Tuesday afternoon was one heck of a basketball game.
This feels significant, in no small way given the manner in which the sport has taken over the sports conversation over the last few weeks. More than 30 million people watched the Cavaliers win their first NBA Championship on Sunday night, the biggest audience for a Finals game in 18 years, and a fitting culmination for a series swimming in narrative, as the biggest star of his generation finally captured an elusive hometown championship by overcoming one of the greatest teams we’ve ever seen. Following such a storyline may be impossible, but for the WNBA, matching up two undefeated teams, the 12-0 Minnesota Lynx traveling to take on the 11-0 Los Angeles Sparks, on the anniversary of the first ever game in this, the league’s 20th season, is probably about as strong an effort as one could imagine.
And so, sitting amongst the thousands on hand as the Lynx captured a hard-fought 72-69 victory, watching the game actually live up to the billing was encouraging, not simply because the sport carries so much momentum at the moment, but also because, to be frank, it’s rare that the WNBA is allowed to be a story, in its own right. This is a league that, regrettably, only seems to generate headlines when there’s some bigger issue in play. Like, for example, when corporate logos make their way to jerseys. Or someone floats the idea of lowering the rims. Or Isiah Thomas is given the reins of a franchise. Or one of the top players in the league’s history decides to sit out a season because salaries at home can’t compare to those abroad. Or, perhaps most broadly, when two decades after the league’s formation, Adam Silver candidly admits that the WNBA hasn’t “broken through” in the way that he, and so many others had hoped.
That, ultimately, is the overarching, all-encompassing issue around which all others orbit. How can the WNBA grow to the point where stronger, more lucrative corporate partnerships bloom, television and digital exposure increases, talented female athletes finally receive the compensation they deserve, and the next generation of young fans views these competitors as every bit the equal of their male counterparts? It’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, one that must address the institutional difficulties of young leagues, the economic challenges brought on by a saturated sports market, and of course, the inherent sexism in our society that makes just about any female endeavor that much more difficult. After 20 years of brilliant athletes, and dedicated champions of the sport, working tirelessly to push the boulder up the hill, it’s become quite clear that there’s no quick fix. But there’s no doubt that more games like Tuesday’s certainly couldn’t hurt.
And it was, indeed, refreshing to put the big picture aside, for a few hours at least, and just watch a basketball game. Particularly one that had more than a few surprises. The biggest stars for the WNBA’s two best teams were largely stifled on Tuesday, as Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker, and Nneka Ogwumike were, remarkably, all held to single digit scoring, the product of a defensive game plan, on both sides, that seemed more than willing to throw extra bodies at the big names, and force the supporting cast step up. For Los Angeles, Kristi Tolliver was more than happy to oblige, scoring a game high 20 points, and shooting 4-8 from behind the arc. Minnesota, meanwhile, stayed in the game by virtue of their balance, with Rebekkah Brunson, Natasha Howard, and Seimone Augustus each taking their turn pacing the Lynx offense.
The end result was a back and forth, nip and tuck affair in which neither team was able to grab much breathing room throughout the first 39 minutes. Ultimately, with the game tied at 69 in the closing seconds, Lindsay Whalen’s drive and kick to Renee Montgomery in the corner set up the go-ahead three pointer. For a moment, it appeared the Sparks might still steal an extra five minutes, as Candace Parker executed an intentionally missed free-throw to perfection, setting Kristi Toliver up for what an exuberant crowd believed was a game-tying, buzzer-beating three. Alas, video review confirmed that the shot was both a hair late and with a toe on the line, dealing a double blow of disappointment to a no longer undefeated Sparks squad. (The silver lining for Los Angeles is a chance to avenge the loss rather quickly, as they travel to Minneapolis for a rematch on Friday night.)
The Lynx figure to dominate the conversation as the WNBA season continues, and there can be no denying that they’ve earned every bit of the attention. Winners of three of the last five WNBA titles, and with stars like Moore and Fowles, still very much in their primes, Minnesota is in the midst of a run that may come to rival any professional team, mens or womens, of this era. Perhaps, with their season-opening winning streak now reaching 13 games and counting, the country will pay even more attention and take that much sought after final step into “crossover story,” the kind that captures the attention not only of diehards, but casual sports fans as well.
That’s what the Golden State Warriors accomplished, after all, with their league-record 24 game winning streak to begin the year, which gave way to their season long pursuit of 73 wins, and the journey throughout the playoffs to put a cap on the greatest season of all time. The Lynx launching their own quest for history would almost certainly bring new levels of attention to the league, and in the process, create more than a few new fans of the WNBA at a time when the sports calendar is wide open.
But then, that brings us back to the “big issue” again, which is fine, I suppose, but which also needn’t be the point, not at every moment. The women’s game can absolutely stand on its own, and Tuesday afternoon was a particularly high-level demonstration of such. Star power, storylines, and spectacle. It was all there at Staples Center on Tuesday. But above all else, it was just a really great game of basketball.
And that’s worthy of celebration.