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It wasn't supposed to come to this. Just two years ago, the U.S. had two professional women's basketball leagues: the WNBA and the ABL. It was a heady time. Two pro leagues; decades of hard work paying off. It meant players like Bridgette Gordon and Jennifer Azzi, college standouts forced to play pro ball overseas, could come home. Gordon signed with the higher-profile WNBA, Azzi with the higher-paying, maverick ABL.
It was an unprecedented era, and it was short-lived. Despite stellar play and devoted fans, the ABL filed for bankruptcy in December. The WNBA remains on its feet, but entangled in complicated first-time negotiations with its players, who took the historic step of unionizing this past fall.
And Gordon and Azzi, who both dreamt of playing ball, who nabbed three NCAA championships between them for Tennessee and Stanford, are somehow on opposite sides of a painful mess.
Gordon led her Como, Italy, team to six straight Italian League championships before she finally got the chance to play professional ball in the U.S. for the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs.
It was a dream come true. But now, says Gordon, she and her colleagues are facing an uglier reality. In recent weeks, the Players Association has been fighting to raise the league's minimum salary from $15,000 to $45,000, to win year-round health insurance and a retirement package, and, most controversially, to bring in former ABL players at a tightly controlled flow (with no more than two for each of the league's 12 teams this year).
"Back then it was just, have an opportunity to play at home," Gordon, the Monarch's union representative, explains. "Now it's to the point you're just fighting to have a job. It's just like back to the old days. It's like you just wasted those two years, because it's back to the drawing board. It's really frustrating."
For the Players Association, says Gordon, it comes down to fundamentals. "The union has to protect each player, from marquee players all the way down," she explains. "The ABL players say everybody should have an opportunity. But if you look at it, everybody did have an opportunity, and they had a choice, and they chose to go to the ABL."
It's not a situation Gordon ever wanted to be in. "It's sad for women's basketball," she says.
Jennifer Azzi is reluctant to talk about her frustration. Like every other former ABL player, she must turn to the WNBA if she wants to play pro hoops in the U.S.
"Part of me understands what the WNBA players are saying," Azzi says. "But it just seems like it's not the best thing for the sport. The women still have a long way to go. We still have to tell people this is a great game to watch."
Azzi won't comment further, and several other former ABL players did not respond to interview requests. Their coaches and agents say that since the women hope to be employed by the WNBA, they are anxious about speaking to the press.
"It's tricky, and both sides have valid perspectives," says Mariah Burton Nelson, who played in an early U.S. pro league the Women's Professional Basketball League in 1979. "Nevertheless, I don't think that playing professional basketball is a right. And I don't think the current players have the right to insist on job security if they are not as good as other available players. I do think they have a right to insist on a living wage. So I think they're very different issues."
The abundance of quality players has given the WNBA virtually all the leverage in its recent negotiations. Any threat of a job action, after all, is trickier when there's a large and eager pool of unemployed workers waiting to step in.
"I think labor unions have been successful when they've been able to look beyond the immediate threat of the scab as a scab, and look to see that person as a potential union member," says Steve Brier, a labor historian at the City University of New York. "And when they've done that, in places like in coal mining and in auto work, they've successfully and often recruited those members of what were once scabs into the union."
Brier thinks the players union could do the same. But the cost is obvious. Says Brier, "That doesn't do any damn good for the number 10, 11, and 12 players on those teams."
The WNBA's leverage has also been strengthened by the bottom-line determination of the athletes and their fans to save women's pro basketball at almost any cost.
"Here we go again," says Anne Cribbs, cofounder of the ABL. "It's a very complicated moment. I'm concerned about what's going on. I think it's too easy for the people who are really making the decisions about women's basketball to say, 'Well, gosh, if those women can't get along, who needs women's basketball anyhow?' I think that's a real danger."
Val Ackerman, the league's president, seems to be using that concern to the league's advantage in labor negotiations, saying that 52 ABL players ought to be allowed into the league in each of the next two years, "for the good of women's basketball."
Even those who've supported an immediate and unrestricted influx of ABL talent point to the hypocrisy of the league's position.
"I'm not sure they want the best players," says Burton Nelson, the author of several books about women and sports. "They could have had the best players themselves if they invested in them and competed financially with the ABL originally. Because they were perfectly willing to invest their financial resources in advertising and marketing and they did not invest in players."
Burton Nelson says that rosters need to be reconfigured to include the best of the ABL and of this year's graduating seniors. "That's the only way the fans are going to get their money's worth," she says, "and really see what women can do."
Bridgette Gordon wants a strong women's league too. She and other WNBA players say they're tired of sounding like they're anti-ABL, anti-women's basketball.
"It's not an issue that the WNBA players don't want the ABL players in there," says Gordon. "I don't know where that came from. I don't know if the WNBA put that out to try and make us look like we're bad people. Well, we're not. We're just fighting for our rights."