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Diana Taurasi can't count the number of times she has answered this question: Could a woman play in the NBA?
She turns to U.S. teammate Sue Bird looking for an estimate. Neither can come up with a number. And then she shakes her head, an indication both of the answer that's coming and her wariness of the topic.
"If you could put me in a machine that could make me 6-foot-5 and as strong as they were, I could play in the NBA," Taurasi said. "When you talk about how physically superior they are. ... I can't help it. [Sue] can't help it. Skill-wise, knowing the game, there's no difference between men and women ... it would be really hard. It's a long shot."
Women play against men all the time -- on the playgrounds, in pick-up games. Most college women's teams pit their starters against male practice players on a routine basis.
The top women players in the world -- stars such as Taurasi, Candace Parker and Maya Moore -- have garnered public props from their male colleagues in the NBA -- guys like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. High compliments received from the best players in the world.
Baylor star Brittney Griner has become a familiar name in our sporting frame of reference largely because of her ability to dunk, bringing the women's game ever closer to the men's in what many consider the most defining way.
But a woman playing in the NBA? The skills -- the ability to shoot with dead-eye accuracy, handle a ball, make a crisp pass -- all translate. The physical disparity in size and speed and strength -- not so much.
"If they could, they would," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who coached some of the best players ever as the U.S. Olympic coach in 1996. "If it's all about physical strength, women simply do not have the muscle mass that men have. If we are talking about strength and speed and jumping ability ... that's not happening."
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, currently the coach of the U.S. women's national team, agrees.
"Never in my lifetime will a woman be able to compete in a men's sport -- nor should they want to -- where there is a physical comparison between the two," Auriemma said. "Anything where it's my strength versus your strength, I don't think it can happen."
Auriemma said he believes the idea is "demeaning" to both men and women players.
"I don't think it should happen," Auriemma said. "You should see how many people ask that question. ... Can Diana Taurasi beat an NBA player in a game of H-O-R-S-E? Hell, yeah, I would bet on her all the time. Can she beat any NBA player one-on-one? No."
|Tamika Catchings' father played in the NBA, and she says she might welcome the opportunity herself.|
Ann Meyers Drysdale is one of the few who can say she gave it a go. The current vice president of personnel and scouting for the Phoenix Suns as well as president and general manager of the Phoenix Mercury, became the first woman to sign a contract with an NBA team, in 1979 with the Indiana Pacers. Meyers Drysdale was attacked by media and skeptics -- male and female -- who didn't understand why a woman would want to play with men when the Women's Professional Basketball League, where she excelled, already existed.
She was cut before she played in a game.
"I just said, 'Why wouldn't I do this?'" Meyers Drysdale said. "Someone is giving me an opportunity. ... I shouldn't strive for the best because my equipment is different than [the guys]? Because I don't have what they have?"
Chamique Holdsclaw, of the San Antonio Silver Stars, still practices with NBA players. Holdsclaw remembers growing up on the courts of New York City playing against Lakers Lamar Odom and Ron Artest and discovering their strength, specifically as it was applied against her.
"Me and Lamar would play one-on-one after school in high school every day," Holdsclaw said. "Then there was that point when I turned 16 where he just got stronger and I had to stop playing against him. He would blow by me and hit me in the chest and I was like, 'Man, this hurts.'"
Jimmy Powell, a 16-year NBA scout, said size would be an insurmountable barrier for women.
"In the NBA, you're always looking for size for position," Powell said. "The average point guard is 6-foot-2 or 6-3. Shooting guards, which is the position she would have to play in the NBA, are 6-4 to 6-7. There aren't many women that size with shooting guard skills."
Still, NBA commissioner David Stern has said in the past he believes a woman will play in his league in the next decade.
"I really think it's a good possibility," Stern told Sports Illustrated in 2009.
Those willing to consider that possibility seem to agree that the only way it would happen is in a scenario of specialization.
"If a female did make it, it'll have to be someone who could shoot the hell out of the ball, because physically it would be tough. You just assume [breaking the barrier] has got to happen eventually," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
The challenges would extend beyond the physical. The thickest of skins would be required to deal with a myriad of emotional stressors, from separate hotel rooms, to verbal abuse from fans and interaction with the media, to what would likely be something less than a run-of-the-mill bonding experience with teammates.
Nancy Lieberman can speak to those challenges from firsthand experience. She was the first woman to play in a men's pro league -- on the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League. She later played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz summer league teams. Presently coach of the NBA Development League's Texas Legends, she said she used humor and sarcasm to coexist with her USBL teammates.
"I would say things like, 'No wonder you guys are in the USBL, you can't even remember to put the toilet seat down.'"
Lieberman believes her wit was critical in gaining respect from male teammates and making her feel like part of the team.
So then the question becomes not just should a woman be able to play in the NBA, but should she even aspire to?
WNBA veteran Tina Thompson doesn't think so.
"The question is insignificant," she said. "The point of creating the WNBA was to have a league of our own."
Still, it is undeniable that the WNBA, about to mark its 15th season as the top professional women's sports league in the world, is regarded as a kid sister to the NBA. The exposure gap is wide, the salary gap is the Grand Canyon.
Might that motivate the right female athlete to follow in Meyers Drysdale's footsteps?
Tamika Catchings, the Indiana Fever star whose father played in the NBA, said she might be willing under the right circumstances.
"I definitely feel like it should happen at some point," Catchings said. "The one thing about the women's game is that we're fundamentally sound. What we bring is the shooting, the fundamental knowledge of the game. I think it's a matter of being smart and being in the right position at the right time. I would welcome the opportunity. ... I think it would be a cool challenge, for sure."
Adena Andrews contributed to this report.