Storm debut among memorable milestones for Breanna Stewart

Labelled “the LeBron James of women’s basketball” by Kelsey Plum, an All-American with the Washington Huskies, the Seattle Storm are hoping that Breanna Stewart can emerge as a franchise player and restore the championship hopes for a loyal fan base. In addition to her scoring prowess, Stewart is also a solid playmaker, as evidenced by her 300 career blocks and 300 career assists, the only NCAA player to do so. As a side note, she was also the only competitor to be recognized as the Final Four most outstanding player four times.
As Stewart made her preseason debut with the Storm, gracing the courts of the WNBA for the first-time ever, there was a tinge of irony. Former Huskies teammate Moriah Jefferson, the second pick overall in this year’s WNBA Draft was opposing Stewart, as a member of the Phoenix Mercury.

The WNBA Draft was a watershed moment for the league and the Huskies. With the draft launching the celebration of the WNBA’s 20th season, it was only fitting that the Draft was held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Holding the first overall pick for the second consecutive year (the Storm selected Jewell Loyd in 2015), the Storm did not surprise, selecting Stewart. Of note, Stewart became the fifth UConn alum taken first overall in WNBA Draft history. The others in this remarkable class include Maya Moore (2011), Tina Charles (2010), Diana Taurasi (2004) and Sue Bird (2002).

Following Stewart, San Antonio grabbed Jefferson Moriah Jefferson while Morgan Tuck went third overall to the Connecticut Sun, allowing her to stay in close proximity to her Huskies glories. It marked the first time in WNBA draft history (and in professional sports) that three players from the same school represented the top three picks. As a side note, the 2002 WNBA Draft saw Huskies players selected first, second, fourth and sixth overall.

This titanic trio also hold the rare distinction of having won the Final Four in every season of their NCAA careers, another historic first. It was a fitting end to their glorious collegiate careers, propelling the Huskies into one of the greatest dynasties in American sporting history. Except for the likes of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton with the UCLA Bruins, Stewart may be the most accomplished basketball player in the history of NCAA basketball, capturing three straight Player of the Year Awards, an unprecedented achievement.
In her WNBA debut, Stewart managed 29 minutes of playing time, logging 11 points and a solid eight rebounds, although Phoenix that would prevail. With 3,271 fans at Key Arena witnessing her debut, it was Stewart’s first loss on a basketball court since November 28, 2014.

While the Storm had a solid first half, a 36-28 lead evaporated as the Mercury enjoyed an 11-0 run. Loyd would tie the score at 39-39 at halftime. Considering that Sue Bird was inactive in the second half, the Mercury outscored the Storm in both quarters (20-14 in the third, 22-20 in the fourth), grabbing the W. Compounding matters was a lack of on-court chemistry between Loyd and Stewart, a key challenge for head coach Jenny Boucek to overcome. The leap to the professional ranks became a sobering reality, as winning, something so easily attained at the University of Connecticut could not be taken for granted in the WNBA.

One of the benefits of joining the Storm is the fact that Stewart is joined by another Huskies legend. Entering her 15th WNBA season, Sue Bird led the Storm to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010, complemented by 10 straight postseason berths. While both represent Huskies pride with the Storm, the two will also get the opportunity to be teammates twice before the WNBA season expires.

In addition to being part of the Seattle Storm’s roster, both were named to the US national team that shall compete at the 2016 Rio Summer Games. Having already won three gold medals in Summer Games play, Bird will be looking for a fourth, as this will likely be the final Games of her storied career.

While Rio represents the first Summer Games for Stewart, she will be joined by a couple of other celebrated first-timers, including Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Stewart donned the US jersey in a silver medal effort, suffering an upset to fellow Husky Kia Nurse and the host Canadian team in an emotional gold medal match.

Gold is a strong possibility to be the color of choice in the aftermath of Rio for Stewart et al. With Huskies coach Geno Auriemma serving as the US head coach (he was also the bench boss at London 2012), a second championship in 2016 for Auriemma and Stewart would only add to the legendary legacies that the two have forged in four fantastic years with the Huskies.

Meanwhile, Stewart’s focus shall be on bringing the Storm back into contention. Despite opening her WNBA career with a loss, Stewart has the talent and the tenacity to ensure that the wins will outnumber the losses. A rematch with the Mercury on Mother’s Day shall prove to be a key test for Stewart.

Another element of intrigue in the preseason shall include a contest the followigtn week against the Los Angeles Sparks. Of note, the Sparks selected Syracuse University star Brianna Butler in the Draft. Not only did Stewart grow up in North Syracuse, but her fourth straight Final Four title came against Syracuse. Undoubtedly, emotions will run high for both.

Becky Hammon inducted into the New York Liberty Ring of Honor

In the aftermath of an historic NBA Summer League championship with the San Antonio Spurs, Becky Hammon’s career went full circle. As her WNBA roots can be traced back to the New York Liberty, where her playing career began, the club welcomed her on August 3 as they hosted Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm.

Honored by the Liberty during an emotional halftime ceremony (which saw the Liberty hold a 36-35 lead against the Storm), Hammon graciously acknowledged the fans and the organization, recognizing the role that the Liberty played in the beginning of her professional basketball odyssey. Among the gifts that were presented to Hammon, she was the recipient of flowers, a commemorative ring and a painting that was actually created during the ceremony.

During her rookie campaign, Hammon would compete in the 1999 WNBA Finals against the Houston Comets. Before her career with the Liberty reached its end in 2006, two more Finals appearances followed. Second overall in franchise history in both games played and three-pointers, she currently sits third in franchise scoring.

In 2007, Hammon would join the San Antonio Silver Starz of the WNBA’s Western Conference, also appearing with the Russian roster at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. After her WNBA career came to an end due to injury in 2014, she extended her career with a historic appointment as a member of Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff. Serving with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, Hammon became the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.

Defeating the Storm by a 78-62 mark, led by Tina Charles’ 29 points, the 10,682 fans in attendance witnessed history more than once. In addition to Hammon’s honor, Storm superstar Sue Bird made her presence felt. After the Liberty went on a 13-0 run to begin the third period, Bird nailed a three pointer at the 4:47 mark. The three pointer made Bird the first woman in WNBA history to score 5,000 career points and dish out 2,000 career assist. Coincidentally, Bird’s former teammate, Swin Cash (who both played together) with the University of Connecticut and the Storm, was on the floor for the Liberty when the historic basket was made.

Diana Taurasi’s million dollar decision changes landscape of WNBA

In an unprecedented move, superstar Diana Taurasi has announced that she will forego the 2015 WNBA season. Honoring the request of her Russian Premier League team, financial reasons were the key factor in such a visceral decision. UMMC Ekaterinburg actually offered Taurasi more than her WNBA salary in order to sit out the season. Of note, this request was made in order to prevent injury to their prized player.

While Taurasi has issued an open letter to fans of the Phoenix Mercury, her WNBA club team, advising that she will be returning in 2016, the 11-year WNBA veteran (and three-time league champion) has altered the landscape of the league. Taking into account that many of the league’s superstars play overseas to supplement their income, Taurasi could be among the first of many more to undergo such a decision. As a side note, many other European clubs have offered their American star players financial incentives to sit out a WNBA season.

An additional factor to consider is how this will affect the Mercury, who enter the season as the defending league champions. Taking into account that star centre Brittany Griner was arrested on domestic disturbance charges, an ominous feeling defines the upcoming season for a possibly beleaguered club. Despite returning veterans including the likes of DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, complemented by the WNBA Coach of the Year Sandy Brondello, it may not be enough to salvage the Mercury’s season. Opening their season on June 5 at the Talking Stick Resort Arena against the San Antonio Stars, the outcome of the match may possibly set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Considering that Taurasi has played practically year round since 2004 (not to mention her three Summer Games gold medals), she has given so much of herself to the game, that she has earned the right to sit out the season if she chooses too. While some in basketball circles may feel disappointment over this, the reality is that she has nothing to apologize for.

Sadly, such position not only augments conversation and stirs debate, but it places Taurasi in a lose-lose situation. If she suits up for the Mercury, she may draw the ire of her Russian team. Yet, if she sits out the WNBA season, some may view it as a betrayal to the league. If the money from her Russian team allows her to put together a nest egg for the future, placing her and her family in a possible position of comfort for the long-term, sitting out was the best possible move. Although Taurasi has plans to compete for the United States at the 2016 Rio Summer Games, the reality is that Taurasi has nothing left to prove.

Such a move is certainly a wake-up call for the WNBA and its salary structure. During the 2014 campaign, Taurasi was earning the league maximum of $107,000. As a side note, there were 36 other players in the WNBA making as much as Taurasi, who is the second all-time leading scorer in league history. Overseas, she was earning approximately $1.5 million. As the WNBA is regarded as the world’s most talented female basketball league, how can their players not be the best compensated? Taking into account that some WNBA coaches earn close to $300,000, its star players must work as a unified front to demand better salaries.

While the thought of a player strike would be a first in professional women’s sport in North America, it must be considered in the aftermath of Taurasi’s decision. Although many players opt to play in the WNBA out of loyalty (considering that the majority of players are American), it does not change the fact that compensation will only continue to be a growing source of discussion, and possibly tension.

Such players may be loyal in terms of helping the game grow, but have overlooked the growth of their own finances. Should more stars, such as Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Candace Parker exercise such options, it would open the floodgates, a possible harbinger of things to come. With the 2016 WNBA season also signifying its 20th Anniversary, a change in salary structure would be a strong building block towards gaining the confidence of future players.

Bizarre chapter plagues brilliant basketball career of Brittany Griner

Having always marched to the beat of her own drummer, Brittany Griner’s career has been defined by both accomplishment and controversy. From not suiting up for the US at the 2012 London Summer Games, to speculation over being selected for the 2013 NBA Draft, Griner always seemed to be maligned. While she may just be understood, her courage in revealing her same-sex preference early in her WNBA career showed tremendous courage.

While she has established herself as one of the elite competitors in the WNBA, another bizarre chapter in her career has unfolded. Griner and her fiancée, Tulsa Shock forward Glory Johnson were both arrested for domestic violence under charges related to suspicion of assault and disorderly conduct.

Johnson’s sister summoned the police after the engaged couple became involved in a heated dispute (with objects being thrown at each other) at their new home in suburban Phoenix. Of note, there were minor injuries suffered by both, including a bite mark on Griner’s finger, although medical treatment was not necessary.

Although Griner did end up pleading guilty to the disorderly conduct charge, it remains held on the condition that she can successfully complete 26 weeks of domestic violence counseling. Upon completion, all charges shall be dismissed. While Griner issued an apology through her lawyer, this is not the first incident in her career. During her freshman season at Baylor, she punched Jordan Barncastle, a player for Texas Tech.

Scheduled to marry next month, before the 2015 WNBA season starts, Griner disclosed to local members of the media that the couple endured stress over wedding plans and the purchase of their home. Last season, Griner helped lead the Phoenix Mercury to a 2014 title, while setting a WNBA single season record for most blocks (129) in one season. Griner may likely face more questions from media about the arrest as the season starts, possibly making this her most difficult season, which may damper the Mercury’s hopes of repeating as champions.

In the wake of all the problems that the NFL has faced with domestic violence, the WNBA is suddenly dealing with such a grim reality. Said reality is that such an incident is a black eye on the game. Considering that the fallout has generated more publicity than most other WNBA-related events, it is a very sad reflection on the attention shown towards the fledgling league.

Although same-sex relationships are a much more public reality in women’s sports, one aspect that has never been given discussion is domestic violence among same-sex couples (men and women). Suddenly, the saga between Griner and Johnson brings this much hidden topic into the forefront, forcing awareness of the matter. In a time when many athletes are just looking to summon the courage to come out,

Taking into account that it is very rare for female athletes to be the victims of bad press, this is obviously new territory for the WNBA. It is up to the WNBA to show strong leadership and speak out on the matter. When Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, then-commissioner David Stern stood behind him at the press conference, showing his support.
Although this is a very different situation, the WNBA commissioner should have flown to Phoenix, met with team officials and hold a press conference discussing what transpired and working towards solutions. Going forward, the WNBA must not ignore this issue, as it would only tarnish its reputation. As a side note, there was not even any news on the WNBA site about the arrest.

The time is now for the WNBA to emerge and establish a program to work on awareness of same-sex domestic violence, through the availability of educational programs and counseling services. It would also set a very important precedent as other sports, including hockey and tackle football, consist of athletes that have publicly discussed their orientation. While it would be hopeful that such an incident never repeats itself, other sports now have to face the reality that such same-sex domestic violence issues could occur one day. Should awareness of domestic violence among same-sex couples increase over this incident, it would be the only silver lining in this otherwise very dark cloud.

Phoenix Mercury to host 2014 WNBA All-Star Game with Griner and Taurasi likely starters

For the second time in franchise history, the Phoenix Mercury shall host the 2014 WNBA All-Star Game. Scheduled for July 19 at the US Airways Center, the game shall be broadcast on ESPN in the United States and televised globally in more than 200 countries. Sponsored by Boost Mobile, the WNBA’s leaguewide marquee partner, the game should prove to be an exciting one for fans. Of note, the Mercury, one of the WNBA’s charter franchises, shall donate one dollar from all tickets sold to the Stars and Stripes charitable fund.

With Mercury center Brittany Griner entering her second year in the WNBA; it is highly likely that a strong support of voting from the hometown fans shall propel her into the starting lineup for the game. Voted as a starter for the 2013 edition, she was unable to play due to injury. Franchise legend Diana Taurasi, a six-time All-Star should also find herself voted into the starting lineup. Other Mercury players with All-Star experience include Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor, who have each played in three All-Star contests.

Mercury stars Brittney Griner (left) and Diana Taurasi part of early publicity for 2014 WNBA All-Star Game to be played in Phoenix

Mercury stars Brittney Griner (left) and Diana Taurasi part of early publicity for 2014 WNBA All-Star Game to be played in Phoenix

As the Western Conference has only hosted an All-Star Game twice (Phoenix – 2000, San Antonio – 2011), the return of the league’s annual showcase to Phoenix displays a commitment towards maintaining the strong fan base that exists in the West. Of note, the Western Conference have won eight All-Star Games, compared to three for the East.

Boasting an attendance of 17,717 fans, the Western Conference emerged with a victory. Lisa Leslie contributed 16 points, while Tina Thompson garnered Game MVP honors. Thompson would score 13 points while contributing a game-best 11 rebounds.

Mercury mascot points to pair of WNBA titles that franchise has won during All-Star Game press conference

Mercury mascot points to pair of WNBA titles that franchise has won during All-Star Game press conference

The opportunity to possibly become Game MVP on her homecourt is one that must surely be compelling for Taurasi. Competing in the 2013 WNBA All-Star Game, it held high emotion for Taurasi, who would log three points in the contest. With the 2013 edition being hosted at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, it was a homecoming of sorts. Having played her collegiate basketball with the University of Connecticut Huskies, she led them to three consecutive NCAA titles. The outpouring of support from fans in attendance was a feel-good moment.

Barring injury, the opportunity to compete in one of the WNBA’s showcase games in front of her home fans at Phoenix, known affectionately as the X-Factor, shall be a tremendous highlight in her remarkable career. Expect a long standing ovation for the superstar that helped bring a WNBA championship to Phoenix.

One of the WNBA’s rising stars, Brittney Griner will be poised to provide fans with an electrifying performance. While she has already made an impact in the WNBA as the first player to make two slam dunks in her league debut, the 2014 All-Star Game should be her coming-out party. The opportunity to compete against the league’s elite on her homecourt should serve as high motivation for an outstanding performance.

In the same case as Taurasi, injuries would be the only obstacle preventing Griner from participating in the league’s annual showcase. With Phoenix serving as one of the league’s most loyal fan bases, there will likely be a roar of approval should Griner manage to accomplish a slam dunk in the contest.

Coming off a season where the Mercury returned to the postseason, fans are excited about the possibilities for 2014. Should Griner continue to reach her potential as a promising superstar, the All-Star game may be the launching pad towards a strong postseason push that may culminate in another title by season’s end.

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Elena Delle Donne passes her rookie season with flying colors

Traditionally, being the second overall pick in any sporting draft tends to be a one-way ticket towards a career spent in infamy and unfulfilled expectation. Having graduated from the University of Delaware (the alma mater of Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco), the 6’5” Elena Delle Donne shattered those negative perceptions to become the unanimous selection as the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year.

Selected second overall by the Chicago Sky, Delle Donne had some big shoes to fill. Considering Baylor’s Brittney Griner was nearly selected in the NBA Draft, she was the consensus choice to go first overall to the Phoenix Mercury. Delle Donne found herself sandwiched in between Griner and the highly touted Skylar Diggins, who went third to the Tulsa Shock.

Courtesy of WNBA Images

Courtesy of WNBA Images

While it was a remarkable draft class, Delle Donne would undergo a baptism of fire in her WNBA debut. Competing against Griner and the Phoenix Mercury in the May 27 season opener, Delle Donne would thrive under such pressure. Accumulating a respectable 22 points complemented by eight rebounds and four blocks, the Sky would prevail in a 102-80 victory.

Such a solid debut would pale in comparison to the fact that Delle Donne became the first rookie to lead all players in votes for the All-Star Game. Sadly, she missed the event due to concussion woes. Upon her return, she would continue to help the Sky reach new levels of success. Truly proving that the sky is not the limit, Delle Donne not only helped the club earn a berth in the postseason, but its first division title as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Courtesy of Delaware Athletics

Courtesy of Delaware Athletics

Statistically, she would lead all WNBA rookies in points, free throw percentage, three-point percentage and minutes. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that she was recognized as the WNBA Rookie of the Month during every month of the season, an unprecedented accomplishment. This was complemented by averages of double digit scoring in every month. Of note, her .929 free throw percentage would also rank first among all competitors in the WNBA.

Her greatest accomplishment may have come in an August 11 contest against the eventual WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. A career-best 32 point output would contribute to a 94-86 overtime triumph, one of the most relevant in franchise history. Of note, she would force overtime in that contest by hitting a three pointer with 4.5 seconds left in regulation. A September 11 match against the Mercury resulted in a buzzer beater from Delle Donne that provided the Sky with a pulse pounding 70-68 triumph.
Despite the postseason disappointment, Delle Donne is the feel good story of the basketball season. Devoted to her family and dedicated in the classroom, she is the true embodiment of a student-athlete.

With an older sister that suffers from blindness and cerebral palsy, she abandoned her scholarship with the University of Connecticut in the summer of 2008 in order to stay close to her and family. Her personal break resulted in a sabbatical from the hardcourt that saw her enroll at Delaware and became a walk-on with the volleyball team, leading them to the NCAA tournament.

Returning to basketball in 2009 as a red shirt freshman at Delaware, she would endure struggles with Lyme Disease as a sophomore. Despite such setbacks, a gold medal at the World University Games in 2011 solidified her status as an elite competitor. Her senior season in 2012-13 resulted in many great milestones. From the highest attendance in Delaware history to a 27-3 regular season record, Delle Donne was recognized as the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, the Capital One Academic All-America of the Year winner and the 2013 Senior CLASS Award winner.

After an outstanding senior season filled with many awards and honors as a member of the Delaware Blue Hens, being the unanimous choice as WNBA Rookie of the Year bookends the two periods in her career. Having displayed a remarkable tenacity, maturity and character in her young life, Delle Donne is more than just a winner in basketball, but a winner in life.

Riquana Williams provides performance of the year in 2013 WNBA season

As the Tulsa Shock finished their season missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time, Riquana Williams provides hope for the franchise. A September 10 contest in San Antonio Silver Starz set the stage for the second-year guard to break the WNBA record for most points in a game.

With both franchises out of the postseason picture, pride was on the line as neither wanted to finish in last place in their division. Williams would lead the way for Tulsa with a record breaking 51 point effort that had San Antonio fans cheering. Although she admitted afterwards that she had no idea she was close to breaking the record, she accumulated a remarkable 20 points in the third quarter as Tulsa proceeded to prevail by a 98-65 tally. She would log 35 total points in the second half of the contest to go with her 16 from the previous half.

Heading into the contest, the previous record was 47 points. Said record was shared between two WNBA legends; the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi (set on August 10, 2006 against Houston) and Aussie Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm (versus Washington on July 24, 2007).

A layup with 1:22 remaining in the contest tied the record as San Antonio fans at the AT&T Center kept cheering for her to get the ball. With 58 seconds left, she would surpass the record to a roar of approval from the 6,500 fans in attendance. In the second half, Tulsa outscored San Antonio by a 59-22 mark Ironically, one of her former teammates from the Miami Hurricanes was donning the silver and black of the Silver Starz; Shenise Johnson. Together at Miami, they were nicknamed “Fire and Ice”.

From the field, she was 17 for 28, while she accumulated a WNBA record eight three-pointers in the game. One of her three pointers was scored over 6’2” Shameka Christon (eight inches taller than Williams) with 1.9 seconds in the third quarter. After the game, her teammates were asking her to autograph the final box scores of the game before taking a group photo to commemorate the record breaking event.

Of note, Williams once had a better performance; a 55-point effort in high school in which she did not score any three-pointers, while accumulating the points in only three quarters.

Should Williams continue to post such strong performances, she could emerge as the steal of the 2012 WNBA Draft. With disciplinary problems in high school and at the NCAA level with the Miami Hurricanes (where she scored 2,148 career points), her draft stock slipped, leaving her available for Tulsa to claim in the second round.

The 51-point performance may be the first step in redeeming herself while staking a claim as part of the next generation of WNBA stars. Joining her on the rebuilding Shock is third overall pick in the 2013 Draft, Skylar Diggins. Having carved her legend at Notre Dame, she would add 20 points in the victory at San Antonio, providing Shock fans with hope for the future. Should anyone break Williams’ record one day, it could be the first pick of the 2013 Draft, center Brittany Griner.

Although Wililams played fewer games in 2013, she managed to start more of them. Compared to her rookie campaign, she averaged more minutes per game (22.7 compared to 20.3), while her point totals increased. Improvement was also shown in three specific percentages: field goal, free throw and three point, respectively.

Should the record one day fall, Williams can only hope it is not at the AT&T Center. Of note, it is the most points ever scored in the history of the arena, which also houses the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. With the Shock looking to recapture the championship years from their years based in Detroit, a focused Williams may become a key piece of the rebuilding puzzle.

WNBA bids farewell to living legend and pioneer Katie Smith

It seems like yesterday that Katie Smith had first joined the Minnesota Lynx. Having made the decision to retire, the WNBA loses one of its greatest players and pioneers. In a professional basketball career that spanned seventeen seasons with six different franchises, Smith made everyone one of those teams better through her presence.

Having grown up in Logan, Ohio, where she excelled at track and field, volleyball and even participated in ballet, Smith was Gatorade National High School Player of the Year in high school. Staying home to compete with the Ohio State Buckeyes, she would leave a remarkable legacy.

In her freshman season, the 5’11” guard helped the squad reach the 1993 NCAA title game. Playing against future WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes (playing for Texas Tech), Smith scored 28 points. Having graduated with the Big Ten scoring record (including men and women), she was the first female athlete in Ohio State history to have her number retired.

WNBA President Laurel Richie attends the pre-game ceremony at Prudential Ceremony recognizing Smith’s stellar career (Photo credit: Ray Floriani)

WNBA President Laurel Richie attends the pre-game ceremony at Prudential Ceremony recognizing Smith’s stellar career (Photo credit: Ray Floriani)

Prior to joining the WNBA, Smith had the opportunity to remain in Columbus, competing with the Columbus Quest of the American Basketball League. Competing for head coach Brian Agler (who was also her head coach from 2011-2012 with the Seattle Storm), she helped the club capture the only two league championships in league history. Perhaps Agler put it best when he called her a “true professional”.

Even though she is 39 years young, she looks like she still has the endurance and ability to play for several more seasons. The seven-time WNBA All-Star’s nonchalant demeanor and friendliness are part of a dedication to the game that makes her the kind of teammate anyone would want to have.

There were two actually farewell games recognizing the sensational Smith. The first one took place on September 10 as the Liberty appropriately hosted Fan Appreciation Night. Playing in the final home game of her career, it was a chance for fans to celebrate her remarkable career.

Team captain Cheryl Ford (left) and Smith greet President Barack Obama after the Shock win the WNBA Finals (Photo credit: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

Team captain Cheryl Ford (left) and Smith greet President Barack Obama after the Shock win the WNBA Finals (Photo credit: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

The crowd at the Prudential Center in New Jersey gave her a standing ovation as the New York Liberty competed against the Phoenix Mercury. A video tribute of her career forced Smith to be stoic as she did not want to shed tears. She even joked about the varying hair styles over the years.

Presented with a framed USA Basketball jersey, WNBA president Laurel Richie was also in attendance.
For Diana Taurasi, the Mercury’s franchise player, Smith was a role model and a mentor when she started with USA Basketball. Having to guard Taurasi, Smith did a superlative job holding her to 4-of-13 shooting. As a postseason berth was on the line, Smith provided a 17 point output in front of the Liberty faithful. Despite her valiant effort, Phoenix prevailed by an 80-76 tally.

In 2011, Smith joined the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm. In front of her is Sue Bird, who would win Summer Games gold with Smith as a teammate in 2004 and 2008. Aussie superstar Lauren Jackson hovers behind. Smith would finish with 255 points as the Storm had a 21-13 record (Associated Press Photo)

In 2011, Smith joined the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm. In front of her is Sue Bird, who would win Summer Games gold with Smith as a teammate in 2004 and 2008. Aussie superstar Lauren Jackson hovers behind. Smith would finish with 255 points as the Storm had a 21-13 record (Associated Press Photo)

With the September 15 road match against the Washington Mystics signifying her final game, the fans showed a measure of class by applauding Smith. After exiting the contest with 39 seconds remaining, fans were chanting her name. Statistically, she registered seven points (along with one three-pointer) in a 70-52 loss.

Of note, Smith played one season for the Mystics in 2010. Yet, it was a season to remember as Smith helped the club to first place in the Eastern Conference, the only time that ever occurred in franchise history.

Appropriately, the head coach for the Liberty during Smith’s final season was Bill Laimbeer. The Detroit Pistons legend also served as bench boss for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. Joining the Shock in a mid-season trade in 2005, Smith experienced a renaissance in her career.

With Laimbeer motivating Smith to reinvent herself as a point guard, she would compete in three consecutive WNBA finals, winning two (in 2006 and 2008). Complemented by an improved defensive play, it would help Smith extend her playing days. While competing for Detroit, she would experience several pinnacles that would help define her legacy.

Her father stands by her side during her final home game with the New York Liberty (Associated Press Photo by Julio Cortez)

Her father stands by her side during her final home game with the New York Liberty (Associated Press Photo by Julio Cortez)

During the first WNBA championship run of her career, she was named to the 2006 WNBA All-Star Game. Not only did she become the first player to win an All-Star Game as a member of the Eastern and Western Conference, she would finish the season as the first (and only) woman to have won ABL and WNBA championships. Following in 2007, she made more history as the first women’s pro basketball player to net 6,000 career points.

At the age of 34, she helped Detroit to a title, grabbed WNBA Finals MVP honors, while helping the United States win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Those accolades are just the tip of the iceberg in her glorious career. Including her statistics from the ABL, she is the all-time leading scorer in the history of women’s pro basketball in the United States.

Leaving a legacy of 6,446 points in the WNBA, along with 904 three-pointers, Smith’s versatility and ability to excel on the hardcourt resulted in being named one of the 15 Greatest Players in WNBA history.

Having gone back to Ohio State University, Smith is now working on a Master’s Degree in Dietetics. While the next logical step in Smith’s career would be coaching, the chance to do so with the Buckeyes would certainly help bring her journey in this game full circle.

Although her career has now become part of the WNBA’s storied past, those who had the chance to see her play were the recipients of a terrific present. One can only hope that basketball will give back with a future that shall see her part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Brittney Griner deserved consideration for the 2013 NBA Draft

For the entire controversy surrounding Canadian born player Anthony Bennett being selected first overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, an even bigger controversy was evident. The fact that not one team took a chance on selecting Brittany Griner shows that women are not yet welcome in the domain of men’s sports.

While Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had discussed the possibility of selecting her in the second round, the Mavs draft was defined by wheeling and dealing. Their first round pick Kelly Olynyk was traded to Boston, while second round pick Mike Muscala went to Atlanta.

As the one owner who is not afraid to stand up to the NBA and challenge convention, Mark Cuban’s legacy in Dallas would have been strengthened by acquiring Griner. It would have been a move that could have made easily created a whole new group of fans for the franchise. Instead of pushing the envelope and taking a risk, the Dallas franchise exchanged draft picks as if they were trading cards.

While many second round picks in NBA Draft history tend to not have long careers, was taking a chance on Griner not worth the gamble? Players that were born in Montenegro, France, Brazil, Finland, Iran and Latvia were selected in the second round this year.

Since the 1999 NBA Draft, only seven second-round selections either played in an NBA All-Star Game or were All-Star selections at season’s end.  The most famous was Manu Ginobili (drafted in 1999), followed by Michael Redd (2000), Carlos Boozer and Mehmut Okur (2001), Carlos Boozer (2002), Mo Williams (2003) and Marc Gasol (2007).

When considering how many NBA teams have endured continuous losing seasons, an individual like Griner would sell tickets, increase TV rating and garner worldwide media attention. Standing at 6’8” with a shoe size of 17 (men’s), Griner has all the potential to bolster any NBA roster’s bench.

Despite the criticism that she is only 200 pounds and may have difficulty competing with larger men, it is a weak excuse. Whether it be as a small forward or a shooting guard, Griner is physically capable of competing. Ginobili is 6’6” and 205 pounds, and he is an invaluable component of the San Antonio Spurs. 

In her junior season with the Baylor Golden Bears, Griner led the team to an undefeated record of 40-0 (the most wins in any NCAA basketball season). In addition, she is the first NCAA basketball player (men or women) to score 2000 points and have 500 blocked shots. How many of the 2013 NBA second round picks boast such numbers?

Although she was selected first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA Draft, and the league needs her to boost attendance, she was meant to play on a bigger scale. Her WNBA debut, a 102-80 loss to the Chicago Sky on May 27, resulted in 17 points, eight rebounds and two dunks. Of note, she only played in the second half of the contest.

With a commitment to compete this winter for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls, the odds of pursuing a free agent opportunity with the NBA are quickly fading. As such, NBA fans are potentially being cheated of their opportunity to witness a female competitor make basketball history.

Physically and statistically, she was worthy of serious consideration in the 2013 edition of the NBA Draft. While she was also drafted by the legendary Harlem Globetrotters on June 25, 2013, she declined the offer.

As the all-time leading shot blocker in NCAA history with 736 (along with 18 dunks to rank first among all NCAA women’s players), Griner is truly the one that got away. With this being the final draft in the legendary tenure of NBA Commissioner David Stern, the drafting of Griner would have represented a history-making moment that could have ended his legacy on a significant note.