes. One of the Starzz players was former St. Joseph's Hawk Megan Compain, a native of New Zealand.

Upon entering the arena the Guru was immediately recognized by Megan's boyfriend, who wondered what the Guru was doing there, to which the Guru responded, "I've done the WNBA jet set."

Anyhow after taking in about 15 minutes of action, we shot out to the limousine and headed back to the airport for the short flight to Phoenix, where it was about 150 degrees.

After landing, we had to wait forever in the desert heat for the shuttle to take us to the car rental -- a situation that made the Guru comment, "You know, Steve, we might become the first two people to die of moonburn."

But we eventually got there and since a Ruth Crist Steakhouse was on the premises, we dined well.

The next day we headed to the game and The Inquirer said it would take a story from the Guru on the Mercury vs. the Sting because one Nancy Lieberman, who had been retired and in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, unretired and was on the Phoenix roster. Also, one Cheryl Miller was the Phoenix coach.

We headed to the game, not knowing if we had credentials. Lopez in ensuing years would tell the tale upon talking to the security guard when we drove to the arena parking area:

"Steve Lopez?" he said.

"Not on the list," the guard responded.

"Sports Illustrated?" Lopez next offered.

"Nope!" was the response.

At which point the Guru leaned across from the passenger side to try his name.

"Oh yeah. Right here. Drive right in fellas."

The game had one memorable moment for the Guru. One of Charlotte's players was Tora Suber, a former Virginia star from Downingtown High in suburban Philadelphia. Phoenix had already moved well in control but near the end, Lieberman, who had broadcast some of Suber's collegiate games and had compared her to former Cavaliers star Dawn Staley, caught Suber with some vicious elbows away from the ball.

You Old Dominion fans from way back know what move the Guru is referring to from Lieberman's collegiate days.

Afterwards, Suber said to the Guru, `She said she was making a statement. I don't know what I ever did to her.'"

Anyhow, the Guru filed his story but since Lopez had to be somewhere else the next day we went our separate ways in the morning.

There was another story involving Suber. Later in the season Cleveland, which had former Penn State star Tina Nicholson, who also played at Downingtown, was going to be at Charlotte. Since flights were cheap to North Carolina on the weekends back then, the sports editor thought it would be neat to do the Saturday afternoon game since the two were likely to play against each other.

But when the Guru arrived it turned out that one of them had been slightly injured in practice and the other hardly got into the game so the only time Suber and Nicholson actually interacted with each other was when they shook hands after the game was over.

Oh well, The Carolina barbecue was tasty.

In the early years the Guru, obviously, covered the Liberty a lot in Madison Square Garden and the game would lead the WNBA roundup. Yeah, those things existed before papers began downsizing. Anyhow, the Guru always included what he coined the obligatory celebrity paragraphs.

In the early days the Garden was quite full and usually right across press row, since it was New York, the stands had TV, Broadway and move stars who regularly attended the game as well as an array of sports celebrities.

In fact at one game, Denzel Washington was in the process of making a movie about a New York high school basketball team, so at half the producers took advantage of the Garden crowd and filmed a celebration scene as if the team had just won a local title.

Well, the Guru has entertained you enough. Thursday night he will make his debut at the summer league but will file separate posts on the roundup as well as the two games on the WNBA slate.

He will return here at the next sunrise.

-- Mel

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