WON FOR ALL CYNTHIA COOPER LED HOUSTON TO THE WNBA TITLE, CAPPING A TRIUMPHANT SUMMER FOR THE WOMEN'S GAME

September 07, 1997

Ignore for now that the WNBA more than doubled its attendance
projections in its inaugural season. Forget for the moment that
the league's TV ratings easily outstripped those for the
purported pro sport of the future, MLS soccer. Set aside, too,
these facts: that last Thursday's championship semifinals,
telecast simultaneously in prime time on ESPN and Lifetime, drew
larger-than-regular-season audiences, even though the games were
going up against U.S. Open tennis, college football and Jennifer
Aniston's hair; and that the NBA's little sister scored a decent
Nielsen overnight rating of 2.9 for Saturday's title game on NBC.

No, nothing better reflects the magnitude of the women's
basketball summer just past--the way the market and the moment
met and entwined like the tendrils of Rebecca Lobo's French
braid--than this: In the testosterone-fired precincts of East
Texas, a pro football season began without the Oilers, and
Houston didn't care. Last Thursday The Houston Chronicle
announced that 76% of its readers didn't want the paper to cover
the NFL team that flew the coop to Tennessee. Houstonians were
instead contenting themselves with the Coop-flying of
high-scoring guard and freshly crowned WNBA MVP Cynthia Cooper,
and preparing to embrace her--their--Houston Comets, the
eventual 65-51 victors over the New York Liberty in last
Saturday's title game at the sold-out Summit.

There's a story behind this--of fans sick of athletes and owners
whose loyalties are shorter-lived than mayflies, and of kids and
their parents nauseated from having to accept as heroes male
pros who buy drugs and sell autographs. "You can get Cynthia
Cooper's autograph anytime you want to," says Comets coach Van
Chancellor. "We're gonna do anything necessary to make this
league go, because we're out a job if it doesn't."

If you still think WNBA is a radio station, let us fill you in
on the summer's 50,000-watt, clear-channel, more-music,
less-trash-talk phenomenon. It's the league in which a star
(guard Michele Timms of the Phoenix Mercury) wrote an apology to
the local paper because she had to call a halt to a postgame
autograph session after a paltry two hours. It's the league in
which, on the morning of Houston's 70-54 semifinal defeat of the
Charlotte Sting, the working-mom commish (Valerie Ackerman)
rapped with the working-mom star (Comets guard Sheryl Swoopes)
for 30 minutes and not for one second about basketball. "We
talked about breast-feeding, about taking a baby on an airplane,
about the importance of having a supportive husband," Ackerman
says.

Truth be told, it was not hard to see all this coming. You could
see it in the growing enthusiasm for women's college basketball,
whose attendance has almost quadrupled during the last 15 years.
You could see it in 1995, when Connecticut's 35-0
national-championship season made believers of the media
tastemakers in midtown Manhattan. You could see it a year ago in
Atlanta, where the Dream Team men bitched about hotel room
service while their distaff counterparts literally turned
cartwheels upon winning the gold. You can even see it today in a
stat we'll call the Salary/Free Throw Percentage Differential
Index (SFTPDI)--the ratio of a player's salary in tens of
thousands of dollars to his or her free throw percentage. Nicole
Levesque, who was plucked from a job (whose duties included
waitressing) at a resort in Vermont to become the starting point
guard for Charlotte, spent the summer earning $10,000, shooting
93% from the line and leading pro basketball with a low SFTPDI
of .01. Contrast that with the figure for the Los Angeles
Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, whose SFTPDI last season was 22.14
(1,071.4/48.4). Now, whom are you going to buy a ticket and pull
for? (Nicole says all tips are appreciated.)

No wonder the WNBA crowds, which averaged 9,804, rarely booed.
They brandished homemade signs (last week's best: SUPER COOPER/U
DA M'AM) and emitted not so much a roar but a high-pitched
squeal, evocative of estrogen and preadolescence. In Phoenix
last Thursday night, as it became apparent that the Mercury's
season would end with a 59-41 semifinal loss to the Liberty,
many of the 16,751 in attendance took pipe-cleaner-shaped
balloons and began tying them together until they practically
ringed America West Arena. It was as if the crowd had improvised
some huge therapy session to take the edge off the defeat.

"We'd hoped to attract a fan base that included families, women
and the core basketball fan who might be in withdrawal after the
end of the NBA season," says Ackerman. "We guessed right about
who we'd attract, but we underestimated their number. And we
didn't expect the intensity of the attraction."

One such fan, Lydia Varela of Phoenix, is a grandmother who had
never before followed pro sports but didn't miss a Mercury game
all season. "Everything has always been about men," she said as
she waited in line at Thursday's game to have a temporary tattoo
of a Mercury logo affixed to her cheek. "Now it's about women,
and it's wonderful."

There's a whiff of Leninism in the way the WNBA assigned top
players to particular teams and paid out insultingly low,
take-it-or-leave-it salaries (average: $35,000). But the
league's every other step has been to a drumbeat pounded out by
Adam Smith. Relentless marketing and promotion, and creative
deals with the league's three TV network partners, have resulted
in universal recognition of We Got Next, the WNBA's signature
catchphrase, as well as in brisk sales of team and league
merchandise.

To be sure, the WNBA wasn't free of all of pro sports'
unpleasantnesses. Two coaches (the Los Angeles Sparks' Linda
Sharp and the Sacramento Monarchs' Mary Murphy) were fired, and
several players were fined. At least one player worries that,
paradoxically, success may sully the purity of purpose that
accounts for the WNBA's appeal. "We sustained ourselves for
years just on our love of the game," says Liberty forward Sue
Wicks, a 30-year-old veteran of nine vagabonding seasons
overseas. "We still have that love, and that's what the fans are
connecting with. But now we're getting a sample of what it's
like being a male pro athlete, and eventually we might take all
this for granted. We might stop playing defense because scoring
points is how you make the All-Star team, or stop diving for
loose balls because by prolonging your career you can make more
money."

The rival American Basketball League begins its sophomore season
in October, and it can only benefit from the WNBA's summertime
spadework on behalf of the women's game. The ABL has signed last
season's top collegians, Stanford's Kate Starbird and
Connecticut's Kara Wolters, and put them in their home regions
of Seattle (with the Reign) and New England (the Blizzard),
respectively. The Atlanta Glory will reunite Olympians Teresa
Edwards and Katrina McClain. And the Richmond Rage and its star,
Dawn Staley, have relocated to Philadelphia, which means Magic
Johnson's favorite player will romp inside the most fan-friendly
arena in the country, the Palestra.

The Darwins in pinstripes all foretell the ABL's demise in the
face of the NBA's billions, and they may ultimately prove to be
right. But if this is a war, on what field will the combatants
engage each other? Right now they're in different markets, in
different seasons, with different philosophies. The league best
equipped to lavish huge salaries on players, the WNBA, is
choosing not to do so. A regular major-network TV presence,
which the ABL lacks, is critical for any pro league's
credibility and long-term health. But as long as there are real
live little kids in every corner of the country, they'll want
their own real live heroines to reach out and touch.

Houston's heroine is that city's nimblest change-of-direction
artist since Earl Campbell. For being named WNBA MVP, Cooper
collected $25,000 and a 1997 Buick Regal GS. As coach of the
year, Chancellor got no more than a handshake and a plaque, but
he noted the disparity without bitterness. "Don't tell me this
isn't a players' league," he said.

Therein lies another explanation for the WNBA's success.
Basketball, more than any other sport, permits the forging of a
bond between player and spectator, and the WNBA not only proved
that this occurs regardless of gender but also made the case
that women players can connect more intimately. Late in the
semifinal, Houston forward Wanda Guyton collided in midair with
teammate Tina Thompson, with Guyton's head whiplashing to the
floor. The crowd hushed, medics scurried, the Comets furrowed
their brows. ESPN sideline reporter Sandra Neil hastened over to
the scrum by the baseline and gave a running account until
Guyton was stretchered off. This was such movie-of-the-week
stuff that you half expected Bonnie Bedelia to materialize as an
emergency-room nurse. Houston (of course) won the game by
peeling off 10 straight points after play resumed, and Guyton
was found to have suffered only a mild concussion (though she
would have to sit out the title game in a wheelchair with
lingering stiffness).

A longer-running story line involved Cooper's mom, Mary Cobbs,
who learned five months ago that she had breast cancer. Cooper's
season spooled out between trips to her mother's chemotherapy
sessions. None of that prevented Cooper from leading the league
with a 22.2 points-per-game average, or scoring 31 and 25 points
in the playoff games. "I've been tucked away in Europe for 11
years, and my mom hasn't been able to share any of the special
moments," says Cooper. "She's my MVP.

"But I tell you, she's signing autographs now. What's up with
that?"

Easy. This WNBA business has everybody thinking she's got next.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Cooper, the playoff MVP, scored 25 in the final, then made postgame points with the Summit crowd. [Cynthia Cooper and fans] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Houston's defense granted New York and Vickie Johnson (passing) few liberties. [Vickie Johnson and others in game]

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