Expect stars to rise to the occasion
Renee Brown has been here from the beginning. She was hired in 1996 as the WNBA's director of player personnel, and she's been a staple with the league ever since, promoted to chief of basketball operations and player relations in 2000.
She's watched veterans who finally got their chance to play professional basketball in the United States bask in the opportunity and rookies who have raised the level of the women's game with their skill and enthusiasm.
She's seen it all, so as the playoffs are about to begin in this 15th season, it seemed only appropriate to ask her about her view of the game as it was and as it is.
Michelle Smith: Minnesota was the league's dominant team. Do you expect a competitive postseason?
Renee Brown: Absolutely. The oldest cliche in the book is that when the playoffs roll around, the game, particularly the tempo, goes up a notch ... and it's true. This is when stars rise to the occasion, and these series have stars -- Indiana's all-around performer Tamika Catchings, the Sun's double-double machine Tina Charles, and players who can score at will in Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry and New York's Cappie Pondexter.
Add to that the fact that, while the East teams played some great basketball during the regular season, they beat up on one another in the process. Now the conference semifinals pit New York against Indiana --- they split their season series 2-2 -- and Connecticut and Atlanta, who also split their season series two apiece. That bodes well for a pair of competitive series.
In the West, certainly Minnesota has a cast of stars -- four were in the All-Star Game, in fact -- and they've set all kinds of franchise records for wins. The Lynx enjoyed a 3-1 edge over Seattle and a 4-0 edge over San Antonio in the regular season but some would argue that's a bit deceiving as two of those wins over San Antonio were seat-of-the-pants, final seconds-type game-winners. And now with Lauren Jackson back from injury in Seattle, Danielle Adams working her way back from an injury in San Antonio, and Phoenix clicking with Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, those clubs are set to challenge the Lynx.
MS: How much does a competitive postseason help the profile of the league?
RB: As with any sport, stars and great competition drive interest, attendance and viewership. Our numbers in recent years show that. The WNBA postseason average attendance has increased for three straight years and viewership has elevated in the last two. Again, stars drive interest ... and the postseason matchups have plenty of stars.MS: What has changed the most in 15 years in the WNBA?
RB: I have to say that it's the overall talent and athleticism of the players and the depth. Right now, there are a larger number of players with a lot of talent. If you look back 15 years ago, and you asked a young player who they'd want to be, they would tell you Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, and that's certainly still true. But now they will also say, "I want a career like Lisa Leslie or Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi.'' For these young kids to know they have role models, players that they can emulate ... that's a big change.
MS: What are the areas in which players have improved the most?
RB: Versatility. So many more players are bigger, faster and stronger and with a variety of weapons. In the beginning of the league, a post player played with their back to the basket on the block. Now they will post up or they will shoot the 3, like Lauren Jackson, or take you off the dribble. We have great passing centers who can run the high-low game, who will see the player cutting back door. It's the versatility.
MS: How would you compare the quality of drafted players now compared to 15 years ago?
RB: The biggest difference is, if you talk to any one of our players, Maya Moore was in grade school watching Cynthia Cooper play. She'll tell you she's known since the eighth grade or longer that she wanted to play in the WNBA. Fifteen years ago, Tina Thompson had no idea there would be a WNBA. Now players like Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings are taking their game to the next level and wanting to be like a Tina Thompson. These young players have posters of our players on the walls in their bedroom. They are coming in with swagger and a confidence that they belong. It's always been that young men or boys playing baseball or hockey have had a place to go to play at the next level. Now these girls do, too.
MS: How much have the veteran players contributed to the league's success?
RB: They have established the high level of competition in this league. There are so many good veteran players in the league. They play hard, they play to win and they are pushing everybody else. The young players come into the league and then take it to another level because of the veterans and the standard they set. And the improvement of our rookies is pushing our veteran players.
MS: How has the 11-player roster impacted the league?
RB: It's made the competition better, Player 1 to Player 11. The depth of this league is amazing. These players are the best of the best, and it means that teams cannot take a night off. You have to be ready to play every night.
MS: How has team play changed over 15 years?
RB: The game has changed. Phoenix is one of the teams that caused the game to change, pushing the ball up and down, fast-break style. When we went to the 24-second clock, our scoring went up. Players were able to handle the change, they adjusted to it really well and that has meant more teams looking to push the ball. Possessions are important. It's a much quicker, faster game than it used to be.
MS: How about individual play? How has it evolved?
RB: You see players who can handle the ball, make quick decisions with the ball. They are moving faster. There's a whole new level of how fast the game is. There's much improvement in that area. The guards are bigger and there are a lot more people with a lot more skills. Overall, the speed of the game is better.
MS: Many players are playing year-round. Do you wish they had more rest?
RB: I think that's an individual question from player to player. These players have the opportunity to play in Europe and then they come to the WNBA game-ready. By the time they get to us and we see them on the court, they are ready to play.
MS: With a new president without a basketball background, how has that changed or enhanced your responsibilities?
RB: My responsibilities have remained the same. It's terrific to work with Laurel Richie. The players respect her, the teams respect her. It's been fun to talk basketball with her and about her vision from a marketing standpoint. She's a great business partner for me. And the players, when they meet her, they are excited. I love the respect she has for our players. Although she didn't see many games before she got here, she understands basketball. It's been refreshing to talk to her about the game, about our players. It's been a fast three or four months. It seems like she's been here a lot longer.
MS: How have you seen women change as professional athletes?
RB: They are professionals. They are leaving college, and just a few weeks later they are coming right into the pros. The veteran players have really helped the young players to become pros. And it just gets better and better. This isn't college. There's no training table, no one waiting on them. They are learning to take care of themselves.
MS: What are you most proud of in 15 years?
RB: I wish that I could go stand on a mountain and tell everyone in America to watch these women. They are great players and great people. They are willing to give back. They are community-oriented, and they are great role models. I took a young girl into the Liberty locker room the other night, and she wanted to meet Nicole Powell. Cappie [Pondexter] handed the kid her shoes, and she ran out of the locker room showing her dad that she had the shoes. I'm so proud that the NBA, that [commissioner] David Stern and [deputy commissioner] Adam Silver have given these women the opportunity to live out their dream, to be professional athletes in their own country.