I thought I retired from basketball in 1996.
Once I played on the Olympic team that year and we won gold, I was done. No overseas hoops. Nothing. I signed a contract with Wilhelmina Models, came up to New York and tried to start modeling — doing some shows, going on auditions … mostly getting rejected for being too tall. But as for basketball? Those days were pretty much over.
I had mostly given up on the game because my dream of playing couldn’t go any further. Past the Olympics, there just wasn’t any real opportunity — in my mind — for me to play for a long time in the U.S. At the same time, there were talks of starting the American Basketball League for women to play professionally, but I opted out because it didn’t have the support of the NBA. And I didn’t want to play in Europe, which was really the only other option.
I needed to put basketball behind me. I felt like I had to make a decision and I couldn’t wait around any longer. I couldn’t keep feeling like I was standing on the sidelines, waiting for my name to be called, only to hear the buzzer go off before I got a chance to play. I moved on.
But then I got a call the following January …
The NBA was going to start a professional women’s basketball league and wanted me to join.
Suddenly, everything changed. NBA commissioner David Stern had made the decision in 1996 to back a women’s league. And ever since the first president of the WNBA, Val Ackerman, tossed the very first jump ball one year later to start the new league’s very first game, between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks at the Great Western Forum in L.A., women’s basketball has never looked back.
But we need to. Reaching 20 years this season allows us to do that. We need to grow — not just scrape by — for the next 20 years.
Looking back on my own childhood, other than being over six feet tall before I entered high school, I didn’t see much of a future in basketball. I mean, not many little girls did. Who would we look up to anyways? There was no women’s league, and we certainly weren’t getting into the NBA. After college, that would be that. I had been getting letters from all of the top college teams by the time I hit ninth grade. For me, basketball meant a scholarship. It meant choosing the school I wanted to go to. It meant the chance to pursue the career I had been dreaming of ever since I was seven years old — weather girl. Yup. I saw one on television and was like, Oh, wow! That’s cool. I wanted to be on TV. I wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to give people the news!
But that summer, I found myself inside a gym in my hometown of Inglewood, Calif. For some reason (I still don’t know why) the U.S. women’s basketball team had decided to play there. They could’ve gone anywhere in the world, and here they were — playing in front of me, in my local gym.
I sat there watching Katrina McClain, Anne Donovan and Teresa Edwards, and I felt myself — probably the first time — really falling in love with basketball. And also for the first time, I felt myself dreaming bigger: I wanted to be on Team USA.
But after the Atlanta Games, what else was there? I had taken my game as far as I could. What I didn’t realize though, was that the success we achieved at the 1996 Olympics had laid the foundation for the WNBA.
For the 11 players on Team USA, we felt like we were representing something bigger than the names on our backs. We wanted to build something. Before the Olympics started, we went on a tour of 20 or so exhibition games against top college teams. So at every matchup, we stopped and met with fans, signed autographs, kissed babies — all those sorts of things. Playing in Georgia or at UConn, we thought, How many times are these people going to see all of us together? So we gave them a show. We knew that many of the girls that came to see us hadn’t seen professional women’s basketball players before.
And did I mention that we could ball? We would go in and take care of top college teams — the cream of the crop, with all the best talent. So we showed that there was still another level for women to reach. David Stern recognized what he had on his hands: talent and a fan base that was ready to watch women play.
Finally, we got next.
No more standing on the sidelines, or watching through the fence. On April 24, 1996, David Stern announced the creation of the Women’s National Basketball Association. Our names would finally be called, some drafted and others assigned, to teams across the country. We were the New York Liberty, the Houston Comets, the Phoenix Mercury, the Sacramento Monarchs, the Cleveland Rockers, the Charlotte Sting and, of course, the Los Angeles Sparks.
Now, whether or not we were in shape to play — O.K. whether or not I was in shape to play — was another story. To be honest, after Atlanta, I hadn’t picked up a ball, hadn’t gone to a gym, hadn’t lifted a weight. And when I heard about the league, I imagined a casual summer league. We’d show up in reversible jerseys. Maybe we’d play in the gym at Long Beach State.
I never imagined where I’d actually be: standing in the Great Western Forum, in front of celebrities, a packed house of 14,000, wearing a jersey — my own jersey — as a pro ball player. I never thought they’d put us on par with the NBA. We’re going to play in the same arenas? What? We’re going to share a locker room with the Lakers? Seriously?
I was not prepared. At all.
In fact, I was exhausted. We did hours and hours of photos shoots and interviews with people all over the country and all over the world, right up until tip-off. It was a madhouse. And then we had to play on national TV in the first game, on June 21, 1997. I didn’t know what being a professional meant — media, fans, obligations off the court, and then a full game. It wasn’t the best game. The score was 67–57. It was exciting to make history, but being the first was tough.
I remember talking afterward to Sheryl Swoopes, who had been watching the game at home and had a moment to process. This is for real, she told me. Earlier I had dreamed of being a weather girl so I could be on TV. And here we were: Women, balling, as our jobs, and we were really on TV.
There was a real learning curve; I had to know when to rest, to show up early, to get shots up, to stay late, to do homework. I was playing against women I had never seen before, who had been playing professionally overseas. I was playing against some who I’d only kind of heard about on the college level, some of whom I had maybe played with here and there. We all had something to prove.
There were so many characters — personalities — that first season, and the years that followed.
There was Teresa Weatherspoon — T-Spoon — from Louisiana Tech, who had already been playing overseas, but here she was in New York City playing for the Liberty, and in her prime. She embodied their personality: tough and tenacious. She was a showman with so much passion.
There was Janice Lawrence Braxton, a center for the Cleveland Rockers. She was one of those players who had been a powerhouse in college. And in the W, she came after me. We battled.
In Phoenix, on the Mercury, you had Nancy Lieberman. I mean, Nancy was nearly 40 at the time, but she was such a baller. She showed us up. Her teammate, guard Michele Timms, from Australia, really embodied the personality of that team: fast-paced, run and gun, and very aggressive. Fans loved her so much they’d dye their hair blonde to look like her.
Over on the Sacramento Monarchs was Chantel Tremitiere, who was a tough-as-nails guard. She was always in your face, always trying to steal your ball. And Ruthie Bolton? Come on. When Ruthie crossed half court, there was no limit to her range. You see Steph Curry hitting some long-distance shots and dropping three-balls? Well, Ruthie Bolton would rival him in her ability and her consistency. Ruthie was it, and she immediately became a fan favorite.
And then there was Houston. The Comets. Now, everyone wanted to be the team to set the pace coming out in that first season. Everyone wanted that first championship. But the Comets … Tina Thompson. Cynthia Cooper. Sheryl Swoopes. The trifecta. Cynthia was the ultimate professional. She was the veteran, coming from a long pro career in Italy. She was tough —a Compton girl who went to USC. And Swoopes? She was considered the female Jordan. No one could take them down. (We all wanted to.)
In L.A., it was me and our guard, Penny Toler, who was all swag and always had her hair and nails done. We were both Hollywood. But we were also both about the L.A. tradition of winning. And not just winning games but winning championships. The Sparks were the sister team to the Lakers, so every year we didn’t win a championship was considered a bust.
Once the ABL folded in 1998, the WNBA was injected with even more talented players, including Yolanda Griffith, Dawn Staley, Katie Smith, Delisha Milton and Natalie Williams, to name a few.
And all of us had a chip on our shoulder. Old-school vets wanted to show they could play. The new girls had something to prove. The ’96 Olympic team thought, Oh, we gotta show everybody up.
But we were all excited. We knew the importance of what we were building. We knew that in order to grow, we had to connect with fans. We had to build communities around these teams. We had to build personalities and storylines. We needed rivalries and legacies and traditions.
That’s what all great leagues have.
People knew us. Not only our own cities, but even fans in opposing arenas knew our stories, who we were and most importantly, what we could do on the court. When we were on the road fans would yell to me, “Lisa! I love you, but the Sparks better not win!” Rivalries dominated the league.
Games were nationally televised, arenas were sold out. We didn’t need sponsorships on our jerseys, which were easily available and worn by fans all over the place. We were on posters. You’d see little girls with WEATHERSPOON, LESLIE, COOPER on their backs. We sold out Madison Square Garden — yes, the Garden — for our first All-Star Game in 1999. The Comets built a dynasty with four championships. They couldn’t be ignored, and Swoopes became the first woman to have a Nike shoe named after her. People wanted to play like a girl.
We’re 20 years on now. We gave our all to build the league with our best effort every game. As the game evolves, players get faster, handle the ball quicker and jump higher. We salute and welcome the next generation who deserve to have next. However, we need to look back and understand the responsibilities that come with the opportunity to play.
The talent is better than it’s ever been. Look, we were good. We were tough. And we had a lot of players who were specialists — women who were great shooters, but weak defenders, for example. Today’s players specialize in at least two or three things: scoring, defense and passing.
The game has risen. I watch the footwork of Tina Charles. I do the same for L.A.’s Jantel Lavender. Two words: Maya. Moore. She can stop on a dime and pull up like nobody I’ve ever seen. Skylar Diggins’s handle. Candace Parker’s and Elena Delle Donne’s ability to score — it’s like watching Kevin Durant, Lamar Odom and me. Their size — their length — and footwork makes them impossible to defend. They’ll kill you on the perimeter or take it to the hoop. Sue Bird can find anyone, anywhere, and set them up to score. Diana Taurasi’s the fiercest competitor in the league, and also one of my favorites because she’s the last player to bridge the gap, in my opinion, from old school to new school. She makes the big play in pressure moments every single time.
Player for player, the game is in good hands.
But we have to grow.
I never really thought about the vulnerability of the W until I saw the Sparks almost go under in 2014. You don’t ever imagine what you worked so hard to build could disappear overnight. I thought about Sacramento. I thought about Swoopes and Coop and Houston, and what they went through. With each team that folds, we lose another thread — where are those fans, where are those banners? Those trophies?
There are only three original WNBA franchises left from the league’s inaugural season.
For us, our passion to play was born in backyards, in gyms and on outdoor courts, with no league for us to aspire to. So we fought — every day — to keep playing. We’re seeing a generation of women in recent years who have come into the league never having known a time when it wasn’t around. For them, the W’s always been there. It’s always existed. But where would they be if the buzzer sounded before they got a chance to get next?
There is a need to do what we did so well at the beginning: Tell stories — not just of players but of teams and of rivalries. Build community. Connect with fans.
It’s all right there — on the court. We’ve got the teams, the marquee players, the skill. So let’s build up the rivalries. When Minnesota plays Phoenix, it’s an event and should be covered as such. The same way it was back in my day an event when Los Angeles played Houston or New York.
It’s certainly not as simple as telling great stories. There are a lot of larger issues surrounding the league’s marketing, perhaps unlike any other professional sports association — things like race, gender and sexuality. The league is light years ahead in terms of diversity; society has to catch up.
When you’re a female athlete, there are struggles: You need to be pretty so people care, but you don’t want to be too pretty or people are going to question your game. You need to be passionate and driven to win, but not too emotional. You need to be true to yourself, but not too true for fear of losing out on a sponsorship or potentially isolating certain demographics. You have to be strong and fit, but not too strong because a muscular woman isn’t considered commercially attractive.
You almost have to be perfect.
That’s not exclusive to female athletes. That’s exclusive to being a woman.
But the stories are there. Look at this 20th year:
You have an unprecedented cluster of 1-2-3 draft picks all coming from UConn. You have Breanna Stewart, coming into the league with four consecutive national titles. Is she ready? I’m sure Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker will have something to say about that. You watch and you decide. The Breanna Stewart–Candace Parker matchup could rival the Lauren Jackson–Lisa Leslie battle.
Skylar Diggins is back after an ACL injury and now in Dallas. New market, new city.
Diana Taurasi, one of the greatest ever to play — men or women — is returning. And it’ll be a battle inside the paint when she goes up against Maya. Brittney Griner will once again face off with last year’s WNBA Finals MVP, Sylvia Fowles. Will Phoenix disrupt Minnesota’s chase for their fourth championship in six years?
Can Elena Delle Donne repeat or build on her record-setting MVP year? If I was Tina Charles, I would be the first one saying, “Not on my watch.” This New York vs. Chicago battle just got better with the addition of six-foot-seven rookie Imani Boyette to lend a helping hand on the inside. But with the strong play of Cappie Pondexter and the Liberty’s loss of Epiphanny Prince, this just might be the Chicago Sky’s year to win the East.
Tell those stories. Broadcast those games. Show those highlights.
Twenty years ago, I thought I was done with basketball, but I helped build this and I’m not done. The players can’t be done and quite frankly, our fans can’t be done until we’re heard and our game is respected. Celebrated. Prioritized. Grown.
I had it first. Make sure young girls have the opportunity to have next.