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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Guru's Musings: The Player Impacting WBB Since 2007? See Her Sunday When the WNBA Finals Tip

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

Many times your Guru is approached with the question, “Who is the greatest women’s basketball player you ever saw?”

As the decades have rolled along in this sport in terms of your Guru’s presence, that has become an increasingly difficult question to answer and single out one individual because of the evolvement of play, athleticism, and other qualities.

Of course, when the question is asked, usually the talent component is what is being asked to consider.

In the early days of the modern era beginning in the 1970s, three stood out, especially under a standard applied by Guru pal Mike Flynn, head of the powerful Blue Star/Philadelphia Belles AAU program here in the area.

“What I look at,” said Flynn, who’s been around even before the arrival of your Guru in this sport, “is who is putting people in the seats.”

This was in the days before the sport jumped from tiny packed gyms for teams like Immaculata into the larger facilities courtesy to the Title IX landmark federal legislation passed in 1972.

The three were Montclair State’s Carol Blazejowski because of her terrific scoring prowess in a time before the three-point shot added to the statistical points accumulation; Old Dominion’s Nancy Lieberman, because of her style honed on the playgrounds of New York City; and Southern Cal’s Cheryl Miller, because of the showtime theatrics she brought to the arena.

After winning an NCAA  title one year, Miler sat on the rim in Pauley Pavilion, the home of arch-rival UCLA, with a bouquet of roses blowing kisses to the crowd.

Observing the antics, UCLA’s Judie Holland, one of the great women’s athletics administrators in history, remarked to yours truly, “Cheryl did the right thing picking them over us (to enroll) because Billie (Moore) would kill her.”

Later on in another era, Philly’s prolific point guard Dawn Staley, now Olympic coach for the next cycle and coach of South Carolina, the NCAA defending champs, caused Magic Johnson to remark during an interview at the WNBA’s 1997 inaugural opener between Los Angeles and New York in L.A., that she was the one player he’d pay to watch.

That remark, by the way, had its own side effect since Staley at the time was playing in the short-lived American Basketball League (ABL).

When all is said and done, it could be that former UConn great Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury might ultimately land the title best of all-time considering her statistical achievements and the fact that she certainly has had the intangible embodiments of Miller, Lieberman and Blazejowski throughout her storied career.

But even with all that said, as the WNBA finals get under way this weekend with a promising repeat explosive series between the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx, the Guru is willing to name the one player who has been the most impactful in the sport the past two decades, and perhaps all-time when adding the attention from the electronic media and internet coverage.

That would be one Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, who has been in the eye of the storm of some of the most controversial, also awe-inspiring, also dominating moments and stretches since the 2007.

Why?

Come join the Guru on a walk back through some of those aforementioned events.

2007

The number one story of that calendar year occurred in early summer when it was announced that the top annual national rivalry would be no more between Tennessee and Connecticut, which had been must-see viewing since the two first met in 1995 and many of the matchups involved number one rankings or NCAA championships.

Moore, the top high school prospect that year, who hailed from suburban Atlanta, had committed to UConn, and while no reason was initially given in public why the late legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt decided to nix the series, ultimately what seeped out was Summitt’s displeasure of perceived wrongful recruiting tactics by rival Geno Auriemma in the competition for Moore.

In its own way, though, growth in the women’s college game occurred because as Tennessee/UConn faded to the history subject to some future revival, other rivalries came on the scene as schools like Notre Dame, Duke and Maryland, among others joined Stanford as ongoing residences in the weekly national rankings.

2008-09 to 2009-10

Moore’s sophomore and junior seasons saw the Huskies become the first to to claim back-to-back unbeaten NCAA titles and they went on to break their own previous win-streak record with 90 straight until stopped early in the 2010-11 season at Stanford.

With the nation’s spotlight focused on UConn in that stretch Moore was at the center, though the actual center Tina Charles grabbed national players honors in 2010. Then Moore reclaimed the honors she won as a freshman and sophomore from at least one major organization handing out post season awards when she was a senior.

Of course, that national team win-streak mark has since been broken again, by UConn, riding to 111 straight until the overtime loss at the buzzer last April by Mississippi State in the national semifinals.

Moore’s collegiate career did not have a joyful conclusion, with Connecticut losing to arch old-Big East rival Notre Dame, 72-63, in the national semifinals.

Her freshman season ended up in defeat also, losing to Stanford in the semifinals 82-73 after having beaten the Cardinal in a Thanksgiving tourney in the Caribbean. But between the two meetings, the Huskies suffered two key injuries impacting them in the second Stanford meeting.

Overall, Moore set an NCAA men’s or women’s win record at 150-4. One of those setbacks was a two-point loss at Rutgers in 2011 late in the season.

The Coming of the WNBA Minnesota Lynx Empire

Several seasons before 2011, Minnesota was being touted as one of the latest endangered franchise species at a time shifts and dispersals were becoming part of the territory.

But in 2010 Cheryl Reeve became coach and while her first season ended with a 13-21 record, which we’ll deal with separately in the next item, it led to landing Moore as the overall No. 1 pick.

Unlike other No. 1 picks on teams with previous bad seasons, Moore didn’t have to be the immediate do-it-all to pick the franchise off the ground player. 

The Lynx  already had Lindsay Whalen through a trade with the Connecticut Sun, veteran Seimone Augustus,  the former overall No. 1 pick; and Rebekkah Brunson, who was surprisingly available to Reeve when the former Sacramento Monarchs were dispersed.

So weening her way in as a pro, Moore was able to quickly develop with less pressure and by the end of the season, she became rookie of the year and the Lynx had their first championship.

Now when Sunday’s action begins at the University of Minnesota, Moore and the Lynx are in their sixth final in seven years, which might have been 7-for-7 had the new format been in place backin 2014, which means they wouldn’t have had to play the super Phoenix team.

And while the Lynx have picked up three titles in the Moore era, a bounce here and there in last season’s final and a fourth trophhy could already be in possession.

Along the way, there have also been two USA Olympic Gold medals and a slew of in-season and post-season honors.

In fact, former president Obama gave creedence in his own way to our claim here in 2014, joking during the Lynx White House visit after the  2013 title, citing Moore's numerous trips to D.C. with her alma mater, the USA Olympians and Minnesota by saying, "Basically, there’s like a Maya Moore wing in the White House," Obama quipped. "When she comes, we’ve got all her stuff here. She’s got a toothbrush."

These days it’s easy to lose sight of Moore because of the large array of talent on both the Lynx (Sylvia Fowles came aboard in 2015) and league overall.

But when looks for common denominator and impact player at the center of all these events, that is the case for Maya Moore besides the obvious talent component.

Moore Could Have Been a Spark

When Minnesota and Los Angeles tip off Sunday in a repeat best-of-five finals from last year, but not for fate and Tina Thompson, then Moore could easily be playing for Los Angeles.

Here’s the deal.

Mark August 12, 2010 as the greatest event in Minnesota Lynx history, not counting the actual draft day of Moore, the deal to gain Whalen, or the acquisition of Fowles, and, obviously, the titles.

It had been a season of injury and narrow losses in Cheryl Reeve’s initial summer but the bottom of the West was awful and Los Angeles, with Lisa Leslie retired after 2009 and Candace Parker lost along the way with a season-ending shoulder injury, had an uncharacteristically poor record.

It was also the summer of the so-named Maya Moore draft (2011), just as a year ago was the Breanna Stewart draft, so the bottom of the standings drew as much focus as the top.

On August 12, Los Angeles came to Minnesota where a crowd of over 7,000 showed up despite the mediocrity of both teams.

Though several games were left, projection indicated this particular contest could be the matchup to send the winner ultimately to the playoffs and the loser into the Maya Moore lottery.

And so with about four seconds left in regulation Minnesota went in front and at that moment, Reeve, being the competitor she is, draft be damned, playoffs or bust baby.

But after a time out with a little over a second left, Tina Thompson, the former Houston Comets great procured the previous season when Parker was off due to pregnancy, launched a nearly mid-length of court missile and “clang!” into the hoop and the Sparks had a 78-77 victory.

“I stood there and thought, `What else could go wrong,’” Reeve recalled this past Sunday with a smile in Washington after the Lynx had swept the Mystics 3-0 to head back to the finals again.

But in truth, the seemingly disheartening loss started making things go right for Minnesota.

The win clinched the season series for the Sparks and on the final day both teams finished 13-21, with Los Angeles heading to the playoffs, but to get swept in the first round 3-0 by the ultimate champion Seattle Storm, whose coach Brian Agler is now running the Sparks.

Minnesota went into the lottery and though being second in the ping pong ball odds drawing behind the former Tulsa Shock, the Lynx won the No. 1 pick.

And the rest is, well, you know.

Speaking of Winning

While all this has been about Minnesota, if Los Angeles wins again, someone better start giving Agler serious consideration for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

 Consider two titles with the former Columbus Quest of the former American Basketball League, two with the Seattle Storm and now he would have two with Los Angeles along with a bunch of wins in general in the resume.

Another guy to consider is former Western Kentucky and Nebraska coach Paul Sanderford.

In an ironic twist, on Sanderford’s facebook page over the weekend, he noted he and his son were doing the baseball stadium thing.
But they happened to be at Nationals Stadium in Washington the same moment Minnesota and Washington were playing their WNBA playoff semifinal in the nearby renamed Capital One Arena.

The Future Is Bright For The WNBA Vanquished

Once the tears resulting from the realization of an end of a season dried Sunday in Washington following the Mystics' loss to Minnesota in the semifinals, there was talk of excitment for next year when hopefully the roster is back to better health.

Likewise for the Connecticut Sun, which Tuesday announced an extended contract for Coach/General Manager Curt Miller through 2021.

Other teams such as Dallas and Seattle, bounced in the first round, should gain through a fruitful overall WNBA draft in April besides the usual additions and subtractions from trades and free agency.

New York may have to add an offensive component to go with one of the league's tougher defensive units.

And Seattle and Atlanta have coaching vacancies to fill.

But for now, there's one more production left which could have has many as five exciting acts as last season's best-of-five finals.

It all begins Sunday.

And that’s it for now.