by Howie Stalwick

The players can't dunk, rarely talk trash, actually earn their college degrees and hardly ever wind up on the police blotter. Can this really be pro basketball? Welcome to the WNBA -- the Women's National Basketball Association. Call the WNBA the little sister of the men's NBA if you want, but keep in mind that many of the "little sisters" playing in the WNBA stand 6-foot-5 or taller.

On Saturday, Spokane becomes the first-ever "neutral site" for a WNBA regular-season game when the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty try to take advantage of the basketball mania that is Hoopfest. The Storm and Liberty have been two of the WNBA's top teams in the early going this season, and Seattle forward-center Lauren Jackson -- a 6-foot-5 Australian who is the reigning Most Valuable Player of the WNBA -- draws plenty of votes as the world's No. 1 active female basketball player.

To those who equate the latter honor to that of being the world's greatest one-armed banjo player... chill. WNBA players won't ever be as big or fast or strong as most NBA players -- or plenty of male college and high school players, for that matter -- but they're the best of the best at what they do, and the WNBA has developed a respectable following in its eight years of existence.

"The WNBA is a league that keeps getting better every year," says Sue Bird, Seattle's all-star point guard.

"The college game has gotten so much better, and a lot of people follow players in college and continue following them in our league," says WNBA executive Paula Hanson.

Hanson is quick to add that "We're still a young league. We're only eight years old, and we're still growing. We're not where we hope to eventually get."

Strangely, for a league staging its first neutral-site game 300 miles from the nearest WNBA city, requests for a brief phone interview with league president Val Ackerman were ultimately rejected. The league flatly refuses to divulge per-game attendance averages for each season. The WNBA also refuses to disclose how much money teams have made or lost -- Storm CEO Karen Bryant says "a few" teams have turned annual profits -- or how much financial support NBA teams provide all WNBA franchises except the Connecticut Sun. (The Sun is owned by the Mohegan Sun Casino and plays home games at the Casino, which is operated by the Mohegan Tribe.)

According to the Seattle Times, WNBA teams averaged a record-low 8,826 fans per game last season. The New York Daily News reported that the WNBA attendance record of nearly 11,000 has stood since 1998, the league's second season. Like most pro leagues in their infancy, the WNBA has seen a number of teams fold or move.

Hanson did confirm that the NBA has committed to at least three more years of financial support for the WNBA after this season, though the amount will decline each year. David Stern, the NBA commissioner, said prior to last season -- which Stern threatened to cancel if the players' union did not drop its salary demands -- that NBA support of the WNBA would total $12 million in 2003.

Asked if the WNBA could survive without NBA dollars, Hanson says, "We'd like to think we could, but NBA support has been very key."

WNBA teams play in the same arenas as their NBA landlords, but upper-level seating is blocked out for most games. Bryant says she would be pleased if the Spokane Arena crowd trickles into the upper level.

"We're hoping to draw six or seven [thousand]," Bryant says. "We're a long ways from that at this point, but that's our target. That's about what we do at home."

Bryant says the Storm will set up ticket booths and have players sign autographs at Hoopfest. WNBA players, unlike many of their NBA counterparts, tend to mix easily and eagerly with the public. The egos of WNBA players are kept in check by a maximum salary of $87,500 and by a team salary cap of $647,000. The average WNBA salary is around $54,000. (Compare that to $4.5 million in the NBA. Of course, WNBA teams play 34 games, compared to the NBA's 82.)

"You might be making only $50,000," Bird reasons, "but the season is only four months long. You have the opportunity to play elsewhere and make a lot of money. A lot of players in the league, for lack of a better term, have 'real jobs.' They're lawyers, or people going back to school to become doctors."

Many foreign leagues pay top dollar for premier players. Jackson, for example, plays in a pro league back home in Australia, and she earned $220,000 for playing three postseason games in Russia this year. Many WNBA players earn relatively small salaries, but are able to remain in the United States by playing in the National Women's Basketball League from January to March.

Bird is one of numerous WNBA players set to play in the Olympics, so the league is shutting down in August to free its players to play in Greece. Jackson will play for Australia; the Storm's Kamila Vodichkova is part of the Czech Republic's Olympic team.

Excitement created by the U.S. women's gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games prompted the NBA to create the WNBA. The U.S. sports scene may be littered with the carcasses of various women's pro sports ventures, but WNBA supporters say their league will not only survive but flourish.

"It's definitely still a work in progress," Bryant says. "I think we're all optimistic. The trends in most markets are positive."

"The level of talent just keeps getting better and better," Bird says. "As long as we have a good product on the court, the league has a good future."

Publication date: 06/24/04

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