CHICAGO -- A group of schoolchildren took over half of the
basketball court under the bright lights of the UIC Pavilion,
running drills with Tamika Catchings, Ruth Riley and a couple of
other WNBA stars.
Pretty soon the rest of Chicago is going to get an up close and
personal look at the WNBA.
The league awarded an expansion team to Chicago on Tuesday,
giving the WNBA its 14th team and returning women's professional
basketball to the home of the Chicago Hustle. The team will begin
play in 2006 at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion.
"This is an amazing time," said Catchings, a Chicago native
and a forward with the Indiana Fever. "I remember back when I was
going to school here, I would never have thought I'd have the
opportunity to come here to play in Chicago in front of my family
and my friends."
The Chicago team -- its nickname will be announced later -- will
be the WNBA's first new franchise since 2002. San Antonio and
Connecticut began play in 2003, but each moved from a previous
location. It also will be the second team with outside owners, with
real estate developer Michael Alter leading a group of 15-20 local
The Chicago franchise doesn't have any players yet and, unlike
when the league began, the WNBA won't assign any who have local
ties. So for now, Catchings is slated to be a visiting player when
the Fever travel to her hometown.
There will be an expansion draft, probably in November or
December, and the team will also have money under the salary cap to
sign free agents.
Teams had to be affiliated with their city's NBA team under the
WNBA's original rules, but the league dropped that restriction in
"The idea to bring the WNBA to Chicago really started a year
ago, when I had the great privilege of meeting a group of WNBA
players at the All-Star Game. For me, it was like meeting Ernie
Banks and Bill Russell in their prime," Alter said. "I was so
impressed, not only by their prowess as athletes, but their love of
the game, their intelligence, their passion and their dignity.
"After meeting these amazing women and learning more about the
WNBA, it just did not make sense to me that the third-largest city
in the country and frankly, in my opinion, the best sports town in
the country, did not have a WNBA team."
The league started with eight teams in 1997 and expanded to 16
in 2002, but three franchises folded: Cleveland, Miami and
Chicago had always seemed like a logical spot for a WNBA
franchise. The Hustle was one of the original teams in the Women's
Professional Basketball League, and drew big crowds for its games
on the DePaul campus. WGN even broadcast some of the Hustle's
games, giving the team a nationwide fan base before the league
folded in 1981.
In the Chicago Condors' only season in the ABL, they were second
in the league in attendance, averaging 4,775 fans at the Pavilion.
The ABL folded Dec. 28, 1998.
The Bulls considered applying for a WNBA franchise, but dropped
the idea when fewer than 1,000 people were willing to pay $100 to
reserve season tickets.
"This validates the decision we made to open things up,"
league president Val Ackerman said. "[Alter] may not have the
resources of an NBA team, but he's got a singular focus which I
think can be helpful."
Alter is certainly passionate about his new team. He's already
hired Margaret Stender, a former executive with Quaker Oaks and
PepsiCo, to be the new team's president and chief operating
officer. The team's Web site is up and season tickets went on sale
Alter and Stender hope to hire a coach around the time that the
WNBA season starts in May.
Alter also is taking a page from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark
Cuban, giving out his e-mail and promising
to answer every one he gets.
"For the people of Chicago, the WNBA is a milestone," Alter
said. "It's exciting to be on the ground floor of an incredible
journey, and I want the entire community to be a part of it as
The new team is already getting some help from the Bulls. Though
the Bulls don't have any ownership stake in the WNBA's newest team,
they've pledged to share whatever expertise they can with Alter and
"At best, we would have been able to devote 50 percent of our
energies to [a WNBA team]," said Steve Schanwald, the Bulls
executive vice president of business operations, who was at
Tuesday's news conference at the Pavilion.
"They'll be able to dedicate 100 percent of their energy," he
And NBA commissioner David Stern has no doubt the WNBA will
succeed in Chicago.
"You'll pardon the expression," Stern said, "but it's a slam