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Thursday, April 18, 2002
Draft carries cloud of uncertainty

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

April is the worst month of the year. Every year. College hoops season is over. This is how it goes:

Stacey Dales
Stacey Dales-Schuman, a projected first-round pick, has been cautious about her pro potential.
Monday after Final Four: Write one last story about the season that just ended, then say, "Gee, it will be nice to take a day off tomorrow."

Tuesday after Final Four: Maybe take a day off.

Wednesday after Final Four: Sigh wistfully, "When is the next game?"

Rest of April after Final Four: Get through it.

However ...

The WNBA Draft does offer an oasis in April. Have you found watching the draft to be supremely entertaining? I have, and can no longer make fun of the people who sit owl-eyed during the NFL Draft, because now I'm doing the same thing for the WNBA.

Not for two whole days, at least. Although if it lasted that long, I probably would.

Even the cheesy, helium-brain stuff that has been borrowed from the NFL and NBA drafts is amusing, including the ridiculous "war-room" terminology and the fact that many of the women drafted prove themselves about as adept at instant-TV-interview banalities as the men.

Q: Is this a dream come true?
A: Yes, this is a dream come true.
Q: Do you like X team, or were you going to be happy wherever you went?
A: I like X team, but I was going to be happy wherever I went.
Q: What can you do to help X team?
A: I'm just going to go in there and do my best to help X team.

This year, we have the added bonus of Portland's Jackie Stiles serving as what the WNBA is calling "draft cybercast hostess," which I'm sure is ... uh ... a dream come true for her.

I'm just going to go out there and be the best draft cybercast hostess I can be.

But one of the really fascinating things about the WNBA Draft is just how uncertain the players are about whether they're going to be picked. It seems like even the most sure-fire bets (read: UConn seniors this year) have this slight queasiness about "What if it doesn't happen?"

Women's hoops and football are kind of alike in that way. You seem to hear more "I'm just going to be praying" from those two sports than men's hoops, where lots of underclass hopefuls seem positive they'll get picked. Maybe because the NBA apparently just can't have enough young guys with underdeveloped skills to sit on its benches.

DRAFT ORDER
A look at the first-round draft order for Friday's WNBA Draft (11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2):
1. Seattle
2. Detroit
3. Washington
4. Washington
(from Indiana)
5. Portland
6. Minnesota
7. Charlotte (from Orlando)
8. Cleveland
(from Phoenix)
9. Charlotte
10. Houston
11. Utah
12. Sacramento
13. Indiana
(from Phoenix)
14. New York
15. Miami
(from Phoenix)
16. Los Angeles

Seriously, because success in college football can be much less an indicator of pro potential and ability than is the case in college hoops, a lot of football players have really good reason to feel more uncertain.

Why is that the case, though, with women's hoops? Women are more prone to public self-doubt than self-confidence, if you'll allow a generalization. But there also seems with the women's players to be even more of the element of, "I can't let myself want it too much, because then I'll be crushed if I fail."

We're all still figuring out what it takes to excel in the women's pro game. The WNBA is entering its sixth season, which seems like a lot compared to past endeavors. But it will be a while before it has historical context. Nobody's really super-adept yet at saying exactly what makes a successful pro or which players in each year's senior crop fits the bill.

Admittedly, there has been pro women's hoops overseas for awhile, but how many players -- Cynthia Cooper was one remarkable exception -- really lasted all that long in that environment? Two-three years was a lot for most people. It takes a substantial personal toll to be that far away from family, friends and our culture.

It's such a different situation than playing professionally in the U.S. that there's not that much basis for comparison. There surely were dozens of players in the last 20 years who might have become stars in a U.S. pro league had one existed, but had very short (if at all) overseas pro careers.

Aspiring WNBA players -- and those who aspire to project who those players will be -- can glance at individual sports such as golf and tennis to see what has made for successful pros there. But the circumstances and demands of those sports' tours are different than those for a basketball league.

Finally, everyone can look at men's pro sports and see what it takes there -- but that ignores a big factor: Many folks in their 20s and 30s want to have biological children. Men can do that with little or no interruption in their athletic careers; women obviously have to take some sort of break. (Despite our health-care system's alarming trend toward treating childbirth with a fast-food drive-through mentality.)

And then there's taking care of the kids once you've got them, a job that still falls primarily to mothers.

So as much as the drafts in men's pro sports are, to a degree, crap shoots, the women are probably more so. Just not enough data -- real or anecdotal -- yet.

Also, this year's potential draftees -- and everyone that's previously been drafted into the WNBA -- haven't had a pro league to look forward to all their lives. Exactly what it takes to be a pro athlete is water that's personally uncharted for any draftee in any sport -- but it makes a difference when you've known from the earliest time you competed that there was pro possibility.

You may see a different type of college athlete in women's hoops in the 2010-and-beyond years, for example, when you have players approaching U.S. pro careers without having been aware of a time when that wasn't an option.

For now, I've heard quite a few players in recent years say, "You know, if it happens, great. If it doesn't, I'll do something else." And I'm not criticizing that, because recognizing reality and preparing for disappointment are good life skills.

The marginal college player almost certainly has no hope and should face that head-on, just like in any sport. The good player is the one who probably should say, "I'll give it my best shot, but I have also prepare myself for it not working."

The top-notch player has to decide if she wants this to be her career for the next 10 years or so. If she does want that, she needs to think "This is my objective and I'm going after it full-bore," and not, "I hope I can do this."

It's not an arrogance or ego thing, but a commitment thing. It's the same in just about any major endeavor, be it a job or relationship or project or whatever. Total commitment means putting your foot on the gas and knowing there's no painless way to brake. It means if you do fail, or if circumstances arise that detour or derail you, it's going to hurt worse than if you hadn't committed totally.

But there's really no other way to do it. You can be totally committed and still not succeed. (It's not fair, but it's true.) However, I don't think you can really succeed and not be totally committed.

For the WNBA's standard of play to keep rising, it needs more players who are totally committed.

Friday, 64 women will be drafted. Some of those won't really have much of shot to actually make their teams, almost no matter how much effort they put into that. For others, it will be almost completely a matter of their effort. Finally, another group of players is certain to make it into the WNBA.

How much any of the draftees might add to the league all starts with the thoughts they'll have as soon as their names are called.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.