- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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All-star games in every league are a celebration of the best in that sport (or at least the best who show up, as was the case for Major League Baseball last week). But for this year's WNBA All-Star Game (ABC, Saturday, 3:30 ET), maybe it's also sort of a celebration of the unexpected.
Of course, what is "unexpected" might depend on whom you ask and when you ask them.
If you had suggested to a WNBA fan a decade ago that San Antonio would be a great place to have the All-Star Game and a 15th-season celebration someday, you would have gotten a puzzled stare. There was no WNBA franchise in the Alamo City at that time.
If you'd asked guard Becky Hammon in the spring of 1999 whether she thought she was good enough to play in the WNBA, she'd have given you the same answer Danielle Adams would have in 2011: Yes, absolutely. But if you were to ask Hammon now whether she had any idea what her pro career would really be like, she'd say, "It's crazy. I feel so fortunate. I had no idea the things that were in store for me."
If you had told coach Dan Hughes last summer that he'd be back directing the Silver Stars from the sidelines in 2011, he'd likely have grimaced. Hughes handed over the coaching reins to Sandy Brondello and Olaf Lange for 2010, while he moved to the role of general manager only.
Yet all the storylines have come together for what might be one of the more anticipated All-Star Games the still-young league has had. For just the second time, the game is being held in a Western Conference city (it was also in Phoenix in 2000). Veteran star Hammon is an All-Star reserve, as is the rookie Adams, who is emerging as a San Antonio fan favorite, too.
Hughes was not very happy with the decision by management to let go Brondello and Lange after last season, but he acknowledges now that it feels "normal" to be back directing the squad.
And the San Antonio fans -- who got their WNBA team for the 2003 season after the Utah Starzz relocated -- have the chance to be at the center of attention for the league during a season in which the 9-4 Silver Stars have been playing well.
"San Antonio is a great place to visit, and it's a basketball town," Hammon said. "We've had men's and women's Final Fours, along with the Spurs, of course. This is a great host city; there's so much excitement. We're playing well, and there's a lot of energy percolating down here. It's nice; it's going to be a fun weekend."
Hammon said the firing of Brondello and Lange after the 2010 season -- San Antonio made the playoffs, then was eliminated by Phoenix -- was "a shocker" to her, and that it could have been pretty disruptive for the franchise. But although it took a few months for it to be finalized, Hughes' return to the helm helped considerably.
"It wasn't too hard to adjust back to coach Hughes," Hammon said. "The system was all still basically the same. I'm really glad it was him who stepped back in."
Hughes was the one who brought Hammon to San Antonio, executing a trade before the 2007 season with New York that will go down as one of the most lopsided deals in WNBA history. Hughes hit the jackpot with that move, which was exactly what he was expecting.
Any tale of Hammon folklore will start with this fact: She wasn't drafted out of Colorado State in 1999, in part because that was the year the ABL had folded and all those veteran players went into the WNBA draft. But doubters also did a lot of chirping about Hammon and all the things she supposedly wasn't good enough at doing. What they missed was all the things she could do.
"I tell you this about Becky: She has an amazing grasp of the game," Hughes said. "But the thing some people still don't fully understand is that she is tough. I mean, she is tough."
Hughes actually cackles with glee saying that, because it's like having a car in a race that somehow always performs better than everybody thinks, no matter how many times they see it. Hammon has been everything Hughes hoped she'd be and more in San Antonio; she and forward Sophia Young are truly the signature faces of the franchise.
But while Hughes felt absolutely sure that Hammon -- who now is leading San Antonio averaging 16.2 points and 6.5 assists -- still had several good years left in her when he made that trade, he was a little less certain about just how Adams might fit into his team if he drafted her.
He figured the Texas A&M standout would go in the first round, so the debate he had was whether to take her with the No. 6 pick. He decided he couldn't do that, opting to go with Oklahoma guard Danielle Robinson instead.
When Adams was still available, though, as San Antonio picked at No. 20 in the second round, Hughes could barely believe his good fortune.
"We ended up with both of them," Hughes said of the two Danielles from the Big 12 conference. "Sometimes, it's a little bit about luck."
Hammon doesn't quite agree with that.
"I don't think it's luck with him," Hammon said. "He talks to a lot of people, he watches players, he does his homework. He doesn't just say, 'I'm going to bring in somebody just because they are a great player.' Character counts to him. He wants people who are going to fit chemistry-wise."
Hughes drafted Georgia's Porsha Phillips in the third round with the No. 30 pick, and she made the team. He traded post player Michelle Snow for guard Jia Perkins. He brought in veteran guard Tully Bevilaqua, too. Every one of those decisions appears to have worked well for San Antonio.
Adams, who is averaging 15.7 points and 5.0 rebounds, especially seems to have validated Hughes' view of her.
"What I've always told myself is, I can play in this league," said Adams, who was the women's Final Four's most outstanding player for champion Texas A&M in April. "I thought, 'Whatever team picks me, I am going to work hard to prove them right.'"
Adams was the last player of those who attended the draft at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to be selected. She showed no outward signs of worry then, but it was fuel for her.
"That is actually something Danielle and I have talked about," Hammon said. "Her sitting in that room and not being called, watching every other player get picked. ... I know what that feels like. I wasn't sitting in the room [in 1999], but I saw four rounds go by without my name ever being called. I don't think that leaves you for a while. Maybe never.
"In women's basketball, if you don't grow up in the 'right' area or go to the 'right' school, you do have a tougher time. There's politics everywhere. And I don't think I've ever been on the right side, per se, of politics. But you just go out there and compete and see what happens. I wouldn't change even one step of my journey."
It's a path that's led to Saturday's game, in which Hammon's Silver Stars get to host the best of the WNBA at a time when they as a team are among the better squads. Maybe a lot of this wasn't expected, but it's working out just fine.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
16dBonnie D. Ford