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Azzi, Robinson Discuss The Value Of The WNBA Beyond Basketball

Photo courtesy of the WNBA.

It's difficult to think of a better spokesperson for the WNBA's Basketball is Basketball campaign than Boston Celtics guard Nate Robinson.

After his support of his hometown Seattle Storm during this season, it would be pretty easy - and perhaps obvious - to argue that Robinson is the biggest WNBA fan in the NBA. His enthusiasm for the women's game was evident both during and after Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

"It was awesome," said Robinson on the morning after Game 1 of the WNBA Finals during the Storm's recent WNBA Fit Clinic. "Me kinda being a fan, it was funny because I wanted to, you know, get out there and slap five and chest bump and do all that. And I was kinda pumped up. I'm a big Lauren Jackson fan because she plays the game the right way, which is just play hard and have fun. And Sue Bird, the whole team."

The respect for the WNBA and its players that he has talked about on a few occasions - both via Twitter and in a mid-summer interview - was part of the reason why Robinson saw his participation in Tuesday's WNBA Fit Clinic as important.

"For the kids to see what the Storm is doing - they won their first game [of the WNBA Finals] - and for everybody to take women's basketball seriously, that they give back just the way men do," said Robinson when asked about the importance of the event. "That's the beautiful thing about the NBA and WNBA combining and being together: we're family. I think us joining forces together and doing things like this for the community and kids so they can see our faces and know that we care is great."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Robinson stood out as among the most enthusiastic of the 10 current and former professional athletes from the MLB, NFL and WNBA - including WNBA president Donna Orender, who was an All-Star in three seasons with the short lived Women's Pro Basketball League in the late-70's and early-80's - who helped lead 75 students from Roxhill Elementary School through four fitness and nutrition activities around the court.

Although our brief chat inadvertently pulled Robinson away from his much-anticipated duty of demonstrating the Stanky Legg for the kids, the goals of the clinic were obviously a bit more substantive -- though perhaps more simple for some -- than that.

"What we did at this age, we took seriously," said Mariners utility player Matt Tuiasosopo, a Bellevue, Washington native who comes from a family of locally prominent athletes. "Making sure that we were out of the house, being active with friends, working hard in the classroom at school. In the sports that we played, having fun and working hard and having a dream and having a goal that you want to accomplish and not letting anything keep you from it and reaching that dream. Every one of the professional athletes here, we have that in common."

Yet as WNBA Fit ambassador and recently-hired University of San Francisco women's basketball coach Jennifer Azzi described in her opening remarks to the students and teachers seated at mid-court, the WNBA is in "a unique position to bring attention to social ills in the world".

"Obviously with obesity and other health issues, we think this is a very important cause," said Azzi, who also founded Azzi Training and has been abroad working with youth programs. "To be able to use the platform of basketball and professional athletics to affect youth and get them to understand whether or not they're going to ever become great athletes or not, you can learn a lot of valuable principles of taking care of yourself through playing basketball and through playing sports."

As the WNBA continues to establish itself as a different but not inferior from of basketball in comparison to the NBA, the value of the league beyond basketball was present in the reasoning for why the pros participated.

"Boys and girls, it doesn't matter," said Tuiasosopo, who also does school assemblies in the Seattle area for anti-drug initiatives and goal-setting. "It's really important that boys and girls stay fit. We have the best women's basketball team in the country right here in Seattle. And I've been able to see women like Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson play. And they are tremendous athletes. So there's girls here I'm sure that want to be just like them. But boys and girls, I hope they take a lot from this, just wanting to be healthy and staying fit. Hopefully they'll catch something from this hour."

However, as Tuiasosopo alludes to, no child is going to immediately change habits of fitness and nutrition in an hour's time. So there might also be unique added value to the league for girls: reinforcing the notion that they don't have to be confined by traditional cultural norms of what they can or should do.

"For girls it's good to keep girls active too," said Robinson when asked about the specific benefit to girls. "Girls are not just here on Earth to cater to men. It's ok for them to be independent and want to do things for themselves and let them know that they can have idols just like WNBA stars like Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Swin Cash that can be like a Kobe or Lebron."

Growing up in Seattle, the power of having professional athletes to look up to is something Robinson experienced first-hand as an elementary school student at Leschi and then Rainier View. Whereas many athletes will sponsor camps and drop by only occasionally, Robinson said he stays at his camp the entire time from 8:30-4 working with the kids.

"Me, as a kid, I went to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp's camp, Nate McMillan's camp, Ken Griffey, Jr. - I did everything," said Robinson. "My mom put me in everything and just for them to be there and really taking the time, I was like, ‘Man, I can make it just like they can.' It just made me feel better as a kid...Kids take this forever - they take pictures and they remember things like this forever when they get older and they show their kids."

As the new coach at USF, Azzi sees the growth of women's basketball at all levels as an opportunity to provide girls with the type of experiences that Robinson did as he grew up and looked up to Seattle's stars.

"I think the greatest thing about the WNBA is that it gives young girls the chance to dream about being great," said Azzi, who played five years in the WNBA and three years in the ABL. "To have women that are role models is really, really important. I think guys have, obviously, had that for a long time. One of the things I think is important too is the mix of boys and girls - we get a mix of boys and girls coming to our games. So I think for young boys to see women doing great things is equally important."

Even if we can establish that women's sports might have more value to girls than boys, talking about the value to both drives home the point that the WNBA isn't necessarily just about encouraging young girls to be basketball players or athletes at all - it's at least partially about expanding horizons for what's possible by adding a new set of possibilities. Both Robinson and Tuiasosopo noted that "giving back" is part of the responsibility of being a professional athlete and this particular work of supporting a league that supports girls in dreaming about being great is particularly valuable in that it contributes to slowly changing the long-standing opportunity structure for women.

"That's their Lebrons and their Kobes so the girls have somebody to look up to," said Robinson referring to the Storm's All-Star trio. "You know, I have a daughter and I would love for her to get involved with sports and wanting to be in the WNBA or doing whatever she wants to do. That's beautiful."

Related Links:

Why Nate Robinson Enjoys Women's Basketball: "They go all out at all times."

Leading a WNBA Fit Clinic (Jennifer Azzi's blog)

WNBA: Seattle Storm Host Fit Clinic for Local Boys & Girls ::

Sept. 19: Bill Clinton, Colin Powell - Meet the Press - (The broader value of empowering girls globally)
MR. GREGORY: Well, we'll return to politics in a few minutes, but I want to talk about your work around the world and the Clinton Global Initiative, your sixth annual meeting that begins this week in New York. What is the focus? What do you hope to achieve this year?

PRES. CLINTON: Well, this year we're, we're focusing again on trying to empower women and girls in the United States and around the world because, particularly around the world, 60 percent of the kids that don't go to school are girls. And we know that if women can get an education, if they have an opportunity to enter the workforce, that a lot of these problems in very poor countries will be lessened.