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McCoughtry, Powell Ready for Haier Shooting Stars: Spreading a Message or Just "Ballers"?

New York Liberty forward Nicole Powell has a message for Team Sacramento teammate Chris Webber

L.A. Times columnist and Truthdig contributor Mark Heisler said that the NBA All-Star Game has become "something that you endure" rather than an event to enjoy.

"As All-Star games go anymore, it’s completely ceremonial," said Heisler of the atmosphere in Dallas on Thursday in a Truthdig podcast. "It’s all about schmoozing corporate sponsors. This year they happened to put it in that new Cowboys stadium so they can actually sell as many tickets as fans can buy or fans can get in. But the NBA All-Star Game lost its character really in the 80’s when Magic and Isaiah and Bird used to make it a fun kind of thing."

As Heisler tells it, whereas less jaded, less rich, and less well-known players in the 80’s really cared about winning for the sake of bragging rights, today’s bored multi-millionaires are simply going through the motions of participating in a "glorified layup line" in which "everybody lets everybody else dunk and tries to make tricky plays out of everything".

Of course, Heisler’s critique is not new.

People have been complaining for years that the All-Star Game – if not the entire All-Star weekend in its entirety – has become a boring, stale spectacle that only commands our attention because the NBA tells us it should. If we accept Heisler’s assessment, perhaps we could say that the game has gone from the individualism of earning bragging rights from winning to the bragging rights earned from intermittent moments of showmanship that . Neither is particularly virtuous, but one clearly makes for better basketball than the other.

Nevertheless, there is still value to be salvaged from this event that has almost become a caricature of itself. As Heisler alluded to, fans are still expected to break records in filling 100,000 seat Cowboys Stadium for the All-Star game on Sunday. Despite the declining interest and quality of the games, perhaps we can say that perhaps NBA All-Star weekend has become less of a made-for-television fantasy game and more of an event best enjoyed in person.

"I watched the All-Star game growing up all the time," said Atlanta Dream forward and Haier Shooting Stars participant Angel McCoughtry in a phone interview with Swish Appeal yesterday. "It’s different in being here than watching it on TV. The big difference is you get to see behind the scenes and you get to see all the players. So it’s definitely more fun being here at the actual event."

The weekend is not only a gathering place for executives and players, but also a celebration of some of the world’s best basketball talent for fans and players alike to enjoy. That is exactly why it’s still significant for WNBA players to participate – it’s not only an invite to one of the world’s largest "hoop summits", but also an opportunity to showcase women’s basketball on a larger stage.

"The WNBA is not going anywhere," said New York Liberty forward and Haier Shooting Stars participant Nicole Powell in a phone interview with Swish Appeal yesterday. "I think that’s the most important thing – it’s not about which team is folding; it’s really about the grand, the whole entire WNBA, not just the Sacramento organization or individual teams. So I hope that people will see and watch and even though it’s just a shooting competition, the women are included in the All-Star events and kind of see some of their talents and skills that are presented and hopefully get them interested."

So although the celebrity game that McCoughtry and San Antonio Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon participated in yesterday and the Haier contest that Hammon, McCoughtry, Powell, and Los Angeles Sparks guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris will participate in today may seem trivial, the fact is that they are a significant opportunity for the WNBA.

So how do McCoughtry and Powell characterize its significance?

In a live chat on on Thursday, recently signed Los Angeles Sparks point guard Ticha Penicheiro said that she was excited to be in Dallas for All-Star weekend because of "the opportunity to spread the message of the WNBA and what we do on and off the court."

However, the message has different meanings for McCoughtry and Powell.

Powell is in the particularly awkward position of representing a franchise that no longer exists. While this may seem to be a public relations faux pas to some, Powell put a positive spin on a tough situation.

"I really didn’t find out until the last minute with the schedule because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get away from my Turkish team for the weekend but it worked out," said Powell about whether it is strange to represent a team that has folded. "It’s kind of a tough situation, but at the same time the Sacramento organization was such a great thing for the WNBA -- we had such wonderful fans there. So I actually think it’s kinda cool that they’re still including someone to represent the Sacramento Monarchs despite that I’m playing for the Liberty now. And just kind of represent that team and that organization. We had a great run for ten years there. So I hope Monarchs fans will be watching."

For Powell, that is the message – that the league not only exists despite criticism, but is still growing despite challenges.

"That’s kind of what I was referring to a second go, talking about the Haier shooting competition and having the women included," said Powell. "The team that Sacramento had has folded, but the WNBA is still going strong and we’ve got some great young players and talented players. And the NCAA women’s basketball is growing every single year as well. So I think that’s just been an added boost to the professional level."

McCoughtry had a different take about the message, that in some ways reflects critiques about the Expect Great campaign as defensive: "What message are we trying to spread?"

Fair enough.

The WNBA is not a political campaign – it’s a sport. It’s goal is to entertain and, more practically, make money in the process. Though the message is intertwined with the quality of the product, the quality of the WNBA experience is more important for McCoughtry.

"I don’t know what the message is, but I hope that they like what they see," said McCoughtry. "And if people like they like what they see, they come out to see what they like. People like to be entertained so if you entertain them, they’ll come."

Similar to her interest in entertaining the fans, McCoughtry’s focus for herself is on just enjoying the opportunity to take in the event. To hear McCoughtry tell it, just being present at the event and having the opportunity to be around players she watched growing up – she wants to meet Shaquille O’Neal, whose Orlando Magic were her favorite team "way, way back in the day" – is amazing.

"It’s amazing when you’re young and that age and you’re watching somebody and now, grown up, you get to play with them on the same court," said McCoughtry about playing with Steve Smith, whom she only met recently and last played for the Atlanta Hawks when she was 13 years old. "When you think about that it’s like, wow. But I told him he had to ice extra and stretch extra, get the flex-all out. I just messed with him a little bit. But it’ll be a lot of fun. He’s a great shooter – I think he’s still got it a little bit even though he’s been in retirement. But he can come out of retirement for this one."

However, spreading a message does not exclude the possibility of having fun.

Although Powell does embrace a sense of responsibility to promote the league, she ultimately also sees it as a fun event as an athlete, fan, and participant to come together with others who just love the game of basketball.

"It’s gonna be a lot of fun," said Powell of participating in the Haier Shooting Stars competition with Tyreke Evans and Chris Webber, neither of whom she had spoken with as of yesterday morning. "I think we have a pretty good chance. I think that everyone is kinda sleeping on us to tell you the truth. We’re gonna use that to our advantage because the home team is a bit stacked. So we’re just gonna sneak in under the radar I think… So I’m counting on [Webber] to lead us because this is my first time doing it and Tyreke is a rookie."

Both players’ anticipation in playing with their NBA counterparts is reflective of the WNBA’s newest marketing campaign: "basketball is basketball". Yes, there is a message that they send just by being included in the events and competing alongside the men, but at its core, it’s about basketball players coming together to do what they love doing.

"WNBA is just a woman’s national basketball association," said McCoughtry. "It’s still a NBA, just different genders. We’re all ballers. So it’s not a burden, it’s actually fun."

Although McCoughtry asked to be notified when I found out what the message is, her message is loud, clear, and gets us right back to the fact that basketball is fundamentally about having fun, whether men or women are playing.

Related Links:

If "Basketball is Basketball", Should WNBA Players Compete in the NBA 3-Point Contest?

McCoughtry on playing for celebrity assistant coach Mario Lopez.

Powell on the value of WNBA players participating in NBA All-Star weekend.

Transition Points:

  • Perhaps it’s obvious that both players would say positive things about the NBA's support of the WNBA, but both did have pleasant things to say.

    "They’ve been great," said Powell. "Chris has always been around and even after he retired, he was still supporting the team. Obviously we had really great ownership…When I go to other NBA cities you always see a couple of the guys coming out to support the team. They love a good basketball game. And I think anytime you see good basketball, which is what the WNBA presents – obviously it’s not men’s basketball and not men playing – but it’s still great basketball; it’s competitive, it’s fun to watch and I think that the NBA players are fans like anybody else and enjoy a good game."

    McCoughtry echoed the sentiment that NBA support extends beyond particular cities or even basketball generations.

    "They’ve been great – it’s not even just Hawks players," said McCoughtry. "We get so many people at our games. Dwight Howard comes to our games. Dr. J was at our games. Then the Hawks have been great. Joe Johnson’s been to our games. So they all come. And it’s great to have that friendly atmosphere in Atlanta."
  • Powell on the responsibility to promote the WNBA during All-Star weekend: "I think it’s a responsibility for our league like any appearance and what we do to promote it but I think it’s a fun thing as well. It’s fun for anybody who’s a fan of basketball to be around and tp be part of the event. And certainly all the women athletes are basketball fans and love the game. So I think it’s a little bit of both."
  • More to come about McCoughtry and Powell’s thoughts about their upcoming WNBA seasons.