Hoop Sisters

Does the next Dawn Staley go to kindergarten in Brooklyn? Is the Rebecca Lobo of 2008 shooting jumpers right now on her driveway in Des Moines? Is a whole gym-load of pint-sized Cynthia Coopers and Debbie Blacks playing zone defense somewhere in Texas?

Could be. In their rookie seasons, the American Basketball League and the Women's National Basketball Association both lost money--but they attracted a total of 1.8 million fans to 300 games in sixteen U.S. cities, a lot of them looking for role models. This was a stunning turnaround for a sport that for decades exiled its top college stars and Olympic heroines to futures in Spain or Greece and told everybody else to hang up the old sneakers for good. Now women's pro basketball looks like it's finally seized a home-court advantage in America--especially if you judge by the starry-eyed little girls gazing up at Katrina McClain or the pigtailed point-guards-to-be begging autographs from Katy Steding.

There's just one problem, and it's drenched in irony. After sitting the bench for so long, female hoopsters may suddenly be stuck with one league too many.

Last October, the eight-team ABL--home to the Denver-based Colorado Xplosion--hit the floor first, with players earning an average salary of $80,000. Of the twelve members of the gold-medal-winning 1996 U.S. Olympic team, eight opted for the ABL (at $150,000 apiece), as did 35 of 60 former Division I All-Americans. Playing October through February, the heart of the traditional basketball season, the ABL took an early lead in quality of play, attracted investors and drew a respectable, if unspectacular, 3,536 fans per game.

"It was a wonderful experience," says Xplosion forward Crystal Robinson, who led her club with 17.1 points per game and was selected in a media poll as the league's top first-season pro. "I felt really lucky. When I was younger, I said to myself: I'll go overseas and play professional ball. I'm so glad to have the opportunity to stay home and play here."

Under head coach Sheryl Estes, the "X" put together a 25-15 regular season and won the ABL's Western conference title before running out of gas in the playoffs against the Richmond Rage. Behind ex-Olympian Nikki McCray, the Columbus Quest then beat the Rage for the first-ever ABL championship. "It's a Whole New Ballgame," the official league catchphrase announced. So it was.

Came June, and the WNBA promptly raised the stakes.
"We Got Next," the league's sloganeers told the world, reviving the old playground cry as much to rebuke their ABL rivals as to challenge male dominance. The claim might just as well have been: "We Got More Money." The WNBA played with a slightly smaller ball, but the bottomless resources of its big brother, the National Basketball Association, brought it to bigger markets like New York, Houston and Los Angeles, where a healthy 9,000 fans per game showed up.

Marquee players Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo earned about $250,000 each, while lesser-known teammates played for $35,000. Looking for a yardstick here? The entire payroll for the 96 players in the WNBA came to $3 million; Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls will reportedly earn $33 million this season.

Basketball connoisseurs say WNBA talent was inferior in 1997, but in year one, the league marketing department spent $15 million--ten times more than its ABL counterpart. Thanks to its NBA clout, the summer (June through August) league also swung five-year TV deals with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime, while the ABL settled for the lesser reach of BET and SportsChannel before landing a new contract for 1997-98 with FOX Sports Net.

The standings: The ABL has better players and a more attractive playing season; it moved the Richmond club to Philadelphia, a much larger market, and added a new franchise in Long Beach, California. The WNBA has plenty of money, marketing savvy and exposure. It scored a major coup last month by luring away Nikki McCray, the ABL's Most Valuable Player, and it plans to expand by two teams for 1998.

The big question is which side will eventually win this game of one-on-one. The secondary issue is whether they need to go to war at all.

Truth be told, some of the combatants are reluctant to fight. The Xplosion's Robinson, for one, feels fiercely loyal to her league and charges that "the WNBA is all about making money, geared toward filling the stands in the off season when they would otherwise be empty." But she believes the intensity of the ABL-WNBA "war" has been exaggerated by fans and the media. "Speaking for myself, I really want the ABL to succeed, but I'm happy the WNBA is also in the picture. There are that many more jobs in women's basketball. We see this as a great opportunity for women--no matter what league they're playing in."

The bond of sisterhood may not extend to the executive suite--most observers believe, for instance, that NBA commissioner David Stern will keep sinking millions into his new women's league until it prevails--but there's a feeling that a rising tide will lift all boats. Xplosion general manager Lark Birdsong has strengthened this year's team with the addition of ex-Seattle Reign forward/center Tari Phillips, slick Wisconsin guard Keisha Anderson and Dana Wynne, the all-time NCAA rebound leader from Seton Hall. And she's delighted that the ABL has taken the early lead in player quality. But she's loath to badmouth the WNBA: "They did a great job on the marketing angle," she says, "and we'd love to have all those dollars. But we got the job done getting the majority of the talent. The battle for players will start in earnest next year, but my guess is that the feeling about all that varies. The players in the two leagues like one another and have played with each other. The way I feel is that women's sports are finally getting their day in the sun. I like that, and I don't want to jeopardize that day in the sun."

Some see the McCray defection as the first sign of WNBA dominance, but some of that league's best players are also making overtures to the ABL. From these early signs, three scenarios emerge:

First, and probably least likely, is co-existence: The ABL would own the fall/winter season, the WNBA would reign in the summer, and the players would be happy.

Second--and more likely--is an outright victory by one of the leagues. Clearly, the WNBA's deep pockets give it the advantage, and if the best recruits start leaning toward Stern, league president Val Ackerman and company, the ABL could wind up on the junk heap of hoop. On the other hand, after the ABL lost $4 million in its first season, a pair of new corporate sponsors--a Silicon Valley investment group and the Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Co.--stepped in with $3 million each, and ABL CEO Gary Cavalli says, "We have new investors knocking on our door every day." Not even McCray's outside move seemed to faze him. "Nikki is an excellent player, and we will miss her," he said the day after she jumped. "But the sun still came up this morning, and the ABL is alive and well."

The third scenario is, of course, eventual merger, and that's the one most people foresee. "History dictates some kind of merger," Birdsong says, "but it's hard to know right now. It will take one to three years before we know what happens. Our job now is to put the best team we can onto the floor, increase our attendance [1996-97: 4,100 per game; new goal: 5,000-plus] and find our niche in the marketplace. Denver is a great town for the four core sports [football, men's basketball, hockey and baseball]. The outer-circle sports like ours have to earn fans, sponsorship dollars and media coverage. You try to compete and to grow. The NBA, for instance, has been around for fifty years. We've been here two years. We have to pay our dues."

In the meantime, little girls and not so little girls are discovering the thrill of women's basketball, lining up for autographs, discovering new selves within themselves. None of this is lost on the players, because just a few years ago, they were little girls themselves.

Crystal Robinson: "Our game is fan-friendly because we want it to be. It's the way we feel. It's a big thing for me and my teammates to be where we are, and we appreciate it. Believe me. If I can shed some light on somebody's day, I'll do it. I feel fortunate just to get the chance."

Said another way, it's a whole new ballgame.


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