By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Dawn Staley could have been a star.
As could her teammates--most of them, anyway. But you don't care. You're not paying attention--to her, to them, to me. If you consider yourself "sports-savvy," you've probably already tuned me out.
Listen, we're not talking Sonny Bono-level fame here, or even Shawn Bradley. No, we're talking an honest-to-goodness, I-can-hardly-catch-my-breath-'cause-that-can't-be-who-I-think-it-is star. A bona fide, multimillion-dollar walking endorsement with legions of cooing fans and a pacified assemblage of awe-struck media minions in tow.
Think MJ or Tiger or Big Mac. Think Big.
That could have been Dawn Staley. Except she never had a chance. Oh, sure, the 30-year-old is known. After all, she went to three Final Fours while at the University of Virginia, won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, and has accumulated more hardware than your local Home Depot. Can't do that without someone noticing, right? In a few days, when the fabled torch reaches Sydney and ignites the 2000 Olympics, Staley will help America to another gold in women's b-ball--a medal so assuredly ours the IOC should have shipped it FedEx months ago, along with those coming to the men's basketballers and the women's soccerers, just to save everyone the trip. Well, at least they'll get the frequent flier miles.
Aside from having a captivating personality--the kind that makes you smile, the kind that makes you feel inexplicably linked to a stranger whom you've just recently met--Staley is perhaps the best point guard on the planet. And it doesn't matter a lick. Wait, check that. She's perhaps the best female point guard on the planet. And it doesn't matter a lick.
And, well, that has always been her problem. She's a she, you see. Stupid chromosomes.
Watching the U.S. women's basketball team practice at Reunion Arena a few weeks ago, that's all I could think, that these women got the rawest of raw deals. Before the ladies thumped the Canadian nationals in an exhibition here in Dallas, by a margin equally large and forgettable, I watched them practice. I watched dumbfounded, eyes wide, mouth agape, as these extraordinarily talented females made plays Naismith never dreamed possible. I watched Staley start at the top of the key, snap the ball behind her back with her left hand, go through her legs with her right hand, stutter-step in the paint, and then throw a no-look pass to cutting teammate Chamique Holdsclaw for an easy lay-up.
It would have made Magic shudder.
It's routine, really. Happens all the time with them, these jaw-dropping plays. These women, save two, all play in the WNBA. But you wouldn't know. You don't care. That's what the attendance figures and television contracts say. That's why that other league, the ABL, folded. That's why you didn't show for the exhibition. You and everyone else were home watching the finale of Survivor, leaving only 8,789 fans and countless vacant seats to witness the spectacle.
These players are good, insanely good, but if a tree falls in the woods...
"I don't know if there will be an additional effort, if I'm understanding the question correctly, to make people appreciate [women's basketball]," U.S. coach Nell Fortner says during a teleconference. "I think it's a team with tremendous talent, and I think if people watch us play they'll appreciate seeing what they see. Again, it is a unique situation that half of these players have been previous Olympians; the other half are new. I think it's going to be a tremendous challenge in these Olympics to win the gold medal, and I think the appreciation will come when people see how talented the rest of the world is and how hard-fought it will be to win the gold medal. And then I think maybe it will raise the level of appreciation for women's basketball in general."
That's what the higher-ups said four years ago, remember? Riding the coattails of a glorious run to gold in Seoul, the WNBA and ABL were spawned. Sports fans were going to change, were going to praise the obvious ability of the women with the same conviction previously reserved for the men. It was to be the genesis of a truly enlightened era.
Somewhere along the way, you rejected this notion. You decided, skills or no, that you only care about women's basketball every four years--or not at all. The ABL lasted only a few seasons before shutting down; fan apathy and poor marketing caused its demise. Meanwhile, the WNBA, the hope of professional women's sports stateside, is hurting. Don't let the PR people fool you. The goal for their league is to be seen as a league, not merely a women'sleague. And when you compare the WNBA to other pro outfits, it's not doing so hot. Actually, it stacks up about as hot as Doug Melvin's Rangers this season.
This year, the WNBA's per-game attendance figure was 9,704. Those numbers are inflated, though, considering Washington, New York, and Houston each averaged more than 12,000 per contest. Franchises in Charlotte, Utah, and Los Angeles struggled to hit the 6,000 neighborhood for each matchup.
Crack houses get more visitors.
By contrast, Major League Soccer (13,475), Arena Football (9,958), and the National Lacrosse League (8,249) all drew more, or nearly as many, fans on average as the WNBA. (I can hear the voicemail messages now: LAYcross? What tha hale is LAYcross?)