Dreams realized in 'Top 15' celebration

SAN ANTONIO -- You expect nothing less than a feel-good atmosphere at an All-Star Game. But Saturday's WNBA exhibition showcase was also a kind of history lesson. At halftime of the game, players picked as the "best" in the league's first 15 years were honored.

Among them were five retired players: Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Teresa Weatherspoon and Yolanda Griffith. All were in attendance to see an All-Star Game in which players they competed against and some of the new guard showed their skills.

"I think we're all responsible to make sure we survive," Leslie said of the continued growth of the WNBA being in the hands of both those still competing and those who aren't.

The 15 honorees all were greeted by new WNBA president Laurel Richie. Asked before the game about the potential impact of the NBA's labor issues on the WNBA, Richie said it would not affect the women's side of the sport.

"We are moving ahead full-steam," Richie said. "We've begun planning for next year."

In 15 seasons, the league has seen its ups and downs, but Saturday was really all about the positives. A crowd of 12,540 at the AT&T Center cheered the past and current legends of the game -- essentially the intersection of yesterday and today for women's basketball.

"More than anything, it was kind of surreal for me," said Seattle guard Sue Bird, who was one of the 15 players picked, as was Storm teammate Lauren Jackson. "I think about being in high school when the WNBA started. Then being in college and watching some of these players.

"Actually, you could go further back to the 1996 Olympics, and seeing the people who helped start the league win the gold there. Then I got to the league [in 2002] and didn't know what to expect. Fast-forward 10 [seasons], and I'm on the top-15 list with Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. It's almost unbelievable for me personally. Not until you're actually in that moment do you realize the magnitude of it."

Staley, now a coach at South Carolina, graduated from Virginia in 1992 and was part of that '96 U.S. Olympic team that was so pivotal in women's basketball history. She initially played in the ABL before coming to the WNBA.

"From a talent standpoint, the players are a lot better than 15 years ago," Staley said. "I think the fact that they had the WNBA carrot dangled in front of them allowed them to work harder."

Rookies such as Minnesota's Maya Moore and San Antonio's Danielle Adams went through both high school and college with the WNBA as an achievable goal. That both played in the All-Star Game on Saturday was a testament to what Staley was talking about.

For active players a bit older than them -- those who were in high school before there was a WNBA -- there is a keen sense of the accomplishment of the league seeing its 15th anniversary. And being a big part of that.

"I go back to 1995, when I graduated from high school," said San Antonio guard Becky Hammon, on the list of 15. "I remember going to the Final Four in Minneapolis and meeting Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley. To be sharing a stage with them today was just unbelievable."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.