Since the Lynx basketball season began three weeks back, I've had quite a few conversations with men about the women's professional league. (In fact, my boy buddies have been way more interested in the topic than my female pals: It'll take more than a sport bra under the jersey to get the latter on the ball. Well, maybe their daughter's sport bra would do it.) One fellow predicted that WNBA crowds would remain negligible, compared to the NBA's, until women perfected the dunk: No one, he insinuated, wants to pay to see a game they can imagine being able to play in. Another friend wryly reported his brother-in-law's rule of thumb: Only watch the best of any sport, and so far women ain't the best.
That friend quickly pointed out, so I didn't have to, the difficulty of defining "best." Should the pinnacle moment of men's basketball--Michael Jordan floating in the air, switching the ball from hand to hand, finally dunking--be considered the best thing that can be done with a nubby, hard, 28.5-to-30-inch ball? If there are differences in the way the women's and men's pro leagues play basketball--and there are, quite obvious ones--is it fair to hold the women's game to the men's standard; and to view it, then, as an inferior version of that ideal, a sweet, but second-rate substitute, a (sorry!) bush league?
I'm not sure. As a gender libertarian, I've always kept a disrespectful distance from the different-but-equal school of thought: Any time you start honoring innate "female" or "male" qualities, you limit the choices of both women and men. It's said that women's pro basketball depends more on team play than NBA basketball. Does hyping that tendency confine the women's league to the straitjacket of a gender stereotype--the notion that women are "naturally" more collaborative? What of the female player who is naturally a ball hog, and who has the skills, like Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain, to make hogging look heroic? Will she be expected to share?
Still, it's becoming obvious that the game can be pleasingly played in other ways than the norm--and that an emphasis on new qualities changes the definition of success: More people are allowed to participate, and to win. Like Lynx starting forward Andrea Lloyd-Curry, who was named Lynx player of the game in an early-season defensive slaughter of Utah. At 33 and six-foot-two, with creaky knees and twelve years of professional experience, Lloyd-Curry admits readily, if ruefully, that she wouldn't be playing if the WNBA were a flashily acrobatic league like the men's.
"There's things I love about the NBA," she explains. "It's fun to watch the athletic moves. But I wouldn't want our league to be that way. I like the team aspect. I can be old and slow and my leg can be bad." She shakes her head at my smile. "I'm serious. [The other players] laugh at me, at my moves. They go: 'Coach, did you put the tape on slow motion?' But it doesn't really matter. The important thing is to score, and to win. We don't look like fools out there because we play together.
"I love competitive, tactical basketball," continues Lloyd-Curry, who hit five three-pointers to keep the Lynx from complete ignominy in their 62-79 loss at Sacramento last week. "I think that's the way the game was meant to be played. I liked playing overseas when they used to have the rule where in the last two minutes you could either shoot your free throws or take the ball out on the side. I like looking at different defenses every night, different defenses within a one-minute period. That's what makes the game intriguing. It's not meant to be played as a one-on-one game."
NBA connoisseurs of the strategic matchup might disagree. But one of the major pleasures of women's professional basketball, as played so far at the Target Center, is following the shifting zone defenses, which are not allowed in the NBA. For their first two and a half games--up until halftime against Houston--the Lynx put on a defense workshop, setting up zone variations with players guarding one-on-one, teaming up to smother the ball carrier, shutting off shooting options. They held Detroit and Utah to a league-low .317 field-goal percentage. And while two-time WNBA champion Houston pulled away from the Lynx in the second half, they still scored only 69 points--17 less than their game average. "You only see men playing defense during the playoffs," starting guard Tonya Edwards jokes. "The crowd is gonna see it from us all season long."
"We spend 80 percent of our practices on defense," concurs Lloyd-Curry. "That's one of the things we really try to emphasize: staying focused and being able to play 40 minutes of tough defense without having breakdowns."
As the double-digit losses against Houston and Sacramento attest, Lynx breakdowns will happen. And their dependence on team play, which is their greatest asset, may also be their Achilles' heel: Unlike Houston, the Lynx have no Cynthia Cooper to pop up 34 points in a game. They have no six-foot-eight Maria Stepanova to block shots, as Phoenix does. The core of the ABL championship team coach Brian Agler brought here from Columbus did not include Quest guard Shannon Johnson, sixth in scoring last year in the now-defunct ABL. The two non-Quest Lynx with the most scoring potential--Kristin Folkl and Brandy Reed--mostly still offer...potential. It's no wonder Lloyd-Curry loves strategy: That and the teamwork to make it happen are all that stands between the Lynx and the Western Conference basement.
But if the Lynx boast no stars on the level of a Cooper, Swoopes, or Griffith, they also carry no dead wood: Of the nine players who regularly hit the floor, all can shoot and are expected to do so in a system, Edwards says, that "gives everybody a chance to shine."
Theoretically, that fluid system is also a tactical advantage. "We don't have a set offense we run," Lloyd-Curry explains. "We don't say, 'The ball goes here and somebody cuts there, and then this happens.' Mostly we just read what the defense does: We get the ball, we look where people are, and we make it up as we go along. It's very difficult to defend against. But you have to have all five people working together. If you don't, it can look really bad." She snorts: "Really bad."
When the Lynx are clicking, their play is as beautiful as any alley-oop: At one point in the Utah game, the passing was so smart and precise, into the lane and out and in again, that the crowd applauded even though the shot failed. But when they aren't clicking... In the locker room after the Houston loss, starting guard Sonja Tate held her head in her hands. "We know we can beat this team," she said huskily. "That's why it's so frustrating, because I feel as though we beat ourselves. There was a lot of mental breakdowns. When you have half the people on the floor running one play, and the other half running another, you're not gonna get real good execution." Tate winced. "I'm just kind of devastated. I'm trying to think about what I could have done different."
What happens when team play dissolves is a kind of desperate atomization--players running down the court and throwing the ball up like so many Latrell Sprewells. And too many shots go clank (against Sacramento, the team's shooting percentage was .368). Playing as individuals, the Lynx hardly fool anyone.
Players tend to blame themselves for such breakdowns, rather than an opposing defense--or the strategic setup that requires such all-for-one cooperation. "Brian is a great leader," Lloyd-Curry says of the coach who drew her out of retirement. "He knows how to give us all the tools to make it happen. It's up to us whether we have the desire."
The desire, yes, but also the discipline to trust other players--and plays. Once, I saw forward Brandy Reed beat her defenders, catch a full-court pass and lay it in; twice, I've seen her hesitate, look behind her, and miss the same pass.
Actually, Reed is a perfect example of a habitually individualistic player who looks to be visibly benefitting from Agler's emphasis on teamwork. At 22 the youngest player to start a Lynx game, Reed is a crowd favorite: Like this year's number one WNBA draft choice, Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw, she runs on the dribble better than most of us walk, and her fakes are so real she is almost beyond fake. She hasn't shown the steady offensive excellence of Holdsclaw, and her defense has never been stalwart--which is probably why she was left unprotected by the Phoenix Mercury in this year's expansion draft.
"Brandy's always been a great one-on-one player," Lloyd-Curry observes, "but I think when she allows the other four people on the court to create things for her and creates things for them as well, she's gonna just thrive. She still has a lot of room for improvement, which she probably thinks is not good--I think it's good!" Lloyd-Curry crows. "I mean, God, what would you do to have that jumping ability! But I don't think she's ever been able to put it all together and play on a real team."
Back in the preseason, Reed admitted that she doesn't care for practice. "I just like to play," she said with a playful grin. Then she sobered up. "I need to learn how to use practice as a tool to help me get better. I have a lot of athleticism, but I have a lot of mental things that I need to learn about the game. I don't want to be limited."
Playing in a league like the NBA, Reed probably would have bumped around between teams, getting by on the occasional brilliant shot, never really improving. Playing for the Lynx--well, it'll be interesting to watch what unfolds. Will the system win, or will Reed refuse to bend? Maybe the team will reach some magic compromise between brassy talent and anonymous collaboration--something like what happened in L.A. last week, when Reed bagged 28 points to push the Lynx to their first road win.
These are the dramas of the women's game. At least in our town, for the present. As another male friend commented, the main excitement of women's basketball right now is that it is developing so fast. Today teamwork rules. Today you have female fans yelling, "It's okay!" to the defeated Lynx, like so many understanding moms. Tomorrow? As Lloyd-Curry puts it: "We make it up as we go."
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