The Only Game In Town The demise of the ABL means a bigger, better WNBA will take the floor

June 13, 1999

As superbly as the WNBA has been marketed, it was never the only
women's game in town. Nor was it the best. Stocked with more
talent, the American Basketball League (ABL) premiered in
October 1996, eight months before the WNBA's June '97 launch.
But last December, early in its third season, the ABL folded,
and now one league's demise is another's boon. Among the 50
players selected in May's WNBA draft were 35 ABL refugees,
including 6'4" Yolanda Griffith and 6'2" Natalie Williams, both
potential first-team All-WNBA players, perhaps even MVP material.

Those aren't the only ways the WNBA is bigger and better,
however. An All-Star Game, the league's first, is slated for
July 14 at Madison Square Garden. The WNBA has grown by two
teams, to an even dozen, and expanded its playoffs. The top
three teams in each conference, instead of the top two, will
make the postseason, with the second- and third-place finishers
in each conference meeting in a one-game playoff for the right
to face the top team in a best-of-three series. The two
conference winners will then square off in a best-of-three for
the title. Here's a guide to those teams that figure to be in
the 1999 title hunt and those that don't:

For the past two seasons the best players in the WNBA have
performed for the Houston Comets, who last year had one of the
highest winning percentages (27-3, .900) in the history of U.S.
pro basketball. Still, when the Comets lost the first game of
the best-of-three WNBA Finals to the Phoenix Mercury, Houston
coach Van Chancellor had to get creative and invent the Purple
Towel Ploy. Chancellor held up a white towel before his players
and asked what color it was. "Clearly," said guard Cynthia
Cooper, "it's white."

"If I say it's purple," said Chancellor, "it's purple. If I say
it's so, it's so. Listen to me, and we'll win." Before Game 2
each seat on the Comets' bench was adorned with a purple towel.
The Houston players got the message and played the game the way
Chancellor wanted it played--and the Comets swept the next two
games.

The two-time defending champs bring back their triumphant troika
of two-time league MVP and scoring champ Cooper and forwards
Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. Missing, however, will be
point guard Kim Perrot, who in February was found to have lung
cancer that spread to her brain. Perrot, 32, is recovering from
surgery and is scheduled to receive chemotherapy. "You can't see
Kim on the sidelines and not hurt for her," says Chancellor.
Either Sonja Henning or Jennifer Rizzoti, both ABL refugees whom
the Comets picked up in the draft, will start in Perrot's spot.

The Phoenix Mercury again should be Houston's strongest rival in
the Western Conference. The Mercury figures to be tougher this
season, having added forward Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil to a front
line that includes center Jennifer Gillom, the 1998 MVP
runner-up. Davis-Wrightsil was suspended for a week and fined
$1,500 in December '96 after she decked an opponent in the ABL
All-Star Game. "Attitude is somebody cracking the heck out of
somebody," says Phoenix coach Cheryl Miller, who perhaps has
spent one too many nights as an NBA sideline reporter. "Do I
want a player like that? No question."

The most improved team in the league may be the Sacramento
Monarchs. With the second draft pick Sacramento took Griffith, a
forward-center who was the ABL's Defensive Player of the Year in
1997-98, was second in rebounding (11.2 per game) and led the
league in steals. Griffith should give a big boost to a team
whose leading rebounder a year ago was 5'11" forward Latasha
Byears. Point guard Ticha Penicheiro, who led the WNBA in
assists (7.5 per game) will again run the team at point guard.

Three days after the draft, coach Brian Agler and four members
of the expansion Minnesota Lynx met in Marietta, Ga. The
occasion: forward Andrea Lloyd's wedding. Lloyd, maid of honor
Angie Potthoff, bridesmaid Katie Smith and guest Sonja Tate were
no strangers to ring ceremonies. They had won two ABL
championships while playing for the Agler-coached Columbus
Quest. "We're like a family," says Lloyd, who married former ABL
referee Eric Curry. "We bicker a lot, but we're always there for
one another." That was evident when Agler accepted the Minnesota
coaching job and immediately sought out Lloyd, who had retired
at age 33 when the ABL folded. Agler did his best Jake and
Elwood Blues impression while telling her, We're getting the
band back together. Lloyd, Potthoff, Smith, Tate and another
former Quest guard, Tonya Edwards, all relocated to the Twin
Cities, where they'll be joined by rookie forward Kristin Folkl,
the erstwhile two-sport phenom from Stanford. Call them the
Lynx-to-the-Past. Or the Re-Quests. Do not call them an
expansion franchise.

The Los Angeles Sparks suffer from an image problem. They
believe that they're the Los Angeles Lakers. The marquee player
and leading scorer is an overexposed center (Lisa Leslie), the
young flashy guard (Tamecka Dixon) has a father who played
professionally in Europe, and the coach is a power forward from
the 1980s Lakers (Orlando Woolridge), who says, "When you look
at this team on paper you say, 'Wow, this is a great team,' but
it's a team that hasn't lived up to its expectations." Sound
familiar?

The Utah Starzz just got taller. To 6'5" Russian center Elena
Baranova, recently voted the European woman player of the year,
and 7'2" Margo Dydek from Poland, the Starzz have added Natalie
Williams, the ABL's MVP in 1997-98. Williams's career averages
are 20.0 points and 11.7 rebounds. Look for the Starzz to unload
Dydek for backcourt help if ABL emigre Debbie Black, a point
guard whose forte is rabid defense, fails to create off the
dribble.

In the Eastern Conference, the Charlotte Sting added former ABL
forward Charlotte Smith. Like Michael Jordan, the 6-foot Smith
starred at North Carolina. Like Jordan, she can dunk. Like
Jordan, she converted a game-winning jumper in the closing
moments of an NCAA championship game (in 1994) for the Tar
Heels. Unlike Jordan, she may not start. The Sting lineup is
that potent, especially Andrea Stinson (15.0 points, 4.5 assists
per game last season) at guard and Rhonda Mapp (10.1 points) at
center. Charlotte, which made the playoffs the last two seasons,
ascended to championship level by drafting the backcourt of 1996
Olympian Dawn Staley and Stephanie White-McCarty of NCAA champ
Purdue.

The New York Liberty also prospered in the draft. Former ABLer
Crystal Robinson shot better from three-point range (44.2%) in
1997-98 than the Liberty did from the field (42.5%) last season.
Michele VanGorp, a 6'6" rookie center from Duke, shot 62.0% for
the NCAA runner-up, and fellow rookie center 6'2" Tamika
Whitmore of Memphis was Division I's leading scorer, with 26.3
points a game.

Point guard Suzie McConnell Serio of the Cleveland Rockers is
more than a coach on the floor. She's a coach off the floor as
well, having earned her 200th career victory when her Oakland
(Pa.) Catholic girls team won its western Pennsylvania league
championship in March. The Rockers will be more sedate this year
without their top scorer and rebounder, 6'5" Isabelle
Fijalkowski of France, who's taking the season off after playing
almost constantly here and in Europe for the last two years. You
can't coach height, especially when it's not on the roster.

The Detroit Shock caused tremors as a 17-13 expansion team last
season. Coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline's outfit, led by 5'9" guard
Korie Hlede of Croatia, will be hard-pressed to improve on that
record. Last year's other new club, the Washington Mystics, will
improve upon their record--it was 3-27, one of the worst in the
history of U.S. pro hoops--but probably not their attendance,
which, at 15,910 a game, was tops in the WNBA. The top pick in
the draft, Chamique Holdsclaw, who already has visited the White
House three times as a member of national champion Tennessee
teams, may be the first lady of basketball by season's end.

This year's other expansion team, the Orlando Miracle, has raw
talent in guards Shannon Johnson (late of the Quest) and rookie
Nykesha Sales. With Taj McWilliams, the ABL's career
blocked-shot leader, at center, the Miracle will surpass
Washington's three victories of a year ago. Still, Orlando's
best days, just like the WNBA's, are to be found in Tomorrowland.

COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Holdsclaw (23), the No. 1 pick in the draft, joins a team that had one of the worst records in hoops history. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND

How They'll Finish

With Cynthia Cooper (above) once again leading the way, the
Comets are SI's pick for a three-peat.

EASTERN CONFERENCE WESTERN CONFERENCE

Charlotte Sting 1 Houston Comets
New York Liberty 2 Phoenix Mercury
Cleveland Rockers 3 Sacramento Monarchs
Detroit Shock 4 Minnesota Lynx
Washington Mystics 5 Los Angeles Sparks
Orlando Miracle 5 Utah Starzz

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)