When Alana Beard knocked down a plush 21-foot J from the corner with time expiring to give the Los Angeles Sparks a 78-76 victory over the mighty Minnesota Lynx in Game 1 of the 2016 WNBA Finals at Target Center on Sunday night, the drama left no doubt that fans and viewers were experiencing the very best the WNBA has to offer in talent, competition, star power and excitement.
Four of the players featured in this series were among the 20 honored during halftime of Game 1 as the greatest WNBA players of all-time (Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and LA’s Candace Parker).
And boss players like Minnesota’s 6-foot-6 Sylvia Fowles and LA’s Nneka Ogwumike are glass cleaners on the fringe of cracking that list in a few seasons and keeping paint potency alive in the women’s game.
The Lynx, who have won three WNBA championships since 2011 and are favored to win a fourth, led 69-65 with 5:26 left. A 9-2 run gave Los Angeles the lead until future Hall of Famer and ice water queen Maya Moore tied the score at 76-76 with 24.7 seconds left, setting up Beard’s stroke of genius.
Moore passed Diana Taurasi (262 points) in Game 1 to become the all-time leading scorer in WNBA Finals history. The league has come a long way from June 21st, 1997, when the Los Angeles Sparks hosted New York at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California, in the first game in league history, a 67-57 Liberty victory.
The Liberty was led by a fiery, diminutive point guard with a playground legend’s flair, a general’s leadership and charisma, a wrestler’s grit and a beauty pageant queen’s smile. Her name was Teresa Weatherspoon “AKA” T-Spoon.
She’s known for “The Shot,”considered the most memorable buzzer-beater in WNBA history. T-Spoon’s half-court hurl with time expiring won Game 2 of the 1999 Finals for The Liberty made her the first female baller to own Madison Square Garden.
She was one of the first early legend WNBA players I met when I started covering the Charlotte squad for The Raleigh News & Observer back in 1998. The league had just popped off and I remember those old Sting teams with Andrea Stinson, Rhonda Mapp and UNC Tar Heel legend Tracy Reid. After the games, me and ESPN’s Jemele Hill would go out to eat with the players and just kick it. It was the beginning of a journey that many people felt would eventually fizzle out like the women’s leagues that preceded it.
However, the financial backing of the NBA, a solid fan base of kids, parents and the LGBT community, the rise of Olympic hoops domination and players with skill levels that have increased every season since the league’s inception has allowed the WNBA to thrive and be the catalyst for an entire generation of girl hoopsters who are serious about their sports and have their goals set on playing at the highest level, in a pro league that is now finally LEGIT.
(Photo Credit: visitindiana.com)
There have been 20 players in particular who have had significant athletic, cultural and transformative effects on the culture of the game and the rise of the league, and they were honored in front of the fans and awarded shiny rings on Sunday.
These women are the WNBA’s equivalent of the NBA’s Top 50 players of all-time.
T-Spoon, now a member of the college coaching carousel, was in attendance. Houston’s Big Three were also there. The incomparable Sheryl Swoopes, the WNBA’s three-time scoring champ Cynthia Cooper who’s dropping jewels as the head coach at USC these days and the league’s all-time scoring queen, Tina Thompson.
Houston won the league’s first four championships behind Hall of Fame coach Van Chancellor and the Big Three. They were unbeatable at their peak and lifted the visibility of the league by becoming its first dynastic squad. The Comets were 98-24 (.803) in the regular season and 16-2 (.889) in the playoffs during those four seasons.
Yolanda Griffith, a No. 1 overall pick in 1999, former MVP and eight-time All-Star was the WNBA’s Moses Malone with her power style and defensive prowess. She didn’t get drafted into the league until the age of 29, but still played 11 years and was a double-double dynamo in her prime.
All of these Triple OG’s helped kickstart the WNBA's crucial infant stages. They introduced new fans to the carpenters and bricklayers of of this women’s basketball revolution.
Other early-era ballers -- Portuguese pill magician Ticha Penicheiro, rainmaker Katie Smith, Tower of Power Lisa Leslie who’s been called “women’s basketball’s Bill Russell,” and sharp-shooting legend Becky Hammon, now an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs -- offered unique contributions to the game and their careers were vital to shaping the entertainment value of the sport, widening the league’s appeal and showing its diversity.
Players like Tamika “Grandmama” Catchings, No. 2 on the WNBA’s all-time points list, Queens legend Sue “The Flu” Bird, the No. 1 overall pick in 2002, current basketball analyst Swin “Glue” Cash, the No. 2 overall pick in that same season and three-time WNBA champion Deanna “Tweety” Nolan -- all 5-10, 142 pounds of her -- were the bridge between the old schoolers who sparked the league and the newschoolers who would take it to the next level. They were not only elite ballers, but incomparable ambassadors to the game and true marketing gems.
Lauren Jackson was the first international star to bumrush the WNBA. After starring in Australia, Jackson was the No. 1 overall pick in 2001 by the Seattle Storm.
(Photo Credit: Seattle Storm's Swin Cash, Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird)
She not only gained mythical international celebrity, but the girl from Down Under could flat out ball. Her three MVPs, seven All-League selections, three scoring titles and two championship rings put her in the conversation for greatest WNBA player of all-time. Jackson’s success coincided with the NBA’s venture into international markets and obsession with foreign players.
If she’s not the G.O.A.T, then she’s definitely a Top 3 game-changer. Her medal success with Australia, competing in four Olympic Games from 2000-2012, and her WNBA dominance, increased the global visibility and appeal of the league and expanded its future talent pool.
(Photo Credit: seattlestormbasketball.com)
These women helped keep the league afloat when the initial novelty wore off and ratings began to slip a bit. Their infectious play helped to sustain the league and navigate it through rough times by catching wreck on the international stage and inspiring the birth of a new era of supreme queen ballers whose overall skills began to equal that of their elite male players.
A slew of Lady Ballers were now coming out of high school and college (most notably the University of Connecticut) who patterned their games after the male ballers they admired and often competed against growing up.
The new era ballers; Candace Parker, The Terminator Diana Taurasi...(a moment of silence in reverence to the LeBron James of women's basketball)
Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Cappie Pondexter and Seimone Augustus were all college groundbreakers who came into the WNBA with all of the hype that surrounds anointed players in this social media-crazed time we live in.
They’ve all lived up to their billing. The pomp and circumstance that Candace Parker entered the league with after leaving Pat Summit's Tennessee basketball factory was similar to Patrick Ewing's when he was drafted by the Knicks out of Georgetown. Parker is the first WNBA player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. On June 22, 2008, she became the second woman in WNBA history—after her teammate Lisa Leslie—to dunk during a regular season game against the Indiana Fever.
She’s also the first player in history to win an MVP and then take a maternity leave the next season. Back then, her decision was questioned, criticized and debated. Now, it’s commonplace and an accepted part of a growing kingdom that is flourishing thanks to Parker and her Dangerous Dub of WNBA pioneers.