We’ll have that look at the Pac-10 coaches soon, but the Lauren Jackson decision bumps that post for the moment.
LJ announced she is returning to Seattle, rather than moving to Phoenix. Now that things are official, the Storm can think about at least the potential of a championship team instead of, “Oh, Lord, what are we gonna do?”
Which is not to say LJ is the only good player in Seattle, of course. Rather, it’s to say she remains irreplaceable. Jackson is not just one of the great players in the league right now. She’s on that list of the greatest to have played women’s hoops.
That’s how I view it, but I’m curious what fans think. When you’re determining “greatest” in terms of women’s basketball, there are some real challenges that aren’t there as much with other sports, particularly men’s sports. Starting with the fact that so much of the history of women’s basketball is unseen by so many people.
Any kind of “greatest” poll that would be voted on today would be heavy with players from the last 20 years. Honestly, I think better training and athleticism would validate many of those choices. But also, regularly televised games, far more media coverage, the Internet and the chance to play professionally in the United States in a viable league _ all those things combine to allow the players from the past two decades to actually be three-dimensional figures in our heads.
Go back much further than that, though, and you’re relying on stats, reputation and anecdotal evidence … that is rather slim on the anecdotes. Just an example: Kansas’ Lynette Woodard had games of 49, 44 and 43 points during February 1979.
Before Woodard was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2004, I went looking through the Kansas City Star/Times microfilm to see what might have been written about that 1979 three-week period, which was amazing even by her standards.
I found a few paragraphs and sentences here and there. Such as: “Lynette Woodard scored 43 points as the Kansas women beat Kansas State 92-91 in double overtime.”
That was it. You can only imagine how much more of the story there really was for a game like that, but that’s all that made it into the KC paper. (Of course, the way newspapers are collapsing nowadays, that very same thing could happen again. But, for now, I won’t get into that).
Woodard scored 3,649 points in college, won gold in the 1984 Olympics, competed in overseas pro leagues, spent time with the Globetrotters and, at the twilight of her career, even played in the WNBA. But unless you were there in person, you probably saw very little of Woodard actually playing.
You certainly could say that all sports also have the issue of judging “greatness” while trying to measure it against how much more we see and know about athletes today than we used to. But women’s basketball is particularly like that. The collegiate game as we know it didn’t start until the late 1960s/early 1970s. Before that, the game was played at the AAU level, in high school in some states but not others, by a scant few colleges, in industrial leagues, by barnstorming groups and internationally. And, of course, it was six-on-six in some places.
It was just so hodge-podge for a long time, far stronger in some geographical regions of this country and the world than in others. How are we to judge the best players from various eras when their opportunities were so different? How do you compare, say, the best players from Nashville Business College/Wayland Baptist from the 1960s vs. today? (Not sure you really can).
Again, you run into issues like this in all sports, even “timed” sports where there are more straightforward comparisons. We know Usain Bolt in the 2008 Olympics ran the 100 meters a whole lot faster than Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. But we absolutely still consider Owens to be among the “greats,” since part of the measurement of great athletes is how they ranked in their era.
In Major League Baseball, you have to consider things like stars who competed when the big leagues truly did not have all the sport’s best players because segregation kept African-Americans and other minorities out. You consider that players for years traveled no further west than St. Louis … but did much of that travel by train. That they mostly played day baseball compared to today’s players mostly playing at night.
And you realize there is a “romance” to baseball – the most well-covered and documented sport among Americans – that powerfully elevates players of certain eras to greatness. Not saying they don’t deserve that. It’s just all part of the process of trying to wade through how to decide who is truly great.
There has not been that kind of legend-building “machinery” for women’s hoops. And for discussion’s sake of the greatest in women’s basketball, you can make up your own rules and criteria. A lot would depend on how old you are, what part of the country you live in and how long you’ve followed women’s hoops. If you split women’s basketball into a “modern era” that begins basically post-Title IX, then you’re looking at it a lot like I do.
And it’s in that prism that a strong case can be made for LJ ascending, with each successive year, further into the realm of hoops greatness. As an Australian, she didn’t come to the United States to play at a college. What we saw of her as an international/pro player while still a teen-ager confirmed that she didn’t need to play college ball to be ready for the highest level. (Although it is fascinating to think what kind of impact LJ would have had on the college game if she had played for a U.S. university.)
All due respect to Jackie Stiles, but LJ really should have been the 2001 WNBA rookie of the year. She’s subsequently won two league MVP awards, a Defensive Player of the Year Award and a WNBA title. She has one World Championship gold medal and three silvers from Olympic Games competition. She’s played for pro teams in Australia, Korea and Russia.
She ‘s competed despite painful injuries. She’s managed to stay loyal to her home country’s national team while also carrying the banner for the WNBA. She’s always worked on improving every aspect of her performance, and there is no more well-rounded 6-foot-5 player in the women’s game.
For her eight-year WNBA career, Jackson has averaged 19.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.6 assists. She’s hit 50.2 percent of her 2-point shots and 34.8 percent of her 3-pointers. She is just one of those players that you build teams around.
Jackson will turn 28 on May 11. And if there’s been a concern about her, it’s that her career may be shortened by the toll taken on her body from nearly year-round play and the travel. As much as I’d like to see her play for several more years and hope that’s the case, I don’t think she really needs more time to be considered among the greatest players. She’s already there. What do you think?