Most All-Star Games don’t matter. This year’s WNBA midseason classic almost certainly will.
When the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game tips off Wednesday in Las Vegas, it will feature a new format—and it won’t be all fun and games.
For the first time, the WNBA is holding an official All-Star Game the same year as the Olympics. League commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she didn’t want to go two years without a game—after last year’s was canceled because of COVID-19—or miss an opportunity to commemorate the W’s 25th season. Rather than the traditional East vs. West matchup, this year’s showcase will pit the U.S. women’s national team against the best of the rest in the league. It will be the U.S. Olympic team's toughest test before the Tokyo Games.
“This is very different than a [typical] All-Star Game,” says Aces coach Bill Laimbeer. “Normally everybody is kind of goofing around. That’s not what USA Basketball wants. USAB wants a very competitive game.”
In 2004, Team USA faced a group of WNBA All-Stars in an exhibition before the Athens Olympics, but it wasn’t considered an official WNBA All-Star Game. (The “Stars at the Sun” showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena in '10 before the FIBA World Cup featured a similar matchup.) Lisa Leslie—who happens to be one of the '21 WNBA All-Star co-coaches—had 15 points and 12 rebounds for Team USA in '04, as the national team cruised to an easy 74–58 win.
“The 2004 game was played at Radio City Music Hall. The atmosphere was very different,” says Laimbeer, who coached the WNBA All-Stars in that '04 matchup against Team USA. “This time, the All-Stars are going to be there for one reason—to play basketball. Not to go out there and goof around or have fun. The stakes are very different.”
The 2021 version of Team USA is made up of the 12 players who were selected to compete for the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team in Tokyo later this month. The 12-person Team WNBA roster was determined after the top 36 vote-getters from that voting process who were not members of the USA Basketball five-on-five roster were provided to WNBA head coaches, who then voted for five frontcourt players, three guards and four additional players at any position.
It was a complicated process, but one that resulted in two stacked teams—which means that we could see one of the most competitive All-Star Games in the league’s history. Unlike in previous exhibitions, victory for Team USA is not assured this time around. For several reasons, the U.S. women’s national team could have its hands full against the best of the rest in the league.
The All-Stars include several players with chips on their shoulders.
There has been a lot of conversation about USA Basketball politics since the Olympics team roster was revealed—much of it focused on the snub of veteran Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who was left off the Olympics roster for the third time. Some consider the six-time All-Star’s omission the biggest snub in Team USA basketball history.
Ogwumike has played in just five WNBA games this season because of a left knee sprain, but it’s unclear how much the injury had to do with her being left off the Olympic team. She is the only WNBA MVP to have never made an Olympic roster and has been a member of the senior national team since 2014.
Ogwumike, who was listed on Nigeria’s provisional 15-person roster and might be going to the Tokyo Olympics after all, won’t be at the All-Star Game, but her former Sparks teammate Candace Parker will be. Parker, who was left off the Olympics squad in 2016 after helping the U.S. win gold medals in '08 and '12, is making her sixth All-Star appearance. She has been outspoken about her lingering frustration with USA Basketball and Ogwumike's omission from this year's team.
"I was like, 'Listen, it sucks, it's unfair,' all that blah, blah, blah," Parker told reporters on June 22. "[I told Nneka,] ‘You're one of the greatest. You're the only MVP not to make an Olympic team, which is bulls---.' But that's what it is, right?"
Several other players on this year’s WNBA All-Star team were also passed over for the Olympic squad, including Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale and Sky forward Kahleah Copper, who are two of eight players making their All-Star debuts.
Both teams also feature multiple MVP candidates—and plenty of offensive firepower. Sun forward Jonquel Jones, Liberty guard Betnijah Laney and Aces center Liz Cambage will bring offense to the WNBA All-Star squad, while Team USA counters with Storm forward Breanna Stewart, Aces forward A’ja Wilson, Mystics center Tina Charles and Lynx center Sylvia Fowles.
Jones, who leads the league in rebounding and trails only Tina Charles for the league scoring title, is from the Bahamas and currently plays for the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team. She told reporters Sunday that the chance of beating Team USA—which is overwhelmingly favored to win it all in Tokyo—provides extra motivation during this All-Star Game.
“The chances of me winning a gold medal … are slim to none,” Jones said. “I’m trying to go out there and win so I can tell my grandkids that I got a gold medal, technically.”
Team USA—which is chasing its seventh consecutive gold medal at the Olympics—might be conservative when it comes to managing playing time during the All-Star Game. But the Olympic players know that it’s not a great look if they lose to a team of WNBA All-Stars who, for the most part, were passed over for Olympic consideration.
How do they know? They’ve lost to some of these players before as a collective relatively recently.
In November 2019, No. 1-ranked Oregon beat the U.S. women’s national team 93–86. It marked the first time that the U.S. had lost a major international game since falling in the semifinals of the '06 world championships to Russia—and its second loss ever to a college program. Dallas forward Satou Sabally—last year’s No. 2 WNBA draft pick and a first-time All-Star—scored 25 points for Oregon in the win over a team that featured Fowles, as well as her current Team USA teammates Sue Bird, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi.
Another scorer who could play a big role for the WNBA All-Stars is Cambage. At 6' 8", the versatile Australian presents matchup problems for just about everyone, plus she will have home court advantage in Las Vegas, and has made no secret of how hungry she is to win an Olympic gold medal.
“I’m going to play with my sisters that I’ve been playing with since I was a wee little thing, and I’m going to ball out for all those young brown kids back in Australia watching me, baby. I’m going to do it for you,” Cambage said on her Instagram account after announcing her Tokyo plans in May.
Cambage, the first woman to dunk in an Olympic game, will be competing in her third Olympics in Tokyo. She and the Opals won a bronze medal in London in 2012 but lost in the quarterfinals at Rio in '16 and didn’t medal.
The All-Star Game will give Cambage a trial run at Team USA. She’ll face the U.S. again two days later, in a pre-Olympic tune-up game, also in Las Vegas, on July 16.
Can she and the WNBA All-Stars pull off the upset? They will certainly try.
“It’ll be a hard-fought game,” Laimbeer said. “Hopefully everybody projects themselves and there are no injuries.”
More WNBA Coverage:
- Team USA’s Three-on-Three Squad Is Ready for Its Olympic Moment
- Candace Parker, Jonquel Jones Highlight WNBA All-Star Team
- Brittney Sykes Is the WNBA’s Defensive Spark Plug
Aimee Crawford is a contributor for GoodSport, a media company dedicated to raising the visibility of women and girls in sports.