Star Gazing


She’s been averaging a double-double all season long, and thoroughly dominating in virtually every game she’s played, but forward Yolanda Griffith won’t be a starter in tonight’s inaugural WNBA All-Star Game. A defensive player of the year in the defunct ABL, Griffith— now of the Sacramento Monarchs— has a legitimate shot at this year’s MVP. But she is still far from a marquee name in a league built on star appeal.

While it’s a bit jarring to see a player of Griffith’s caliber ignored by the fans (she was added to the All-Star team as a reserve by the league’s coaches), WNBA spokesperson Mark Pray says it’s not all that surprising. “This is her first year in this league,” Pray explains. “Who knows what might happen next year.” In a year of change, he might as
well be speaking about the
entire league.

This is the year of the ABL influx— when the one league’s demise meant an embarrassment of talented players for the WNBA. It is the year the surviving league’s sometimes erratic play was supposed to improve dramatically as most of the country’s best players were finally gathered under one roof. But as it rests at its first-ever
All-Star break, the WNBA is clearly still in transition.

Like all the WNBA’s other existing teams, the New York Liberty added two ABL vets and several rookies to a roster that just missed out on last year’s playoffs. The new faces have worked well for the team, and at least in New York the fans seem to be realizing it. After seeing their beloved Rebecca Lobo fall early and hard in the season’s first game, the devout and adoring Liberty faithful have adjusted well.

They arrive early in search of a Michelle Van Gorp dunk during warm-ups. They raise the roof when former ABLer Crystal Robinson goes on one of her patented three-point shooting sprees (like the one that saw her nail four in a row against Phoenix). They rise in unison for fearless rookie Tamika Whitmore. And they urge on the still-rusty Venus Lacy, showering the former Olympian with as much delight as she— surely the most wide-eyed, enthusiastic big woman in the game— shows each time she’s sent in off the bench. They’ve even wisely changed the murmurs of “Becky who?” to standing ovations whenever Becky Hammon, the rookie spark plug, leaves the court.

But their love has been tested at times. The team has taken on a schizophrenic nature— capable of shooting a miserable 22 percent against Houston in the worst offensive performance in league history and then smartly defeating a surging Sacramento club in the same week. Cool and confident and jelling at one moment, the Liberty are still capable of being as alarmingly inconsistent as the worst in the league.

Adjusting to new faces has undoubtedly been part of the issue. Acquired for her impressive outside shooting, Robinson seemed to linger outside of her teammates’ vision, and game plan, in the Liberty’s first few outings. “It’s still a little hard,” she told the Voice early in the season, when the team’s beat writers swarmed over the Liberty’s regular stars while she and Hammon dressed in near silence at their new lockers. “I have to find a way to fit in.”

Fitting in has been the trick for Robinson’s fellow ABLers all season long. In a year that began with contentious labor negotiations over the status of the new players— and the ridiculous designation of ABL vets as “rookies”— many have already made their mark on the league. Griffith has been simply eating up the opposition, as has Utah’s Natalie Williams, averaging 19.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.

It is in the play of the league’s two expansion teams, however, that the ABL influence is most directly being felt. Stocked with veteran ABL talent, the Orlando Miracle and the Minnesota Lynx are both playing above .500
ball. The Lynx are virtually a clone of the two-time ABL champion Columbus Quest, and it showed in Sunday’s win over New York. “That’s a contender for a championship right there,” the Liberty’s Sue Wicks said after the team’s heartbreaking 58-56 loss. “Expansion doesn’t count anymore. It’s not the same as the NBA.” Orlando has also successfully dipped into the ABL trough, seeing particularly outstanding play from center Taj McWilliams.

Of course, those ABL loyalists expecting WNBA players to roll over in submission have had a learning experience as well. Orlando and Minnesota have also been soundly defeated by elite WNBA teams. ABL vet and former UConn star Jennifer Rizzotti finds herself on the bench in Houston, a late-game substitute on a team so deep and strong that the sidelining of its star point guard, Kim Perrot— who’s battling brain cancer— has hardly slowed its juggernaut.

And Detroit’s Jennifer Azzi, the brilliant guard out of Stanford and the ABL’s San Jose Lasers, has been hobbled a bit by injuries. Has it affected the team’s overall quality? Probably, but it has also given fans a chance to see Detroit’s underrated Korie Hlede, a flashy guard in her own right. In her second year in the league, Hlede drew audible gasps from an Azzi-adoring crowd with her impressive ball movement at the Garden recently.

Still, as expected, Griffith and Williams are among the league leaders in every conceivable statistic, taking some of the spotlight from the WNBA’s preordained glamour girls. And yet, this year’s All-Star starting lineups offer no new faces, save rookie phenom Chamique Holdsclaw, who’s already a grizzled veteran of the league’s hype machine.

That the West is led by three starters from the dominant Houston squad is not surprising— Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, and Tina Thompson are why Houston will be the team to beat once the season enters its second half. Like Lobo, Lisa Leslie remains one of the league’s celebrity faces, and her selection is not surprising, nor is that of Phoenix’s Michelle Timms, the sensational Aussie point guard.

Though out for the season with a knee injury, New York’s Rebecca Lobo was voted a starter for the East, proving that women’s hoops fans are no more or less discriminating than those in other pro sports when it comes to selecting big names for All-Star representation. New York’s Vickie Johnson was named to play in Lobo’s place. Also elected to start: Washington’s Nikki McCray, originally an ABLer but now a WNBA vet. She’s joined by Teresa Weatherspoon, who remains the physical and emotional heart of the Liberty, and is second in the WNBA in assists.

And then there’s center Kym Hampton, a sentimental favorite having a solid season (if a bit of a surprise as a huge vote getter). “I never thought that I would be playing in the WNBA,” says Hampton, icing her battered knees in a traditional postgame ritual. After 13 years playing overseas, says Hampton, “I never thought that I’d be around when this happened— to play in it and to be voted an All-Star. It’s just like a fairy tale, really. It’s pretty cool.”