"The talent has changed, more so than anything," Weatherspoon said of what has unfolded in a basketball lifetime that has already taken her from playing at Louisiana Tech to coaching against Griner. "It's a faster-paced game. It's not post people with their back to the basket anymore; they can step out and shoot midrange shots or 3-point shots and being able to put it on the floor like a guard would to get to the basket. It's more of the talent that has changed to make the game so much better. "The game is going to remain the same; the talent makes the game look a little bit different. Because the game must be played hard, the ball must go in the basket, you must defend, you must rebound, you must do all those different things."
- From "Baylor Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey wins first meeting with alma mater" - Graham Hays
(Photo above by Rebecca Rider)
A few weeks ago, a friend and I walked into another friend’s bar and he said he’d been working on a new drink that he was trying to perfect so we could be his "guinea pigs".
He’s one of those people who strives to be the best at whatever he does and when he says "he’s been working on something", it means he’s been reading about it, talking to more experienced bartenders, and coming to us only when he’s ready to find that special harmony between theory and practice.
Well, the drink was ok, I guess – not his best. So once he got our feedback and discussed alternatives, he immediately responded and tried a different mix. Better, but not perfect. I think I ended up trying three before he was even satisfied with the outcome…which was just about enough drinking for me on the evening. But anyway, regardless of the quality of the drink what I appreciated was not only the effort required to improve it but also the amount of advance work that I didn’t see to make something worth sharing. For me it wasn’t solely about the outcome, but having some context to make sense of the significance of the outcome.
Actually, while there is mutual respect between us, the only time we actually hang out is in the presence of our mutual friend. Aside from the fact that we both laugh entirely too often, think about the things we’re passionate about far too much, and happen to be two black men in Seattle, we actually clash quite often on everything from politics to race to sports (not that I always take the high road: he’s an unapologetic Kobe Bryan fan, I am an unapologetic post-Van Exel Laker hater).
The one substantive thing we definitely share is an appreciation for people who strive to be the best at what they do. And perhaps moreso than him I also appreciate the developmental process of becoming the best – it’s probably the one thing that the people I surround myself with have in common and something that I highly value for myself.
Where he and I differ is on the application of this principle to women’s basketball: whereas I readily extend the principle to women’s basketball as a function of it showcasing some of the best female athletes in the world, he cannot extend the principle to the women’s basketball because he considers NBA players to the be the best players on the planet and everything else – WNBA and NCAA men’s or women’s – to be less than the best.
I suppose it ultimately goes back to my appreciation of the developmental process that leads to one aspiring to reach the top of their profession that ultimately separates us. Not to get too "Title-IX on you", but there’s something to be said for the fact that the structures to support a developmental pathway for women were not really in place until at least 1972 and without an even minimally "stable" professional extension until 1997. Taken on those terms, the game has grown immensely over a relatively short period of time.
Having followed the professional game closely for only two seasons and really not following the college game closely in over a decade, the place where the growth of the game most strongly felt the growth of the game was in watching smaller programs for whom the Big Dance is realistically a distant fantasy.
Working in almost complete obscurity, it is talent level of the women playing at or near the bottom of the RPI rankings that many people will consider irrelevant to the national scramble for superiority by February that have captured my imagination. As I watched the schools participating at both the Husky Classic and SeattleU Thanksgiving Tournament last weekend, at some point I was left thinking, wow… women’s basketball really has come really far.
It’s not so much that I didn’t "Expect Great" from all levels of women’s basketball – it’s more that I simply didn’t appreciate the full extent of how far the game had come. As someone who does not yet have a strong historical understanding of the game, it’s taken a while to get used to the flow of the game and be able to place individual actions in a broader context.
University of Washington philosopher Deborah Kerdeman describes an experience of "being pulled up short" as a unique experience of disorientation that involves a convergence of events or ideas that catalyze questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions about both oneself and/or a particular subject matter. The idea has been applied to everything from classroom learning to the process of coming to awareness of white privilege, but here I apply it to basketball – there was something that I got from watching these smaller schools that catalyzed a shift in how I see women’s college basketball. I suppose I would even go as far to say that it was the moment that I not only became comfortable with the flow of women’s college basketball, but also shifted my perspective on how the game is played across the national spectrum.
The moment I most distinctly felt "pulled up short" was watching The College of William & Mary guard Taysha Pye a few hours after watching the University of Memphis guard Brittany Carter drop 49 points on Sacramento State. In some ways the two players are polar opposites – Pye’s game predicated on strength and agility, literally overpowering Seattle University defenders as she drove to the basket, while Carter’s speed and athleticism allowed her to go by or jump over Sacramento State defenders.
It’s not just that they beat up on smaller opponents or somehow demonstrated the "purity" that people claim exists in women’s basketball, it’s how they did it. The ways in which Pye punished defenders as she drove to the basket and the way Carter would lull her defender to sleep with a few dribbles before pulling up for a step back fade away jumper is not exactly what women’s basketball advocates have in mind when they speak glowingly of how the women’s game is more "pure". These were displays of almost athleticism complementing skill within the flow of a women’s game as opposed to the ball movement and patient deliberation that people normally associate with the women’s game and possibly college basketball as a whole.
But most importantly, what I saw was women on teams that few people would consider tournament contenders pulling off moves that I might have been considered revelatory a decade ago. Having watched the WNBA up close this past season, it’s not that I didn’t realize women could do that – it’s that I’m not sure I fully appreciated how far the game had come at all levels.
Watching the games – and Carter and Pye in particular – I had one of those "pulled up short" moments in which I stepped back and realized for a moment that the game has come even further than I thought. It’s similar to what ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel wrote in an article last week in an article about the Big 12:
Big 12 boasts ups and some downs in beginning of season - ESPN
That's because when you've followed the programs for so long and seen them in person so much, you just have a feel for the entire spectrum of what they're capable of -- the good and the bad.
Of course, I won’t claim to have reached the level of higher basketball consciousness of Voepel, but it was almost as though I took one step further down that path watching these games – getting a sense of what women’s college basketball players are capable of across the spectrum. It’s that feeling of understanding what the athletes are capable of and watching them exercise those abilities during the course of a competition when their teammates need it most is actually quite powerful as an observer of the game.
Obviously, watching eight teams play a whole lot of games over the course of a weekend is not sufficient to make up for a lack of the historical perspective that someone like Voepel brings to bear on her basketball analyses. However, just getting a stronger grasp of what’s currently possible is a step in that direction.
I will not go as far to say that real fans "appreciate small college basketball" or "watch all levels of women’s basketball" – I would argue those things are a matter of taste. I will never beg someone to watch basketball if they simply don’t want to. In fact, I’d say that going out to the park, playing a game and actually trying to execute the things you expect of the athletes you watch is the best way to understand the game.
But I’m willing to stand behind the claim that the game is not just improving linearly, but actually transforming in ways that are easier to appreciate once you actually watch the people working to be the best at the bottom of the RPI rankings. There are better athletes, more versatile players, new tactics, and more players that are simply able to take over the game at all levels of play.
All of this is obviously a result of Title IX, which supports a range of formal structures and support mechanisms that build interest and develop talent over time. And in a year in which women’s basketball legend Lisa Leslie retired with two professional dunks, Baylor University freshman Brittney Griner might make dunking look routine. Despite imminent contraction, the WNBA had arguably its best season ever. The Mercury have Taurasi, the rest of us still don’t, and she seems to be peaking. We might eventually look back on 2009 as a milestone year in women’s basketball.
But that’s not necessarily the point: what I’m most impressed by is the athletes who are competing to reach the top of their potential at a level of obscurity beyond what Ben York described for WNBA athletes. There is a cheesy "for the love of the game" component.
Eager for more
As I left Bank of America Arena after watching the University of Washington men’s basketball team defeat Cal State Northridge last night, the photographer who shoots the games I write about said goodbye and we briefly started talking logistics about the next event.
"I’m excited for Wednesday’s game," he said referring to the women’s basketball game between the University of Washington and Seattle University at the Connelly Center.
While on some level it might strike some as odd to get excited about a women’s basketball game between schools that will likely be irrelevant by February, I responded, "Yeah, it should be a great atmosphere – looking forward to it."
The game will probably get little attention outside Seattle – if outside the two campuses --- and will likely be considered inconsequential regardless of the outcome. Although there is undoubtedly more pressure on Washington given that SeattleU is a transitioning Division I school, there has to be some self-imposed pressure from the SeattleU angle to prove themselves as worthy of an authentic rivalry.
But for me this season, watching the games at both schools and getting to talk to the coaches about how they approach the game makes it difficult not to get caught up in the "excitement" of a cross-town grudge match. The potential of a cross-town rivalry in Seattle at some level embodies the development of the game as a whole.
Nobody is going to call them the future of women’s basketball or make claims that they’ll revolutionize the game.
But what I appreciate is that overall progression from top to bottom. It’s impressive to me.
And I hope people are patient enough to support its continued growth.