Court and Spark

Despite financial uncertainty, media apathy and a shortage of fans, the women of the Colorado Xplosion still make net gains.

Debbie Black goes flying over a bank of chairs. A whistle blows; time stands still while she's airborne and then buried under a tangle of spectators. Her teammates are frozen, sweaty on the hardwood, their chests heaving as they catch their breath, waiting to see if she's all right. Black doesn't know the game has stopped but wouldn't chance it, anyway; immediately her head pops up in an intense search for the ball--she looks like a frantic mother who's lost track of her kid.

She'll go flying over more chairs in later games, and if the acrobatics weren't so arduous, flying over chairs would be part of her shtick: her grimace of determination, her dogging of the referees, her palm slammed hard against the floor in disgust over a missed opportunity, even as she's still face-down. But Black is 32 years old, and though sinewy muscles bulge from her compact frame, the lines in her face show she's long past playing college ball--which, until three seasons ago, used to be the end of women's basketball careers unless they exiled themselves to play in foreign pro leagues. At only 5'3", Black is a demon, ripping off balls, grabbing rebounds, psyching up her teammates.

These days, Black seems to be playing for dear life.
"Debbie Black alone is worth the price of admission," says Greg Weatherby, who's watching the Colorado Xplosion from a nearly empty section of seats at the Denver Coliseum. When the men are playing, Weatherby goes to Nuggets games, too, but there's no comparison. "You don't see the unsportsmanlike conduct," he says. "The women obviously love the game. They're not in it to make money. It's what the sport should be about. Guys criticize the women because they don't dunk, there's flat-footed rebounding and a lot of turnovers and it's not as clean, but that's because they put the effort into defense. The men don't even play defense. When you see Debbie Black go flying over a chair, that's effort."

There's also effort in 5'8" Edna Campbell's between-the-legs dribbling, her spinning to keep the ball away from annoying defenders, her penetrating death stare and waving arms when she's clinched to a driving offensive opponent. There's grace in her and 5'11" Crystal Robinson's renowned three-pointers in the clutch. There's wicked nerve on 6'3" Tari Phillips's face as she goes barreling into a pileup at baseline and makes the layup, draws a foul and comes out smiling, high-fiving her teammates.

And there was supreme effort in the Xplosion's narrow loss to the San Jose Lasers on November 28. The Xplosion led for most of a punishing first half that left 6'3" center Alisa Burras writhing on the floor for several minutes and then limping on crutches to the locker room with a sprained ankle; Robinson also hobbled off the court with an ankle injury. The Xplosion fizzled in the third quarter, bending to the muscle-bound, shampoo-endorsing, 5'8" Jennifer Azzi and 6'5" former Old Dominion final-four standout Clarisse Machanguana. But the Colorado women kept fighting, methodically narrowing the Lasers' sixteen-point lead and reducing Azzi's TV-friendly face to a whiny pout.

The tiny Coliseum crowd, which had spent most of that quarter in depressed silence, was now on its feet, booing loudly and hurling insults at the refs after a couple of questionable calls. The fans exploded when Campbell hit a three-pointer, bringing the Xplosion within four points of the Lasers, and celebrated furiously when Campbell hit another for two to tie it in the game's final moments. But the Lasers pulled out with another three-pointer, and Phillips's final basket was good for only two.

It was a heartbreaker--but for those watching, it was also a kickass Saturday night. Colorado Xplosion fans saw some of the world's most highly charged basketball. They took part in the adrenaline-fueled social bonding that happens only when people get together to support a common team. They got to yell and scream and girl-watch.

The Colorado Xplosion isn't just a wave of the future, now that a generation of American women has grown up under the liberating effects of Title IX, which provided them equal access to athletic programs in federally funded institutions. The Colorado Xplosion is not just hip, now that University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summit has made the cover of Sports Illustrated and her Lady Vols draw more fans per game than several NBA teams, including the Denver Nuggets (when they play). And the Xplosion isn't just a cocksure contrast to the hubris of the men, who take it for granted that they can command outrageous salaries for playing the game.

The Colorado Xplosion is simply one of the best entertainment deals in town.
Catch it while you can.

In their third season, the eight professional women's basketball teams of the American Basketball League, including the Colorado Xplosion, are playing against more than just each other.

In Denver, a sports-crazy town that would seemingly welcome more athletic indulgence, the Xplosion competes for attention--and press--with franchises ranging from the ruling Denver Broncos to a slew of sports and recreational activities to assorted college teams, including the esteemed Lady Buffs. And then there's the Nuggets' pathetic past performances, which, not surprisingly, have turned some fans off of pro basketball.

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