The WNBA’s history and future meet at the Storm’s third championship

Somehow, despite being the pinnacle of the WNBA season, the Finals felt like round one of a newer, much longer fight. The Seattle Storm, winners of a convincing 3-0 sweep, are led in scoring by two players — Jewell Loyd and MVP Breanna Stewart — who are 24 years old. The sudden linchpin of their starting lineup, stretch-5 Natasha Howard, turned 27 during Seattle’s semifinal series against the Phoenix Mercury. Head coach Dan Hughes isn’t just in his first year with the club, but he talked about crucial, high-leverage playoff victories as “learning experiences.”

Despite getting swept, the Mystics, too, arrived at the Finals with the sensation that they had also reached the end of the playoffs without playing at their theoretical best. After beginning the season coming off the bench, rookie Ariel Atkins landed on second-team All-Defense, and cemented her capabilities as a stone-cold gunner by dropping a team-leading 23 points in Game 1 of the Finals in front of the maniacal Seattle crowd.

Some of the most efficient minutes from any Mystics player in the Finals came from unlikely second-round rookie center Myisha Hines-Allen, who leveraged her interior cutting ability to go an impressive 10-for-11 across the series. Besides, Washington could have reasonably expected a down year overall in 2018 when starter Emma Meesseman — quietly a top-20 all-time player in Win Shares per minute — decided in January that she would take the WNBA season off in order to prepare with her Belgian teammates for the FIBA World Cup.

Nobody actually directly involved with the Finals were looking past them, of course, into the future. This small handful of games is so fleeting and precious, it absolutely brought out the best effort and focus from both teams — especially from Seattle’s Sue Bird, who confessed throughout the series how she privately thought the Storm would never get back to the Finals. One step removed from the outside, though, and this Finals felt entirely about the future. It would be the opposite of surprising if the Storm and Mystics met again in the 2019 Finals, or the 2020 Finals, and both of them playing better basketball, with deeper rotations, than they did in 2018.

These Finals showed something even more tantalizing than two teams at the potential beginning of a rivalry based entirely on high skill. They showed a vision of the future — a vision that grew more real, game by game — where the WNBA is not just watched more widely, but respected more deeply.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In some future day, basketball fans will look back at this generation in the women’s game with astonishment at how poorly the world, how poorly the sports media — and even, at times, the game’s own governing bodies — treat the athletes of the WNBA. These times will look medieval. People in the future will look back at the most miserable subplot of these Finals — a sports bar refusing to turn one (1) TV to the game so the family of Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud could watch — and it will just not make any sort of sense. You mean that sports fans as recently as 2018 wouldn’t watch the WNBA Finals?

I say this with confidence because you don’t have to look that far back in history to find an era that looks medieval compared to ours. The book Venus to the Hoop, by Sara Corbett, follows the American national team and their year-long global exhibition series before emerging with the gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The book describes how the veterans on that squad, such as previous two-time gold medalist Teresa Edwards, had grown wearily accustomed to a journeyman’s grind across Europe, an entire professional career taking place unseen by friends or family. Here is how Corbett describes one of the nightmare aspects of Edwards’ career:

While a basketball team was a good place to find at least a tenuous racial equity, stepping off the court into the masses of mostly white coaches, mostly white media, mostly white marketing people, and even the mostly white fans, the powerful imbalance of the world came rushing back. More than once she had done interviews only to have the interviewer forget her name and inadvertently substitute the name of another black player instead.

Obviously these troublesome racial dynamics of 20-odd years ago have not simply vanished. But the thought of a professional player — much less a national-team-caliber, gold-medal-winning player — being mistaken for another is, in 2018, complete lunacy. Today a WNBA Playoff press conference is tightly choreographed show involving dozens of assembled media members that’s streaming live on Periscope, and it is not the time nor place for anybody to lazily, foggily guess at who, exactly, they may be talking to. Plus, the thought of losing the entire 20s of one of the nation’s best players into the unrecorded ether, as happened when Edwards journeyed across Europe, is now, thankfully, obsolete.

Venus to the Hoop was written a long time ago, and also it wasn’t. Sue Bird would win the New York State Championship the year the book was published, 1997. Two teammates from that 1996 Olympic squad, Lisa Leslie and current ESPN broadcaster Rebecca Lobo, were both in Seattle for Game 2 of these Finals. A third teammate joined Lobo in Washington, D.C. this week — but not at the Finals. Dawn Staley is now the coach of the same national team, and was busy getting her side tuned up for this month’s FIBA World Cup.

Photo by Rich Kessler/NBAE via Getty Images

I don’t think it’s always helpful to compare the WNBA to the NBA. I was surprised to hear the exact reason I think this coming out of the mouth of Lisa Borders, WNBA president, in a press conference before Game 1 tipped off. And that reason is — the league is still real young: “So for all those folks who want to know when we’re going to be like all the other leagues, I remind you that the NBA is 72, that football is 98, and that baseball is 125 years old. So give us a minute; we will get the traction that everybody else has gotten, but it takes time to build the brand. It takes time to build fans.”

I know it’s not directly apples-to-apples, but I think it’s more accurate to compare the WNBA now, at age 22, to where the NBA was at age 22. That was the 1967-68 season, and the NBA was no picnic. First off: the league was exactly 12 teams at the time, right where the WNBA is now. Historic mainstays had already established themselves, like the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, and champion Boston Celtics. There was still an incredible amount of instability among the 12 franchises though: the expansion San Diego Rockets would only stay there for four years before leaving for Houston. Right after the season, the St. Louis Hawks would move for the third time in less than 20 years, landing in Atlanta. The Baltimore Bullets and Cincinnati Royals were also about midway through roughly decade-long runs in those cities before they, too, looked for greener pastures. Playoffs and Finals games were broadcasted nationally on big ol’ ABC. That is, as long as it was a Sunday afternoon game.

So, yes: the WNBA has its Miami Sol and Portland Fire somewhere in the deep archives of its past. But the NBA also has its Providence Steam Rollers, Anderson Packers, and (uh oh) Sheboygan Red Skins in its less-flattering deep history. There are ways where, truly, the WNBA found stability quicker than the NBA did. The seemingly jarring bumps that the WNBA may take on a day-to-day basis — say, as games get moved around networks, or as teams must endure genuinely exhausting travel sequences — don’t look so disruptive when you look at the years-long arc of the league.

(Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Please understand: I am not under the illusion that the WNBA is some cheery utopia. The WNBA is, without doubt, the women’s basketball league that has both the highest and deepest skill level in the world. It is also turns to its players with a shrug and a sad face, holding out its empty pockets, while other, less-skilled leagues can reliably pay to lace the same players out. I don’t know many of the business details beyond that, but it’s clear that something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong. I’m not breaking news here.

For the moment, though, all of the factors that currently construct the WNBA — in its young adulthood as a league, yet flush with mentor figures, full of networks of former teammates and national teammates and international club teammates — somehow combine to create an incredibly friendly atmosphere among the combatants.

It is the day before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals and the Storm are slowly drifting off the court in their practice facility at Seattle Pacific University, and the Mystics slowly wander in. Mystics head coach Mike Thibault — who could be seen throughout most of the Finals being livid with the refereeing — sneaks up on his counterpart, Hughes, and gives him a hug. The WNBA world is small enough that, yes, even two veteran coaches who have never been on the same staff have still managed to spend enough time together to strike up something of a friendship. Thibault explained how he had gotten to know Hughes: “It’s funny, we’ve just known each other since the say I got in the league. He was in Cleveland still at that point, with the Rockers, we got to know each other a little bit. Crossed paths in the offseason, scouting, but we also both did TV work for ESPN. We’d talk about stuff, talk about the college game.” During the clinching Game 3 of the Finals, the ESPN broadcast added an anecdote involving an unexpected third coach to confirm the coaching bromance: Hughes, who had received bottles of wine from Gregg Popovich from Hughes’ time coaching the San Antonio Silver Stars, gifted Thibault a bottle of the wine when the Mystics visited Seattle earlier this season, following Thibault’s 300th WNBA victory.

Even in this most heated moment of the WNBA season, the players are also quick to crack jokes, a tendency one wouldn’t exactly pick up from the league’s current vaguely-pull-at-the-heartstrings approach. As the Mystics’ first practice in Seattle slowly ramped up, the doors were open to the college’s track outside, and a sunny 70-degree day (they happen in Seattle). Problem, though: most of the first few shots, the day after that long cross-country flight, wouldn’t go in. The Mystics found the solution: “Shut the doors!” they shouted. “Shut the doors!” (The doors stayed open, but the shots did start to fall.)

Or Elena Delle Donne, moments after the season-ending defeat in Game 3, after weeks of obsessively rehabilitating her hyperextended knee. She’s sitting next to Kristi Toliver at the press conference and has been asked a question about the Mystics growing closer on a personal level. She starts on polite-autopilot, because why not: “Yeah, there’s been a huge transformation in the culture of this team. Last year, we were brand-new, we didn’t even know” — then Delle Donne pauses for a moment and, hell, she just lost the WNBA Finals, so why bother with polite-autopilot — “I didn’t even know her [Toliver’s] favorite beer. And that’s a pretty important thing to know about Panda. Now I can go to the bar, order her everything she needs, know what I need to get her flowing.”

This is the blessing and the curse of women’s basketball in 2018: there is always something next. It’s a curse because, well, it all ends up being pretty tiring, and hard to stay healthy. But a blessing because, with another tournament or another season around the corner almost all the time, it can help you turn the page on what just happened. The FIBA World Cup starts on September 22, in the Canary Islands in Spain. Delle Donne is one of 16 finalists to make the final roster. One of Dawn Staley’s assistant coaches is Dan Hughes. Other players under consideration include: Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird.

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