Shouting over what would evolve into a sold out Key Arena crowd of 9,686 for the Seattle Storm's 81-67 season opening victory over the Los Angeles Sparks last night, the long-time Seattle Sonics fan and first-time WNBA attendee commented on how the crowd was a bit bigger and much more vibrant than he expected.
It's something I noticed at the first Storm games I attended and something I seem to hear over and over again, whether from novice or long-term WNBA fans: "There's such a level of emotional investment on a one-to-one basis, on an up close and personal basis," wrote Queenie this morning.
I'm not going to go as far as claiming that WNBA fans care more about their game than other fans because a) I have yet to attend a WNBA game outside of Seattle and b) I've been to too many Seattle Sounders and (back in the late 90's) DC United games to make a claim that bold. However, I will agree that as a sports fan who has been to a range of sporting events, the WNBA is deeply personal in a way that's striking even after paying attention for a few seasons.
However, I will make another tangential claim: for those that are invested in the game or even those attending for the first time, Sunday evening's game between the Storm and visiting Los Angeles Sparks was the perfect way to open a season. Although the game was neither "fluid" nor particularly pretty at times, it remained competitive and never lacked that Key Arena electricity. But that's standard for the WNBA these days.
For all the talk about how women's basketball is more team oriented and not about the standout individual athletic feats that make the NBA "amazing", that wasn't quite what made this game great. First, the game came down to a one-on-one battle between two of the best players in the world. On top of that, the two players that stole the headlines also embody the versatility that is coming to define women's professional basketball in comparison to the men's game. Third, perhaps fitting with NBA legend Bill Russell watching with the common folk, defense prevailed.
Not at all to say that the women's game is more "pure" (whatever that means) than the NBA, but for people who truly enjoy contemplating all the nuanced possibilities of the sport, this game was a treat.
When the WNBA novice sitting next to me last night asked for me to identify some of the game's key players, it was difficult not to get excited.
Not only did the game showcase the All-Star forward matchup of the Storm's Lauren Jackson and Los Angeles Sparks' superstar Candace Parker that would end up defining the outcome of this game, but it also showcased an All-Star point guard battle between Sue Bird and Ticha Penicheiro. Looking around the court some more, there were also five Olympic gold medalists on the floor, three on the Sparks and two on the Storm, in addition to three other Storm players with Olympic experience. It was a game that truly featured the best of the best.
Although the Sparks' uncharacteristically strong perimeter shooting was certainly the defining theme early in the game -- 8 of 12 of their first quarter shots were threes and they made 3 -- it was the all-around play of Parker that initially struck me as impressive. During the warm-ups, the right-hander was hitting turnaround hook shot after turnaround shot with her left hand. That's certainly not new, but watching her smoothly pull the same move in rhythm near the end of the first quarter against Jackson -- even if she started 0-2 -- is impressive. So when she finally hit a fall away jumper after facing up on Jackson from the right wing with 5:58 left in the second quarter, I started to think that would be the play that would lead to Parker heating up.
Of course, Parker never ended up taking over the game as a scorer and a large part of that ended up being Jackson's defense of her.
"For us, we're always going to rely on our defense no matter what," said Bird in a jubilant locker room. "Our defense is what's going to win us games, it's what's going to keep us in games. And tonight our defense is what kept us there for three quarters and then finally our offense kinda turned around. We changed a couple of things...but otherwise, we relied on defense and let the rest play out."
However, to fully appreciate what the Storm did, it's worth noting that the most impressive thing about Parker is her ability to hurt opponents in so many ways beyond scoring, which is what she showed during that 0-2 start. On top of demanding so much attention from the defense, she's skilled enough to make the defense pay in multiple ways when they attempt to defend her.
"What they did to us early was they threw it to her and then we'd go help to her and they'd kick out and hit shots," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "So we sort of had to adjust from just totally going in to help to cat and mouse -- not giving her a read of when we were going to come or just stay with shooters because that was very impressive how they were playing early, just hitting the threes and the open jump shots."
One could argue -- and some people do -- that Parker is the single most dynamic individual player in the game. Stopping that type of player who at 6'4" has skills that seem to have no positional bounds can be a nightmare for most teams. So for those that might not have an eye for defensive play in the heat of a basketball game, what made the Storm's defensive performance impressive is not only that they held Parker to 10 points -- it's that during the fourth quarter, Parker did nothing on the right side of the box score, where the assists, steals and blocks are. Jackson -- as well as reserve center Ashley Robinson -- did a truly outstanding job of neutralizing the versatility of one of the best players in the game after the Sparks entered the 4th quarter with a one point lead after outscoring the Storm 22-14 in the third quarter.
"Candace Parker is a great player," said Agler. "There’s no question about it. But Lauren Jackson’s defense tonight was unbelievable. We were just talking about we have some who can stay with Candace, and a lot of teams don’t have that. They have to gimmick and do different things with zones and things like that. I’m sure Candace will have some big games against us. She played well tonight. She played 39 ½ minutes and had her opportunities, but Lauren really did a great job and I told her that afterward."
What made Jackson's performance so unbelievable is that there really isn't a player in the league with the combination of agility, height, and strength to contend with Parker on a regular basis. Desperately searching for ways to stop Parker, other teams "have to gimmick" which leaves them vulnerable to Parker hurting them in other ways. However, both Jackson and Robinson rightly pointed out that it was a combination of Jackson's individual performance and the team's defense as a whole that led to the victory. Ultimately, that's what allowed the team to step up.
"In games like that everything counts -- defense, the offense, every point matters," said Jackson. "It just got to the point where Sue kinda took over and they couldn't focus on one player -- they can't focus on me, they can't focus on Sue, or Swin [Cash], or T (Tanisha Wright), or Camille [Little] because everyone else will step up. It's pretty good, it's a very good starting [point] for our team."
And never should Jackson's own versatility -- defensive or offensive -- be lost in the discussion of Parker's versatility or that of the Storm as a whole. She's a player that not only defended Parker well but also chased down 5'5" rookie speedster Andrea Riley to block her shot on two separate fast break situations. She shot seven threes, got to the free throw line 11 times -- making 10 -- and grabbed 10 rebounds. Just as Parker is a transcendent basketball player, Jackson is no less so and arguably the much better defender of the two. That can be true of Jackson without diminishing the talent or star power of Parker. That the stronger defender on the stronger defensive team won the game with the help of a combination of threes, mid-range jumpers, and drives to the basket for "And 1" plays from teammates made the game fascinating to watch for those that truly appreciate the entirety of the sport.
Last night's game was about more than a good start for the Seattle Storm, although obviously as Bird said, "we know we have a lot of work to do, there were a lot of things that glaring out there, but it is the start of the season so I'm glad that we're not faced with a loss." Last night's game embodied what makes basketball such a potentially consuming game and why the women's game presents ways of thinking through the sport that are substantially different from the men's game without necessarily interpolating it through a lens of gender stereotypes.
The one on one battle is certainly what stood out about this game. And at one level, yes, one-on-one basketball is exciting. For most of us, it's the "amazing" in "Where Amazing Happens". Further, the thought of combining the one to one emotional investment in the game that the WNBA has worked to build since it's inception with the evolution of versatile one-on-one play like both Jackson and Parker exhibit is what makes the league unique in the basketball universe and worth watching beyond feminist or role model rhetoric.
However, Jackson's individual defensive performance that gave her team the breathing room to step up and pull away down the stretch is a perfect illustration of the fluid integration and shifts between individual and mutual responsibility that makes basketball a beautiful game to watch and a fascinating phenomenon to analyze.