Mercury's challenge working out

Michael Romero sprinted down the basketball court, hoping to at least slow down the opposition's fast break.

But the other team had numbers and were pressing in transition. Romero turned to pick up the ball handler. Too late.

A devastating screen sent the 5-foot-11 Romero tumbling to the floor. Standing over him, seemingly unfazed, was 6-foot-2 Phoenix Mercury forward Candice Dupree.

"She just drilled me with this nasty screen," Romero said. "It was like, man, these girls are rough, they can play."

With that bone-rattling pick, Dupree opened the eyes of one male non-WNBA fan. The Mercury hope to do the same to thousands more, albeit in a less intimidating way.

Romero, a 34-year-old husband and father of two young children, is one of a handful of men who make up the Mercury's practice squad. The WNBA limits rosters to 11 players, so teams put together a collection of players -- usually men -- who can push their players physically in structured practices. The overall concept is standard league-wide.

What the Mercury have done this season that isn't common throughout the league -- at least not yet -- is offer free tickets. Of course, the name of the initiative would suggest they're targeting one sex over the other.

The Man Up/Mercury Challenge was born out of a conversation between Ben York, the digital content coordinator for the Mercury and Phoenix Suns, and Amber Cox, the Mercury's president and COO. The concept became a reality when York presented the official terms in a February column on the Mercury's website.

"What we've found, based on evidence, is that people have their minds made up that it's inferior before even trying it out," said York, a childhood friend of former UConn great Ann Strother. "In my opinion, it's neither better or worse or anything like that, it's just a different type of game. ... People assume because they're women that it's an inferior product."

The Mercury had fans take their challenge for all three June home games, highlighted by their June 14 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks. More than 100 people accepted the offer, which included lower-level tickets, a private viewing of pregame activities on the floor and introductions to Mercury coach Corey Gaines and veteran players Krystal Thomas and Charde Houston. The game against the Sparks drew 13,065 at the US Airways Center, the Mercury's highest attendance since 2010.

But the team's goal isn't simply to fill a few extra seats every game. Rather, it's to fight the prevailing notion that women's basketball is boring, inferior or "sucks." If that sounds like a huge undertaking, that's because, well, it is. Attitudes and opinions don't change overnight.

"If you don't do something, you don't know about it, you don't know how hard it is," Gaines said.

But the Mercury, much like their up-tempo pace on the court, are leading the way in this uphill battle.

"I think so many times, just to be gut-level honest, I think we just take what society gives us as norms," said Mykael Wright, a 31-year-old member of the Mercury practice squad. " ... It's so easy for us to be like, 'Yeah, I'm a straight male, why would I watch a WNBA game?' I think people just have too much other crap [like that] on their mind as opposed to just basketball."

Romero, a business teacher and JV boys basketball coach at Tempe High School, and Wright, a former teacher currently pursuing his MBA at University of Phoenix and youth basketball coach, have been on the Mercury's practice squad for three and four years, respectively.

Wright said his indifferent opinion changed after taking in a Mercury game from a courtside seat in 2010. The following summer, the 6-foot-6 Wright tried out for the practice squad. He was one of roughly 120 hopefuls at the tryout, which included passing, shooting drills and lots of running and left dozens of brash contenders cramping, vomiting or gasping for breath.

"People ask me all the time, 'Well, how good are they? Can I beat them?'" Wright said. "I'm like, 'No, you can't.' "

Wright, Romero and the rest of the practice squad got significant practice time during the Mercury's injury-ravaged 2012 season. This season, with a mostly healthy roster, the practices have decreased in quantity, but not in quality. Gaines will generally use the practice squad as a scout team. That is, he'll have them run specific offensive and defensive sets for an upcoming opponent.

"It makes you pay attention to detail and I think that's always good, because when it comes down to it, especially the latter end of the season, everybody knows each other's plays, it's just who can execute the best," Mercury guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "That's where they step in and help us because we've been doing it on a [regular] basis."

The practices are structured, and the play is physical.

"At one point [last season], Coach Gaines told us to go kinda easy on them because they were kinda beat up because they had a tough road trip," Wright said. "And we were like, 'What the hell are you talking about? We're the ones that are beat up. Tell them to take it easy on us.' "

Per league rules, the Mercury can't pay any of the practice squad players, but they do provide them with sneakers and free game tickets. Wright and Romero both said the experience has been invaluable to them as evolving coaches. And as fathers of young girls -- Wright has a 12-year-old and Romero a 6-year-old -- they have used the extra tickets to bond with their families.

"I want her to see women doing great things, regardless of whether or not she ever plays basketball, I don't care," Wright said. "Just for me to be able to expose her to women doing things that society says men should do."

The Mercury have three home games in July and 12 left in the regular season -- plenty of time for skeptical fans to give the WNBA a chance. Will they? That remains to be seen. But the team -- Hornbuckle included -- is hopeful people will stop bashing what they refuse to watch.

"It's kind of a lack of respect, like, 'Oh, they're soft, they don't this and they don't do that,' " Hornbuckle said. "And honestly, that's just ignorant. Ignorance is bliss. Why don't you come watch a game?"