- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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A friend has long clung to the notion that he's still "young" as long as there is at least one active Major League Baseball player older than him. To this end, rubber-armed pitcher Jamie Moyer, born in November 1962, was a great help.
Moyer pitched his most recent MLB game in May. He might somehow resurface yet again next season, at 50. And there's at least a chance that a player who turned 50 in August, Roger Clemens, might pitch this season for the hapless Houston Astros.
But the reality is that pretty soon, Moyer (and Clemens) finally really will be done for good in MLB. And my pal officially will be "old." Or will he? Aren't you as young as you feel?
I bring all this up because those who follow women's basketball likely have started to have some of those feelings, too, in regard to players who are saying goodbye to the game -- such as Chicago guard Ticha Penicheiro -- or appear to be close to it.
It's hard to say farewell to them. But it's so nice that we have the chance after having really gotten to know them as players.
If you are in your 40s or older, you grew up without the WNBA or any other lasting women's pro basketball league in the United States. Those players we saw reach prominence in the women's college hoops game in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s essentially disappeared from our view while still in the flower of youth, except for whatever brief glimpses we had of a few of them during the Olympics or maybe with an exhibition team like the Harlem Globetrotters.
The players went overseas or stopped competing; in terms of their visibility to an American audience, it was almost the same thing. We didn't get to follow the natural arc of their playing careers, to be eyewitness to what are generally the peak years of most athletes' performance: their mid- and late 20s.
We didn't see them advance into their 30s, when athletes begin to slow down a bit, but take advantage of experience. We didn't see the closing years, or the end.
For the most part, the only female athletes we Americans got to watch go through the natural aging process and then retire were those who played pro tennis and golf. Even most of the Olympic athletes in individual sports didn't compete as long as they probably could have physically because they had to move on to other things in their lives. That was particularly true when the rule of required amateurism was still technically being enforced.
But things changed for women's basketball in the mid-1990s, first with the launch of the ABL (which went out of business during its third season, in December 1998) and then with the staying power of the WNBA, now in its 16th season.
So when Penicheiro announced Wednesday that this will be her final WNBA season, there was an outpouring of appreciation from fans, media and her fellow players. Because she has been a part of their lives for quite a while.
The career timing was right for us to know Ticha, and we're lucky for that. Penicheiro turned 38 on Tuesday, and we've watched her early years, her peak years, her experienced years, and her golden years as an athlete.
She came to the United States from her home in Portugal, and was key in revitalizing Old Dominion's program from 1994-98. That, in itself, is an important contribution to women's hoops history.
In 1997, she played in what's still one of the most emotionally charged games I've ever covered. No offense to Tennessee, which won the NCAA title that year, but the ODU-Stanford semifinal "felt" like the national championship game. It was drenched in big personalities, high hopes, longtime dreams, and a desperate quest for a happy ending. (Which, when that Final Four was all over, neither team got.)
Both ODU and Stanford played their hearts out that night. Penicheiro's "flying sideways" layup early on set a tone that something epic was happening; it was one of those games in which the air feels as if it's carrying the electricity of athletic passion. You knew whichever team won would be euphoric afterward, and whichever lost would be sobbing uncontrollably. And that's how it played out.
That was a long time ago -- March 28, 1997 -- but the fact that we have so many dots to connect back to that time is the beauty of having the WNBA. Penicheiro had another strong season for ODU in 1998, then was picked second in the WNBA draft by Sacramento. She was the top college senior taken; the No. 1 pick that year was the late Margo Dydek of Poland.
Penicheiro's WNBA peak came in 2005, when the Monarchs won the league title. She averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 assists that year, numbers that are pretty typical of her career. She wasn't a particularly good shooter, especially from behind the arc. In her 15 WNBA seasons, she has made 10 or more 3-pointers just six times. Her best season from long range was when she made 23 3-pointers in 2004.
But scoring wasn't her forte as a pro player. She was the consummate set-up artist, and in her case, the word "artist" is very apt. Penicheiro saw the court the way that a great conductor sees the music on the page: as something that is both concrete and certain, yet also abstract and subject to interpretation.
Penicheiro didn't make the no-look pass to show off. She made it because it was effective. The flourishes to her game were not superfluous, they simply were an intrinsic part of how she played basketball.
She also understood the gritty, less-flashy parts of the sport. She knew how to set screens, how to slip them, how to maximize or cut down passing angles, how to use geometry to her advantage defensively.
And she had a no-nonsense but practical approach to being a teammate. Penicheiro didn't sugarcoat when talking to younger players, but she didn't browbeat them, either. She knew the game at the pro level was a business, and there were expectations that had to be met -- with her teammates, her owners, her fans and the media. Like all of the Monarchs, she was emotionally devastated when the franchise folded after the 2009 season. But she moved on.
Typically, foreign players who come to the United States to compete in women's basketball display a sense of maturity beyond their years that's derived from being far away from home at a relatively early age. If they don't learn to take care of themselves, they don't make it. Penicheiro had that maturity, and it made every team she played for better.
She was funny, and she was insightful. She took the blame when her team didn't play well. She spread out the credit to everyone else when it did.
Penicheiro spent 2010 and '11 in Los Angeles and this season in Chicago, where she has been hampered by injuries and the undefeatable opponent: age. She's averaging 1.9 points and 2.2 assists, and has played in 17 games. She knows it's time to move on to something else, and has expressed interest in becoming an agent. That seems like a great job for her to transition into, because she knows the territory and understands very well the point of view of players.
This week, another of the players of Penicheiro's generation -- Seattle's Tina Thompson -- topped the 7,000-point mark. She graduated from Southern California a year before Penicheiro did from ODU but is actually a bit younger; Thompson turned 37 in February. We've also had the opportunity to see Thompson grow up in this sport, and we have at least one more WNBA playoffs in which she'll compete.
Thompson and Penicheiro played together with the Sparks for two seasons, and they are alike in their "old-school" approach to being a pro. We're not certain when Thompson will say goodbye, but the emotion will be the same as it is now for Penicheiro: gratitude.
Sure, maybe we feel a little older with Penicheiro retiring. But we got to see a great point guard practice her craft from the early years of her college career until its WNBA end. This story doesn't leave us feeling sad or short-changed about what we missed.