Now Women's NBA Gets Under Way

In the idiom of playground basketball, "we got next" is what those waiting to take the court announce to players using it. The phrase is now the slogan for an entire league, the Women's National Basketball Association, which opens its season Saturday with the New York Liberty engaging the Los Angeles Sparks in the inaugural tip-off.

Just how much the American public desires to watch more basketball after a 7 1/2-month exposure to the National Basketball Association - in the heart and heat of summer, no less - appears the major question.

The WNBA, with a distinctive orange and off-white ball and fashionably cut uniforms, looks on last summer's Olympic attendance as an encouraging straw vote. People flocked to the women's basketball competition, and especially the gold-medal-winning United States team.

Attendance for the rival American Basketball League supplies another gauge of interest in women's ball beyond American college campuses. The ABL finished its first season in March, averaging 3,500 a game, more than projected. The WNBA expects a similarly solid reception playing in NBA arenas.

But can women's basketball suddenly support two leagues? That's a question individuals in both camps dance around.

For the moment, Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a guard with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, sees an upside to what others might perceive as an emerging civil war.

"Having two leagues is win-win for everybody," says the Hall-of-Famer who played for a now-defunct Women's Basketball League in the 1980s. "It spreads the goodwill of women's basketball all year round. I look at it as 80 more jobs for women players that we haven't had before and eight more coaching positions."

Jennifer Rizzotti, who played for the ABL's New England Blizzard, says that having only eight teams was a challenge. "It's tough having to play the same teams so many times," she observes. A merger might help provide critical mass, but that seems unlikely in the short term.

Both organizations want to establish themselves, and with the WNBA, the National Basketball Association's corporate reputation is on the line. The WNBA is jointly owned by the NBA teams, with the men's league throwing 50 years of business expertise behind the women's venture.

"There has never been a start-up sports league that has more resources behind it than we do," says Val Ackerman, WNBA president and a former four-year starter at the University of Virginia. Ackerman has been with the NBA since 1990, as an assistant to commissioner David Stern and then as director of business affairs. She says the idea for an NBA-supported women's league has been around for years, but the catalyst was the success of the women's national team, which NBA Properties promoted as an Olympic-year project.

"Everybody knows that the NBA is a marketing genius, so to add that to women's basketball takes the game to another level," says veteran forward Pam McGee. The WNBA not only enjoys the NBA's cachet, it also stands to benefit from extensive television exposure (coverage by NBC, ESPN, and Lifetime) and operational efficiencies, with each team run by the NBA team in that city.

There are even pluses to its 28-game summer season, which is shorter than either the NBA's (82 games) or ABL's (40) and which leaves the door open for players to play overseas during the winter.

The compact schedule appeals to a career woman like Lynette Woodard, a Wall Street stockbroker who will play for the Cleveland Rockers, and to a working mother like McGee, who will play for the Sacramento Monarchs. (Other league teams are the Houston Comets, Utah Starzz, and the Charlotte Sting).

Sheryl Swoopes, an expected WNBA star, is an expectant mother who may sit out all or most of the first season. Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie, two of the game's biggest names, help offset her absence. Lobo joins Swoopes this week as only the second female player with a mass-marketed shoe, "The Lobo."

The WNBA has four 1996 Olympians. The ABL has seven remaining members of that team and has signed several graduating college players, at least some of whom are attracted by a higher ABL pay scale ($40,000-$150,000). The ABL signed two of last year's best players, Stanford's Kate Starbird and Connecticut's Kara Wolters, then inked former Boston Celtics coach K.C. Jones to guide the New England Blizzard.

The WNBA has its own marquee names, including Phoenix coach Cheryl Miller, and has attracted top performers from overseas. Foreign players such as China's 6 ft., 8 in. Zheng Haixia could quickly make a name for themselves.

That would be a good sign, says Lynn Barry, special adviser to the WNBA and a longtime women's basketball executive. For her, the league's success can be measured in competitive parity and public recognition. If by August the public can name some previously unfamiliar WNBA players, Barry says, "then it will have been a successful season for us."

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