WNBA Ready To Show Off Its Best

Monday, July 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHOENIX (AP) — The WNBA is keeping American players home, and creating interest around the world.

The league's All-Star game at America West Arena on Monday night will feature the WNBA's best players and be broadcast to 154 countries in 23 languages.

``We consider ourselves the premier women's sports league in the world,'' WNBA president Val Ackerman said. ``Our players are truly the best in the world, and in women's team sports no other league has what we have — the quality of athletes, games live in prime-time and the support of global sponsors.''

The overwhelming success the league has experienced in its four years has given women the opportunity to play professional basketball in the United States, rather than having to go overseas.

``I'm just happy to continue playing with a team in the States,'' said Minnesota's Katie Smith, a first-time WNBA All-Star. Smith was a two-time All-Star in the now-defunct American Basketball League.

``I hope we can really promote this and keep this thing going, because it would be great for myself to finish my career at home,'' she said.

Smith, the league's second-leading scorer, said she couldn't help but notice the difference in the two leagues.

``There wasn't as much ink,'' she said. ``The fans, the promotions, the TV and all this are just so much better in the WNBA.''

So is the quality of play in a league which has no domestic competition and is steadily adding top foreign women, who make up 25 percent of the league's 220-plus active players.

``The league now isn't even recognizable to me from a basketball standpoint from where we started,'' said Seth Sulka, vice president of the host Phoenix Mercury.

Three networks televise WNBA games, and the audience for this prime-time game on ESPN is up from the 125 countries — in 20 languages — that watched the inaugural All-Star game last year in New York.

The league expanded to 16 teams this season, teams play in some of the nation's top arenas and sales of team merchandise are growing.

Although attendance is down, Ackerman thinks that may be due to an earlier starting date this season to avoid conflicts with the Sydney Olympics. Starting play on Memorial Day threw the WNBA into conflict with NBA and NHL playoffs, and Ackerman thinks the league is ready for a stronger second half.

Another positive is that nearly twice as many fans participated in All-Star balloting from last year.

Four of the West's starters — Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson of the Houston Comets, and Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks — started last year's 79-61 win over the East. This year, Ticha Penicheiro of the Sacramento Monarchs is the point guard, replacing Michele Timms of Phoenix.

Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray of the Washington Mystics are repeat starters for the East, along with Teresa Weatherspoon of the New York Liberty. Taj McWilliams of the Orlando Miracle, a reserve last year, will start at center and the Liberty's Sue Wicks will make her first start at forward.

But the West has more newcomers — five of its seven reserves, including Smith, Brandy Reed of Phoenix and Lynx guard Betty Lennox, the only All-Star game's only rookie — are first-year All-Stars, compared with three of the East's six.

The roster imbalance exists because of Reed, who ranks among the top 15 in scoring, rebounds, steals and free-throw shooting but was left off the team by both the fans and the coaches, who picked the backups.

That forced Ackerman into the unprecedented step of adding a 12th player to the West to get Reed on the team and avoid a backlash in a host city without an All-Star player.

``I think it shows how deep the league is as far as talent,'' McWilliams said. ``There could have been any number of All-Stars picked that weren't even on the ballot, and that's a great thing for the league.''