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Can the events of WNBA past help predict its future?

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Changes, and changes to come, define both the 1999 and 2019 WNBA seasons. We turned back the clock to compare the WNBA, then and now.

Yolanda Griffith #33
Yolanda Griffith joined the WNBA in 1999, paralleling the star-level player movement of 2019.
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A sabbatical for Maya Moore. A torn Achilles for Breanna Stewart and arthroscopic knee surgery for Sue Bird. Early season injuries to Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.

These developments would seem to cast a cloud of uncertainty over the 2019 WNBA season. Yet, the arrivals of Chiney Ogwumike in Los Angeles and Liz Cambage in Las Vegas — in addition to a compelling rookie class — are reasons for more than a little excitement.

A similar combination of uncertainty and excitement characterized the coming of the 1999 WNBA season. Turning back the clock twenty years thus presents potentially interesting parallels between the 1999 and 2019 WNBA seasons.

Same faces, new places

Today, seeing Chiney Ogwumike and Liz Cambage sporting new colors intrigues. In 1999, star talent also donned new jerseys.

The demise of the ABL — the rival women’s basketball league which, operating from 1996 to 1998, claimed some of the sport’s most promising players — resulted in much high-level talent joining WNBA teams for the 1999 season. Of the most heralded arrivals were Natalie Williams, Yolanda Griffith and Dawn Staley.

Suiting up for the Sacramento Monarchs, Griffith claimed the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1999 — a pair of honors possible for Liz Cambage in 2019. Staley led her new squad, the Charlotte Sting, to the Eastern Conference Finals, an outcome that the Sparks hope to match, or exceed, through the addition of Chiney Ogwumike.

However, it was the less notable names that had more impact on the 1999 WNBA season.

The New York Liberty secured the services of ABL veterans Tari Phillips and Crystal Robinson. The duo helped the Liberty return to the WNBA Finals, where they once again lost to the dynastic Houston Comets.

Quite possibly, the additions of Odyssey Sims and Karima Christmas-Kelly, as well as Lexie Brown and Damiris Dantas, could help the Minnesota Lynx become a more modern title contender. With Maya Moore missing, such an effort seems unlikely, yet the Liberty achieved excellence in 1999 without its expected star. Anything is possible.

Unfortunate absences

In the first minute of the first game of the 1999 season, Rebecca Lobo went up for a rebound only to land awkwardly. She fell to the floor, writhing and wailing in a way that suggested the seriousness of her injury: a torn ACL. Yet, as noted, the Liberty found success in spite of her absence.

Of course, missing Moore is more monumental to the Lynx’s efforts than losing Lobo was to the Liberty’s. Nonetheless, the Liberty’s 1999 effort is instructive for the Lynx and other WNBA squads who enter the 2019 without their central stars.

Misfortune continues to mount in Seattle. Already without their MVP and head coach, the Storm now must survive without their living legend: Sue Bird. By stepping into this vacuum, Jewell Loyd can certify her star status and steady the Storm, especially if she receives assistance from a still-improving supporting cast in Natasha Howard and Jordin Canada.

Without Diana Taurasi, new opportunities should arise in Phoenix, with the trio of Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Briann January aiming to use their experience to make sure the Mercury remain at the top of the Western Conference.

Of course, the super-est of WNBA superteams, the Houston Comets, would win their third-straight WNBA title in 1999, an indication of the importance of star power. Nevertheless, the history of the WNBA, including the 1999 season, reminds that overcoming adversity through versatility also is a predictor of potential success.

Rookies on the rise

More than the arrival of ABL stars, it was Chamique Holdsclaw’s WNBA debut that would inspire the most enthusiasm about the 1999 season. It was imagined that the consensus No. 1 draft pick would take the WNBA to another level, giving the league Jordan-esque star both on and off the court.

This year, the possibility of Sabrina Ionescu taking her talents to the WNBA offered similarly scintillating prospects. Even though she returned to Eugene to finish the business of winning an NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament for the Oregon Ducks, the WNBA welcomes a deep class of rookie talent who, like Holdsclaw, should make a difference for their squads.

Yet, for all the hype, Holdsclaw did not change the game in the ways envisioned.

While the excellence that A’ja Wilson exhibited last season shows that rookies can excel in the W, Holdsclaw’s experiences reminds of the need to anticipate and appreciate the challenges players slated for early stardom — such as Jackie Young, Asia Durr, Arike Ogunbowale and Teaira McCowan — may face as they jump from collegiate to professional play.

Too much talent, too few teams

Part of the uneven efforts of young players derives from the competitiveness of the league, something true in 1999 and today.

In 1999, the Minnesota Lynx and Orlando Miracle joined the league. Nonetheless, 12 teams with a total of 156 roster spots did not guarantee that the pool of ABL and NCAA players could find a place in the WNBA. In fact, as ABL players awaited a potential WNBA opportunity, many had to take another job to support themselves. Even then, a spot in the WNBA was far from secured, as only 32 of 90 ABL players would play in the WNBA in 1999. Additionally, because WNBA teams often chose to draft experienced professionals over untested collegians, college players who sought to enter the league in 1999 encountered particular difficulty.

Today, the WNBA still has 12 teams, but with only 144 available roster spots. With the collegiate ranks featuring increasing talent, becoming a professional women’s basketball player in the United States is an almost impossible task.

Labor uncertainties

Roster crunch, along with other concerns, will serve as a talking point during the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations that will take place after the 2019 season. The 1999 season also featured discussion about players’ rights.

Triggered by the dissolution of the ABL, the desire for agency would infiltrate the WNBA. Before the 1999 season, players elected to unionize.

Their aims included a minimum salary increase, year-round health coverage, maternity leave, a percentage of basketball-related income, retirement benefits, a right to dispute disciplinary actions and first-class air travel.

Sound familiar?

While all these demands would not be addressed prior to the 1999 season, the players importantly voiced their priorities, indicating, to quote New York Times sportswriter Harvey Araton, they were not merely “marketing pawns ... in the expansive universe of powerful men like David Stern.”

Another concern was the coming influx of ABL players, as WNBA players feared losing their still-precarious professional careers to players who originally chose not to play in the league. The WNBPA sought to cap the number of ABL players at two per team. This sense of possessiveness is understandable, but unfortunate.

In the end, the new franchises in Minnesota and Orlando would be allowed to add five ABL athletes, with all other teams limited to three.

Today, a sense a camaraderie characterizes the WNBA, even as the competition for roster spots is as intense as ever. Nonetheless, labor negotiations can expose tensions, especially between stars and the league’s middle and marginal classes.

For instance, while the possibility of a “supermax” could advantage superstars, allowing them to pass on playing overseas in order to preserve themselves for the WNBA season, the extra funds needed to pay the WNBA’s elite likely would be allocated away from more marginal players. In this case, the marginal players could decide only to play overseas, where they likely would earn higher salaries. WNBA franchises may then attempt to attract them back stateside by selling the intangibles (from being close to one’s family to branding potential) of playing professional basketball in the United States.

Yet, such intangibles are not the equity that all WNBA players deserve.

As in 1999, WNBA players must stand up for the integrity of their labor, albeit in a way that hopefully encourages support and security for all classes of players.

Party like it’s 1999?

1999 does present exact parallels to the present, and the resemblances between then and now provide an illuminating perspective. The changes of 1999 made possible the league we know today — a league that, soon, should experience more changes.

But first, let’s enjoy the uncertainty and excitement of a new season.