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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
I know I will ever forget my first WNBA basketball game. It was the inaugural season, the inaugural game in Madison Square Garden, June 27, 1997. The president of the WNBA Val Ackerman tossed the ball up in center court as cameras recorded Kim Hampton of the New York Liberty and Lisa Leslie of the L.A. Sparks reached to tip the ball. This was a huge event and the crowd's noise level was a complete acknowledgement of that fact. Madison Square Garden was packed, the lights went out and the screams got louder; this was history.
The announcement of the WNBA came with mixed regards. There were those who thought that it took the United States long enough, and there were those who did not understand the point of having a professional women's basketball team. I find myself to this day defending the ideas many have about women's basketball - collegiate and otherwise. The regular comments are: 'It's too slow!' 'The scores are so low!' 'There's nothing to watch!' 'They don't dunk!' All the silly ignorant comments. My male cousin still refuses to even watch a game; he just doesn't see the point. My sentiments were more in regard to the amount it took for the WNBA to be formed. As a young basketball player I shared the dream of becoming the first woman in the NBA. (There had to be some goal!) Although those before me, possessing the greater talent were not able to do it, perhaps they were simply paving the way for me. I continued with the basketball camps, the leagues, and the school teams. I was eventually astonished to learn that there actually existed a Professional Women's basketball league. The only problem was that it was an ocean and a couple time zones away. I did not understand why there was a league in Europe but that the idea of a league had never been brought to the United States. Why did the women have to go to foreign countries? Why weren't they allotted the same promise of a career as the male athletes graduating from college? Why were women expected to give there all in collegiate sports just for the fun of it, while male athletes used it as an opportunity to build a portfolio for going on to becoming a professional athlete? It did not seem fare, and just made no sense.
It too years in the making, but finally we were able to bring our female basketball players back to the United States. The season was played in the summer. The summertime schedule immediately opens the doors for a new type of basketball fan. WNBA games are warmer; there are no stuffy men straight from their business meetings filling up the Madison Square Garden seats. No high profile attendees awaiting their picture on the big screen above center court. Above all the tickets are much less than a regular season New York Knicks game. The low-ticket prices brought in rowdier more enthusiastic fans. There were families sitting courtside instead of the usual businessmen and their impressionable clients - and of course Spike Lee. The fans were there because they loved basketball, not because they wanted to see Alan Houston or some other player paid millions to run up and down the court. There was a more genuine glow about the fans. A glow that only the people in nosebleed seats have at the New York Knick games. There were fathers with their daughters both wearing identical Lobo New York Liberty jerseys. I had never been to a Knicks game where the fans did the wave. Yes the wave! We kept it going for maybe six rounds until a fast break my Teresa Witherspoon temporarily debilitated our hands. The first game I spent most of the time screaming and looking around. It was the older women in jerseys who caught my attention most. The women who played ball pre-Title IX, who had the dreamed the dreams that the players on the court were finally bringing to fruition.
It all seemed entirely too perfect. It didn't seem to matter at first that the women were playing a much shorter season during the summer. It did not matter that my cousin hated to watch the games. All that mattered for those first couple months was the fact that finally young American female basketball players had role models. Girls no longer had to drive to the basket with their tongues out pretending to be Michael Jordan, they could be Teresa Witherspoon. When they ripped down a rebound, they didn't have to be Shaq Diesel, they could be Lisa Leslie. When they shot a delicious three point shot they didn't have to be Reggie Miller or Allen Iverson, they could be Dawn Staley.
It did not last though, at least not for me. I could not close my eyes to the articles about what these women did during the off-season. The majority of them did not command the celebrity status of the Lobos, the Leslies, or the Coopers. They didn't have the sneaker contracts; they could not survive off of celebrity appearances. These were the women who had to return to their regular lives. They had to return to their jobs - at banks, schools, and businesses. There was finally a women's basketball league, but the salary of the league alone could not support its players. The women were out there on the court for fun all over again. But it did not seem to bother the players. They were having fun living their dream.
The WNBA is a young organization so there is room for improvement. If the first year were perfect than there would leave no room for improvement. The social and cultural benefits of the league's creation cannot be ignored. Women's basketball will never be the same. I trust that the success of the WNBA will spawn the creation of more forums where collegiate women can pursue their professional career. The most talented young girls hope to find themselves in the draft heading to one of the WNBA teams. Unfortunately, they simultaneously have to fill out job applications and buy that interview suit.
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