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Tamika Catchings & Indiana Unleash A New Era In The WNBA

You may have turned on the T.V. in 1997 to see if professional women’s basketball could actually work in America. From then on, you might have found yourself scrolling through the channels forgetting that a league still existed.

You knew of Diana Taurasi. You knew of Candace Parker, but you probably characterized them as exceptions – not indicative of the level of play of the league as a whole. Even before that, every guy knew who Chamique Holdsclaw was.

These elite female players didn’t represent the women’s league they played in – they were marketed as women who deserved respect from their male peers, but women who couldn’t seem to convince these men to hold the WNBA in the same light.

But in those years you may have stopped watching, the WNBA quietly and critically shifted in terms of parity. The Indiana Fever stealing the 2012 title away from the defending champion Minnesota Lynx last night was no anomaly – the league is more competitive than it has ever been.

That’s because there are now more younger, talented players in the draft pool to choose from. When the WNBA started, most players were past their prime after having already played professionally overseas for years. The Cynthia Coopers, the Lisa Leslies, the Sheryl Swoopes, the Dawn Staleys were already close to their thirties. The league came just in time, but late.

Their replacements have matriculated as true rookies for over a decade. They’re quicker, stronger and grew up with a league already in place. This younger wave of female ballers wasn’t concerned with simply having a league. They came out of college determined to change that.

Taurasi now isn’t the only woman to, as any guy on the playground would say, “play like a dude.” More guards are emerging that resemble the men’s up-and-down style of play. Kristi Toliver on the Los Angeles Sparks can cross left to right, hit the step-back three and wet up any guard on the perimeter, and Cappie Pondexter of the New York Liberty is equally quick at breaking down guards to get to the cup. Lindsay Whalen of the Lynx will dribble around the floor for more than half the shot clock like Steve Nash, finding lanes where there are none to find a teammate for the easy bucket. Forwards like Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Nneka Ogwumike have unprecedented athleticism. What’s more, the draft class to come with Skylar Diggins and Brittney Griner will give all of these players a run for their money.

This new wave of women is able to diversify the WNBA audience beyond families and children, and have begun popularizing the league itself in addition to their own rising individual status.

Pondexter even tatted the WNBA logo on her right arm when she was 17 so you know it’s real.

The WNBA no longer “has next” as their inaugural marketing slogan announced. They aren’t waiting on the sidelines to get in the game anymore. They “got” right now.

The Comets won the first four WNBA championships before the Sparks dominated with back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002. No team has won two rings in a row since then. Instead, the WNBA shifted, as did the women’s college game, away from the traditional UConns and Tennessees: six different WNBA teams (including the Fever) have won a championship since 2002.

This kind of parity was heightened in the 2012 WNBA season. The Fever won their franchise’s first title, and yet the Lynx, Sparks, San Antonio Silver Stars and the Connecticut Sun all very well could have been celebrating in the Finals like the Fever.

The Stars had the longest winning streak in the regular season with 12 in a row, and beat the Sparks 3-1 in the regular season. Yet the Sparks, who failed to make the playoffs last year and then clinched the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference this year, defeated the Stars in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Sparks also beat the Fever twice in the teams’ two regular season meetings by no more than 10 points.

The Connecticut Sun finished in first place in the Eastern Conference, and their center Tina Charles won league MVP. Yet the Sun did not advance to the Finals.

The seemingly untouchable and loaded 27-7 Lynx were, in fact, destructible despite being league favorites. Four of those seven losses were from the Sparks and Stars. Even the scrappy, last place Tulsa Shock, who last year won just three games total, were six points away from defeating the Lynx. On any given night, any team can win. And by that same token, any player can step up and make the play when it counts. It was Lynx reserve Monica Wright who came off the bench in the final seconds against the Sparks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals to hit the game-winning three to advance to the Finals.

More players to watch means more fans. Game 2 of the Finals was the most viewed and highest-rated WNBA playoff game on ESPN since 1999.

Even NBA players are paying more attention. Derrick Rose gave a good luck in the Finals shout out to the Lynx’ Taj McWilliams-Franklin on Twitter, as she wore his D Rose 3 in the Finals. LeBron James tweeted to Tamika Catchings, the 2012 WNBA Finals MVP: “Bout damn time!!” in support when the Fever won. But it’s about more than winning games. This June, Kevin Durant said that the women’s game is getting more athletic, and as a fan, he’s excited to see the league grow.

I don’t mean to suggest that just because the WNBA is reaching a new level of parity, along with growing support from the men’s league, that it has in any way wholly solved its problems. There are still unfilled WNBA arenas and there are male viewers who will never be reached. The league still has a long way to go in breaking down the economic and social barriers that impede its growth and chances for longevity. But the WNBA is moving in the right direction. It just takes time.

Just ask Tamika Catchings.

“When you come into the league, your goal and dream is to win a WNBA championship,” she said. “Twelve years later…it’s so sweet right now.”

Who knows who will win next year?

Is the WNBA on the right path?

Follow Mirin on Twitter at @mirinfader.

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