Women's hoops in Chicago on rise
George Mikan. Isiah Thomas. Tim Hardaway. Kevin Garnett. Dwyane Wade. Derrick Rose. Yolanda Griffith. Dominique Canty. Tamika Catchings. Cappie Pondexter. Candace Parker.
Some of the biggest names in basketball grew up in or around Chicago, cutting their teeth at or against powerhouse hoops schools like Whitney Young, Simeon, Westinghouse and Marshall.
Chicago has long been a great basketball town, even before Michael Jordan and the Bulls made it the hoops capital of the world for most of the 1990s. And though he's now a part of the Bobcats organization, Jordan's legacy will forever be intertwined with Chicago's hoop dreams, begetting generations of little boys and girls wearing No. 23, hoping one day they, too, might fly.
But look beyond the prodigies and the pros and you'll find largely ignored college programs and a WNBA team that struggles to stand out in a crowded Chicago sports landscape. Two big names in women's basketball -- Sheryl Swoopes, who was hired as Loyola coach, and Elena Delle Donne, who was drafted by the Chicago Sky -- hope to play a part in changing that.
A member of the WNBA since 2006, the Sky still struggle to get attention despite Chicago's passionate interest in basketball. Ratings for women's college basketball have grown exponentially, but it's been hard for the WNBA to capture that excitement at the next level.
Part of it may be an enduring myth that the WNBA isn't a top-tier league. In the last few years the talent in the women's game has grown by leaps and bounds and the league is counting on this year's top rookies -- Brittney Griner, Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins (aka the 3 To See) -- to usher in a new era of WNBA popularity.
Shortly after the Sky drafted Delaware's Delle Donne, team VP of Operations Michelle Henstock said she's counting on a whole new set of fans to give the Sky a try.
"Initially the '3 To See' is going to raise awareness so that males who didn't really pay attention before might at least pay attention," she said. "I hope no matter how or why they're paying attention that they see the game has progressed. It's not the same as it was five years ago -- and it's definitely not the same as it was 10 years ago. It'd be great for them to come check out a game and see the difference."
A 6-foot-5 forward who can play any position, Delle Donne is not just a game-changer, she's a franchise-changer -- especially for the Sky, who have never made the playoffs.
Henstock gushed when she pictured adding Delle Donne to a lineup that already boasts 2012 All-Stars Epiphanny Prince, Sylvia Fowles and Courtney Vandersloot, plus two-time Olympic gold medalist Swin Cash.
"She's a supremely talented basketball player," Henstock said of Delle Donne. "The group of skills she has I don't believe that anyone else has -- even Brittney [Griner]. She can play anywhere. She can play inside, she can play outside, she can shoot the three, she can put the ball on the floor. She can fill the one through five spots if she had to. That's really, really unique. And to be 6-5 -- that's unbelievable."
A superstar like Delle Donne will certainly help bring new fans out to Sky games, but it will take more than just a promising new star to keep them. The Sky need to fight the stereotypes that plague the WNBA, proving to diehard hoops fans in Chicago they have a product worth watching.
One big help would be to continue to woo other professional athletes. The team benefits greatly when big-name male athletes who are in Chicago for the summer head out to Sky games. Hearing prominent male athletes speak to the talent, drive and hard work of the women's players helps convince doubters to give the team a shot.
"Their opinions and their thoughts really lend credibility," Henstock said.
Bulls forward Taj Gibson is a big supporter of the Sky and outspoken in his appreciation for the women's game.
"They play hard," Gibson said Monday night. "Unlike the NBA, they play all year long. A lot of them play in the WNBA and then go overseas and play a long season there, too. I have a lot of respect for them, there. And they're skilled. They got a lot of talent.
"When you look at the girls' basketball game, they're not as athletic as men, so they set the right screens, they're real good jump-shooters -- they've just gotta be so fundamentally sound. Growing up I played with Epiphanny and she played basketball with us; she was like one of the fellas. She was just as tough as the guys I played with. I go to almost every game to see [her] play."
Gibson was excited to hear, while he was helping the Bulls to a win over the Magic, the Sky had drafted Delle Donne.
"That's big for them! That's real big!" he said. "She's like a stretch four that can do anything. That team is really talented. They have a nice solid core. They just need that one piece to help 'em get over the hump. They always have a strong start but late in the season, late in the summer they lose that playoff run."
Henstock believes Delle Donne is that final piece that will help the Sky reach new heights.
"I think it has hurt our popularity [to not have made the playoffs]," she said. "We struggle … to get the credibility we deserve and then when a team isn't making the playoffs on a regular basis it's even harder. We've got a really solid five to seven players now, and it's not about making the playoffs now, it's how far do we go in the playoffs."
A winning team, a driven, marketable star and supportive male athletes who prove it's cool to respect and support female athletes? Sounds like a winning plan for this Sky team. And Henstock says they might have a secret weapon up their sleeve, too.
Swoopes, a four-time WNBA champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist, will get people's attention.
"Once [Swoopes] gets here and gets situated, we'd love to have a chat with her and see how she can help work with us to be an advocate for women's basketball -- in the WNBA, in college and in the high schools in Chicago."
Now, more than ever, the WNBA is primed to take advantage of the success of women's college basketball. With Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins all set to make their pro debuts this spring, the talent level, competition level and publicity of the league will be at an all-time high.
Chicago has always been a hardcore hoops town, and if the city can embrace the women's game with the same fervor they have for the men, well then, the sky's the limit for Delle Donne and her new team.