- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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In the spring of 1997, when they were poised to be "three to see," the irony was that no one had actually seen them play competitive basketball for a while. All had been on a break from the sport. The pro hoops world that Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo were about to enter was exciting, but uncertain. Would this WNBA thing actually last?
Leap forward to the Twitter generation. The expected top three picks in the WNBA draft -- Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins -- aren't going into unchartered territory. The WNBA will start its 17th season in May.
Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins will hear their names called in the WNBA draft's first prime-time appearance Monday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). Then they'll answer questions about how they anticipate fitting into their new teams/cities, and the ways they can help grow the league.
The trio has been separated from their fellow draftees since September, when the WNBA draft lottery was held. It was evident then that they were considered the obvious gems of the senior class of 2013, three players with different skill sets but similar hopes pinned upon them. They are supposed to be difference-makers in the WNBA, fan favorites, potentially even breakthrough stars.
Meaning players who resonate -- or at least get some traction -- with the sports-viewing audience beyond women's basketball fans. Or (even more lofty a goal) those who gain some name recognition with people who actually aren't really sports fans at all.
Is that possible? Might residents in Phoenix -- holder of the No. 1 pick and tagged for months as Griner's future home -- come to view the 6-foot-8 shot-blocker/long-boarder/fun-seeker as a celebrity they recognize even if they don't happen to be Mercury fans? If so, won't that eventually lure more of those folks into the WNBA?
Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins firmly grasp what this is all about. They know what they're getting into, or at least they have a pretty good idea. There are people to whom they can turn for firsthand advice. The path has been made for them; what remains is how well they navigate it and whether they blaze a few new trails.
Go back 16 years, though: The three players being touted as the faces of the new WNBA couldn't know for sure what that would entail. They had to wing it, and hope they could soar high enough to get the league off the ground.
They had 'next'
Swoopes' college career ended in 1993, Leslie's in '94 and Lobo's in '95. Texas Tech's Swoopes and UConn's Lobo had been iconic figures in their respective schools' national championship runs. Leslie's Southern Cal career hadn't included any Final Four appearances, but she'd been known nationally since scoring 101 points in the first half of an eventually forfeited game in February 1990 for Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif.
The three were on the U.S. national team that traveled and played together for several months before winning gold at the 1996 Olympics. In the spring of 1997, as the WNBA neared the launch of its inaugural season, Swoopes, Leslie and Lobo were the league's big names. They'd bypassed the American Basketball League, which had begun in the late fall of '96 and drawn most of the Olympians, to cast their lot with the pro endeavor they thought would have more staying power.
It also helped that the WNBA had franchises in Houston and Los Angeles, because Swoopes and Leslie preferred to stay in their native states of Texas and California. The three were allocated to WNBA teams in January 1997: Swoopes to the Comets, Leslie to the Sparks and Lobo to the New York Liberty.
Lobo, a New England hero, felt some guilt about not playing for the ABL's New England Blizzard. But like Swoopes and Leslie, she correctly saw the WNBA as the league that would last. Also, Lobo needed a sabbatical from basketball in the months after the Atlanta Games, so she thought it was just as well she wasn't playing that winter of 1996-97.
Lobo had been the youngest on the '96 Olympic team and the least-experienced internationally, but the most popular among many fans. She was the witty, ebullient star of an unbeaten Huskies squad in 1994-95 that got more sustained media attention -- particularly from large, East Coast outlets -- than any previous NCAA women's hoops champion.
It wasn't Lobo's fault that during the national team's tour leading up the '96 Olympics, spectators and media flocked to her despite everything she did to deflect attention to older players. Nor was it her fault that national team coach Tara VanDerveer was publicly cranky about having "the kid" on the squad, as if Lobo were such a weak link that she was going to cost the Americans the gold.
It seems silly in retrospect, considering the U.S. squad was so good it might have won the Olympic tournament while playing blind-folded, and Lobo's popularity just added to that of the team as a whole. But it all took a toll on Lobo, who said she got "burned out" and needed time to recharge her batteries.
Meanwhile, Leslie and Swoopes were starters in the 1996 Olympics; both would prove to be two of the greatest players in USA Basketball history. But like Lobo, neither of them was playing in the spring of 1997 as the WNBA was gearing up for its summer opening.
Leslie had taken a break to do some modeling and appear on TV shows. Swoopes was off the court for a different reason: She was pregnant.
Thus, when Swoopes appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated's short-lived Women/Sport magazine in 1997, she was ... well, not at her playing weight. The headline was "A Star is Born: Sheryl Swoopes and the WNBA are both due in June."
After having son Jordan Jackson, Swoopes hustled back to play at the end of Houston's championship season. The Comets faced Lobo's Liberty in the title game -- it would become a series the next year -- and won 65-51.
Houston did that without Swoopes at her best, but she would return to be a crucial player on the Comets' three subsequent title teams. She also played for Seattle and Tulsa in her 12-season WNBA career, and was named league MVP three times.
Leslie also played for 12 seasons and was a three-time MVP. She won two championships with the Sparks, and also finished her career with four Olympic gold medals.
Lobo played five seasons in the WNBA from 1997 to 2003, missing most of 1999 and all of 2000 with knee problems. She finished her career with the Connecticut Sun, and then transitioned into broadcasting work.
Leslie also does broadcasting, plus public speaking and basketball camps. Swoopes, the oldest of the three, was the last to step away from the WNBA, which she did after playing for Tulsa in 2011. This past week, Swoopes was named head coach of Loyola of Chicago's women's hoops team.
Three to grow on
Common threads between Swoopes-Leslie-Lobo and Griner-Diggins-Delle Donne? All of them stayed pretty close to home to play college basketball.
Griner won a national championship, as did Swoopes and Lobo. Diggins played in more Final Fours (three) than any of the other five.
Delle Donne is the only one who didn't play in one of the six so-called "major" conferences. And like Leslie, Delle Donne did not compete in a Final Four.
Leslie became one of the best centers -- possibly the best -- in women's hoops history. At 6-foot-5, she was fearless and ferocious in the paint, but also developed a 3-point shot in averaging 17.3 points in her WNBA career. Can Griner replicate the kind of multifaceted game that Leslie had as a truly dominant center? Will Griner learn to rebound as effectively as Leslie, who averaged 9.1 boards?
Delle Donne, a 6-5 guard/forward, is 5 inches taller that Swoopes, and they share what seems to be a natural knack for scoring from all over the court. However, Swoopes -- who averaged 15.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists in her WNBA career -- rates as one of women's basketball's all-time best defensive players. No one has ever been better than Swoopes at intercepting the ball in the passing lanes and turning it into a blink-of-an-eye transition basket; she finished with 657 steals. How will Delle Donne fare defensively at the highest level?
Diggins, as a point guard, doesn't have a position comparison to Swoopes, Leslie or Lobo. But she could surely relate to how Lobo dealt with the time demands and expectations of being in the spotlight all the time.
Swoopes, Leslie and Lobo are all now mothers and career women. They were pillars of a new venture in 1997 that nobody then could have been sure would still be around in 2013. They were all a big part in helping it get here.
And if Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins can do as much for the WNBA over the next decade, that will indeed be something to see.
17dBonnie D. Ford