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Tuesday, February 8, 2005
Franchise will play in 2006; nickname TBA

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- A group of schoolchildren took over half of the basketball court under the bright lights of the UIC Pavilion, running drills with Tamika Catchings, Ruth Riley and a couple of other WNBA stars.

Pretty soon the rest of Chicago is going to get an up close and personal look at the WNBA.

The league awarded an expansion team to Chicago on Tuesday, giving the WNBA its 14th team and returning women's professional basketball to the home of the Chicago Hustle. The team will begin play in 2006 at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion.

"This is an amazing time," said Catchings, a Chicago native and a forward with the Indiana Fever. "I remember back when I was going to school here, I would never have thought I'd have the opportunity to come here to play in Chicago in front of my family and my friends."

The Chicago team -- its nickname will be announced later -- will be the WNBA's first new franchise since 2002. San Antonio and Connecticut began play in 2003, but each moved from a previous location. It also will be the second team with outside owners, with real estate developer Michael Alter leading a group of 15-20 local investors.

The Chicago franchise doesn't have any players yet and, unlike when the league began, the WNBA won't assign any who have local ties. So for now, Catchings is slated to be a visiting player when the Fever travel to her hometown.

There will be an expansion draft, probably in November or December, and the team will also have money under the salary cap to sign free agents.

Teams had to be affiliated with their city's NBA team under the WNBA's original rules, but the league dropped that restriction in October 2002.

"The idea to bring the WNBA to Chicago really started a year ago, when I had the great privilege of meeting a group of WNBA players at the All-Star Game. For me, it was like meeting Ernie Banks and Bill Russell in their prime," Alter said. "I was so impressed, not only by their prowess as athletes, but their love of the game, their intelligence, their passion and their dignity.

"After meeting these amazing women and learning more about the WNBA, it just did not make sense to me that the third-largest city in the country and frankly, in my opinion, the best sports town in the country, did not have a WNBA team."

The league started with eight teams in 1997 and expanded to 16 in 2002, but three franchises folded: Cleveland, Miami and Portland.

Chicago had always seemed like a logical spot for a WNBA franchise. The Hustle was one of the original teams in the Women's Professional Basketball League, and drew big crowds for its games on the DePaul campus. WGN even broadcast some of the Hustle's games, giving the team a nationwide fan base before the league folded in 1981.

In the Chicago Condors' only season in the ABL, they were second in the league in attendance, averaging 4,775 fans at the Pavilion. The ABL folded Dec. 28, 1998.

The Bulls considered applying for a WNBA franchise, but dropped the idea when fewer than 1,000 people were willing to pay $100 to reserve season tickets.

"This validates the decision we made to open things up," league president Val Ackerman said. "[Alter] may not have the resources of an NBA team, but he's got a singular focus which I think can be helpful."

Alter is certainly passionate about his new team. He's already hired Margaret Stender, a former executive with Quaker Oaks and PepsiCo, to be the new team's president and chief operating officer. The team's Web site is up and season tickets went on sale Tuesday night.

Alter and Stender hope to hire a coach around the time that the WNBA season starts in May.

Alter also is taking a page from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, giving out his e-mail and promising to answer every one he gets.

"For the people of Chicago, the WNBA is a milestone," Alter said. "It's exciting to be on the ground floor of an incredible journey, and I want the entire community to be a part of it as well."

The new team is already getting some help from the Bulls. Though the Bulls don't have any ownership stake in the WNBA's newest team, they've pledged to share whatever expertise they can with Alter and Stender.

"At best, we would have been able to devote 50 percent of our energies to [a WNBA team]," said Steve Schanwald, the Bulls executive vice president of business operations, who was at Tuesday's news conference at the Pavilion.

"They'll be able to dedicate 100 percent of their energy," he said.

And NBA commissioner David Stern has no doubt the WNBA will succeed in Chicago.

"You'll pardon the expression," Stern said, "but it's a slam dunk."