WNBA Begins a Milestone Season
BY ROB KNOX
The WNBA has endured plenty of challenges, trials and tribulations during its existence.
Still, the league has thrived.
Some thought the WNBA would be a humorous memory by now.
Instead, the joke is on those bleacher critics as the league has conquered adversity by delivering the perfect blend of triumph, pulse-pounding drama, memorable moments, and transcendent talent with pleasant personalities along with fan-friendly franchises throughout its first 19 seasons.
The biggest victory for the WNBA is it has given women an enduring opportunity to play pro hoops in the United States that didn’t exist in 1996 when Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes famously declared “We Got Next.”
For a few years, they actually had two with the short-lived American Basketball League playing in the winter until it collapsed under bankruptcy a month into its third season.
But that allowed the influx of superior talent to enter the same tent and allow the WNBA court competition to accelerate.
Additionally, the league, at the time, gave hope to little girls dreaming of the same chance to make that a reality and become the next Dawn Staley, Teresa Edwards, Chamique Holdsclaw, Ruth Riley and Katie Smith.
Fans have been able to witness the WNBA game grow bigger, faster and stronger. The quality of play is at a supremely all-time elite level with every player now having grown up from little girls who were able to view the league in their formative years.
As the WNBA embarks on its landmark 20th season with five games on Saturday, including New York-Washington at the Verizon Center beginning at 7 p.m., the league’s new branding campaign is “Watch Me Work.” This will be a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals won by the Liberty in three tight games.
The WNBA will deservedly celebrate its arduous journey and look toward a super-bright future.
Among some of the television highlights this year include on Saturday, June 7, ESPN debuting a three-person booth with Ryan Ruocco, Rebecca Lobo and Carolyn Peck teaming with reporter Holly Rowe as the New York Liberty visit the Los Angeles Sparks – a rematch of the historic first game in WNBA history.
Lobo played in that inaugural game as a member of the Liberty.
Throughout the season, ESPN will look back at great moments in WNBA history, including year-by-year flashbacks.
The history lessons will be great as well as the vintage footage of Leslie dunking, Cynthia Cooper dominating the league’s early years while leading the Houston Comets to four consecutive titles and Teresa Weatherspoon’s incredible halfcourt shot to win a game in the inaugural WNBA Finals and extend the series in Houston to a decisive third game won by the Comets.
While they are showing flashbacks, make sure to include footage from the movie “Love And Basketball” that featured members of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Or show clips from the time that Leslie, Staley and Ruthie Bolton schooled Martin Lawrence and his crew on the iconic sitcom “Martin.”
There’s also plenty to be excited about this upcoming season such as the return of Skylar Diggins from a major knee injury and Diana Taurasi after sitting out last season.
Furthermore comes the professional debut of Breanna Stewart, the consistent brilliance of Candace Parker playing with an extra chip on her shoulder after not being selected for the USA National Team and 10-time All-Star Tamika Catchings, a monument of excellence, playing her final season after an awesome career with the Indiana Fever.
And yes, Maya Moore is back and ready to lead the Minnesota Lynx to a fourth title in six years.
The Lynx has a chance in 2016 to become the second four-time champion in WNBA history.
Reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, the former Delaware superstar all-American, is ready to raise her game to another level this season with the Chicago Sky as she preps for her first Olympic experience in Rio.
The league has been a success despite what attendance numbers, television ratings and other metrics say.
While those figures help gain revenue and sponsorships, the WNBA can’t be measured on those things alone.
More talent has made competition for roster spots fierce. The WNBA started with eight teams, expanded to 16 before shrinking to its current 12-team format for now.
The league is poised for more success under first-year president Lisa Borders, who brings more than 25 years of experience in operations, marketing, government relations and public service.
She has immediately energized the WNBA with her passion and enthusiasm. Borders has already placed her mark of excellence on the league.
The WNBA is in great shape and 2016 promises to be fun especially with some of significant changes set to take place this year.
A more balanced regular-season schedule means more cross-conference matchups than ever before.
Rather than seeding each conference one through four, the top eight teams regardless of conference will qualify for the postseason with the conference winners gaining the top two seeds.
From there, those top two overall seeds will receive a double bye while the first two rounds of the playoffs feature single-elimination games. Additionally, the teams will be re-seeded each round.
The league unveiled new uniforms during the offseason, and all 12 teams will feature a special “WNBA 20th” commemorative logo on the back neckline of their jerseys. Most noticeable will be the colored home uniforms that have replaced the home whites league-wide.
There's new leadership at the helm in Connecticut with former Los Angeles assistant Curt Miller, who also coached at Indiana and several other collegiate stops, having replaced Hall of Famer Anne Donovan.
Remarkably, that is sole coaching change in the offseason.
However, In San Antonio, longtime veteran Dan Hughes said this will be his final season and former Notre Dame and WNBA star Ruth Riley has been announced as the general manager in waiting and then both will determine Hughes' replacement on the sideline.
The Silver Stars now have an in-state rival with the move of Tulsa, originally the three-time champion Detroit Shock, to Dallas, where they will be known as the Wings.
So sit back, relax and appreciate the special qualities of the WNBA.
While there’s plenty that’s new, Washington will remain largely the same team they were when they walked off the Madison Square Garden court after their playoff loss.
They may be the same in name only, but early indications from our nations’ capitol are that many of the Mystics are enjoying strong training camps.
When Washington lost the battle in the final moments of that third game with New York, veteran coach Mike Thibault said he was hoping the team was hurting and would channel the loss into a desire to excel further this season.
Second-year guard and Broomall native Natasha Cloud will run the team until Ivory Latta returns.
The former North Carolina point guard will be out the first few weeks of the season with a knee injury. Cloud has been solid in two preseason games averaging six points and 2.5 assists.
Cloud’s backcourt mate, Tayler Hill, a fourth-year guard from Ohio State, had 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting against the Lynx in a return to her hometown this past Sunday.
Third-year guard Bria Hartley is ready to return to ankle-breaking form after a frustrating second season in which injuries limited her to 25 games and 12.3 minutes per contest.
The strength of the Mystics will be their All-Star towers of power in Stefanie Dolson and Emma Meesseman, who averaged 11.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and, 1.4 blocks per game, while ranking behind only Brittney Griner in field goal percentage (56%).
Latoya Sanders was solid last season and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is poised to continue getting better for the Mystics, who will also benefit from the return of Tiana Hawkins.
First-round pick and Philly native Kahleah Copper out of Rutgers has displayed plenty of promise so far. She scored 17 points in 16 minutes off the bench in the Mystics 85-68 win over the Lynx.
Not on the roster for now is veteran Kara Lawson, who is turning her attention to increased opportunities in television and Thibault said over the winter it is likely Lawson will officially announce her retirement sometime this summer.
Washington has an opportunity for a fast start as it plays its first three games at home. Dallas (Wednesday) and Los Angeles (Friday) visit the Verizon Center.
As usual, it’s time to make a few predictions for the upcoming season.
Here’s my playoff teams in order of finish: Phoenix, Chicago, Minnesota, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Indiana and Dallas.
MVP: Candace Parker, Sparks