Before the WNBA had even formed, Sheryl Swoopes was a basketball legend. She'd already won an NCAA championship and was rocking her own Nike signature shoe, the Air Swoopes, during Team USA's gold medal run at the 1996 Olympics, but she wasn't done yet. Swoopes was determined to come back from pregnancy and play in the WNBA's 1997 debut season because she had even more to prove. "People said, 'If you have a baby, you'll never come back and be the way you were.' My goal was to come back and be even better, to show women that it's possible."
“It wasn’t just about me. There’s a bigger meaning for every little girl who had dreams of playing professional basketball.”
Her parents didn't want her to go to UConn, but Rebecca Lobo had a feeling about Geno Auriemma's program. Her senior year, Lobo led the Huskies to an undefeated season and their first national championship. The dynasty was born. When the team came home, crowds lined the road to Storrs, Connecticut, waving homemade signs. "This was 1995, a year after the O.J. [Simpson] chase," she said. "We were laughing, 'This is like O.J.!'" She realizes now the key role the UConn women played in bringing about the WNBA. "That team and the attention they got had a huge impact on the NBA's decision to launch a WNBA. It was a foundational piece."
Percentage of UConn alumni who appeared in at least one game during the 2020 season, highest of any NCAA team.
“When I’m preparing [to broadcast] the WNBA draft, talking to coaches or GMs, they’re like, ‘We know if we get a UConn kid, they’re going to be ready.’”
When the Houston Comets used the league's first-ever draft pick to choose Tina Thompson from USC in 1997, the free-scoring forward thought she'd spend a few years in the league, save up money and go to law school. She ended up starring in the league's first dynasty, winning four straight championships with the Comets alongside Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke. When Thompson retired 17 seasons later, she was the league's all-time leading scorer, a record overtaken by Diana Taurasi in 2017.
- 9x All-Star
- 4x WNBA champion
- 2x Olympic gold medalist
The Comets are one of only five domestic professional franchises to win four straight titles.
The confetti was already falling to celebrate the Houston Comets' second consecutive championship when New York Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon got the ball. With 2.4 seconds to go in the game, down 65-67, Weatherspoon threw up a shot — "that crazy-ass shot," Comets legend Sheryl Swoopes remembered — from beyond half court. Weatherspoon said she knew it was going in as soon as it left her hands, though it took forever to get there. "You feel like you're living it in slow motion," she said. The Liberty ended up losing Game 3, but Weatherspoon's buzzer-beater is legendary.
“When you walk away from the game, you hope that you left something for everybody to remember.”
Lisa Leslie wasn't playing basketball when she discovered she could dunk. She was at high school track practice, and smacked the rim practicing her high jump approach. "Not seeing other women dunk, it hadn't dawned on me to try," she said. Before long, she was dunking with the boys at pep rallies. In 2002, after she'd won two Olympic gold medals and a WNBA championship with the LA Sparks, Leslie set a preseason goal to dunk in the WNBA. A few months later, against the Miami Sol, she made history. "I didn't think of it as a historic moment," she said. "I'm like, 'wait, wait, we gotta play defense!'"
“There’s so many [women who can dunk] now. The next generation is going to be even better.”
Lauren Jackson was only 19 when she arrived in the WNBA, but she had been a star in her native Australia for several years. The 2001 top pick was "scared" on draft night after a long flight, she told ESPN last year. "I had no idea what I was walking into, but I knew I was going to be uncomfortable with something every day," she said. Before retiring from the WNBA in 2012, she won two championships with the Storm, four Olympic medals and three MVPs, remaining the first — and only — non-American to win that award.
“I wish that I had tried to soak it up a bit more when I was in it, because when you are out of it, you really are.”
At her Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Dawn Staley remembered carrying the flag and leading Team USA into the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Olympics. "I took one last look around ... and thought: Unbelievable, the best athletes in the world are following a girl from the projects in North Philly," she said in 2013. The youngest of five in a poor family, Staley grew up playing with boys on makeshift courts. Athens was her third and final Games after a legendary career at Virginia, in USA Basketball, and eventually, in the WNBA.
- 5x All-Star
- 3x Olympic gold medalist
- 2x Naismith College Player of the Year
“[Staley] was captain of the Olympic team. But she was also the chick from your neighborhood. ... She knows the game. But she also knows ‘life.’ You put those two together, that’s powerful.”
Candice Dupree came up against a familiar face in her first month in the WNBA: her college coach, Dawn Staley. Staley had recruited Dupree to Temple and coached her there for four years while still playing in the WNBA. Her final WNBA season ended up being Dupree's first. Before the game, both women were excited, though Staley made her priorities clear: "I can't let one of my players win ...," she told the Houston Chronicle at the time. "I hope she plays well, but not enough to get the win." Staley's Houston Comets beat Dupree's Chicago Sky, 71-60.
- 7x All-Star
- All-Rookie Team (2006)
- WNBA champion (2014)
Staley passed South Carolina’s all-time wins mark during the same December 2017 game Dupree’s Temple jersey was retired.
On Candace Parker's first day of training camp, LA Sparks head coach Michael Cooper set a goal for her: Be Rookie of the Year and MVP. The top draft pick posted a league record 34 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists in her very first game. She dunked twice that season, the second player in league history to do so, after teammate Lisa Leslie. The Sparks lost in the Western Conference finals that season, but Parker achieved the goal Cooper set out for her on day one. No one has done it since.
“I don’t know if at the time I truly grasped how special it was. Now, to have something that’s not been done since, it’s really special.”
"Had it not been for the WNBA ... I wouldn't be here in the Hall of Fame because I would have been overseas, playing basketball in the shadows," Cynthia Cooper-Dyke said at her Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2010. The first WNBA player to be honored in Springfield spent the bulk of her career in Italy. She had just turned 34 in 1997, when she signed with the Houston Comets, who she led to four championships with four Finals MVP performances. One reason she joined the WNBA, she said in her Hall of Fame speech, was to hear the crowd cheer in English. "Just the little things!"
- 2x MVP
- 3x All-Star
- 4x WNBA champion
Cooper-Dyke was the first person in WNBA history to score 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 2,500 career points.
Tamika Catchings became union president in 2004 at a turbulent moment for the WNBA. Two franchises had recently folded and two had relocated. Over the next 12 years, Catchings negotiated two collective bargaining agreements, offered personal and professional resources for the players and stood for social justice. Now GM of the Indiana Fever, the team on which she starred for 15 seasons, the 2011 MVP is proud of how engaged players today are with the union. "It was kind of pulling teeth and trying to get players engaged," she told The New York Times in 2016. "But now I feel like, as we leave, the union is in a better place."
“This will be our 25th year. The NBA had been around for 65 years. You can’t compare a 25-year-old league to a 65-year-old league. We’re trying to create our own path.”
In 2014, after several athletes across sports came out publicly, the WNBA announced a marketing campaign targeting the LGBTQ community. It designated a nationally televised "Pride Game," participated in local Pride festivals and parades and advertised with lesbian media. The WNBA's effort was in response to a study showing that 25% of lesbians surveyed watched games and 21% attended one in person.
“Honestly, I think they should have done it a lot earlier ... Now, with more and more athletes coming out, it’s like they had to do something.”
Few players have arrived in the WNBA with loftier credentials than Breanna Stewart. The four-time Most Outstanding Player led UConn to four consecutive NCAA championships, won the AP National Player of the Year three times and signed a multiyear endorsement deal with Nike. Now 26, Stewart came back from an Achilles injury to help the Storm take the 2020 championship — and won Finals MVP. She's hungry for more, targeting a WNBA repeat and another Olympic gold medal. "My motivation is constant," she said.
- 2x WNBA champion
- 2x All-Star
- MVP (2018)
“As I get more into the vet category, I want to help show people how to get to this level.”
In 1997, Pam McGee was 34, a mother of two and nearing the end of a glittering basketball career at USC and around the world. But she played two seasons in the new WNBA because she "wanted to be part of building something that would still be around," she said. She instilled her hard-working ethos into her son, JaVale, who she woke at 6 a.m. to work out before school. Her daughter Imani remembers her mother telling her in college: "'If you're going to have that name on your back, you got to show up.'" When asked how many championships they've won overall, the McGees ran out of fingers.
“When I got to the NBA, I was semi-prepared because it was in my bloodline. I had grown up watching a professional basketball player.”
On July 5, 2016, a Black man named Alton Sterling was killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, blocks from where Lynx star Seimone Augustus grew up. The next day, police killed a Black man named Philando Castile outside St. Paul, Minnesota. For Augustus and her teammates, those men "could have been a relative, a friend, a classmate." Before their next game, the Lynx wore warmup shirts demanding accountability for Sterling and Castile's deaths.
“The eyes are on the women because the women are doing what’s necessary to help our society get to a better place.”
Rebekkah Brunson won her first WNBA title in 2005, with the Sacramento Monarchs. She won her last — and fifth overall — 12 years later with the Lynx, where she was a mainstay in their four-championship run. The hard-working forward, now a Lynx assistant coach, was a leader off the court, too. When the team made a stand for Black Lives Matter in 2016, Brunson recounted to the media a childhood memory of a time when police confronted her and her friends with guns drawn. "Just bouncing a basketball in the alleyway," teammate Seimone Augustus recalls. "It hit home."
Brunson's postseason wins — a league record for an individual. She made 81 playoff appearances, one less than recordholder Lindsay Whalen
Brunson and her wife own a gourmet Belgian waffle business called Sweet Troo Vi.
Up by two in the third quarter against the Dallas Wings, in the Phoenix Mercury's first game of the 2018 season, Diana Taurasi squared up for a 3 like she had in 398 games before, and drained it. It was the 1,000th 3-pointer of her WNBA career, putting her alongside Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard as the only players with 1,000 3s in less than 400 games. The three-time WNBA champion and two-time Finals MVP had become the league's all-time leading scorer the year before, surpassing Tina Thompson's mark of 7,488 points. The crowd, including Kobe Bryant, gave her a standing ovation.
Taurasi was the first player in league history with 7,000 career points, 1,500 career assists and 1,500 career rebounds.
Last August, Chicago's Courtney Vandersloot dished out 18 assists against Indiana to set the record for most in a single game. The "cherry on top," she described afterward, was that the final pass set up a corner 3 for her wife and teammate, Allie Quigley. "The VanderQuigs" push each other on the court, and have enjoyed basketball success since getting together. "My career really took off once we started dating and we started really committing to each other and the court," Vandersloot told the Seattle Times in 2019. "Both of our careers took off."
“I’m lucky enough to play and travel with my wife. ... We compete. We get at it. We make each other better. ... I credit a lot of my individual success to her.”
Elena Delle Donne didn't set out to join the likes of Larry Bird and Steph Curry in shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% on 3-pointers and 90% on free throws in a season. But near the end of her 2019 MVP season, she felt the weight of making history. "I was like, 'What is this club? Nobody's done it yet in the WNBA?' The pressure was on," she said. One of the league's great shooters, Delle Donne learned her craft from her dad, who taught her to study arc pattern ("he's kind of nerdy").
“I love the trail 3. Even if I’m having an off day, if I can get myself to that shot, I feel super confident.”
As WNBA president Nneka Ogwumike has negotiated a historic collective bargaining agreement, ensured players were paid 100% of their salaries in the shortened 2020 "bubble" season and established a Social Justice Council. Five years into the job, the Los Angeles Sparks star says those conversations "still give you the 'you're in the principal's office' type of feel." She feels confident the other players have her back, though, and knows they're counting on her. "If I back down," she said, "it makes it that much harder for everyone else. So I always think about that."
- WNBA champion (2016)
- MVP (2016)
- 6x All-Star
“It’s less about me telling everyone what we’re going to do and more about hearing what players want.”
Less than two months after George Floyd's killing, amidst renewed attention to the death of Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed at the hands of the police, the WNBA dedicated the 2020 season to fighting for social justice. A'ja Wilson, above, and five other players formed a Social Justice Council. All players wore Taylor's name on their jerseys and "Black Lives Matter" and "Say Her Name" on their warmups. "Black women get swept underneath the rug every day," Wilson said, "and it's up to us to continue to push."
“They always say, ‘Keep politics out of sports.’ But in my eyes, it’s our right.”
Unlike the two other teams that have won four championships, the Seattle Storm's titles are spread out over three decades. The one constant across 2004, 2010, 2018 and 2020? Sue Bird. The 11-time All-Star turned 40 last October and maintains a strict diet and training routine. "The hardest part about being an older player is when there's that down physically, you start to question whether you can do it anymore," she told ESPN in October. "You start to question why you're doing it." Despite those doubts, the league's all-time assists leader shows no signs of stopping.
“I keep waiting for her to get ‘old,’ but I don’t see it.”
"It's hard to put into words the feeling of seeing my chest for the first time free of breasts ... and feeling a sense of gender euphoria as opposed to gender dysphoria," wrote Layshia Clarendon on Instagram after having top surgery in January. The first openly trans and non-binary player in the WNBA, the Liberty guard shared publicly their use of all pronouns (he/she/they) during the 2020 bubble season. "[My activism has] gone from more an individual perspective to how I can empower the people around me," he said. "That has been the fun part. I realized I've always freed people with my truth."
“When I look around locker rooms, I’ve always seen home. Women’s basketball has saved me in so many ways, because I’ve always seen myself reflected in people.”
"You got 'em" was all San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said to his assistant Becky Hammon, when he handed her the reins to the team after being ejected in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers — and made history. The 44-year-old Hammon joined the Spurs coaching staff in 2014 after 16 decorated seasons in the WNBA. "When I got to know her ... we found out about her knack for the game, her innate understanding ..." Popovich said in December. "She's got all of the tools necessary to be a heck of a coach in our league."
“Basketball is a genderless sport. The ball has no difference whether a man’s holding it or a woman’s holding it.”
When Renee Montgomery took the 2020 season off to fight for social justice, she started to think bigger. She realized that to create change, "you really do have to be in the room where it happens," she said. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert connected her with investors Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair, and together the trio bought the Atlanta Dream from former Republican senator Kelly Loeffler. In her role as co-owner and executive, the now-retired Montgomery hopes to keep fighting for social change and give players a voice. "If we feel passionately about it, we're going to make it known."
- 2x WNBA champion
- All-Star (2011)
- NCAA national champion with UConn (2009)
“I encourage people not to look at change as this big thing you need to be famous to accomplish. Change happens with one moment.”
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