The time for rest has almost come to an end.
The 26-6 Seattle Storm will likely be gearing up for the playoffs with a more normal rotation when the Los Angeles Sparks come to town tomorrow. For Storm fans, it should be a welcome sight after the team relaxed a little and saw their franchise-record 13 game win streak came to an end with consecutive road losses to begin their August schedule before openly resting their starters for the last four games.
So there really couldn't be a more fitting time for the Storm's Fan Appreciation Night than tomorrow's game (8 pm PST on ESPN2): the regular season finale will be an opportunity to witness the Storm trying to go undefeated at KeyArena this season while letting out a few "Beat-L-A!" chants. As fun as it has been to watch the Storm's home court dominance this season, tomorrow night's game could be the perfect culmination to an historically dominant regular season before the real season begins.
"Fans are into the whole hoopla of the records and this and that," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright when asked about their regular season success. "But ultimately, when it comes down to it, it's all about if you can win at the end. So this would be all for nothing if you don't go and capitalize at the end. When it gets to that time of the year, it's a whole different beast - everybody knows that."
If indeed the Storm are on the cusp of a title run, then consider tomorrow night's game a pre-party with the potential of even more regular season hoopla to get excited about.
However, while the prospect of a title run is something for Seattle basketball fans to take pride in during an otherwise dismal year for Seattle professional sports, there are likely still some people who simply are not persuaded by women's basketball for any number of reasons. I'm not going to bother critiquing that reasoning because honestly there's no reason to attack people for not liking a given sport - there are plenty of sports that I just don't watch. Of course there are some people who are openly hostile toward the WNBA and others such as Kelly Dwyer ("The WNBA? I think you should"), Jeff Fecke ("Hating on the WNBA is sexist"), Bob Ryan ("The game you're missing"), and Bethlehem Shoals ("The WNBA: Much Better Than You Think") have articulating the flaws with that reasoning. If you would like to discuss those articles further, I would recommend taking it up with 6'5" WNBA MVP candidate Lauren Jackson.
"You're dumb if you haven't already been," said Jackson, when asked what she thinks about fans who are reluctant to accept women's basketball. "Seriously, it's so much fun. Why wouldn't you come?"
Yet that's just the issue -- as Jackson colorfully describes, the irony is that many people who are publicly hostile toward the league have formed their opinions without even watching a game in person, which makes much of the negative attention a bit shallow.
"The whole point is anyone who says something [negative] about the WNBA, I'm gonna promise you 99% of them have not seen one game," said Orender. "So what are you gonna tell em? You gotta tell em how great the game is, right? What am I gonna tell ya?"
Nevertheless, while Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer has written that it's "asinine to argue the legitimacy of world-class athletes", it's also a great leap of faith to assume that people who are indeed hostile or indifferent toward the WNBA would suddenly jump on the bandwagon just because the Storm have won 16 home games this season and might win a title they don't care about.
So without an attempt to convince or shame dissenters into liking the WNBA in its entirety, I'm going to make a much narrower argument: Seattle basketball fans should give this Seattle Storm team a chance.
In writing about the legendary John Wooden's support of women's basketball, ESPN's Mechelle Voepel described the value of simply assessing the game fairly and as Orender alludes to it's difficult to assess the game fairly without watching in person. As a long-time basketball junkie myself who has endured the double curse of growing up a Golden State Warriors fan and eventually migrating to Seattle only to see the Sonics leave, I suspect that most people who are able to appreciate the sport will be able to appreciate the Storm.
So throughout the course of the season I've had the opportunity to speak with others who know a thing or two about basketball -- from NBA players to coaches to long-time fans - and have come up with five reasons why Seattle basketball fans might find the Storm appealing should they just give them a chance.
5. Appeal to authority: Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, and Bill Russell have all openly supported the Storm.
An appeal to authority is not a logical fallacy when the person in question has sufficient expertise on the subject matter in question. So if no less a basketball authority than Wooden has noted that he enjoyed women's basketball for its discipline, fundamentals, and "purity" because women (typically) play below he rim it's hard to ignore that.
John Wooden's influence helped legitimize women's basketball - ESPN
So if Wooden saw value in women's basketball … if he appreciated skill level in its players (the Wooden Award was expanded in 2004 to include a women's honor) … if he believed the game benefitted from women's participation … if he wasn't threatened by or dismissive of media coverage of the sport … then perhaps he knew what he was talking about, don't you think?
If someone who knows basketball as well as Wooden considers women's basketball "a beautiful game", it's hard to dismiss or demean it without first considering what he might have seen in the game. While beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder, it's also worth considering that a number of NBA stars - most recently, Amar'e Stoudemire -- have either frequently attended or actively supported the WNBA.
"They've been great - it's not even just Hawks players," said Atlanta Dream small forward Angel McCoughtry in a phone interview from the 2010 NBA All-Star game in Dallas, in which she participated. "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."
Despite the departure of the Sonics, Seattle has a few NBA players of its own who support it. Former Sonic and Washington native holds the game in a similarly high regard as Wooden and is seen at Storm games from time to time. While chatting with Rainier Beach High alumnus and 2010 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford at the Adonai Hood Classic he mentioned he was a Storm season ticket holder for two years. Fellow Rainier Beach alum and three-time NBA Dunk Champion Nate Robinson was (predictably?) even more enthusiastic about the Storm and women's basketball.
"I follow women's basketball, of course," said Robinson at this summer's Adonai Hood Classic. "Women get overlooked. They get overshadowed because of men's basketball. They play the game, they play for the love just like we do. And to have a team still in Seattle is definitely a blessing. So of course we support our women's basketball team. That's something that everybody thinks to do: to support them a little more.
We can debate whether women's basketball needs male basketball players to legitimize it as Voepel suggests, but it's hard to deny at the very least that Julius Erving, Russell and Wooden know a bit more about the game than the average WNBA naysayer and it's quite reasonable to suggest that Crawford, Howard, Johnson, and Robinson might have enough basketball experience to have solid opinions as well.
4. Appeal to higher basketball sensibilities: The Storm are the best example of the game's development since 1997.
Photo via Kailas Images
Jimmy Quigg joined the Storm's male practice squad in 2004 as a women's basketball skeptic, but has since become a fan.
"I am a hoopaholic who was a skeptic about women's basketball until my first day of practice and then I was a convert," said Quigg. "Ever since then, I rarely if ever miss a game and these players are like my sisters. And the competition is getting even stronger. It's getting more and more fun every season. It's getting harder and harder to keep up with them every season."
Since practicing with the team for the past six years, he has not only learned how to appreciate the Storm but also changed his mind about women's basketball as a whole as he has witnessed the growth of the women's game first-hand.
"You're gonna see everything in a WNBA game that you'd otherwise see in a NBA game, except for dunking and you'll probably also see dunking -- I mean, they're dunking now," said Quigg after a practice. "They're doing everything the men are doing and they seem bigger than they were seven seasons ago. They seem faster than they were seven seasons ago. I think the women are getting stronger. I think the women are playing basketball more now around the nation."
Like Quigg -- and possibly many other basketball fans -- when I first watched the WNBA in 1997 it wasn't exactly compelling. As could be expected it was slower, but post players looked more deliberate, players seemed hyper-specialized, and it seemed so distant from the NBA game that I was used to that it was hard to get into it. After watching sporadically for years, it wasn't until 2008 when I gave the league another legitimate chance after Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker was drafted. Suffice it to say that with talents like Jackson, Parker, the New York Liberty's Cappie Pondexter, the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi, and college basketball stars like UConn's Maya Moore and Baylor's Brittney Griner, the game has changed a bit.
"The talent level has developed remarkably from when I played when you were more specialists to now when you can do everything," said New York Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski, one of 13 women inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "Better shooters, better size, better athleticism. I look at the players who have just come into our league from the Taurasis to the Pondexters to the Candace Parkers. We're only gonna get better. And these kids now have something to aspire and develop into: go to high school, go to college, and hope to some day maybe make it."
While NBA fans often lament the lack of athleticism and dunking in the women's game, there is an increased emphasis on versatility that blurs preconceived notions of positionally bound skills and makes for a different vision of possibilities for how the game is played. That emphasis on versatility is part of why Bethlehem Shoals once called the WNBA a "new frontier" for basketball: a player like Jackson can do all the things one might expect of a center, but shoot threes, defend small forwards, chase down guards on a fast break, and (gasp) make free throws. And Jackson's talents, while elite, are just one example of the versatility across the league: shooting guards have been among the league leaders in assists (Wright is currently 10th in the league) and post players have been in the top 10 in steals (Storm forward Camille Little is currently tied for 9th).
Whereas detractors will call the game more "deliberate" and advocates will call the game more "pure", I would follow Wooden in suggesting that in women's basketball athleticism and power is muted in favor of skill more evenly distributed across positions. While high-flying guards or powerful centers can earn millions in the NBA with limited skillsets, those equivalent types of players have a considerably more difficult time making it in the WBA. That shouldn't make one game better than the other, but they are substantially different and appreciated on their own terms can provide very different basketball experiences for fans of the sport.
With players like Little, Jackson, and Wright in addition to All-Star forward Swin Cash who is among the league's most versatile inside-outside players in the league, the Storm might just epitomize the way in which that versatility can come together into a dominant unit that simply overwhelms defenses with well-distributed skill in addition to talent.
3. Appeal to civic pride in quality: The Storm feature two of the best players in the world.
Photo via Kailas Images
Jackson has indisputably been the most outstanding player in the WNBA this season, is arguably the best player in the world right now, and when all is said and done will make a strong argument as one of the best players ever, especially if the Storm win a second title this year.
"Lauren's the best basketball player I've ever played against, men and women," said Quigg.
It doesn't stop there for the Storm - point guard Sue Bird is the best point guard in the league this year and should be in the conversation for one of the best point guards ever to grace the court at the end of her career.
Seth Kolloen of the SunBreak has compared Jackson to 1990's Shawn Kemp and almost compared Bird to Gary Payton before settling in on Jason Kidd. To extend that, Bird is probably more Chris Paul than Kidd and Jackson is probably some extraordinary mutation of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwight Howard. In other words, we could continue that debate all day, but what it comes down to is that this part is by far one of the best basketball duos the basketball world has ever seen, if you can set aside your taste for gravity-defying alley-oop dunks.
"Obviously, [you] emphasize our defense, but we've got some really skilled offensive players," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "If you're looking to see some of the elite athletes of the world in the sport they play, we got a few of those."
2. Appeal to emotion: For the children, our daughters and sons.
Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.
Much to the dismay of some who don't like the idea of selling the social value of a sport, the WNBA has embraced the responsibility of being role models in the public eye both in the way the players engage their fans and by supporting other local female role models with events such as their Women Of Inspiration night.
It's undoubtedly a logical fallacy to make an appeal to emotion, but it's hard to deny the social value of the WNBA. Writer Joseph Munley described the influence of the WNBA on his daughter most recently as she watches "the news" with him. Agler -- a father of a son and daughter -- says it's fathers who are missing out the most when they ignore the WNBA and not just for their daughters.
"The people that are missing the boat are the dads, the males that influence their kids, whether they're female or male they're missing the boat," said Agler. "They're the ones that are missing out on - especially their daughters -- an opportunity to put them in front of adult females that are true professionals, that are great individuals, that excel at something. That's who's missing out."
Certainly it would be crossing a line to say that there's only one correct way to parent. Yet without delving into a feminist analysis of the magnitude and nature of sexism in society it's difficult to dispute Agler's claim about the value of exposing children to strong women. There is a not-so-subtle cultural significance to the WNBA and its continued growth is worthy of support, especially when a team is this good.
1. Appeal to fandom (and perhaps homerism): the Storm win…a lot.
Photo via Kailas Images
With a win against the Sparks tomorrow night the Storm would go 17-0 at home on the season, which would be the best home record in WNBA history since the 2001 Sparks went 16-0. The Storm's 26 wins are the most ever by any WNBA team since the league switched to 34 games in 2003. And if things go as most WNBA observers expect, the Storm could finish 2010 with a second WNBA title and are already the only professional sports franchise currently within the city's limits with one. With their 22-2 start to the season, the Storm also own the record for the best start of any professional sports franchise in Seattle.
In other words, the Storm win a lot of games and it shouldn't be terribly difficult to get behind a winning team in Seattle, especially this year. After running away with the Western Conference title and securing home court advantage throughout the playoffs, the Storm are like a breath of fresh air in the Seattle sports landscape.
"If they're a basketball fan then they would enjoy it," said Agler. "If they are a fan that is like a highlight type fan that likes to see dunks and things like that, they're probably going to walk away not overly impressed because they're not going to see any dunks."
The Storm easily have the best home advantage of any team in this city and it's gotten to the point where fans feel that they're almost guaranteed to see a victory in KeyArena even when the Storm are suffering through a tough game. In Agler's three seasons with the Storm, the team has a home winning percentage of 87.5%. It's hard to find a team in professional sports, much less Seattle, that can boast a "fortress" effect quite the way the Storm can.
Regardless of your pre-existing feelings about the WNBA, the fact of the matter is that this team is worth giving a chance.
"I can tell you this, for example, back home when people come up to me and say, ‘Man I hear your daughter's a pretty good player.' I say, ‘Yeah she does pretty well.'," said Agler. "And they go, ‘Well when can I watch her play?' So they come out and watch her play. You know what happens? They come again. And they watch her again. And they watch her again. Same thing happens a lot with our situation here: people come and watch the Storm play or the WNBA and a lot of them really come out and then they appreciate the athleticism and the skill level and those types of things. But there's a certain amount of people that we're not going to convince and we don't need ‘em. And unfortunately, that's just the way it is."
The bottom line is that the Storm are historically good. So this is not about convincing you of the merits of women's basketball. It's about persuading you to see one the best sports teams in Seattle history for yourself.
Either way, the time for the Storm to rest their starters is over and they're ready for the playoffs to begin.