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Liberty, WNBA use luncheon to inspire women

Almost a week removed from "The Decision," LeBron James' one-hour extravaganza that pulled in nearly 10 million viewers, the WNBA gathered 300 people at Gotham Hall Wednesday to remind them that basketball's greatest impact happens off the court.

The league handed out two academic scholarships and honored Unites States Ambassador to the Unites Nations Susan Rice as part of its fifth annual WNBA Inspiring Women Luncheon.

As a league that acknowledges its athletes are role models first, the WNBA uses the event to celebrate those who are beacons of inspiration for women everywhere.

"Sports are simply too important to be left to the boys," Rice said in her speech that linked international diplomacy with American sports. "Determination and drive are habits girls must learn early on and use for a lifetime. These really are the fundamentals, the skills I learned on the court, long before I ever sat at a negotiating table. One of the great things about sports is they remind us of the great humanity we have in common, not what may drive us apart."

Past honorees include former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Condoleezza Rice, Good Morning America's Robin Roberts and political commentator Cokie Roberts.

Rice expounded on President Barack Obama welcoming the Phoenix Mercury to the White House next week in recognition of the team's 2009 championship season.

"I mention that because that is the WNBA spirit," she said. "I'm grateful to the WNBA leadership for all you do to support today's girls and tomorrow's women. Our daughters need role models who can inspire them to play to the best of their abilities, to compete to limits of their strength and to win on their own terms."

New York Liberty players were in attendance and expressed a deep gratitude for their female mentors. While point guard Cappie Pondexter extolled her mother and Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer as inspirations, forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin said she struggled to find a woman to admire. Men were her initial idols, she said. McWilliams-Franklin developed a love for basketball by watching the NBA and her hero was her father, who raised her and her brother in Texas and Georgia.

McWilliams-Franklin said she was grateful for everything her father did, but she continues to play to give girls someone to emulate.

"I show up to all the events because I have three daughters and I want them to be proud of the things that I do in this league and stuff that remains after basketball," the 11-year veteran said. "Being an inspiring woman has a lot to do with sports, but it has a whole lot more to do with just life I'm 40 years old and I'm still playing because I want to inspire just one lady, one girl, one kid to new heights and to do something great."

McWilliams-Franklin said it was not until her mid-20s that she met a woman who she admired greatly: Liberty Coach Anne Donovan. At that time Donovan was coaching McWilliams-Franklin in the American Basketball League, a predecessor to the WNBA.

Now in its 14th season, the WNBA has developed its own history. Notching more than 150 career victories, Donovan is a major part of that history.

"To know that I have inspired somebody else, that's what life is about for me," Donovan said. "That's what this is all about. It's not about basketball - points or wins or loses - it's about opportunities and touching other people."


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