In 2004, Cheryl Reeve was an assistant with the Charlotte Sting, paying her dues in a fledgling league and about to enter her fourth season coaching in the WNBA.
Some of the players taken in the first round of the draft that spring? Diana Taurasi, Alana Beard, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson. They were about to enter a league put on the map by the likes of Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. Reeve remembers wondering how this bunch of kids was going to follow that opening act.
They did OK.
“The way they took that to heart, the way they took that baton,” said the Lynx coach, “they just ran with it.”
If you want to talk origins, this group isn’t the league’s architects. The WNBA was a few years old when they added to the foundation. But let’s talk about that generation.
Saturday at Target Center, the WNBA All-Star Game will be played for the first time in Minnesota, featuring 22 players who have helped push the athletic level of the league to new heights.
And while youth is pushing to be served — Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson, for example, is the face of a rookie class that could go down as one of the best since, well, 2004 — age still looks pretty good.
On the two rosters this weekend: Taurasi, the star guard of the Phoenix Mercury. Seattle’s Sue Bird, at 37 the oldest player in the league. Lynx guard Seimone Augustus, in her 12th season. Lynx center Sylvia Fowles and Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker, both in their 10th.
The impact that generation had on the league and on sports — at all levels — is immense. And continues. Right now Whalen, the Lynx’s veteran guard and unquestioned leader, is the league’s all-time winningest player. Brunson is the top rebounder and the only player with five title rings won with the Lynx and now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs. Taurasi is the top scorer, Bird is No. 1 in assists.
Perhaps more important is this group, which didn’t have a well-established professional women’s league to aspire to when its members first picked up a basketball, has spent a decade and a half showing girls what was possible.
And that matters.
“We’re a group of women girls got to look up to,” Bird said. “They got to see us, in their cities. On TV, in commercials, maybe on their walls. There is something special to that, there really is.”
The best explanation for the continuous influx of young talent has to be laid at the feet of a generation of players that took the game to new places.
“We always say, ‘If you can’t see her, you can’t be her,’ ” said Nicole LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Girls & Women at the University of Minnesota.
The passage of Title IX legislation in 1972, of course, got the process started. There is a generation of young women now who never knew what it was like not to have the opportunity to play sports on a high level.
“But the second thing you have,” LaVoi said, “is that now the current generation— maybe generation and a half — have grown up with the WNBA. They have active, high-quality, visible role models. We know that’s really important to girls’ self-perception, self-esteem, seeing it as a career pathway.”
A generation of boys wanted to be like Mike. These days, how many girls want to be like Maya Moore? Taurasi? Bird?
Probably a lot.
“You live here, maybe you see Maya play, Lindsay,” Taurasi said. “You have a reference. You say, ‘Maybe I can play like Lindsay a little. I want to be like Whay.’ How special is that?”
New basketball role models
Taurasi grew up in Glendale, Calif. As a kid she loved the Lakers and was obsessed with Magic Johnson’s game. In the ’90s it was Clyde Drexler and Nick Van Exel. As a teen, Whalen had a poster of the Gophers men’s team on her wall. Bird grew up watching Mike Bibby.
You get the point.
This week Wilson, who was 5 years old when Bird played her first game, will tell you she grew up adoring Parker. Indiana rookie Kelsey Mitchell watched Indiana’s Cappie Pondexter, an All-Star in her 12th season. Sparks standout Nneka Ogwumike was a fan of retired San Antonio forward Sophia Young.
“This allows for the growth of the game,” Reeve said. “Wilson sees Candace Parker. Maya Moore saw Cynthia Cooper. So they want to do that, to be that. So they start doing it at a younger age, they dream of it at a younger age. They do it. And it has elevated the quality of the game.”
There’s also evidence of an explosion of young talent, seen from the college level and into the pros. Just about every WNBA team has at least two superior players, most have more. Of the 22 WNBA All-Stars here this weekend, 10 have less than six full years of experience. This year’s rookie class, in general, has been very good.
“This game is elevating,” said Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer. “Tremendously. Talent, scoring, speed to the game. It took a massive jump this year. Look at the rookies. A’ja. Mitchell, Ariel Atkins, [Diamond] DeShields. Lots of good players are coming in.”
Laimbeer compares the WNBA now to the late 1970s and early ’80s, when eventual Hall of Famers such as Larry Bird, Johnson and Isiah Thomas entered the NBA, and the game was elevated.
And it goes beyond the court. In recent weeks, some of it spurred by the four-year, $154 million LeBron James contract, a number of players — many of them young — have taken to social media to stand up for their league. There has been talk of higher pay. There has also been a concerted effort to stand up to critics of the league. Wilson and Las Vegas teammate Kelsey Plum have been a big part of that.
“This is our generation,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to be silenced. The people who came before us kind of paved the way for us not to be silent. They’re the ones who took this league to a point where we can step in and say, ‘Hey, you’re not going to disrespect them, or us.’ ”
Whalen is all for it.
“It’s good, young players speaking their minds,” she said. “They have something to say, and they’re a little more used to being able to say it.”
Better coaching pipeline
So is coaching the next step? Whalen took the head job at the University of Minnesota this year. Former WNBA star Tina Thompson has taken over at Virginia. It would seem intuitive that could become a trend.
Last season 59.8 percent of Division I women’s teams were coached by women. But that’s a number, LaVoi said, that has remained stagnant over the past decade and a half.
There are a lot of reasons for this. It is more difficult, still, for women to enter the pipeline toward a head coaching job, primarily starting as grad assistants or assistants. And the pipeline can be, as LaVoi said, leaky, though research shows that women who were coached by women are more likely to coach themselves.
“What we need is a program, or a pathway, that will support these WNBA players, to get them the experience of coaching so they can get hired,” LaVoi said.
But the fact is, with the 22-year-old WNBA, more and more experienced players are going to be retiring, creating a pool of potential coaching talent.
“We are finally at a point in this league where the talent and athleticism — and strategy — is all at a very high level simultaneously,” Bird said. “We’ll have the experience. We didn’t just play four years in college. We played pro. Take Lindsay, 15 years in the WNBA. That experience, you can’t match that. That will be brought into the game.”
Fans will see old and young in the All-Star Game. It’s hard to say how long the older generation will stick around, though both Bird and Taurasi are in the best shape of their careers. Taurasi, for one, has no intention of ceding ground to any youngster yet.
“I’m not letting anyone take anything from me,” she said. “They’d better carry me out, punch me in the face to get me out of here.”
Time, of course, always wins. And, as the current generation grows, it will challenge most, if not all, the records.
WNBA President Lisa Borders is sure of that.
“Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, that first class, they were working on a single-lane street,” Borders said. “The next group, like Taurasi, Lindsay and Rebekkah, are on a two-lane street. This next group, A’ja Wilson, [Aces] Moriah Jefferson, they’re working on a four-lane highway.”