As the first weekend of college football kicks off and millions of people get all fired up about the schools they attended and/or have longed rooted for, I was thinking about the college ties that bind and how that relates to the WNBA.
I don’t ever watch or write about a WNBA player who went to college here in the United States and not have her college association my mind. By that, I mean it never fades away as just something about her past. It remains a constant part of her identity.
And so as we’re in the midst of the conference finals, we remember it’s not just New York’s Cappie Pondexter … she’s the Liberty’s star from Rutgers. Same, of course, for her teammates Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn. They are Scarlet Knights for life.
Atlanta’s Kelly and Coco Miller now are both back in the Peach State for the WNBA. But no matter where they’ve played professionally, they will always be the Miller twins from Georgia. And while she had her ups and downs in Athens, Ga., Phoenix’s Kara Braxton is still a Bulldog, too.
The Mercury’s Temeka Johnson still has the big “L-S-U” letters on her jersey in my mind. Her point guard counterpart for Atlanta, Shalee Lehning, is the other “purple” collegiate player still in the WNBA postseason, representing Kansas State.
The Mercury’s DeWanna Bonner and the Storm’s Le’coe Willingham make you shout, “War Eagle!” for their Auburn Tigers. Speaking of birds of prey, even though she’s a dozen years removed from her days at Iowa, Phoenix’s Tangela Smith remains a Hawkeye. And her teammate Candice Dupree is a Temple Owl.
A ”gentler” kind of bird if you will, the seed-eating cardinal, is the mascot of Louisville. However, the school makes its logo’s teeth-bared, growling bird look mean. So it’s kind of appropriate that Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry is forever a Louisville Cardinal. Fans sometimes construe her on-court intensity as evidence she’s a grump. But her teammates admire her, saying she always listens to others’ opinions and is constantly trying to learn and grow.
Seattle’s Camille Little may wear green now, but she carries the tinge of Carolina Blue. Storm teammate Tanisha Wright has the darker blue of Penn State, while Atlanta’s Alison Bales is between those on the color scale with Duke blue. Bales’ fellow big woman with the Dream, Yelena Leuchanka, had an ACL-plagued stay at West Virginia and has overcome a lot to be in the WNBA.
In the Pac-10 section, we have New York’s Nicole Powell and Phoenix’s Brooke Smith representing the Dancing Tree of Stanford. The Mercury’s Taylor Lilley carries the Oregon banner, while New York’s Nikki Blue does the same for UCLA.
New York’s Leilani Mitchell of Utah (after three years at Idaho) is still linked to the Mountain West Conference, although her Utes are headed to the Pac-10. Also representing the MWC is Phoenix’s Sequoia Holmes, a Vegas native who was a standout for her hometown UNLV Rebels.
Atlanta’s Armintie Price played for a different group of Rebels, those from Ole Miss. New York’s Plenette Pierson (Texas Tech) and Atlanta’s Brittainey Raven (Texas) could tell you chapter and verse about the Red Raider-Longhorn rivalry. Also spending their college days in the Lone Star State were New York’s Taj McWilliams-Franklin (St. Edward’s) and Atlanta’s Sancho Lyttle (Houston).
Far to the north was Alison Lacey at Iowa State, who when drafted by Seattle made the slight meteorological switch from the Cyclones to the Storm. Even further north in college was Janel McCarville, who came to the Liberty after helping take the Minnesota Gophers to an exhilarating and unexpected Final Four.
Which brings us, of course, to the college royalty section, where Final Fours are piled up like poker chips. Representing the Orangebloods of Tennessee are Seattle’s Ashley Robinson and New York’s Sidney Spencer.
And, for the grand finale, we have the Bluebloods of UConn: Phoenix’s Diana Tauarasi and Ketia Swanier; Seattle’s Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Svetlana Abrosimova; and New York’s Kalana Greene.
OK, so … I went through this whole college tour of those players in the WNBA’s conference finals because of my hope that the links between the college fans and the WNBA continue to grow stronger.
Admittedly, the WNBA is mostly during summertime, when people want to be outside a lot and go on vacations. Maybe watching basketball isn’t quite as appealing to everyone then. But now, summer is over, everyone’s back in school, and it’s down to the four best teams.
I also understand that college fans have those aforementioned deep ties to their schools, and if they don’t have a former player in the WNBA or one who’s currently active, they may not be glued to the action. Especially if they don’t have a WNBA team anywhere nearby and rarely, if ever, have a chance to see games in person.
I get all of that, but _ and I don’t mean this in a scolding way _ if you enjoy women’s college basketball, you’re missing out if you don’t watch the WNBA.
Sure, there have been some growing pains for the league, and the quality of the product wasn’t always as high in the earlier seasons as it is today. It takes a while to really build a talent pool of professional-level athletes. But now it’s very difficult to earn one of the 132 roster spots in the league.
So I’m kind of amazed, or maybe the better word is perturbed, that there are still people who love women’s college basketball but somehow don’t realize how high the caliber of play is now in the WNBA, or how much fun it is to watch.
Last year at the Big 12’s women’s hoops media day, I found myself very irritated by the league’s coaches in regard to the move of the Shock from Detroit to Tulsa. It meant a WNBA team in the heart of Big 12 territory, in a state where the league had two schools. But the coaches’ attitude, with a few exceptions, seemed to be a collective “eh.”
It’s not that they were negative toward the WNBA, but that they appeared lukewarm or even indifferent. I wondered, “How can people so good at X’s and O’s be unable/unwilling to connect dots?”
How can the success of the WNBA not be of great importance to college coaches? It makes no sense to me. The WNBA represents the women’s game at full flower.
And the success of the pro league is the final piece needed to complete the sport’s place in the American landscape. It allows the best players in this country to showcase the full arc of their competitive lives in the United States, from their days as little kids learning the game until they retire.
Yes, most of them still go overseas in the winter months to supplement their incomes. That’s an economic reality. But if it weren’t for the WNBA, the stars we’ve been able to watch develop during these 14 seasons – both American and those from other countries _ would be, like their great predecessors, mostly invisible to us except during the Olympics.
Admittedly, there have been very rough moments for the WNBA, particularly in having past-champion franchises Houston, Detroit and Sacramento fold or move because of owners’ financial issues.
But I still point out to those who continue to have a relentless Chicken Little attitude about the WNBA as a whole that kids who had just gotten out of kindergarten the summer the league started are now in college. And they may be playing in the WNBA in a few years.
So if you have a college tie to the WNBA, and you’ve followed your player(s) into the league and their teams are still alive, no need to tell you to make a point to watch the rest of the playoffs. You’re counting the hours until the next tipoff.
If your college player(s) are out but through them, you’ve become a fan of the league, you probably don’t need much of a nudge, either. You’ll tune in.
And if you have no college ties that bind you to the WNBA, or if you do but you just haven’t “gotten into” the league, hey, this is the time: conference finals.
Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern time on ABC: Seattle at Phoenix. Then at 7 Eastern, on NBA TV (or if you don’t get that channel, then via Live Access on WNBA.com; it’s free): Atlanta at New York.
Anyone who cares for girls and women’s basketball should have a rooting interest of some sort in the WNBA.