Purists believe in the game. They believe in “Hoosiers,” in team ball, in tenacious D, in taking the charge.
Owners believe in the bottom line. They believe in full arenas, high ratings, in jersey sales.
Somewhere in between is the reality of professional sports, the reality of the WNBA. The game of basketball is not only being played to win, it’s a product that’s being sold, and in a perfect world, both goals are equally honored.
Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and so the WNBA, like the NBA, NFL and every other sport, oscillates between striving for excellence and searching for entertainment – and this year’s version is an example of both.
Though the caliber of WNBA basketball has never been higher, there’s been something missing in 2012 – despite the record-setting start by the deep and talented Minnesota Lynx, the rise of the Chicago Sky (at least until Epiphanny Prince got hurt) and some impressive individual efforts (Tina Charles’ 22 rebounds springs to mind).
So what’s that elusive element? Here’s a two-word answer that will take two hundred to unpack: Jacki Gemelos.
For most fans, Gemelos is the name of a University of Southern California player who overcame a series of ACL injuries to make a USA Basketball team and get drafted this spring by the Minnesota Lynx. But for those of us who saw her before her knee ligaments were turned into spaghetti, Gemelos is the missing link, the charismatic spark who bridges the gap between performance and production, who plays very well but also plays with panache.
Fellow Full Court writer Bob Corwin has worried for years about what might happen to the WNBA when its first set of stars – Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, etc. – faded out of the league. Who would replace them? Who would be the player everyone loved to hate, like Leslie? Who would be the brilliant athlete with the flair for the dramatic, like Swoopes?
And it’s not just a matter of talent, as the owners and marketers know. There’s something else, some “it” factor, that elevates a very good player into a player who demands to be seen. By now, if the name “Diana Taurasi” hasn’t popped into your head, you haven’t been watching women’s basketball very long. She’s the epitome of the catalyzing star, the transcendent talent who can get an entire arena fired up, either for her or against her.
Tina Charles is a great player, but can she do that? Seimone Augustus is too, but where does she fit on the charisma scale?
The purists will say it doesn’t matter, that it’s all about the game, the basketball, but the owners, along with most of the rest of us, want more. We want to hope Lisa Leslie comes into our arena and goes two-for-12, gets a technical and fouls out. We want to anticipate shutting down Taurasi in the final minute and watching how much she hates to lose in every move she makes.
But Taurasi’s hurt right now. Lauren Jackson, who famously pulled Leslie’s hair extensions out in mid-game, is in Australia. Gemelos, who played like Taurasi, is a shadow of her former self. Shameka Christon, called “Baby Sheryl” in her early days in the league, never quite measured up before she too got injured.
So where is the star power in the league right now? What player do you love to hate (or love to love)? Becky Hammon? Yes, but she’s 35 now, and won’t be around for long. Candace Parker? There you go – she’s got it all: skills, looks, attitude. Angel McCoughtry is right there too.
But after Parker, who do fans pay to see? Who will keep the casual viewer watching on ESPN? Not this year’s Cappie Pondexter. Not Sylvia Fowles, as good as she is. Not even Sue Bird, at least not without Jackson.
In short, the stars need to shine for a sports league to grab and expand its audience, and right now, due to a variety of circumstances, the WNBA is short on stars. It’s not short on good players, even great players, but it is the midst of a charisma slump. Maybe Sammy Prahalis can help turn that around, and of course Taurasi will when she returns. And Pondexter, when she feels hoops more than fashion, can get it done too, but that’s not happening right now.
Maybe we wouldn’t need Pondexter and Taurasi quite so much if Gemelos and her knees had survived college unscathed. Maybe we wouldn’t miss the heroes and villains of yesteryear if we had replacements for them now. Yes, we have excellence, but we need more entertainment; yes, we have talent, but we need more stars.
Where have you gone, Lisa Leslie? A sports nation turns its lonely eyes to you …