BY BEA CHANG I am going to tell you something that will infuriate you. You will throw out all kinds of statistics and anecdotes. You will say, “Listen, young lady,” shake your index finger, and explain sports to me. You will think I am a nut job. Call me a bitch. A whore.
But here it goes anyway: Game 5 of the WNBA Finals of 2016 was one of the greatest basketball games ever played.
Are you rolling your eyes? Screaming at me on Twitter to go back to the kitchen? (Trust me, you wouldn’t want to eat my food, though).
And yet, I bet you didn’t even watch that game.
Don’t worry. A lot of people didn’t. Not even the high school basketball girls I coach. Like you, most of them didn’t know about it. Many of them had never even heard of Maya Moore, much less Nneka Ogwumike.
"I watched the final quarter five more times before I forced myself to sleep, and I woke up still drunk on that sweet, sweet victory."
The saga of the LA Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx of the 2016 season started when the 11-0 and 12-0 teams met early on. Oh, let me stop you. I know what you are going to say. Sure, the undefeated starts were historic numbers in professional sports, but these women were playing against women. Yes, yes, women. But how come no one ever says, “Of course Lonzo Ball looks good. He’s just playing against college men”?
Because he is a college man.
Anyway, let’s fast-forward. The greatest basketball game ever played? The score tied and the lead changed six times in the final two minutes; the referees screwed up in a steroids-news-level-if-it-were-male-sports kind-of-way; both teams ran out of timeouts (both teams ran out of timeouts!); Maya swished big-time baskets against the game’s greatest defender; Nneka got a rebound; Nneka got blocked; Nneka willed in a falling black, one-handed floater. No one except Magic Johnson in that Minnesota stadium, filled to the corners in white and green, celebrated. Not even the Sparks. Not, at least, until the buzzer finally went off. That was how unbelievable the final sequences had been.
It was one of the greatest basketball game ever played.
I watched the final quarter five more times before I forced myself to sleep, and I woke up still drunk on that sweet, sweet victory. I imagined walking into the Seattle office, high-fiving my colleagues on the way to my desk, all of us high and glorious on that west coast underdog pride that stretched from the Golden State Warriors to Kobe’s Farewell Season.
But no one said a thing. Of course not. It was just like any other morning, a quick nod of the head. I sat down at my desk. I read everything I could about the game, the couple of articles that were not copied and pasted from the Associated Press. And then I watched the final two minutes over and over again. A colleague popped his head in. “Is it the Lakers?” He asked, excited. I told him it was the Sparks. He stared. From the WNBA. “Oh,” he said. And walked away.
No, I know. I have lived in Seattle for six years by then. I took part in celebrations when the Seahawks brought back our city’s first championship since the Supersonics in the late 70’s. Every other week, people lament to me how professional basketball in our city is dead. Whenever I got the courage to mutter something about the Seattle Storm in 2004 and 2010, they rolled their eyes. Like the WNBA didn’t matter.
It didn’t count.
So I don't tell anyone I had come out to Seattle in large part because of Sue Bird.
Instead, I tell them it was because of Grey’s Anatomy.
Because, somehow, that is more believable.
"In the same way that your nifty, undersized son needs Steph Curry, [I] needed Sue Bird. Oh, believe me, I needed Sue."
Maybe this is why it takes me so long to write about the WNBA. I get frustrated. I don’t understand how people don’t realize that by degrading the highest level of my beloved game offends me, crushes me, dehumanizes the very core of what makes me me. I get angry. I feel enraged. When really, just like everyone else, all I want to do is tell you a story about my sport.
But writing about my game, I have come to realize, is a different kind of sports writing. There are barely any examples of it out there—the male-dominated Best American Sports Writing certainly doesn’t help; the three books on women’s sports I found on the shelves of Powell’s City of Books were written for young girls. I learned that I couldn’t write about how my team moved a city or how everyone bought into the heroics of my MVP. I couldn't write about Penny and Swin and Tamika’s retirement and expect you to know who they are.
So, instead, I’m going to tell you a little bit about my decades-long love affair.
I was ten years old, by all accounts a tomboy scraping her knees on blacktops all over the City of Angels, trying out Eddie Jones’s reverse lay-ups and Nick van Exel’s floaters on boys whose dreams of playing in the Great Western Forum were somehow far more realistic than mine. My father and I were sitting in a Chinese noodle shop when he handed me the LA Times. “Her name is Lisa Leslie and she’s going to play for the Sparks,” he told me. I looked at the photograph: a tall black lady holding up her golden jersey. He tried to tell me about the significance of the league’s inauguration, but I stopped listening. My friend had walked into the shop, and anyway, I couldn’t understand what the big deal was. I thought what was happening was what was supposed to have happened.
Within a few months, my father reminded me to watch the tip-off. So I was sitting on my parents’ couch when Penny Toler snapped the ball between her legs and knocked down the first basket in the WNBA. I was hooked. All summer, I made my parents drive my basketball friends and me down Hawthorne Boulevard, buy $8 tickets, and walk all the way down to the front rows. I begged them for a Lisa Leslie jersey I still find too precious to wear. I taped my wrist because Jamila Wideman did. I sported Air Swoopes, just like everyone else in girls’ AAU tournaments popping up all along the coast of our state.
Maybe it was a coincidence—I mean, of course it was—that the summer the LA Sparks fell to the Houston Comets for the fourth straight year set off the darkest year of my young life. My parents had uprooted me from southern California to the suburbs of New Jersey, and I was losing patience, furious at the Sparks’ faux pas in acquiring Zhen Haixia, the heavy-footed 6’8” post from China who was—let’s face it—brought over for a media storm that didn’t take and ended up clogging the lane. I almost believed it when the newspapers wrote that if the Comets kept winning, the WNBA would be a failed experiment women’s sports might never recover from. At the end of that winter, my varsity coach would joke that I’d barely spoken two words that entire freshman season, and it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.
That following summer, though, when the poetic duo of DeLisha Milton and Lisa Leslie cruised all the way to the championship was the beginning of my reinvention of myself. All summer, DeLisha faded out along the baseline when teams sent double teams to Lisa and hit that jumper, raised high over her head, over and over again. The two of them found such a stroke on the court that when they connected on a basket, they saluted each other. It was glorious. Through the television, I saluted them too.
It turned out that the New York Times didn’t print much of anything about that championship run, not the way it did for the Lakers. So that night, after I printed out the photographs of DeLisha cradling the basketball as confetti fell all over her at the Staples Center, I wrote out my longest diary entry.
I have been writing about the WNBA ever since: Lisa’s dunk, Ticha’s no-look behind-the-back passes, Becky’s floaters, Sue Bird and the perfect season she chased with the Huskies. In and around 16 years of age, I wrote it all down—a little terrified that all of that beautiful basketball would get lost to that black hole where women’s stories go to die in our human history of Great Men.
Julie Foudy said a long time ago that if people got to watch the US women's soccer team play, they would fall in love with them. She was right. The Women’s World Cup swept through our nation in the summer of 1999. Now, every four years, we get a chance to feel what every American is entitled to every day: acceptance, thrill, and jerseys, posters and beanie hats of their favorite sports teams. And every four years for the past 18 years, the media is shocked again and again that soccer can unite our nation. Excuse me, women’s soccer.
It’s like when our nation was shocked at the success of the Hunger Games. And then again when girls flocked to see Frozen in the theaters. I mean, for girls nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzerald and William Shakespeare and J.D. Salinger and William Golding (should I keep going?), is it really shocking that girls—just like boys—are starving for stories in which they are the heroines?
Until Katniss and Elsa became icons to girls all over the world, none of them knew what they had been missing. I didn’t know. As a middle school kid, I was perhaps the only person who watched Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace five times in the theater. I didn’t understand my obsession. I told people I loved Jar Jar Binks, but, really, I was awed by Queen Amidala’s independence, her wit, authority and power—until, of course, her story vanished as soon as she married Anakin.
Our sports media doesn’t tell stories of women athletes. It barely understands it. It talks about our hair, our bodies, and our husbands, if it talks about us at all. Every story you do hear about the WNBA is the same: ugly, lesbians, manly, slow, boring. You make jokes about it because everyone else does. You say women’s basketball is dull because the UConn Huskies always win; and yet when Mississippi pulled off one of the game’s greatest upsets, you say it’s because the Huskies are women. Somehow, the referees in the men’s NCAA championship game got more attention than Morgan William’s David-over-Goliath (is there a female equivalent of this story?) shot to end the Huskies’ reign.
You say that Kelsey Plum is an anomaly—because she plays like a man. And yet you forget that you had once said the same thing about Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Maya Moore, all of whom have ended up on the same WNBA team and did not win the championship in 2016.
"I don’t understand how people don’t realize that by degrading the highest level of my beloved game offends me, crushes me."
It turns out that the Houston Comets had always had an expiration date, so did the Sparks. To date, no team has repeated since the Sparks in 2002. Title IX was still at work in suburbs and cities all over the United States: Candace was in ninth grade when Lisa dunked; Britney was less than six-foot tall; Breanna was three-years-old. With each number one draft pick, the rankings in the WNBA flip-flopped.
After twenty years, the WNBA has evolved into the most beautiful version of our game. The Finals was fast and furious, full of buzzer shots and Maya-esque finishes. It is not the single storyline of Steph versus King James. The WNBA is complicated and messy, it takes whole teams, full squads of women: it is Candace’s revenge, Kristi’s falling back three’s, Beard’s wingspan, and Gray’s off-the-bench heroics. These women are not just beautiful; their game is beautiful too.
Don’t roll your eyes.
You might have to look for it, but once you find it—find that game broadcast on television or sign up for the WNBA League Pass—you won’t regret it.
I don’t think I have ever considered my father a feminist. I have always thought of him as just my father, a man who came to this country in search of better opportunities, who found his daughter role models absent anywhere else.
My father didn’t teach me how to dribble. He didn’t yell at me to shoot the ball. Instead, on those car rides home or on Sunday mornings, he and I debated about the importance of the 2002 WNBA draft, and the significance of Candace Parker winning the dunk competition. He told me about Pat Summit years before I fell in love with the game, and he was first person to call me when she passed away.
When my friends and I stood in the living room in the wake of Nneka’s buzzer-beater, breathless and speechless at the end of Game 5, I thought only of my father back on the east coast, and the teenage girl he raised in that house, the tumultuous years when she hated the world, and the hopeful ones when she fell in love with the LA Sparks and Sue Bird and the Huskies and the WNBA. He was the only person in the world who understood what it meant for me, watching Kristi Tolliver and Parker roll around on the stadium floor, confetti falling all over them.
He was a father who knew—back before many fathers knew—that in the same way that your nifty, undersized son needs Steph Curry, his daughter needed Sue Bird. Oh, believe me, I needed Sue.
At the end of it all, before Sue Bird became a national phenomenon to anyone who paid attention, before the WNBA allowed me to watch her play for fifteen more years, the person I needed most was my father.
He was the one who told me who Sue Bird was.
He was the one who told me the WNBA existed.
He didn’t tell me that it was okay for me to fall in love with my chosen game, the way I played it.
He showed me.