Three months ago, I made the same drive that I did this weekend: Kansas City to Indianapolis, stopping in St. Louis along the way.
When I did it in July, it was to see Indiana play Connecticut; the Fever had a six-game winning streak going then and I figured I was sure to jinx them by showing up for the game and wrecking the “Fever on fire” story I was writing for ESPN.com.
But surprisingly that didn’t happen; Indiana won 67-53 with a balanced attack and would continue on until the streak reached 11 games in a row. That July 2 night about 6,500 fans were at Conseco Fieldhouse, a relatively small gathering, and yet it didn’t feel empty or lifeless that night. It felt like how a lot of regular-season WNBA games feel: The people who are there care, and if their teams give them a reason to get up, stomp, clap and yell, they do it _ and loudly.
After the Fever’s victory, I wrote up something for this blog and then started checking more of the happenings of the day. Including the unfortunate news that early that morning,Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi had been picked up for alleged driving while intoxicated.
Sunday was the first time I’d been back to Conseco since then, and this time there was an announced crowd of 18,000-plus for Game 3 of the WNB A finals. It was those same diehards who were here in July … plus about 12,000 more folks who are plugged into the Fever now because it’s gotten very exciting around here.
Taurasi has had the DUI and its upcoming penalties in the back of her consciousness in the three months since it happened and still played well enough to earn league MVP honors. She talks openly about it and has taken responsibility for it. After an 86-85 loss Sunday, her Mercury are now down 2-1 _ but it’s the same situation that Phoenix was in the 2007 Finals, and that Detroit was in during the 2006 Finals. Both Phoenix and Detroit went on to win those championships.
Whether that happens again for the Mercury remains to be seen, but nonetheless Sunday was a very interesting day in Indianapolis. Both sides, as usual, were none-too-pleased with the officials. Retiring veterans Yo Griffith and Vickie Johnson were both honored at halftime. Indy prevailed in a see-saw fourth quarter. And WNBA president Donna Orender, one of the candidates for LPGA commissioner, said she preferred to stay with hoops and would remain in her position.
Since Carolyn Bivens resigned/was forced out in mid-July as LPGA commissioner, there had been speculation that Orender – who for 17 years worked for the PGA Tour – would replace her. The women’s basketball rumor mill I kept hearing suggested that would happen, too.
Orender is very good at not saying anything she doesn’t want to say, and so she walked the tightrope of not shutting the door to the LPGA but not appearing to be actively holding it open, either. That takes some negotiating and diplomatic skills, which Orender has honed well over the years. When she was named WNBA president in 2005, I remember asking a colleague who was immersed in the golf world what the “real” story was on Orender.
And my colleague gave her high marks saying that Orender had managed to carve out her spot in the very patriarchal ranks of golf with dedication, hard work and not ticking off the wrong people.
A big media group at the WNBA All-Star Game this past July quizzed Orender on various topics, including the LPGA commissioner’s job, and she was neutral about it then. Before Game 2 of the WNBA finals in Phoenix, I asked Orender about it again, and I suspected _ based on her vague answer, body language and whatever else I thought I was picking up from her _ that she was at least seriously considering moving to the LPGA if the job were offered.
By Sunday, as she talked about the future of the WNBA, it seemed she was too energetic and upbeat, too much in a “planner” mode, to really be thinking about leaving.
Whatever you think of Orender, the sincerity of her belief that the WNBA is about making positive changes in people’s lives is very real. Yes, the league is also about trying to make money; it’s a business. But the “vision” of the WNBA, its commitment to contributing in a meaningful way to women’s lives and making basketball more inclusive no matter what your age, gender, race or nationality _ that’s all part of what drives Orender, too.
This is not to suggest she wouldn’t have been able to translate those same ideals and passions to the LPGA had she been offered that job and accepted it. Because she could have done that. But the WNBA and LPGA have some different challenges. Among the issues that Bivens faced were losing tournaments in a tough economic environment and the lingering concern that not enough of the large number of players from South Korea have learned to speak English.
Bivens suggested punitive measure for all players who didn’t already speak English or weren’t actively trying to learn. She wasn’t fully wrong about this idea in terms making the Asian players more understandable and better known to fans and pro-am partners, but she came off as heavy-handed.
The LPGA needs a dynamic person who puts the players’ needs at the forefront, can satisfy the fans and can negotiate effectively with potential sponsors big and small. I think Orender could have done that job well … but also believe she’s put so much time and effort into the WNBA that it was not something she really wanted to leave. She believes fully in the WNBA’s future and is facing it both optimistically and realistically.