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Weekly Countdown: A woman's place could soon be in the NBA

This will be the sports equivalent of putting a man on the moon ... and I'm not the only believer.

David Stern thinks it will happen. On Tuesday in the conference room outside his NBA office in Manhattan, I asked the commissioner whether we'll see a woman playing in his league someday.

"Sure," he said matter-of-factly. "I think that's well within the range of probability."

He went on to explain his reasoning as well as jokingly ask that I seek out other opinions, so that he wouldn't appear to be pushing this most progressive and liberating pursuit down the throats of his players, coaches and executives. But he knows, I know and now you know there is a good chance it's going to happen, simply because the most important man in basketball has hereby declared it could and should happen.

The context is important, because this was not some kind of pet project that he leaked to me. Last month an SI editor asked me to come up with several thoughts on professional basketball for the next decade, and one of my predictions was that a woman will be playing in the NBA. Then I decided to ask Stern about it. Last week I requested a meeting with Stern and I made sure to mention that I would be asking him about the possibility of a woman playing in his league, because I didn't want to catch him off guard. You'll be able to see that he had thought about this, and that he fully realized the impact of what he was saying.

How else was he going to answer such a question? If he'd said no -- that there will be no women playing in the NBA -- then he might have been viewed as criticizing or diminishing the talent of his own WNBA. Therefore, some will respond to Stern's declaration by accusing him of cynically trying to prop up the women's league.

My own impression is that Stern was not seeking to take on the goal of signing a woman to play in the NBA. But now that he has answered the question, I am certain he will embrace the mission.

Stern's entire career demonstrates that his perspective and ambitions eclipse the needs of the WNBA. If a woman were to play in his league -- and play well -- it would have the liberating impact of Jackie Robinson's 1947 breakthrough of baseball's color barrier, but on a much greater scale. This would make news around the world. Thanks to Stern's stubborn success in feeding NBA video to every continent, women almost everywhere would have access to and be personally inspired by the pictures of a woman playing in the league of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. It would be an athletic achievement without precedent.

I asked if we might see a woman playing NBA basketball within a decade.

"I think we might," said Stern. "I don't want to get into all kinds of arguments with players and coaches about the likelihood. But I really think it's a good possibility."

It would be a huge story. "It would be a ridiculous story,'' agreed Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, meaning that the level of interest would be preposterous. "It would be great for everyone ... if it can happen. The key is whether the person is playing, or is she just on the team? The story will die down if she's just on the team and not playing a lot. But if she is playing and helping the team improve and win, then it really is a huge story."

The ultimate goal of developing a woman player is an unexpected but natural progression for Stern, who has used social initiatives such as Basketball Without Borders -- in which NBA players run clinics and camps around the world -- to help grow his business internationally. The success of a woman player would introduce the NBA to enormous audiences who wouldn't otherwise have been interested.

"The public would be excited about it," said New Jersey Nets general manager and interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe. "Whether you're in China or Europe or Africa, basketball is a common language and it breaks barriers. It's a language that's spoken all over the world, and this is another barrier that it would bring down. It's exciting, and it's a logical next step."

The pursuit of "the first woman" will also create new respect for the WNBA. From now on every great player in that league will be viewed from a new perspective. Is she good enough to play with the men? What does she need to improve in order to make that leap?

Some NBA owners will be interested in hiring the first woman player, even if it's only to sell tickets. "That would work if you had the right woman, and particularly if she were a player who played," said Nets president Rod Thorn. "Initially it would be, 'Wow, I've got to see this, I never thought this would happen so I've got to see it ...' If she were a solid player and a contributor, then definitely it would help."

Women's basketball continues to improve tremendously. When I asked Dallas Mavericks All-Star Dirk Nowitzki whether a woman could play in the NBA, he asked me if I was serious. I don't think he meant disrespect; it was just that he had never considered the possibility. "Skills-wise, yeah," he said, meaning they could shoot and handle the ball at an NBA level. "But physical-wise, it's tough. Even all the little guys are pretty strong in this league and pretty athletic."

Many in the league will doubt whether a woman can match the speed and strength of the world's best male players. "I don't think its going to be physically possible," said a league GM who asked to remain anonymous. "I think they have the necessary skill sets: If you give me the best of the best in the WNBA and put them on the (free throw) line with the best of the NBA, I think you'll see they shoot the ball as well as men.

"But think about the overall speed, athleticism and strength (in the NBA). They can't take the pounding, the wear and tear, the quickness, the strength. It's not possible for them right now. Why does (women's coach) Pat Summit at Tennessee have boy managers? It's because she wanted her team to play against the boy managers (in practice) because they're better than the girls on her bench. Many programs across the country have done that.

"I love the discussion, it's great for basketball and it doesn't hurt the NBA one bit. Would someone do it for PR? Maybe. But it's not going to happen. They can't play."

Stern acknowledged the skepticism while tempering it. "If you look at world records, let's say in track and field, you'll see how the women have moved up to what would have been records several decades ago for men," said Stern. "And you watch [the WNBA] and you see the shooting percentages, the passing and the like.

"An issue that I have is when you look at tennis, and this is the argument against me," continued Stern. "As great as the women are, and actually in some cases I think their serves are served at a higher speed than men on the tour, like Serena's (Williams) first serve --you still get the sense that they wouldn't do well on the men's side of the tour.

"But in basketball, where it's a five-person game and you have zones and you can do a variety of other things -- a fast person with a good shot that can play on the team? I think we could see it in the next decade or so ... I'll leave it to the real experts to talk about the muscle factor. But there's going to be a very strong woman who has all the moves, who's going to want to play, and she's going to be good."

Thorn emphasized that the terms of the debate will continue to change because women players keep improving. "I'm a fan of the WNBA -- I go to games, I watch games -- and the athletic ability of women basketball players has made such a jump up in the last five or six years it's unbelievable," said Thorn. "I don't think it's a complete leap of faith to say somewhere down the road someplace there may be somebody that's good enough to play.''

Who is to say that the women's equivalent of LeBron James won't show up as a freshman at Tennessee or Connecticut four or five years from now? By launching the discussion now, Stern will has abruptly created an environment in which pro and con will hash it out, and in that way the league will prepare itself eventually for the day when a woman shows up for the opening of NBA summer league in Las Vegas.

NBA rules changes have opened the door. This discussion would not have been possible a decade ago, when the NBA enabled a more physical style of play on the perimeter 15 feet beyond the basket. "With the hand check, the strong defenders could just stop you," said Thorn, 68. "K.C. Jones -- I remember him my first year in the league -- he would put his hand on your waist and just move you wherever he wanted to move you. Now if you tried that, you'd have three fouls before you'd get started and you'd be on the bench."

Now when you see smaller NBA guards running free on the three-point line, think about whether an athletic woman could do the same things. "That was designed to create opportunities for skilled players," said Stern of the abolition of hand-checking. "So the question becomes: When the woman comes with the high skill set, will she be able to play? And I think the answer is yes, I think so."

The model may be WNBA MVP Diana Taurasi, the 6-foot swingman who led the Phoenix Mercury to the league championship. She can shoot, handle the ball, she's strong and -- as important as anything -- she is aggressive. In order to overcome the physical deficiencies, the first woman in the NBA would be a terrific shooter and ballhandler with the vision to make plays for others, and she would have to be fearless and confident and outrageously athletic, by WNBA standards.

"But you don't know" said Vandeweghe."We have a lot of guys in our league who are specialty players -- they come in and can just flat shoot it. Who's to say that somebody from the WNBA couldn't do the same thing?"

Much as Branch Rickey carefully chose Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier based on his skills as well as his temperament, so is Stern likely to urge his teams to be patient in making sure the first woman is equipped to succeed. Maybe she'll be the next generation of Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker, or Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever.

"I wouldn't say it's implausible because I think people have been saying that about different groups of people forever and they've been proven wrong," said New York Knicks president Donnie Walsh. "I'm sure there'll be a girl who'll be on this level, and if there is, she'll probably play in the NBA.

"I look at the WNBA games and I'm amazed at how good these girls are," continued Walsh, 68. "I told Larry Brown once, 'I think they're better than you and I were in college.' He got mad at me, but I was serious. I said, 'Larry, they're just like we were. They play under the rim, they're not jumpers, they can't dunk and all that. But they know how to play and they can drive, they can shoot. They're good.'"

The first woman will be greeted with newfound respect.Ann Meyers Drysdale, now GM of the WNBA champion Mercury, remains the only woman to sign an NBA contract. She had been a three-time All-America guard at UCLA before signing in 1979 with the Indiana Pacers, who released her before that season.

"I had been liked by the media at that time," said the 5-9 Meyers, but that changed when she joined the Pacers. "I recall at the press conference that I was attacked pretty good by the media. You know: what are you doing, you're taking some guy's job, you can't compete, you're too slow, you're going to get hurt, you're too small, da-ta-da. But somebody gives you an opportunity, you're supposed to say no?"

It will be different this time because of players like Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman, who will coach the new NBA D-League franchise in Dallas after a playing career that included games in the men's minor-league USBL as well as on the summer league teams of the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz. The escalation of women's basketball over the last decade has made Taurasi and Parker stars in their own right, to the point that you now see LeBron James and Kobe Bryant attending U.S. women's games at the Olympics.

But it's important that the NBA get this right the first time. "If she was truly a full-time player rather than a modern day Eddie Gaedel," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban of the dwarf who played major league baseball in a 1951 publicity stunt, "it would be enormous."

Would the other players respect her?

"If she could play," answered Cuban. "If it was a marketing ploy, they would resent her taking a job."

That's why, in order for this to have universal meaning, I'm convinced Stern and the NBA will wait for the right player to come along. If she really is the LeBron James of women's basketball, then she'll be welcomed by the stars throughout the NBA, and in turn the best players on her NBA team will have no choice but to respect her.

If anyone is going to be nervous, it will be the opponents playing against her. "That's right, the guys trying to guard her won't want to get beat," said Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey. "I see the women's game coming closer and closer to the men's game. You see NBA coaches who are now coaching in the WNBA and you see them using a lot of the same principles -- offensive schemes, pick and roll, defensive sets. The physical part will be the worst for a woman, and it will be on defense more than anything else.

"But technically, all of the things they need are already there," said Casey, 52. "Before I leave this earth I'll see it -- or at least I'll be close to seeing it."

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

So based on your story about the Knicks rebuilding plan, are we supposed to believe it's Isiah Thomas' fault the Knicks didn't draft Jennings, when he begged to be in NY?-- Reuben, Brooklyn, N.Y.

So Donnie Walsh isn't responsible for drafting Hill over Jennings? In throwing Isiah's group under the bus, he doesn't take ANY responsibility for the draft? And with all the bad money Dolan has thrown at players, he can't absorb a few hundred thousand more to clear out some front-office people who are holding back the team? C'mon. Walsh is covering his tracks, no?-- Tom, Carlsbad, Calif.

I didn't view Walsh's comments as an attempt to escape responsibility. Just the opposite: He was accepting it.

This comes up because I wanted to know why Walsh hasn't brought in more of his own people to help change the organization. I'm not saying he should throw out everyone -- senior VP is among the many valuable Knicks staffers who would help any NBA franchise -- and I'm not saying that Isiah's people aren't competent. The issue is inspiration: Why wouldn't you want to import a fresh approach from people who are fired up to help you create a new era?

It's only natural to think that some of the Isiah holdovers have been waiting to be dismissed. Are they going to stick out their necks to help Donnie Walsh?

I credit Walsh with answering these questions head-on. During my interview he acknowledged that the commitment by some of Isiah's people may be an issue. He also recognized that he didn't know his staff well enough to be able to discern the fence-sitters from the go-getters. By admitting to these things he is accepting responsibility, because obviously it's up to him to fire and hire his staff, just as it's up to him to make the decisions on who the Knicks are going to draft.

Here's another thing I picked up from my talk with Walsh: I was reminded that these decisions are rarely so simple or clear-cut as they appear. One of Walsh's biggest assignments is to introduce financial discipline within the organization, because teams don't go far without that kind of accountability. So what kind of example would he be creating if he made a lot of expensive hires instead of trying to make the best of things?

My own opinion is that Walsh needs to hire a GM to chase down leads and do a lot of the thankless behind-the-scenes work necessary to turn a losing franchise into a winner. But I also recognize his job is far more complicated than I can imagine.

Is it really worth it for the Sixers to sign Allen Iverson? He may sell some tickets, but won't he slow the development of the young guys they were grooming? Are we really to believe he will take a back seat so that Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams (when he returns) will get more experience?-- Josh, Cherry Hill, N.J.

The whole idea of NBA teams ignoring a proven Hall of Fame talent like Iverson just to make a point, to make decisions on their terms is petty and ridiculous. Just how badly do they want to win? In particular, if you are a contending team and looking to move to the next level, and a commodity like Iverson is available, sign him. He would likely come for cheap, and you wouldn't necessarily have to sign him long term. What do you have to lose?-- Todd Purvis, Thomasburg, Ontario

The two of you articulated the two sides of the argument. The truth is that the 76ers can't win with Iverson and they can't win without him. His teammates will have to adapt to him, but they weren't going anywhere anyway. Is he going to carry that team to the playoffs? Probably not.

I understand where you're coming from, Todd, but the Knicks and other teams didn't sign Iverson precisely because they didn't think he would help them win. If he hasn't been willing to adapt to the larger needs of the Pistons or the Grizzlies, then what good is he?

Last week I wrote that Iverson would join a team that would reach out to Iverson to replace an injured backcourt starter. That's what Philadelphia has done, and I don't see any harm in it. Plus he's already selling a lot of tickets.

Loved your piece on Gregg Popovich, who I've long thought was criminally overlooked as one of the game's best coaches. Of the coaches who don't have multiple rings (and Jerry Sloan), who do you think has a chance to join Pop's class? For the common fans, what are the telltale signs of a great coach, or one who can be?

Nate, Brooklyn, N.Y.

No one currently in the NBA will mimic Popovich's influence, because he is a coach with total control of his organization. That is why he has been responsible for placing successful coaches and GMs with other franchises around the league.

All of the great coaches in the NBA have great players, that's the first requirement. Then they're able to earn and maintain the respect of those players by helping them win. Few coaches receive the opportunity to coach those players, and fewer are able to make it work.

How much does the NBA have to worry about Tim Donaghy's upcoming book? Is this old news at this point or are there concerns this could hurt the league again?--Steve, NYC

It's inevitable -- and necessary -- that Donaghy will be heard. We should all hear what he has to say. It isn't old news, and there is no statute of limitations on this issue.

At the same time, no one should believe everything Donaghy says because his career turned into one big lie. Once he has had his say, the NBA will have plenty of opportunities to present its rebuttal.

The NBA should be worried and vigilant. But the league needs to give its fans credit for being able to tell truth from fiction, and for not necessarily believing everything they hear from a referee who brought nothing but shame to his sport and himself.

The Bucks GM discusses owner Herb Kohl's role in the decisions to trade Richard Jefferson (to San Antonio for three players) while allowing Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions to walk as free agents. In spite of those losses the surprising Bucks are off to a surprising 9-8 start.

Hammond says he talked Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl into approving the Jefferson trade.

"Yes, I did," said Hammond, in his second year overseeing the Bucks. "It was a very difficult decision that we felt like we had to make.

"Let me say this about Richard: He came to Milwaukee and was great for us, he played 82 games, he was the exact kind of person we needed and he represented our organization in the very best way. We didn't trade Richard for what he did not do. We traded him for what we felt were the right reasons for us as an organization. And Sen. Kohl -- I can tell you this -- Sen. Kohl was like, 'I don't even want to consider this if it's going to hurt us in a win-loss standpoint.' Richard had $29.2 million (due him) over the next two years, and [Kohl] still was saying, 'If it's going to help us win then we'll keep the player.'

"It's very bothersome to me that people are talking about what we've done over the last few months in saying that it's a small-market team, it's an owner who has given me a mandate to cut salaries and save money. That is the furthest thing from the truth. If you look at our salaries and what he's done over the years in paying players and coaches, it's pretty evident he wants to win."

Of the assumption that the Bucks slashed payroll as a small-market team hoping to save money, Hammond insists the opposite is true: That Kohl's preference was to keep the payroll high in pursuit of as many victories as possible this season.

Many owners tell their GMs to cut costs; in this case, according to Hammond, the opposite was true.

"That's where I think the real misperception is regarding Sen. Kohl and this whole talk right now (of NBA franchise cutbacks) because of financial issues that everyone around the country is dealing with. I can tell you that that wasn't a case from the owner's standpoint. I have no reason to say any different, I'm not trying to protect the senator. I'm telling you the truth that this was a decision we felt from a basketball standpoint was the right thing for us to do."

Kohl has maintained a relatively high payroll even though the team hasn't had a winning season in six years. If fans are going to be critical of Milwaukee's moves last summer, Hammond says he should be target because he was pushing for those cutbacks.

"Our thinking," said Hammond in speaking for himself and coach Scott Skiles, "is if we're not going to be an upper-echelon team, then our payroll should not be that [high]. Obviously there are teams that are making money in this league and some teams that are not, and I know in this market it has been a little tougher for the Bucks to make money along with the fact that we haven't won as much as we'd like to. He isn't an owner that's probably making the money he'd like to make in this business, but that doesn't change the fact that he's committed to winning.

The long-term goal. Hammond identified the Bucks' mission by referring to lessons learned from his seven years in Detroit as VP to Joe Dumars. "Joe said to me at the very beginning, 'Let's put the best team possible on the floor, but not at 'any' cost.' Because then you can take on that big contract at the end, or the right piece that could be the difference maker for you to go from good to great. So that's all we're trying to do here, because over the last few years our payroll has probably been higher than it should have been for the wins we were getting back."

In preseason Skiles insisted the Bucks were a deeper -- and a better -- team despite the losses of three starters from last season. Was last year's roster capable of becoming a championship contender down the line? Hammond and Skiles didn't think so. But by 2011 they'll have cap space to sign or trade for players around rookie point guard Brandon Jennings, center Andrew Bogut and power forward Ersan Ilyasova.

"I thought Scott said it best a few months ago -- this is a coach saying this -- when he told me, 'You and I have to look at these jobs like we're going to be here for 10 years. And I respect and appreciate Scott for saying that because I know not every coach is going to be saying that, and not every GM is going to think that way."

From a league GM: "I do this a lot because of nervous energy. When I'm on the road before a game, I'll walk around the building. I'll walk the concourse over and over, and see interesting things people are doing around the league in their arenas. Recently I was in an (NBA) arena on the upper concourse level, and a young guy comes up to me and says, 'Do you have tickets for this level? Because if you do, here's a ticket to go down and sit at a lower level for the game tonight.' In one sense that's not uncommon around the league with your long-time season-ticket holders. Our sales guys will go to a season-ticket holder and say, 'Here's two lower-level seats for this game,' and we'll do that as a reward to thank them for buying their season tickets. But this guy, he didn't know if I was Joe Shmoe. He was just offering them to anybody. It tells me how difficult things are around the league right now."

From a head coach: "Here's what I would do if I was the New Jersey Nets. I would go down to Durham (N.C.) and give Mike Krzyzewski a blank check. I would offer him total control. He's 62, and maybe it's time for him to try this. I know he could recruit those guys on the Olympic team to come play for him (as free agents this summer)."

• He was apologetic for his behavior after signing to rejoin the 76ers. Iverson realized he had helped create an environment that convinced other teams to not sign him this season. I spoke to a GM yesterday who hopes to use Iverson's contrition as a teachable moment for the young players on his team. "We all make mistakes," said the GM. "But there are some things you don't have to bring on yourself."

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