Entering the Staples Center Sunday afternoon as I took my place along the baseline, camera in hand, it wasn’t clear what my gameday takeaway would be. I just knew, know that the WNBA is just as important in terms of visibility as having a wide variety of people of color and women on our TV and film screens and that I need other people to get that. It’s about representation.
Sitting underneath the Sparks’ basket, it hit me, sometime during the first quarter as I watched Carol Ross guide her team from in front of the Sparks’ bench and an equally pumped up and animated Sandy Brondello do the same from in front of the Mercury’s. I’m watching a professional women’s sports game between two teams head coached by two women.
By no means is this a first occurrence; of the 12 teams in the WNBA, six are now head coached by women – three in each conference – with the November 2013 appointment of Brondello marking the latest. In fact the same day it happened again when the Connecticut Sun, coached by Anne Donovan played the Lynx, coached by Cheryl Reeve in Minnesota. Add to that list, Lin Dunn with the Indiana Fever and Pokey Chatman with Chicago’s Sky and we have six head coaches who have proven themselves deserving of their powerful leadership roles in this league and who all happen to be women.
Brondello, who was on the other side of the scorer’s table next to Ross last season, joined former Phoenix head coach, Cheryl Miller in the franchise history books by winning her debut in the season opener. Sunday she added to that stat when the Mercury topped the Sparks, in what the first-year Phoenix head coach called a playoff-like game.
A playoff-like game is a great way to describe the re-match between Phoenix and Los Angeles. From the outset the game could have gone either way and at no point was there a clear indication of who would walk away with the W. There were 11 lead changes in the 3rd quarter alone with guards Alana Beard of the Sparks and Diana Taurasi and Dewanna Bonner of the Mercury engaged in a back-to-back 3-point shoot-out.
This wasn’t a situation where one team clearly outplayed the other. Both teams had bouts of sloppy ball handling; both had standout plays and players from each side made clutch shots and assists when it counted. This was simply an excellent game of basketball between two well-matched teams.
Taurasi admitted that luck played a part in the game, “Those last two minutes are always tricky, they can go either way,” she said. “We got a little luckier today.” Coach Brondello echoed her sentiments in a post-game interview. “That was like a playoff game really; just really high steam from both sides. We just got lucky, executed, made some baskets down the stretch,” she added.
This Sparks loss should by no means be seen as a tone-setting game for the season. Noticeably missing was Nneka Ogwumike, the 2012 Rookie of the Year, who leads Los Angeles in double-doubles and averages 14.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. In fact it could be seen as an indication of a great season ahead for the Sparks. Considering the team is still gelling and was not at 100% with two veterans on the bench, they still impressively held their own against a Phoenix squad that seems to have gelled just a little bit quicker.
On the noticeable chemistry of the team, Mercury forward Candice Dupree noted that despite having such little time in training camp, the team used every second and every opportunity to come together and learn each other. The team’s star center, Brittney Griner reiterated the way the squad maximized their preseason time, “[We’re] just taking every second, every day just trying to get better – don’t take any days off.” Griner added that the previous experience some of the players have with each other has helped them find their chemistry quicker and after “putting it all together as a unit, it’s paying off.”
The Sparks on the other hand, while retaining their starting five, have a brand new bench aside from second-year Fariyah Abdi, including one rookie. It’s safe to say once the Sparks are back at 100% and firing on all cylinders they will be a force to be reckoned with and a team to keep an eye on this season. With new ownership and changes in management, as minor owner and former Sparks legend, Lisa Leslie noted, the Sparks organization has everything in place to bring home a championship this year.
No doubt after six years in the league and every other professional honor bestowed upon her except a championship, Candace Parker, the first woman in league history to be Rookie of the Year and league MVP in the same year has a chip on her shoulder that won’t let her give up her shot at a ring quite so easy.
Meanwhile Griner is on a mission of her own. When I mentioned a noticeable difference in her confidence, poise and comfort level on the pro court this year she laughed, admitting it was a conscious decision she made at the start of this season. “I didn’t want to go under the radar,” she said. “I wanted to come out the gate, first game – if it was on the defense getting blocks, you know whatever it is, I just want to be a presence every game.”
It seems teammate Diana Taurasi can take a bit of credit for Griner’s big difference this season as well. “D kind of challenged me too. She said, ‘set the tempo,’ that first game. So every game – coming out getting blocks, getting boards, scoring – whatever it is.”
Candace Parker and the Sparks have the coaching staff, starting line up and experienced bench, most of whom are just entering their prime, to pull off an upset – Minnesota is favored to win it all again this year – and bring the trophy and a set of rings back to Los Angeles for the third time in league history. The thing is, the Diana Taurasi lead Mercury has similar resources and just as much hunger to do the same.
With the playing level of the league at an all time high, as was evident in the Sparks Mercury Sunday night matchup, making each and every game that much more entertaining, and a high-caliber class of rookies (arguably with just as much talent as the one before) who don’t exactly play like rookies (enter the fearless Chiney Ogwumike, Shoni Schimmel, stats in hand and footage from LiveAccess cued up on screen), this just might be the breakout year for the WNBA.
Add to that, last year’s rookie class that is now better, more comfortable and has something to prove, veterans who are hungrier than ever for the glory of a championship, and a league boasting 50% women as head coaches (and one team with a coaching staff of 100% women), 2014 is at the very least the season to get into professional women’s basketball.
“Women in power! We need more of it!” said Griner with a huge grin, Sunday night. About the significance of visibility and representation in the form of these women in power she added, “It’s just good for us, good for our league. I’m happy about it…we definitely need more.”
Coach Brondello agrees. “I think it’s great. Carol Ross, I mean I just love her to death. She’s a great coach,” said Brondello, post-game outside of the locker room. “Obviously we’re in the WNBA, we’re women, and it’s good that women are getting the opportunities to be those head coaches, because there’s a lot of quality coaches out there,” she added. “That’s not to take anything away from the men, obviously it’s who’s best for the job. But it’s great to see both of us, having our teams play so hard.”
And that they did.
I spent more than a little bit of time watching both coaches do what they do best for their teams of powerful, talented women, and I watched in admiration and excitement.
You don’t have to like or enjoy the game of basketball to appreciate the WNBA and what it offers our society. The chance to prove women can “have it all” (see Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Swoopes and every other pro player who started a family during their careers), defy tropes, stereotypes, misconceptions and redefine what it means to be a professional female athlete are a few reasons.
The opportunity for young girls to see themselves represented in the many different roles the league has to offer is enough reason alone.
By 9th grade I’d chosen the college I wanted to attend and I knew what my major would be. Once I decided, the very first thing I did was make my way to the athletics department of their website. No softball team.
I then had to decide if I would give up my dream school or my dream sport. Knowing that even if I did work hard enough to play in college that there was really no where else to go from there is what made my 8-year, year-around softball career fall on my list of priorities for the first time since I’d started playing. To this day, I watch college games wondering.
The idea that other girls might keep following their passions and dreams because the WNBA exists is one of many reasons why we need the WNBA. What we don’t need is validation of this necessity from those who never have and likely never will support the Women’s National Basketball Association, from those who don’t understand why we need more women in power in the first place.
What we do need is more Candace Parkers, Nneka Ogwumikes, Diana Taurasis, Brittney Griners, Kristi Tolivers, Lindsey Hardings, Candice Duprees, Jantel Lavenders, DeWanna Bonners, Alana Beards, Shay Murphys, Penny Taylors, and way more Carol Rosses and Sandy Brondellos.
We definitely need more women in power. We definitely need the WNBA.