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Friday, May 19, 2006
Bring on opening day -- and celebrate it

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to

The WNBA started on a Saturday afternoon nine years ago, a month later than it begins now. It was June 21, 1997, and the first televised game was between New York and Los Angeles at 4 p.m. ET on NBC.

I was excited about it, for sure. It was tempered a little bit, though, because that was during the brief ABL era. The American Basketball League had played a winter season in 1996-97. So women's basketball followers knew the WNBA wasn't going to have all the best players in the United States, let alone the world. It was missing the "best" who were in the ABL or had not yet committed to playing here in the USA.

After we'd heard the dueling proposals of the WNBA and ABL at seminars during the 1996 Women's Final Four in Charlotte, N.C., most everyone in the women's hoops media world believed the WNBA was the only one with a chance of lasting long-term. I didn't want anyone to get hurt, but I was definitely wishing the ABL would end as painlessly -- but also as soon -- as possible

During the two-plus years the ABL lasted, some well-meaning -- or just reality-challenged -- folks insisted that having two leagues was great because that gave women "more opportunity." In fact, it gave the entire venture of women's pro basketball in the United States a much greater opportunity to fail because both leagues would have a diluted product.

For whatever flaws the WNBA had, and whatever fears some fans had of the NBA's "true intentions" in founding it, the WNBA possessed the brand name, the financial backing and the more sensible overall plan (including the summertime season).

So, that Saturday afternoon in June 1997, I had an errand to run. I had the VCR set, of course, since it was the league's very first game, a must-tape event in women's sports history. Still, I didn't want to miss anything live, and I recall approaching my house and checking the car clock: 3 minutes to tip.

And then I did something I'd never done before and haven't done since: I started to put the car in "park" before I'd even stopped driving. My first thought was, "You idiot! What are you doing?" and the second was, "OK, I guess I really am more excited about the WNBA than I even realized."

Here at The Kansas City Star, I'd done a first-season preview that had run in the paper that day with the headline: We (Got) Next Basketball Association -- with the letters W, N, B, and A in larger type to stand out.

A few days later, I got a letter -- we don't get those much anymore, just e-mails -- from an English teacher here in town who was irate about our bad grammar. She wasn't familiar with the playground phrase, obviously, and chastised us for not saying we "have" next. Also, she wondered, what did we have next?

It cracked me up, and I sent a letter back to explain.

There were a pretty decent amount of games televised that season on NBC, ESPN and Lifetime. The championship was one game, between Houston and New York, on Aug. 30.

My sports editor at The Star had agreed with me -- especially with the Women's Final Four coming up in 1998 in Kansas City -- that it would be good to cover the WNBA title game. But I was supposed to do it as inexpensively as possible -- that's just an accepted part of the gig in covering women's basketball -- so I didn't fly into Houston until the day of the game.

The night before was its own "historic" moment for me. Interleague play in baseball's regular season also began in 1997, and my St. Louis Cardinals were in Kansas City for a three-game series that started Friday night. I had tickets for all three games, but was perfectly OK with missing one of them to go to the WNBA game.

I told myself probably 50 times during that game how thankful I was that I got to be there. The Comets' crowd was incredible, as were the Comets themselves. Cynthia Cooper had 25 points in Houston's 65-51 victory.

And when all the confetti and balloons and streamers came down from the ceiling of what was then the Compaq Center, I kept my eyes on Cooper dancing and celebrating. I was thinking about all those years she'd played in Italy, far from her family and American basketball fans. All that "invisibility" -- at least in the U.S. -- during much of her peak as a player.

Now, she finally had this big moment to enjoy in her home country and on national television. I thought it was one of the nicest things I'd ever seen in sports.

I wrote my stories, and later when I called into the paper to make sure everything was OK, one of the editors said, "Yeah … but have you heard about Princess Diana?"

"No, what?" I said.

"She's dead -- killed in a car accident," he said.

So I turned on the TV in my hotel room, and it stayed on the rest of the night and morning. I felt sick to my stomach and cried a lot and maybe slept for an hour. I landed in Kansas City the next afternoon and drove straight to the ballpark without even really feeling like I knew what I was doing.

I sat in a fog and watched the game but thought only about Diana's death: the impact on her children, her charity work, the loss of the attention her celebrity had brought to so many needy causes. And, of course, just the sadness of someone dying so senselessly and so young.

The WNBA was scheduled to get some publicity on the national talk shows and news shows that week. But instead, virtually all media attention went to Diana's death, the problem of paparazzi and the funeral.

It occurred to me -- although not in terms that were crass, by any means -- that this was a bad break for the WNBA, which needed all the mileage it could get out of media in its first season.

And so I always think about all that when I look back on that inaugural year.

As it turned out, of course, the ABL did end -- in its third season -- and the WNBA is still here. The WNBA absorbed the best of those ABL players in the 1999 draft. The WNBA expanded to a many as 16 teams -- but three folded (Cleveland, Miami and Portland), two relocated (Utah to San Antonio, Orlando to Connecticut) and now one more (Chicago) is beginning play.

The league has survived a change in the overall business structure -- which helped weed out the more-committed franchises from the half-hearted ones -- and a collective- bargaining agreement process. And it "survived" some less-than-appealing advertising campaigns -- including the bizarre stalker-guys and the "let's give everyone a makeover" ideas.

And the league has "survived" the columnists who want to make sure they have stated emphatically enough that no one on earth cares about the WNBA, and that they especially don't care, and that they had to use their entire column to tell you just how much they don't care.

The idea that you don't care that they don't care -- WNBA haters might be a little annoying but are fundamentally irrelevant to those who follow the league -- really bothers them.

If there's any truth to the famous Woody Allen quote that 90 percent of life is just showing up, then there is victory for the WNBA simply in being able to say, "It's our 10th season."

Action gets under way on Saturday. The nationally televised game is Phoenix, with new coach Paul Westhead, against defending WNBA champion Sacramento, at 4 p.m. ET on ABC.

As it so happens, the Cardinals are in Kansas City this weekend -- interleague play in baseball is celebrating its 10th season, too. I'll probably be racing from watching the end of the Mercury-Monarchs on TV to the start of Cards-Royals at Kauffman Stadium.

Major league baseball has been a part of my life since I was old enough to remember, and now women's pro basketball has been a part of it for about a decade.

Happy 10th opening day, WNBA. May there always be more to come.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to She can be reached at