Court and Spark

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.

The Xplosion is up against hard numbers. Last May, a study conducted by Street & Smith's Sportsbusiness Journal tagged "21 markets that lack the financial wherewithal to support additional professional franchises--and, in some cases, the teams they already have." Denver was ranked second, just behind Phoenix. Based on the total income of Denver residents combined with the cost of operating major-league teams, the study concluded that Denver has a "negative capacity" for carrying sports teams.

But the ABL's biggest adversary may be the assumption that the league is poised to go out of business, killed off by the NBA-financed Women's National Basketball Association that started play the summer after the ABL's first season. Early on, the ABL spent more than the WNBA on salaries (the ABL averaged $80,000 per player and went as high as $150,000), which allowed it to recruit the best athletes. But as a startup business, the ABL is no match for the NBA's massive resources, which have translated into big-name sponsorships (American Express, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Anheuser-Busch, General Motors and Nike, among others, compared with the ABL's Reebok, Phoenix Insurance and First USA Bank) and high-visibility television contracts with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime that have made stars out of WNBA players--and lured away ABL players who want the exposure.

"After the ABL signed most of the top college seniors in 1997, the WNBA received commitments from nearly 75 percent of this year's 60 top players, thanks largely to the league's exposure during its inaugural season," Sportsbusiness Journal reported last May.

The losses have continued through the start of this year's ABL season. After being named the league MVP during its first year, Columbus Quest player Nikki McCray bolted for the WNBA's Washington Mystics. Dawn Staley, an Olympic champion and star player at Virginia before signing with the ABL's Richmond (now Philadelphia) Rage, left for an unspecified WNBA team just before this season began. And a couple of weeks ago it was announced that Brian Agler, coach of the Columbus Quest--which had been the league's champion for its first two seasons--had bailed out of his ABL contract and signed up for a three-year deal to coach a WNBA expansion team in Minnesota.

But the ABL isn't just losing players to the WNBA. Shortly before the Xplosion's home opener this fall, 5'9" guard Melody Howard surprised her teammates by announcing her retirement from the entire sport; she left to take a sales position at a pharmaceutical company in Missouri. And on November 18, Xplosion general manager Lark Birdsong announced that she was resigning. Birdsong, who has a daughter who will be leaving home in a year and a half, says, "Largely what I wanted to do was gain back my time." While her reasons for leaving are personal, Birdsong acknowledges that, like all startup companies, the ABL "has been risky from day one and probably will be for the first five years."

Recently, when WNBA players voted to unionize, it was reported that among other things, they were demanding assurance that they won't lose their jobs to former ABL players if the ABL folds.

ABL officials, however, claim their league is doing fine. Though front-office personnel took a 10 percent pay cut this season, even that was part of the good news, says league spokesman Dean Jutilla. The league had lined up new investors, and along with the infusion of capital came a request for "some changes," he explains.

"We closed down a team in Long Beach because it was falling short of expectations in terms of ticket sales and corporate sponsorship," Jutilla says. Emphasizing that the front-office salary reduction is temporary, he adds, "With the good came a little bit of the tougher decisions. Just like a lot of businesses in America today that are going through cutbacks, we're no different. As a startup, we need to be very diligent about the well-being and future of the league."

Jutilla says league-wide attendance is "very comparable to what it was last year at this time" (it's averaging 3,979 per game), and because of strict comp-ticket guidelines, the league is having "a much higher number of paid attendees this year." League-wide, he notes, season-ticket sales are up 39 percent. (The Xplosion places fifth in the league in ticket revenue and third in sponsorship revenue.)  

And attendance could increase when ABL games show up on TV more often. The league has lined up a contract with Fox Sports Net to broadcast ten games during this year's regular season, as well as the ABL All-Star game on January 24 and up to five playoff games in April. CBS is also scheduled to broadcast two games during the April finals. "We set a goal of being on network television as the league started, and we achieved that by the third season," Jutilla says.

That the league has struggled for years to line up just ten regular-season games on Fox and two on CBS, however, clearly illustrates that for women who want to play pro basketball, the biggest obstacle may be getting respect.

The WNBA has had more success in getting airplay, but then, those teams play in the summer--the price of being backed by the big boys. At least the ABL gets to play during traditional basketball season.

"When you look at it from two perspectives, one viewpoint is the summer's a great time to play," says Birdsong. The WNBA can get a better TV package in the summer because it's not jockeying for slots in a schedule already crowded with basketball. "Kids are out of school and can attend games Mondays through Thursdays, the facilities are available, there's programming time," she adds. "But the other viewpoint is that it's second-class, that the men are saying, 'We can't put you in prime time because we're already there.'"

Like those who understand that some of baseball's mystique lies in summer sunshine and green lawns, many basketball fans recognize that part of the game is about being under mercury lights inside a warm arena when it's bitter cold and dark outside. "Personally, I want to play during basketball season," says the Xplosion's Robinson. "That's one of the reasons I'm with the ABL."

Although the Xplosion plays during traditional basketball season, the team members' schedule emphasizes another depressing reality: These women don't have a room of their own. Their games are split between two arenas, the Denver Coliseum and McNichols Arena, and scheduling conflicts--with Denver's annual stock show at the Coliseum; with the Nuggets and the Avalanche at McNichols--keep the Xplosion hopping between the two.

The Coliseum has a capacity of 9,600, while McNichols can hold 17,171 for basketball games. But in both venues, no matter how rowdy the fans get, the Xplosion's average crowd of 2,632 so far this season is overwhelmed by the echoing emptiness.

Fans say they prefer going to games at the newer and brighter McNichols, a facility that opened in 1975 and by big-league standards is already outdated. But the team has no real presence there. During a Saturday night game, McNichols's Team Store is closed, but it's the "official store of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche" and doesn't sell Xplosion stuff, anyway--that's sold at a temporary booth on the concourse.

Going to a game at the circa 1951 Coliseum is like entering a time warp. "I wish they would not play at the Coliseum," says Susan Jones, who's wandering the concourse during halftime at one game. "It's a drawback when they play here. Part of the fun of coming to a game is the ambience, but who the hell wants to come down here? It's cold and drafty."

But many of the Xplosion players prefer the Coliseum--even if the shot clock doesn't work properly when there are fewer than 25 seconds left in a half. "Personally, the Coliseum is our home. I'd rather play there," says Robinson. Playing at the two different venues, she says, "you don't get used to the floor, the gym. We don't get to practice there, either."

"I want to be wherever we have the best chance of winning," says Coach Linda Hargrove, and that's probably at the Coliseum, where "the crowd doesn't get so lost." Out of necessity, she looks at the upside: "Being in a lot of places prepares you for being on the road. You don't have to make the adjustment between your home court and a different arena."

John Nillen, the team's former director of game operations and merchandising who took over for Birdsong as the Xplosion's general manager on December 1, says the team's immediate push will be to improve attendance at both venues. "We're really going to focus on our group sales, and I think second in line will be just putting together some promotions so our games look attractive for people to want to come," he says.

Last month, as it became clear that there might be no NBA this season, sports commentators began speculating that the ABL might get a much-needed attendance assist as fans grew desperate for any kind of pro basketball. The league launched a series of print ads with huge letters proclaiming "NBA LOCKOUT!" and a picture of a screw, meant to depict how fans were feeling.  

An October 29 article in the Denver Post speculated that the women would get more attention in the absence of the men--but the story was buried on page 10 of the sports section. The NBA was "locked out of the public conscience and relocated to the back pages," wrote Michael Kane, a Post stringer assigned to the Xplosion beat, apparently unaware that his ABL story would appear on those same back pages.

And though the Xplosion is scheduled to play half of this season's 22 games at McNichols, a recent Post blip made fun of a Sunset magazine item listing the Nuggets as a Denver entertainment deal: "The only action at McNichols these days is the Avalanche; the basketball boys have been locked out this season."

What about the basketball girls? A pre-season story by Kane did run on the front page of the Post's sports section November 3 and featured a big four-color photo of Hargrove giving advice to Black and Robinson, with a smaller photo of guard Keisha Anderson taking a practice shot. But except for an epigraph comparing the old NBA slogan "I love this game" to a quote from the Xplosion's Tiffany Gooden about how if she didn't love the game she'd be in law school, all of the text on the front page was about the male players who'd just gone on strike. The ABL made its first appearance on page 7.

On the day of their home opener last year, even the lackluster Nuggets rated big stories on the front pages of the sports sections. On the day of the Xplosion's home opener, the team didn't even make the front page of the Rocky Mountain News' sports section, which instead ran stories about the Rockies, who weren't even in season, and about how the Broncos were hoping to improve their kickoff coverage. The paper's only Xplosion story came on page 13 of the section--under a headline packed with silly alliteration as well as unfortunate irony: "Xplosion Expects Expanded Exposure."

Since then, the sports pages have run small, obligatory post-game stories and a couple of articles about an Xplosion player or another team in the league. But the biggest Xplosion story to date--a feature that ran in the Post on December 7--wasn't in the sports pages but on the cover of the lifestyle section. Staff writer Cate Terwilliger had interviewed several players about their take on the new pro-basketball Barbie--even though the doll comes dressed in a WNBA uniform.

"I'd definitely call it tempered enthusiasm," Kane says of his fellow sportswriters' attitude about the Xplosion. "I don't think it's a mocking spirit, but [the team is] definitely not given the same kind of respect as the major sports." Kane attributes that attitude to "familiarity with major men's professional sports." Also, he says, "it's probably a matter of the fact that women aren't considered as skilled or as exciting basketball players as men."

The women have gotten more respect on KNUS/710 AM, which airs its games. "The reason we wanted to broadcast these folks is because we knew it was exciting and a lot of people in Denver followed women's basketball, and we thought it would be entertaining for our listeners," says the station's Colby Deguevara. "It's good, competitive basketball. We're happy with it. It's been great so far, and the listeners seem to like it. It's an honor to carry them as well."

But props from other stations are harder to come by. The team's information coordinator, Tim Simmons, dreams of getting more play on sports-radio talk shows, which, in the minds of hardcore fans, is the true mark of legitimacy. Simmons says he's heard of fans calling sports shows and not being allowed on the air because the hosts didn't want to talk about the Xplosion. That's slowly changing, he adds, crediting Susie Wargin, KOA's "Susie the Sports Chick," who is also the Xplosion's PA announcer.

"I think probably women's basketball in general doesn't get the attention it deserves," Wargin says. "I was talking with my husband about it this morning, in fact. When I got the gig as the PA announcer for the Xplosion, I think he was looking down on the fact that it was girls' basketball that I was going to be dragging him to. He went to opening night and was very impressed. Now I don't have to drag him to the games--he wants to go."

Scott Hastings, her cohort on KOA's Sports Zoo, also took his family to the Xplosion's opening night, "and he was a little surprised at how much he enjoyed it," Wargin says. Since then, he's "mentioned a few times that if you want to go see a good, fundamentally sound basketball game where they're not all dunking and showing off for themselves, go see an Xplosion game. But it's still not talked about on the level of a Denver Bronco--and it probably never will be."  

"We're still striving for equal coverage," says Coach Hargrove. "But we're never satisfied; there's never enough. When we have Sunday games during the football season, everything is about the NFL."

Debbie Black thinks the coverage has gotten better, but it still comes late. "The pre-season is so important to us, to let people know we're alive," she says. "It seems to be very minimal for us, and it's disheartening, because it's our third year, we've been playoff contenders the last two years, and we play a very exciting brand of basketball."

Better media coverage would undoubtedly draw more people to Xplosion games. But the hard reality, sports editors might argue, is that the team's sad record--3-8 as of this week--has a lot to do with the lack of enthusiasm.

Hargrove, who's been involved in women's basketball for 27 years and was a player and a collegiate coach before coming to the ABL this season, has a long-term perspective. "Every year there's improvement," she says. "There's more interest in women's basketball, and attendance records are broken every year." Hargrove holds out faith that as more women move into decision-making roles--at newspapers as well as at corporations that buy ticket packages--women's athletics in general will get more respect.

For Black, it all goes back to the game. "I think there's a lot of men out there who, if they would just come to one of our games, they'd see that we're really competitive and we play the kind of game they play. Most guys can't play above the rim like the NBA. I don't want to call them"--she pauses--"chauvinists, but they haven't seen us play and don't think we can play on their level. There's a lot of disbelievers out there."

Except for lesbians and little girls.
For gay women, Xplosion games are one big party, a perfect alternative to the bar scene.

"Hey, Maya--we're going to get a drink! What're you drinking?" yells one, who's standing with a friend near the Colorado Butcher Block bar at McNichols. Maya's fifty or so feet away with a couple of other gay women who are roaming the concourse before the November 21 Columbus Quest game.

"I come to support women's basketball and to see who's here," says one woman. "I think everybody likes to go cruising, walking around the building."

As the game gets going and the Xplosion surprisingly keeps pace with the two-time league champion, a group of boisterous women sitting in a box at the top of Section 36 provides as much entertainment as the game.

"Defense! Watch the line!" one yells.
"Go, Edna!" yells another.
"Work it around! Come on--MOVE!"
"Your post is open!"
"Come on, ladies!"

At halftime, two old friends run into each other in front of the T-shirt table, and one pats the other on the butt before they go in opposite directions. Clusters of women hang around a beer cart, casually checking out passersby. In front of the concession stand, a mutual friend introduces one tall woman to another, who offers a flirtatious "hi" as they shake hands. There are scattered lesbian couples with kids--one mom carrying the baby in her arms, the other mom lugging the diaper bag.

This component of the women's-basketball audience isn't lost on Birdsong. Finding a team's niche and determining its viability in a market, says the former manager, depends on what might be considered traditional factors--the quality and price of the product, how well it can be promoted, and its placement in a market.

But when Birdsong looks at the league's revenue-generating teams, she notices that other factors, such as a city's climate and its other late-night entertainment options, also contribute to attendance. And her intuition tells her something else. "Our top four cities all have hate-crimes laws," she says. That means those markets--Hartford, Portland, Seattle and San Jose--are progressive and receptive to a sport that obviously draws a relatively huge proportion of its fans from a marginalized population.

Women athletes have always battled the lesbian stereotype, which has caused many gay athletes to remain fearfully closeted. Recruiters have even been known to use the argument that a particular college is "gay" to discourage hot high-school prospects from signing with competing colleges. Unlike others in the women's-athletics community who are nervous about the lesbian element, Birdsong readily acknowledges it. "We're definitely drawing from gay crowds," she says. "That's one of our niches that does help us."  

The other niche, the one some of the team's ads are trying to reach, is little girls and their families. One radio ad begins with a schoolyard chant as girls skip rope, then blends into the sound of whistles, dribbling balls and grown women playing hard. The message: Come see what happens when little girls grow up believing they can be anything they want to be. Take your daughter to an Xplosion game.

But you have to be willing to take your daughter to a game where two-thirds of the fans sitting around you are lesbians.

That's not a problem for Greg Weatherby, the guy who says Debbie Black alone is worth the price of admission. He's at a game with his wife and daughter, who's wearing a Rebecca Lobo jersey. Of the lesbians in the arena, Weatherby says, "Of course you notice, but so what? It doesn't bother me. If that's why people aren't coming, they need to wake up."

"A lot of people are turned off and associate women's basketball with lesbians, which I think is unfortunate," says Melanie Graham, a 21-year-old from Greeley. "You say you're going to an Xplosion game and someone says, 'There's a lot of lesbians there.' They don't see it as basketball, and they have to bring some sexuality issue into it."

Graham is holding hands with Chad Godsey, also 21, of Fort Collins. "We're engaged," she says, "and people are always so surprised that he's coming to watch the game."

"Right now I would rather watch professional women's basketball than men's, by a long shot," Godsey says.

And lesbians would gladly give up their unique majority status at Xplosion games if it meant larger crowds. "I wish more people were here showing their support," says Karen, who asked that her full name not be used.

The bands of young girls who skitter through the arena like single-celled organisms are oblivious to the sexual orientation of the crowd.

"I come to the games because they're fun," says eleven-year-old Kendra.
"I have season tickets," says Kelly, also eleven.
"Xplosion rocks!" says Lindsey.
"We get to see some of our favorite players."

At another game, four seventh-grade girls from Creighton Middle School are tailing Joe, a young hipster in baggie camouflage pants, a tie-dyed T-shirt, spiky dyed-blonde hair and earrings. "We love you, Joe!" they shout to him, then dissolve in giggles as he quickly walks around a curve in the concourse.

"I like to come because I like to watch the girls play ball instead of the boys," says Jessica.

Her friends laugh at her putdown of the boys.
"That was funny."
"Dude, you the bomb."
"I wanna play when I get older," Jessica says. "I like to watch them."
"We watch the game, walk around and bother people," says Beth.
"I think it's a pretty cool place to hang around," says Erica.
"They're girls. Girls are better than boys."

And then Beth, who's twelve and whose mom has season tickets, weighs in: "This is a man-dominated world, and it's high time the girls get out there."

During halftime, Wargin announces that the Xplosion would like to thank York Middle School, three different Girl Scout troops and the Littleton United Soccer Girls. A group of little girls goes out onto the court and gives a cheer, which includes the lines "Beat 'em, bust 'em, come on, girls, let's readjust 'em."

It's the perfect complement to Jamie Lee Curtis's cleavage, which is impossible to ignore as she bends over the hood of her broken-down red convertible in an ad for VoiceStream Wireless that plays frequently on the McNichols scoreboard screen.

In the second half, Tari Phillips is fouled. She stands at the line and makes the first free throw. She's bouncing the ball, psyching up to make the second, and for a moment, the arena is quiet. Then comes a tiny girl's voice: "Do it again!"

At the end of the night, the Xplosion loses.
But the fans clear out slowly, since players hang around to toss miniature ABL basketballs out into the crowd. A boy, maybe seven or eight, approaches Edna Campbell for a handshake. Over the PA, David Bowie is singing "We Could Be Heroes."

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