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Nashville Scene Girls With Attitude

Women play for love of the game

By Randy Horick

AUGUST 31, 1998:  The most amazing thing is not that some of them can actually dunk, though I've yet to witness that in one of their games. It's not that some of them can execute a flawless behind-the-back dribble on a drive to the hoop, or take you with a head fake and a crossover, JUST LIKE A MAN.

The most amazing thing about women's professional basketball doesn't even concern the quality of play, or any of the four teams that opened the WNBA playoffs last week.

The most amazing and revealing thing is that more than 15,000 people--that's per contest, mind you--turned out to see the Washington Mystics, one of the teams that did not reach the playoffs.

The Mystics lost 27 games this year. They won only three.

Why would fans in Washington--a merciless, pitiless city--flock to see a squad that ranks among the all-time leaders of professional teams for haplessness? For the same reasons, apparently, that people in Houston, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, L.A., and other WNBA venues have been heading to arenas in record numbers to watch women play a brand of basketball that features no spectacular alley-oops, no Jordanesque jams and no shot-swatting seven-footers.

In case you haven't noticed, the WNBA and its sister league, the ABL (of which Nashville is the newest franchise), are different. It's not just a gender difference, or a size difference, or a speed difference. It's a style difference. And a big viva to it.

Take the style of play. Just like their male counterparts, the women push the ball up the court. Unlike the men, however, they don't simply play one-on-one, clearing out so that their best scorer can attack the basket against a single defender. Instead, the women are more likely to pass the ball around, patiently seeking an open shot, or a cutter, or a clear opportunity for an entry pass to a post player.

There is a quaint, almost archaic term for this approach to basketball: teamwork. And--who'da thunk?--people like it.

After watching a women's game, the legendary Bill Russell said that the style more closely resembled the play from his own professional days--the late '50s and early '60s--than NBA basketball today. Perhaps that's part of the appeal.

Many fans, particularly those of us over 30, can relate to the WNBA and ABL because it offers basketball that is more like the kind we grew up playing (or still play, in pick-up games). The women's game is more accessible.

Then there's the drawing card of "girl power" that helps account for the overwhelming number of female faces in the crowds (and a notable number of them are women who hadn't previously described themselves as sports fans). In the 1970s, women were subjected to an incredible burst of advertising hoo-ha and the triumphant slogan, "You've come a long way, baby." All they got, however, was their own miserable, skinny cigarette. Now, at least, the line seems more appropriate: women have their own big-time professional sports league, complete with their own network-TV audience.

But empowerment, too, explains only part of the appeal of the WNBA and the ABL. Night after night, teams like Washington can pack more fans into games by offering less of the attributes of the men's game that, after all the dunks and highlights, have left an unpleasant aftertaste in the mouths of fans.

Here, the contrast between the WNBA and the NBA couldn't be sharper.

With few exceptions, the women players earn less than $40,000 per season--a piddling sum that would barely provide walkin'-around money in the men's league. There are a whole lot of NBA guys--anyone with an annual contract worth $3.3 million--who earn that much PER GAME.

When they hit the road, NBA teams enjoy first-class accommodations. The women stay in middle-brow hotels, two to a room. When the travel schedule turns especially hectic, they sometimes have to wash their own uniforms. They don't take limos or dine at highfalutin restaurants. You wouldn't call them pampered (though several of the players are mothers who are used to changing Pampers).

"You gotta have the LOVE," solemnly intones one now-blessedly retired TV ad for basketball shoes. But we've come to perceive that NBA players mostly have the cash. And the jewelry. And the cars. And, especially, the imperial bearing and the almost complete isolation from ordinary fans.

The women have the love. Maybe it's because, amid their no-frills, barnstorming tours, they have so few of the other perks to which NBA players are accustomed.

If it weren't for these new leagues, the women would have to be in Europe, or Japan, or in another career entirely. The women are just happy to be here, and it shows.

They relate to their teammates with an enthusiasm that's missing in men's big-league sports, where the faces on a team are apt to change significantly from one season to the next. The women hug each other (a lot). They hang out together. Sometimes, they even braid each other's hair before games (a bit of personal grooming that you wouldn't find Scottie Pippen, say, providing for Dennis Rodman).

Even more enthusiastically, the women relate to the fans. They not only sign autographs, they mingle with the crowd. They even answer fan mail.

The crowds, naturally enough, reciprocate the enthusiasm. Beyond that, they even seem to feel a sense of ownership: "This is our team."

These people aren't the suits and overlords who can afford to pay $50 or more to witness an NBA game. The crowds who come to see the women play represent more of a cross section of America. Women. Women with children. Women with their entire families (since women's basketball is one of the few remaining pro sports that entire families can afford to attend together).

OK, the quality of play in women's professional basketball isn't yet great--particularly in the WNBA, where the talent is not as strong as in the less visible ABL. The players miss a lot of shots. They turn the ball over too frequently. Sometimes, the games become sloppy.

But contrasted with all the glitz and the hype and the slickness of the NBA, the women's leagues are a refreshing tonic. That may not always be the case, of course. Success--read: money--tends to spoil practically everything, pro sports included. As the WNBA and the ABL consolidate (a strong eventual likelihood), and more attendance and TV revenues flow into the league, and competition among teams for the best talent intensifies, women's basketball could ultimately become as much of a dehumanized corporate operation as men's pro basketball (and, increasingly, even NCAA men's basketball).

For now, though, the human dimension in the women's game is the most visible. Fans, for now, must feel as if they're homesteaders in unspoiled territory.

In Houston, where the Comets finished the regular season at 27-3 and are favored to win their second title, or even in miserable, 3-27 Washington, attending a WNBA game is a little like visiting Africa before the great herds disappeared, or hiking through the vast old-growth rain forests of the Pacific Northwest before the clear-cutters arrived. Here's hoping that this environment stays unsullied, and that, instead of seeking to emulate their male counterparts, the example of the WNBA players will lead the men to behave a little more like women.

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