Albright empowers all-decade team at luncheon

NEW YORK -- The members of the WNBA's All-Decade team could have spent Wednesday afternoon before the All-Star Game sleeping, shopping or walking around the Big Apple. Instead, they squeezed in some foreign policy and civics lessons with distinguished professor Madeleine Albright.

The former secretary of state was the keynote speaker at a "Celebrating Inspiration" luncheon, in which Albright told powerful, hoffific stories of the world's most downtrodden, and the ensuing hope sprung from such misfortunes.

These women want to help people and believe in idealistic concepts such as empowerment through education, that every child deserves a chance and that one person CAN make a difference.

It's easy to dismiss and mock all these optimistic hopes. In fact, you could point out that when people left this luncheon, they could walk a block around the Hilton New York and find a number of tragic people, long unbathed and even longer uncleansed.

Do you stop and try to help each one? Or do you just keep walking? And if it's the latter, then does any of our, "How do I make the world better?" sentiment have any credibility?

Sure it does. We all don't do the right thing every day, all day long. There are just not that many openings for full-time Good Samaritans. But each small thing a person does still means something.

Albright is a trailblazer, a powerful dignitary not wearing a blazer and tie. She resembles a grandmother who could look at a displaced pregnant woman living in a small, dirty tent and share in her sorrow. She is a person of great stature who can still find humor in foreign media referring to her as "elderly but dangerous."

Wednesday, she spoke to the WNBA players and others in the audience as both an experienced diplomat and a lifelong humanitarian. She didn't talk a great deal about sports. She talked more about things she'd seen, conclusions she'd formed and a vision she wanted to pass along.

Albright told of visiting a 3-year-old girl in Sierra Leone who wore a red jumper and was playing energetically with a toy car ... using the one arm she still had. You could almost hear the gulps around the room as Albright wondered who could have taken a machete to a child. Who had she ever threatened? Whose "enemy" could she possibly have been?

"But if there was any pity in that camp, I didn't see it. And if there was anger and bitterness, I didn't feel it," Albright said. "What I saw instead was a determination to make the best out of life ... so much depends on how we respond to adversity."

Albright described places where women and girls are trafficked as if they were any other commodity. She talked about the estimated 600,000 women a year who die of pregnancy-related illness or in childbirth.

"These deaths command far less attention than terrorists," she said. "That's because they occur out of sight in dusty villages and overcrowded neighborhoods. There, one by one, every minute on the average, a woman dies who might have been saved."

She also spoke of people of all ages and both sexes who are decimated by AIDS.

"Some say the struggle against disease is hopeless, but it's not," Albright said. "I also saw health-care workers and women with AIDS fighting to stop the disease through truth-telling campaigns that were unafraid to shock and to ensure that contraceptives were both available and affordable. We know such efforts make a difference and save lives."

You might think these are all heavy topics for a celebratory luncheon a few hours before a basketball game. But the WNBA players didn't think so.

"I think we all got a little more than we expected. And that was a good thing," Houston's Sheryl Swoopes said. "After everything that she talked about, how can you not be motivated and inspired? Not just the players, but all the women and the men who were in here today. It was very moving, very touching. This was the first time we've had anything like this with the All-Star Game and I really enjoyed it."

When Albright finished her address, she took questions. The first was from Houston's Tina Thompson, who asked what Albright thought of the current situation in North Korea.

"The players in this league are multi-faceted," Thompson said. "We are interested in other things. We're in tune with our world and the impact we all have on it. I asked about Korea, specifically, because I played in South Korea (in the off-season) and saw some of the things that were going on. I think Madeleine Albright rocks. She's feisty, she has a great mind and I wanted to know her opinion."

Albright was also asked about being a woman in the so-called man's world of international diplomacy, her thoughts on the war in Iraq, the wages women earn compared to men, who her heroes were, and her thoughts on recent challenges to Title IX.

She talked frankly and openly about all those subjects. Don't misunderstand - this wasn't some kind of nonsensical, "If only women ran the world, everything would be great" hokum. It was a testament instead to the idea that the world really would be better if women were universally empowered and respected. That there's really no hope for a significant reduction in global despair until that happens.

And the challenge that Albright sent out was specifically for women. It was one that resonated powerfully throughout the room.

"I have a saying," she said. "I think there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.