Fast Times in The WNBA What's life like in a league that has no charter flights or million-dollar salaries? After following the Cleveland Rockers for a week, we'd say it's a lot of fun

August 04, 2002

They had next. Five years ago eight teams backed by the muscle
of the NBA made their debut, and the WNBA has held on to the
court ever since. Armed with a network television contract and a
roster of blue-chip sponsors, the league knocked off its lone
competitor, the ABL, and has since swelled to 16 franchises. "A
lot of people didn't think we'd still be around," says Houston
Comets All-Star forward Tina Thompson. "Hey, here we are, and we
have a pulse."

But exactly how strong is that pulse? The WNBA remains something
of a niche sport, an unknown quantity even among many basketball
fans. TV ratings are minuscule. Attendance, at roughly 8,700 per
game, has plateaued. Teams walk unrecognized through their
hometown airports. This season's biggest headlines have come
from the suggestion of a players' strike when the collective
bargaining agreement lapses two weeks after the championship
series. As the WNBA continues to lose, if not hemorrhage,
money--the league is tight-lipped about how much--there are even
whispers about its possible demise.

One of the WNBA's axioms is that you have to attend games to
fully appreciate the league. Herewith, a week with a
middle-of-the-pack team, the Cleveland Rockers, in search of the
soul of the WNBA.

TUESDAY, July 16

Crying? There's no crying in basketball. At least not among the
Rockers. When your team has lost six of its last seven games,
you stay positive. When your locker room is a spartan
shoebox--while the plush, commodious quarters of the men's team,
the Cavaliers, go unoccupied down the hall--you don't complain.
When your coach calls a practice immediately before you have to
catch a commercial flight to Minneapolis, you show up with a
smile.

So it is that the Rockers converge on Gund Arena this afternoon.
It is the first day back after the All-Star break, and the 12
players arrive from near and far. A few pile into two of the
five Ford sedans the team provides and drive from the downtown
apartment complex where most of the players live during the
season. For others the commute is trickier. Point guard Jen
Rizzotti, the women's coach at Hartford during the WNBA
off-season, arrives from a recruiting trip in Atlanta. Forwards
Rushia Brown and Deanna Jackson and center Tracy Henderson had a
"girls' getaway" in Miami and caught a morning flight.

For forward Penny Taylor, the All-Star "break" was a busman's
holiday. A sweet-shooting, 6'1" forward from Australia in her
second season, Taylor, 21, was selected to the Eastern
Conference team. She scored nine points during an electrifying
game in Washington, D.C., but didn't get back to the hotel until
nearly midnight--then rose four hours later for her return
flight to Cleveland. Upon entering the locker room she is
greeted like a returning soldier. "Girl, you were awesome!"
shrieks assistant coach Janice Braxton. "Way to represent the
Rockers!"

The team is leaving at 3 p.m. for a game against the Lynx, yet
coach Dan Hughes is determined to squeeze in a practice. Though
the Rockers had the conference's best record in 2001, they have
been in disarray this season. The incumbent starting point
guard, Helen Darling, gave birth to triplets in the spring and
is on maternity leave. Her backup, Rizzotti, has missed the last
seven games with a sprained right ankle. The team, struggling to
coalesce on the court, is 7-12. "With the short training camp
and the short, 32-game season, finding chemistry is hard enough
in this league," says Hughes. "Add the changes we've had, and
it's like starting from scratch."

WNBA players go to great lengths to avoid comparisons to their
NBA brethren, but one quickly observes that the differences go
far beyond sports bras and hyphenated surnames. When the Rockers
make their familiar stroll down the Continental corridor of
Cleveland International Airport for the flight to Minneapolis,
there are no Gameboys, pagers or even Discmen in sight; every
player is armed with a book, magazine or newspaper. "We're a
team of readers," says Rizzotti, who recently finished Ayn
Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

At roughly the same time the Rockers are finding their
coach-class seats, Allen Iverson is surrendering to Philadelphia
police, having allegedly thrown his naked wife out of their
house, then brandished a loaded gun while trying to track her
down. Some of the Rockers discuss the reasons that the male
sports world is rife with miscreants: the preposterous salaries,
the lifetime of entitlement and pampering, innate gender
differences, a society that tolerates antisocial behavior from
male athletes. Regardless, the notion of a WNBA player's
engaging in similar behavior is unthinkable.

On the whole, the female pros aren't just better behaved than
their male counterparts. They're smarter and cooler, too. With
no early entry permitted, the vast majority of WNBA players are
college graduates, and many have advanced degrees. For the most
part the players are likable, self-possessed and care about how
they're perceived. In short, the league is the antidote for
legions of fans weary of rooting for felons, thugs and whining
millionaires.

It's late evening when the team checks into the Radisson and the
players get their keys--two players to a room. Some of the women
order room service; a few amble around downtown Minneapolis
looking for a restaurant and possibly a mall to hit the next
day. "Wild times in the WNBA," says Rizzotti. "Sometimes we
really get crazy and cram into one room and rent a pay-per-view
movie." Strolling the streets, Taylor is informed that this is
where the opening sequence to The Mary Tyler Moore Show was
filmed. A blank look registers on Taylor's face. With that, her
companions burst into song: We're gonna make it after all.

WEDNESDAY, July 17

At 10:45 a.m. the Rockers board a bus for the two-block trip to
the Target Center. Unlike NBA game-day shootarounds, which often
serve as glorified wake-up calls, the Rockers' session is
utterly businesslike. By 12:30 the team is back at the Radisson.
Some players head to a nearby Italian joint for lunch, some nap,
others make the obligatory trip to the mall. "I swear," says
Rizzotti, "some of these girls think we get mall money, not meal
money." A bit of a nervous wreck, the 46-year-old Hughes
retreats to his suite on the 15th floor, where he whiles away
the hours wearing out the pause button on his VCR, staring at
game tapes of both the Rockers and the Lynx. As he watches
footage of Katie Smith, Minnesota's best player and the league's
leading scorer, he mutters, "Man, she can play. We've got to get
out on her."

Later the coach summons rookie point guard Brandi McCain for a
tutorial. Before Hughes, McCain never played for a male coach;
but she doesn't much mind. "Women coaches can dig too deep," she
says. "They want a reason for everything. 'Why did you have a
bad game? Is everything O.K. in your life?' With [Hughes] it's
just about basketball." A hoops lifer who has coached at all
levels, Hughes asserts that his style in Cleveland is little
different from when he coached men. If he seems detached from
the social fabric of the team, it is by design. "My job is to
prepare my players to be successful on the court," he says. "I
want them to think that I care about them as people, that they
can come to me. But as far as personal stuff and the gossip, I
just don't want to hear it."

Fortunately for the Rockers, they are catching Minnesota at the
right time. Yesterday the Lynx fired coach Brian Agler and
promoted assistant Heidi VanDerveer. (Women now coach nine of
the WNBA's 16 teams.) Even though Agler wasn't particularly
popular among his players, the Lynx locker room is shrouded in
gloom. "We're talking about someone's job," says Smith. "We
should all feel a little bit responsible."

The chaos behind the scenes has little effect on the spirit of
the crowd. An hour before tip-off the Target Center floor is
overrun by kids of all shapes and hues. Dozens of girls from St.
Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., congregate under
a banner reading WHEN I GROW UP...I WANT TO PLAY IN THE WNBA.
(According to WNBA president Val Ackerman, roughly 80% of the
league's in-arena fans are female.) The church is holding its
annual Girls in Sports Night. Before the game the kids line up
to give the Lynx high fives.

Meanwhile, a half dozen other girls have commandeered the Lynx
bench, sitting on the metal folding chairs while the team warms
up. This ability to get up close and personal and forge a
connection with the players is a major reason fans like Terry
Friedlander and his daughters, Taylor, 13, and Mira, 10, are
season-ticket holders. "Some of the players know my daughters by
their first names. Could you ever imagine that in the NBA?" says
Friedlander, a Minneapolis marketing director. "Never in my
wildest dreams did I think I'd ever be yelling, 'Take it to the
hoop, Svetlana!' But I'm completely hooked on this league."

As in most WNBA markets, there is also a large contingent of
lesbian fans at the Target Center. Some teams, such as the Los
Angeles Sparks and the Miami Sol, have recognized gay women as a
core demographic and marketed to that community. Still, it is a
thorny subject around the league. Before the Sparks adopted
their current marketing strategy, the Los Angeles Gay and
Lesbian Center was told it could not use the words gay and
lesbian on display advertising at the arena. Ushers in New York
have repeatedly tried to confiscate LESBIANS FOR LIBERTY
banners. The Monarchs declined to permit the Davis Dykes to be
listed on the scoreboard along with other groups that bought
blocks of tickets. (Sacramento management later apologized and
held a gay pride night.)

There are more subtle signs, too. Both on telecasts of games and
on arena Jumbotrons, cameras panning the crowd invariably zoom in
on young children with their parents. Rarely, if ever, are
same-sex couples shown. Many lesbian fans say they view the
league's "family friendly" billing as a suggestion that gays are
unwelcome. Lesbians for Liberty has even scheduled a "kiss-in"
during timeouts of the team's Aug. 2 game to protest what it
perceives as shabby treatment from the league and the
organization. Though gay fans at the Target Center don't seem to
share that level of outrage, many of them, too, feel
marginalized. "Here it's more 'Don't ask, don't tell,'" says
Tracy Queen, a Minneapolis sales consultant. "That only makes me
want to show my face at games that much more." (Says Ackerman,
"I'm not aware of any complaints. We have encouraged our teams to
market in ways that they think will be effective locally.")

As for the game itself at times it is fluid and aesthetically
pleasing, at times sloppy and arrhythmic. In other words it's
pro basketball. But the on-court similarities between the WNBA
and the NBA end there. The Rockers and Lynx provide few
traditional highlight plays like dunks, killer crossovers or
showboat passes. Trash talk is nonexistent. Although Minnesota
boasts the league's leading scorer in Smith, there are no
isolation plays designed for her to go one-on-one.

In the WNBA, defense and team play are the coin of the realm.
Hardly a possession goes by without all five players touching
the ball. Centers routinely hoist the three, and guards are
skilled at posting up. The shooting accuracy is neither
exceptional nor exceptionally bad. (During the 2001-02 season
NBA teams shot 44.5% from the field and 75.2% from the line;
through Sunday, WNBA teams were shooting 42.2% and 73.8%,
respectively.) The difference is that there are no easy baskets
in the WNBA--even in garbage time. "This is basketball the way
it ought to be," says Joe Tait, the Rockers' radio announcer and
the voice of the Cavaliers for 30 years. "It reminds me of how
the NBA used to be before it went and got macho."

Thanks to Cleveland's zone defense, Smith has an off night,
scoring 12 points, 6.1 below her season average. Still, the
Rockers have a hard time finding the rim and trail 45-41 with
9:09 to go. "Time to turn it up," Hughes implores during a
timeout, and the team responds, closing out the game with a 17-3
run to win 58-48.

As the Lynx falter in the stretch, there are no boos from the
sparse crowd, generously announced as 5,087. Rather, chants of
De-fense mount in decibels. When Minnesota, down by 10 with 10.6
seconds left, inexplicably calls time, few scurry to the exits.
Asked why there was no jeering, Queen is stunned. "You can't be a
fair-weather fan," she says. "They're trying hard out there. Why
make them feel worse?"

THURSDAY, July 18

By 9:30 the Rockers are back in Cinnabon Nation, negotiating the
Minneapolis airport. At the gate shooting guard Tricia Bader
Binford, a devout Baptist, distributes bracelets and rubber
bands embroidered with the phrase GO B.I.G. GO BELIEVING IN GOD.
"A year ago I wouldn't have taken one," says a passenger on the
flight. "But now I'll try anything before getting on a flight."

In the wake of Sept. 11 commercial air travel has become even
more arduous for WNBA teams. The Rockers arrive at airports two
hours before flights and spend an unearthly amount of time in
lines for security checks. Leaguewide, players make the best of
the hassles. Last month, for instance, the Liberty was waylaid
at Newark Airport for seven hours en route to Detroit. Players
spent the time holding an impromptu clinic for fans and singing
and dancing. But the inconvenience of travel--and the knowledge
that NBA players travel on catered, chartered flights--is
another reminder that for the WNBA, the big-time remains elusive.

It is also the kind of issue that galvanizes support for the
players' association. The collective bargaining agreement
between the union and the league expires on Sept. 15. Three
years ago the players were at the
we're-just-happy-to-be-getting-paid stage and made what they
felt were wholesale concessions. This time they vow to come to
the table with a list of grievances as well as demands for
improved working conditions. Already there have been rumblings
of both a players' strike and a preemptive lockout by owners.
Some players fear that if there is a work stoppage, NBA
commissioner David Stern and the league's owners will pull the
plug. "I think their attitude is 'Take it or leave it,'" says
one Eastern Conference player. "Hey, they call the shots."

For the players there are advantages to the WNBA's close
alliance with the NBA. The women were able to tap into the NBA's
relationships with television networks and blue-chip sponsors
like Coca-Cola and McDonald's. The WNBA teams are owned
collectively by the NBA's 29 established, experienced (and
deep-pocketed) franchise owners. Teams play in NBA arenas and
have access to state-of-the-art training facilities, practice
gyms and video technology. "We wouldn't have started the league
under any other model," says Ackerman.

The relationship also has its drawbacks. Like a venture capital
firm that underwrites a start-up, the NBA wields considerable
control over its little-sister league. The single-entity
structure of the WNBA predetermines the pay scale and precludes
free agency. The league severely restricts players' off-court
income--during the season, when their marketability is highest,
they are prohibited from endorsing products and companies deemed
to compete with the WNBA's 16 official sponsors. Players are
also required to make 10 gratis appearances for sponsors before
earning $700 stipends for subsequent ones. Their first 12
appearances for the team are also freebies. "We're just asking
for our fair share," says Houston Comets star forward Sheryl
Swoopes, who is reportedly the league's highest-paid player,
with a base salary of roughly $80,000. "The league controls
everything we do and everything we're allowed to do."

Philosophically there's also tension. The WNBA perceives itself
as the manifestation of Title IX, a pioneering league predicated
on gender equality and female empowerment. Yet reminders abound
that the WNBA is indebted to--and riding the coattails of--its
male counterpart. Who knows whether the sponsors are genuinely
supportive of the WNBA or are there because of the NBA's
considerable leverage? The season can't start until the boys are
through using the gym. Some players go so far as to suggest that
the WNBA is a loss leader for the NBA, luring in new basketball
enthusiasts who will one day be buying courtside seats not for
the Sparks and the Liberty but for the Lakers and the Knicks.

Then again, perhaps it's impossible for a women's league to make
it without relinquishing some soul and independence--the ABL,
which had no big brother, went belly-up after 21 months. That
the WNBA has discussed expanding into markets like Hartford,
where there is no NBA team, suggests the league may slowly be
gaining autonomy. Still, the players are growing restless. "It's
like how you view your parents in puberty," says Tina Thompson.
"We don't want to cut off ties [with the NBA] entirely, but we
need to branch out and become more independent."

The players' biggest point of contention is pay. According to
the players' association the average salary is roughly $46,000
for the four-month season. The WNBA claims it's closer to
$57,000, factoring in the $850,000 in bonus money available to
16 stars handpicked by the league. Using either estimate, the
wages are low for topflight professional athletes, so after each
WNBA season there's a mass migration overseas, where players
supplement their income--some make as much as $300,000--in
various leagues. It also torques the players that their salaries
are dwarfed by those of some coaches and administrators. For
instance, according to SI sources, the Washington Mystics, the
league's lone profitable team, pay Tennessee coach Pat Summitt
an annual consulting fee exceeding $200,000--more than the base
salaries of the top three players.

Players are quick to make clear that they're not asking for the
monumental paychecks of their NBA brethren. Yet they point out
that if every player in the league were given a 50% bump--a
raise recently advocated by Sparks president Johnny Buss--it
would cost owners less than the $4.5 million average salary in
the NBA.

The players' restlessness puts management in a precarious
position. The league is, understandably, eager to trumpet its
success, reassuring sponsors and networks that it has invested
wisely. Ackerman, who assesses the WNBA's health as "good,"
often notes that six seasons into the NBA's existence its teams
weren't drawing anywhere near 9,000 fans a game. But, lest she
give the players' association too much ammunition, her optimism
is couched in corporatespeak such as "investment stage" and
"growing process."

While the WNBA is notoriously reluctant to traffic in numbers--"Do
they make money? Do they not? How much does the NBA foot the
bill? None of us know that," says Katie Smith--executives admit
that the league is in the red. But as Pam Wheeler, the players'
association's director of operations, notes, "It's funny how the
closer we get to collective bargaining, the worse the league
seems to be doing."

FRIDAY, July 19

By 10:30 the team has arrived in the locker room for what will
be a hellish morning practice. Tomorrow's opponent, Los Angeles,
is the WNBA's defending champion and owner of the league's best
record, 16-4. The Rockers aren't quite in must-win mode, but
it's their biggest game of the summer to date. That it will be
on NBC--Cleveland's only network appearance this season--adds to
the sense of importance.

When practice ends, the players are exhausted, but they don't
leave. It's Team Poster Day, and they are expected to change into
casual clothes--denim and/or leather is the dress code--let down
their hair and apply copious makeup. One by one, each goes to the
second floor to pose for a glamour shot. Through the magic of
computer software, the individual photos will be melded into a
team photo and given to fans at the Rockers' final home game.

As usual, the players make the best of the situation, helping
each other with makeup--"I haven't done this since my wedding,"
says Bader Binford--exchanging fashion tips and dispensing
compliments liberally. Some seem genuinely to enjoy it and
project confidence in their bodies. "I'm going to look like a
woman," vows center Chasity Melvin. Others are clearly
uncomfortable. Strong and graceful on the court moments earlier,
they are suddenly awkward and self-conscious, unaccustomed to
using their physiques this way. "They want us to look like
girls," says one veteran, rolling her eyes.

Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on
Women in Sport at Minnesota and a consultant to the Lynx, says
this exercise is typical of what she calls "the
hyperheterosexualization" of women's sports. "There's such
homophobia," she adds. "[WNBA officials] believe that if they're
ever truly going to make it, they need to emphasize traditional
femininity because the institutions that have power and control
will find it more palatable."

Indeed, the league often seems to implicitly promote straight
players. Team media guides, for example, unfailingly list
players' spouses and offspring. Despite a sizable contingent of
gay players in the league--"I can't say how many," Liberty center
Sue Wicks told The Village Voice two years ago, "but it would be
easier to count the straight ones"--no 2002 media guide mentions a
player's girlfriend or domestic partner. Three seasons ago
Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski took the commendable
step of noting in the media guide that she "lives with her
partner, Joyce, and their two kids." This season's guide states,
more ambiguously, that she lives "with her family, Joyce, Lainey
and Luke." (Blazejowski declined to comment on the change.)

Wicks has also railed against the league's unwillingness to
promote players who are committed to same-sex relationships as
zealously as players who are wives and mothers. Now, she wishes
the focus could simply be on hoops. "I'm not ashamed of who I am,
but I don't think it has anything to do with basketball," says
Wicks, one of the few--if not the lone--"out" players in the WNBA.
"You're a wife, a mother, a lesbian, who cares? The real victory
will come when people just view us as athletes."

SATURDAY, July 20

Watching basketball indoors doesn't spring to mind as the best
way to spend an afternoon as gorgeous as this one. The franchise
knows this and provides fans with enough attractions that the
game can seem anticlimactic. An hour before tip-off the section
behind the visitors' basket is like an indoor carnival, crawling
with kids who have come to shoot hoops, make beaded Rockers
bracelets and get temporary tattoos.

The size of the crowd is respectable, though nowhere near the
announced attendance of 10,420. With the upper levels cordoned
off with a black curtain, the arena feels less cavernous, the
noise more concentrated. What the fan base lacks in size it makes
up for in intensity and volume. Not only are there the obligatory
NOBODY BEATS CLEVELAND signs to wave before NBC cameras, but
there are also dozens of placards that pay homage to various
Rockers. "In the NBA the front rows are filled with stars and
money people, and the real fans are in the rafters," says Sparks
coach and former Lakers star Michael Cooper. "In the WNBA all the
fans are rafters fans."

The Cleveland faithful are particularly vocal booing and
harassing L.A. center Lisa Leslie. The league's reigning MVP and
a part-time model, Leslie is a cynosure with the league's
marketing wonks. Among hard-core WNBA fans, however, she is
decidedly less popular. The perception is that her physical
dominance, like that of her NBA counterpart in L.A., Shaquille
O'Neal, is abetted by preferential treatment from the officials.
When Leslie walked off with the All-Star MVP award, she was booed
mercilessly by fans. Some of Leslie's teammates called the
treatment classless, but ultimately it might be a good sign for
the league. Booing, after all, is part of big-time sports. It
also says that a player has forged enough of an identity to
arouse passion.

The Rockers play a competitive first half and trail by two. In
the locker room Hughes encourages the team to challenge Leslie,
who has three fouls. But in the second half the Rockers simply
can't find the rim. It doesn't help Cleveland that the
officiating is comically poor--felonious conduct, mostly committed
by the Sparks, fails to provoke whistles while phantom calls are
the order of the day. After losing 63-50, the Rockers are
despondent. They stand 8-13 with 11 games left, their momentum
halted.

In keeping with a league rule requiring two members of the home
team to sign autographs after games, Merlakia Jones and Bader
Binford shower then head to the mezzanine section, where a gaggle
of fans awaits. The players sign all manner of souvenirs, giving
not the slightest indication that they are being inconvenienced.
Toward the end of the session a girl no older than 10 says, "The
refs stank today." Jones smiles and responds, "But when you don't
hit your shots, you're not going to win many games."

SUNDAY, July 21

Reading the Rockers' faces, one would know immediately that they
are still reeling from a dispiriting loss. You wouldn't know it,
however, reading the local paper. Though the Indians are on the
road and the Cavs and Browns are out of season, an account of
the Rockers-Sparks game doesn't appear in the The Plain Dealer
sports section until page eight--seven pages after an article on
the Metropolitan Bank Triathlon. As with any fledgling league,
coverage is vital, and it's a pet concern of Ackerman's. The
issue presents a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Media outlets (this
magazine included) would be more inclined to bolster coverage if
there were stronger indications of the WNBA's popularity. The
league counters that ratings, attendance and buzz would increase
if the media took it more seriously.

An offshoot of this: The players are still not perceived as
celebrities. As the Rockers slog through the Continental
terminal this morning en route to New York for a game against
the Liberty, they are approached by a middle-aged woman. "Are
you athletes?" she asks. "Yes," says Melvin. "We're basketball
players." The interaction ends there. "NBA players get
recognized; we get questions," Melvin explains. "It's something
we talk about all the time."

Even by WNBA standards, the Rockers are exceptionally close. The
players are black and white, American and foreign, relatively
young (21) and relatively old (30). There is a clear sense that
they embrace their differences and have forged a real community.
"What we have, the way we care about each other, it's like a
college team," says Henderson. "Even though we're not winning as
much as we'd like, the season has been fun because we like each
other so much." How have they been able to stave off the
frustration of losing, the bitterness over minutes, the hubris
that so often frays the fabric of teams? "Maybe," says Henderson,
"it's a woman thing."

Nevertheless, a sense of isolation and loneliness can set in.
After games the players reflexively whip out their cellphones,
seeking contact--and, often, solace--from a familiar voice.
Feelings of detachment are heightened for Henderson, 27, the lone
mother on the active roster. In May 2000 she gave birth to a
daughter, Journee, and sat out the season. She planned to return
in 2001 but suffered a knee injury.

It proved a blessing in disguise. The week of the 1999 NFL Pro
Bowl, Henderson's fiance, Robert Edwards, then a running back for
the New England Patriots, suffered a memorably grotesque knee
injury playing flag football on the beach. Together at their home
outside Atlanta, they rehabbed their injuries and pushed each
other to make it back. In addition to growing as a couple, they
were with Journee full time.

Both made it back to full health, and when Edwards accepted a
contract with the Miami Dolphins this spring, Henderson had to
decide whether to rejoin the Rockers or stay with Journee. She
chose the former and leaves Journee with relatives in Atlanta
during the season. As soon as the Rockers land in New York, she
is on her cell, checking in with Journee, one of four, five,
sometimes six calls she'll make in a day. "There was no WNBA when
I was growing up," Henderson says. "I decided, as long as it's
here, I want to be a part of it. We all miss our loved
ones--that's one of the prices you pay, I guess. But as a mother,
it's extra tough sometimes."

MONDAY, July 22

The entire Cleveland team and coaching staff files into the
Madison Square Garden freight elevator that delivers them to
court level. As the Rockers head through the tunnel for their
game-day shootaround, they pass the Liberty as the home team
vacates the court. The players exchange hugs and small talk. The
Rockers say that's the norm. They compete fiercely on court, but
there is sense of collective purpose and sisterhood among the
league's 192 players.

As the Rockers step on the floor, they stare silently, like awed
tourists beholding the pyramids of Egypt. It might be in dire
need of cosmetic upgrades, but it's still the Garden. As Melvin
puts it, "If you had told me as a little girl that I would be
playing in a women's basketball league in Madison Square Garden,
I'd be like, 'Get serious.'"

Sensing his minions' fatigue, Hughes puts them through a light
practice, and they're back at their Times Square hotel shortly
after noon. In the lobby Joe D'Orazio, his sons, Bobby, 13, and
Joe, 10, and his daughter, Julianne, 7, bump into the Rockers.
The D'Orazios, on vacation from suburban Philadelphia, have never
been to a WNBA game, but the kids play hoops and figure that a
consortium of women that tall and athletic-looking must be part
of a basketball team. The family chats up the Rockers and asks
for autographs.

The D'Orazios are so impressed with the players' charm that
shortly afterward they walk to the NBA Store and buy Rockers
gear. Still floating from their brush with pro sports, the kids
prevail on their father to take them to the Rockers-Liberty game.
Four seats cost $52--far less than the average price of $89.90 for
a seat at a Knicks game. They get the Rockers to sign their
T-shirts and posters during the pregame warmup.

The Rockers have beaten the Liberty five times running, but the
streak ends spectacularly today. Cleveland's shooting is abysmal,
its defense uncharacteristically porous. Taylor, the All-Star,
has only two field goals. Rizzotti is 1 of 7 from the field.
Jones picks up a technical foul--"They assumed I cursed, but I
don't do that," she says--for which the $150 fine represents
roughly one third of her after-tax income that day. The final
score, 73-52, still belies the lopsidedness. "There are 10 games
left," Hughes tells the team afterward, his voice edged in
frustration. "It's up to you if you want to make the playoffs."

Up in the 300 section, the D'Orazios, the Rockers' newest fans,
don't like the result but dig the experience anyway. The
afternoon featured the usual fan-friendly trappings--the
roller-skating mascot, the Bachman Turner Overdrive, the absurdly
peppy men using slingshots to send T-shirts into the stands. But
it was the basketball that won them over. "Watching women is
different from watching men," says Bobby. "But they pass more and
play harder. This was fun, too."

A multicolored crowd of nearly 14,000 felt likewise. As the clock
wound down, the Garden fans served up a deafening ovation. In
part it was for the Liberty's precise shooting and tenacious D.
But it was also in appreciation of the connection they have with
the players, of the maximum effort the Liberty expends for
minimal wages, of the mere fact that a professional basketball
league for women continues to exist. As the scene unfolded at the
world's most famous arena, it was hard to imagine a sportscape
that didn't include the WNBA. To appropriate a phrase from
another pioneer of sorts, they're gonna make it after all.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON MAKEUP GAME Normally not big on cosmetics, Bader Binford gets an assist from Taylor on Team Poster Day. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON REACHING OUT Ann Wauters (top) hits the boards against the Liberty; Melvin (above, left) and Henderson are frequent cell mates; Brown & Co. charmed Julianne D'Orazio and her family. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON ROCK BOTTOM Neither the intense practices of Hughes (left) nor some pregame relaxation helped slumping Cleveland against Leslie (9) and L.A. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON MIXED MESSAGE? The league favors a personal touch--like Melvin's--but some gay fans feel shut out by its "family friendly" pitch. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON POSTER CHILDREN Lucienne Berthieu was ready for her closeup; Wicks wishes her sexuality weren't an issue; girls in Minnesota aspire to careers on the court.

"THE WNBA IS BASKETBALL THE WAY IT OUGHT TO BE," SAYS TAIT, WHO
ALSO CALLS CAVS GAMES

BECAUSE OF HOMOPHOBIA, SAYS KANE, THE WNBA STRESSES "TRADITIONAL
FEMININITY"

WNBA PLAYERS BEHAVE BETTER THAN THEIR MALE COUNTERPARTS AND ARE
SMARTER AND COOLER, TOO

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)