Riding on the MARTA train on the way to my first WNBA game, I had to ask myself, “Why am I just now doing this?” As an NBA fan and a fan of the sport of basketball for as long as I can remember, it felt odd to have largely overlooked the WNBA since its inception in 1996.
Having attended several Atlanta Hawks games where famed organist Sir Foster proceeds over the ambiance and local radio host Ryan Cameron handles PA duties, I wasn’t sure what to expect at Philips Arena when the Atlanta Dream hosted the Phoenix Mercury, either the in on-court action or the crowd experience.
While many professional leagues stress the “family friendly” atmosphere, the WNBA largely delivers on this premise, much to my surprise. Whether it was the youth girls’ basketball team taking part in pre-game ceremonies, on-court recognition of cancer survivors, or the senior women’s dance troupe (The Dream Supremes) putting on the most memorable performance of the night—a dance routine to “Uptown Funk”—it was easy to see why families would feel comfortable in this sports environment.
On top of that, the crowd was nothing short of passionate—lots of cheering, yelling, and “thunderstix” waving carried on throughout the game, with fans exhibiting solid knowledge about individual players, something I admittedly lacked in this setting. The only glaring difference between the WNBA and NBA in this sense was that this WNBA crowd was more animated with respect to officiating than the head coaches; the Dream’s Michael Cooper and Sandy Brondello of the Mercury definitely demonstrated a more reserved nature on their respective sidelines than many of their NBA counterparts.
What about the actual game?
On this particular afternoon, I was treated to an ultimately thrilling contest between the Dream and the Mercury, a matchup featuring a team with one of the WNBA’s best offensive players (Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry) going against a team with one of the league’s best defensive players (Phoenix’s Brittney Griner). Over the course of the 40-minute affair, it all came down to the size and execution of the Mercury vs. the outside shooting of the Dream.
Speaking of the Phoenix Mercury’s size, I was excited about seeing Brittney Griner in person, just to get a sense of how she moves on the court. Griner, while perceived as the most dominant post defender in the league (4.5 blocks per game), doesn’t dominate the defensive end of the court in the same imposing, forceful way I’ve come to expect from NBA players like Dwight Howard, yet she still disrupts opposing shooters’ airspace using her height and reach whether challenging a shot or not.
On the offensive side of the court, WNBA 3rd-leading scorer Angel McCoughtry (19.4 ppg) has a really nice rhythm to her game and is very fluid off the dribble. In this matchup against the Mercury she didn’t have many opportunities to facilitate the offense, however it was evident with the ball in her hands she knows how to create space to get her own shot or make plays for others.
In the end, the Phoenix Mercury ultimately outlasted a spirited effort by the Atlanta Dream, winning 71-68, in a game that saw both the aforementioned Griner (9 points, 7 rebounds, 5 blocks) and McCoughtry (16 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) have uneven games that looked better in the box score than during game flow.
Heading for the tunnel after the game as the crowd was clearing out, I noticed a familiar figure looming over a dozen or so people. It was in fact, Dwight Howard, who had been briefly spotted on the arena camera during the game, giving a sheepish grin and acknowledging the light applause from those who acknowledged him. I didn’t chat with Dwight on this afternoon, but it was interesting to watch how he towered over the crowd while taking a few photos for fans. In a similar sense, the NBA still towers over the WNBA, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
My passion for the NBA was forged in the old days of the Atlanta Hawks as Dominique Wilkins was flying around the Omni; it was a less calculated affair, borne of emotional ties to larger than life heroes who defined an era and laid the foundation for the current industry of professional basketball. My love for the WNBA will take a different path; intentional awareness and appreciation will play a more important role, especially in an era where the league doesn’t offer the same tabloid fodder to feed traditional and Social Media as the NBA or NFL.
In the final analysis, basketball is still basketball, no matter if it’s men or women, amateur or professional, and it’s an amazing treat to watch the best athletes in the world compete. And for those like myself who claim to love the game of basketball in all it’s forms, showing the WNBA a little more love wouldn’t hurt. Love takes effort, so going forward I’m committing the effort to follow, tune-in, and show up for the WNBA whenever I can. I encourage you to do the same.