After my earlier post today, I was asked by someone what I thought of the idea of women playing in the NBA.
To begin with, as Ian Thomsen described in his original SI article, the very premise that NBA commissioner David Stern’s response to the question of whether we’ll see a woman in the NBA one day does not exactly strike me as strong advocacy for basketball integration.
David Stern believes women could be playing in NBA within decade - Ian Thomsen - SI.com
"Sure," he said matter-of-factly. "I think that's well within the range of probability." He went on to explain his reasoning as well as jokingly ask that I seek out other opinions, so that he wouldn't appear to be pushing this most progressive and liberating pursuit down the throats of his players, coaches and executives.
It’s probably important to note that Stern built the NBA as a highly – some might say "ruthlessly" – image conscious and shrewd commissioner. On top of that, the WNBA is "his" project. It’s hard for me to imagine him saying, "No that will never happen" for two reasons: 1) it would open him up to the possibility of accusations of sexism and disrespect to women’s sports and 2) it would give haters that much more ammunition with which to demean the WNBA by association. Surely, he’s aware that the WNBA is losing money and doesn’t need anything that might even be taken as a hint of negative press.
Stern made the response he had to make as a businessman interested in the well being of both his image and the image of the WNBA. I have a hard time seeing it as anything more than that.
However, even if we are to take Stern’s response as genuine interest in moving in the direction of bringing women into the league, there are still challenges.
First, the question is would this woman who made a NBA roster just be present, part of the rotation, or a starter? Bethlehem Shoals has already explored this predicament down at The Baseline.
On the NBA's Gender Barrier - Bethlehem Shoals - The Baseline - Sporting News
This is where Diana Taurasi enters the conversation, seeing as she's got height, dead-eye range and a great basketball mind.
What exactly would Taursai do in the NBA, though? Be a 6' Kyle Korver? Would she want to do that? Would that really serve the purpose of breaking the gender line?
All of which undermines the final reason: "The first women will be greeted with newfound respect." This experiment only makes sense if a player is capable of playing her game with the men. Otherwise, it's condescending, pointless and an insult to everything the WNBA has achieved on its own.
When Shoals and I discussed Taurasi, other names that came up were Steve Kerr, Dell Curry, or Stephen Curry, point being that it would more than likely be a minimal role.
In other words, the experiment is more likely to become a media sideshow and with plenty of haterade to go around if a player like Taurasi – the 2009 WNBA MVP and Finals MVP – ends up being a minor contributor in the NBA. Really, if a player like Taurasi were anything less than an all-star in the NBA, it automatically damages the credibility of the WNBA.
Second, and an extension of the first point is that it is unlikely that any female players other than perimeter players – and really only athletic, quick guards -- would even have a shot at the NBA. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lebron James sums that up nicely with his response to the issue.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James doesn't think women will be playing in the NBA in next decade - ESPN
Cavaliers forward LeBron James isn't so sure. The reigning NBA MVP was asked about Stern's comments prior to the Bulls-Cavaliers game on Friday night. "Ten years?" James asked. "That's, like, right around the corner. [In] 10 years, I'll be 34. I'll still be in the NBA. I think 10 years is pushing it, honestly."
Baylor University freshman Brittney Griner is 6’8", plays center, can dunk within a short range around the basket and is (justifiably) expected by many analysts to transform the women’s game. James is listed at 6’8" 250 pounds – though it’s commonly assumed that he weighs more -- could almost play four positions, can dunk over seven foot men, and is transformative in his own right. Griner would be a marginal NBA prospect at best for the NBA.
Could 6'8" Brittney Griner play in the NBA? - Ball Don't Lie - NBA Blog - Yahoo! Sports
And here's why: While Griner's 6'8" frame might make her the swat-blocking Gheorge Muresan of Texas women's high school basketball, it would mean nothing in the NBA. Can you imagine her trying to defend someone as athletic and strong as Rudy Gay or Andre Iguodala? It would be impossible. I'm still convinced that the first woman to play in the NBA will actually be a short, lightning-quick point guard with great decision-making skills and a jumpshot. You know, like, Jose Calderon ... but ... um ... not.
Sure, James is the extreme and Griner is nowhere near her peak potential though she is currently second in the NCAA with 5.9 blocks per game. But if we went down NBA rosters and just compared each player by position to their WNBA counterparts, physical mismatches would occur more often than not, despite J.E. Skeets' claim that the first woman would have to be a guard.
This is a point that WNBA legend Lisa Leslie has made in the past and Anthony Parker – Candace’s Parker’s sister -- made in the very same ESPN article. It’s less sexist than a current biological reality that realistically will not change in the relatively short time period of ten years.
Third, there is value to the WNBA in terms of providing great professional female sports role models for girls not only to model their games after, but also have a sense of an attainable goal.
A League of Our Own: Why Must WNBA Players Be Compared to Men?
I provided this brief history, including several failed professional women's basketball leagues, to set the framework for what I believe our focus regarding women's basketball should actually be: we need a successful league of our own. We don't need to try and play in the NBA to prove we are great players. We need the WNBA to prove itself a thriving professional league that will be sustained for generations to come, just as the men's professional sports leagues have. Our daughters need great professional players to model their game after, just as our sons have. It's imperative that we stop comparing the women's game to the men and allow women's basketball players to be just that…women's basketball players.
Prior to the existence of the WNBA, this question might have been more interesting given a potential opportunity for the best female basketball players to showcase their talents alongside the best male players. It was interesting when both Ann Myers-Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman took a shot.
Moreover, I don’t think we can disregard the significance of the WNBA to women’s sports at large – it is currently the longest standing women’s professional sports league in the U.S. If the best female players start playing in the NBA only to become average, it not only waters down women’s basketball, but also one of the most visible women’s sports "successes" and an indirect Title IX success (it’s very difficult to separate the quality of the professional game from the developmental quality of the amateur game).
Of course, the financial benefits of playing NBA basketball in the U.S. instead of Euroleague overseas may be appealing to some WNBA players. The two seasons are complementary, not competing, so a woman could conceivably play in both leagues. And yes, if we consider the NBA to be the best of the best in the world, if a woman can play in that elite company there is an argument not to stop her..
However, with the existence of the WNBA, I agree with Scott – women need to build the league of their own. Women don’t stand to gain a whole lot by attempting to play in the NBA.
Update: To balance out the cons with a pro from direct from a NBA player, Jayda Evans refers to an interview with former Seattle Sonic Kevin Durant in which Durant claimed that Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson could play in the NBA.
Sports | Seattle Times Newspaper
Did you know Lauren Jackson dropped 41 on Washington last summer: "It was 47, I think."
You know, you're right, excuse me: "Now, she's a player. She could play in the league [NBA]. She's a great player. She's one of those players that can do just about anything on the floor. I really have a lot of respect for her game. I forget where she's from [Australia], but she came over and took the game by storm and that's something I like to see. That makes the game exciting, to see a tall player like that do just about anything."