I'm not one of these guys who hates women's basketball.
Au contraire. Some of my most enjoyable moments at the four summer Olympics I have covered were watching women's basketball. Watching the state-less Russian women defeat the Americans in Barcelona in 1992 was one of the greatest viewing experiences I've ever had. The Soviet Union was no more, and those women were all going back there to their new Republics facing an uncertain athletic future. If ever there was a team that played for themselves -- i.e. the 12 people in that room -- it was that team. And they played a magnificent game, knocking off the favored Americans with gritty, intelligent play.
I likewise enjoyed watching the great 1996 team complete an undefeated season by saving its best game for last, a convincing triumph over Brazil before 31,000-plus, the largest crowd ever to see a women's game. (Whether or not that figure has been eclipsed, I cannot say).
So, yes, I like the women's game.
But I had never been to a WNBA game before last Wednesday night, when I went to the Staples Center to see Michael Cooper's LA Sparks play Bill Laimbeer's Detroit Shock.
I'll get right to the point: as I told both coaches, I was blown away.
I had not seen a women's game of any kind in person since the 2002 Olympics. It looks to me as if a lot's been going on in my absence.
The sheer speed and flow of the game stunned me. I had run into Laimbeer in Detroit the week before and he had told me he would liken the current WNBA game to the men's game of the early '80s. It's still not being played above the rim, and probably never will be, which doesn't bother me one little bit. So Laimbeer was talking about speed and style of play, absent the dunks. And he was correct.
The first quarter was high-level basketball, period. The rest of the game didn't match up to that first quarter, but it was good stuff. The Sparks pulled it out, 80-73, with the great Lisa Leslie, soon to be 36, going for 17 points and 12 rebounds. Rookie sensation Candace Parker, who broke in with 34, had a reality-check evening with a hard-earned 13 points (3-for-8 shooting) and five rebounds.
The crowd of 8,520 was a typical WNBA gathering, I'd reckon, heavily skewed toward females. The blunt truth is that most guys still maintain a vision of basketball that must include lots of dunks and high-flying maneuvers, which means they can't get into the women's game. I'm not sure that's ever going to change, although Cooper says he's seeing a slight improvement.
"We are starting to get some single guys in the stands," he insists. I hope he's correct.
I can tell you this much. I counted at least five women who came down, came hard off the dribble and casually sank jumpers ranging from 10 to 18 feet. This is a shot Rajon Rondo does not have in his current repertoire, and this is a shot he must develop if he is going to be the point guard he should be in the NBA. Right now he's often a human 6-4-3 fast break killer because he won't take that shot, which is readily available.
I mentioned to Laimbeer that I have always enjoyed women's basketball at the Olympics, and he said, "This is nothing like the Olympics." I thought about it, and I realized that in the international game you have the USA, Brazil, Australia and Russia as the chalk and pretty much everyone else a hundred miles behind. Here in the WNBA there is the greatest concentration of women's talent to be found anywhere in the world. Brazil, Australia and Russia can get up a very good 12-woman team to give the USA a go, but we've got 12 more great ones beyond our first 12 and 12 more behind them and 12 more behind them, and so on. And they're all in the WNBA.
I realize that no amount of preaching will stir the average lunkhead male to go see a WNBA game. If I thought these people actually knew anything about basketball, I'd say it's their loss.