The boys Sue Bird grew up with in Syosset all had their basketball dreams. They could pretend they were Michael Jordan or John Starks or Patrick Ewing. They could fantasize about one day wearing a Knicks uniform and being cheered by a packed house at Madison Square Garden.
“I didn’t have that,” said Bird, who is beginning her 14th WNBA season, all with the Seattle Storm. “There was no professional basketball for me in the United States when I was in grade school and middle school. I could look to the Olympics and college basketball, but that was only on TV for the Final Four.
“The WNBA changed everything,” said Bird who starred at UConn. “It started in 1997 and I graduated from high school in 1998. My high school class was the first one to know during the college recruiting process to know there was the option to play professional basketball, to know that the WNBA was there and to know I better pick a school that is going to help me get to the next level. It changed everything.”
Yes, it did. And as the WNBA opens its 20th season this weekend that is by far its most important legacy.
Nineteen years into the league, and there has been a lot of talk about what the league has yet to do in terms of raising attendance and establishing itself as more than just a niche sport. Yet, the very fact that the league has been around for two decades providing a positive role model for all girls, not just aspiring professional basketball players, is something with an importance that is difficult to overstate.
“Symbolically, you have all these women who are role modes for young girls to be able to look up to and say, ‘Those people look like me. They are stars. They have money and a career. I want that too,’” said Mary Joe Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “If you aren’t playing basketball, you can take pride that someone who looks like you can achieve at the highest levels.
“Achievement and performance in America, it’s hard to top that right. For your girls to see that, it sends a very powerful message.”
Bird’s new teammate Breanna Stewart, whom the Storm took out of University of Connecticut with the No. 1 overall pick in May, cannot remember a time when no professional women’s basketball league existed. And that is exactly what the league’s founders were hoping 20 years ago in April when the NBA announced that it was going to launch a women’s league.
Before the WNBA, there had been at least 15 attempts to start a women’s professional sports league, beginning in the 1970s, according to Val Ackerman, the WNBA’s commissioner for it’s first eight seasons.
“We were well aware that this had been a graveyard, littered with the tombstones of women’s pro leagues that had failed,” Ackerman said. “So we were determined to be the league that made it this time. We knew longevity was going to be a goal.”
Among the leagues that folded was the American Basketball League, which was launched six months before the WNBA but folded after a little more than two seasons. Though the ABL actually had better players, they lacked the NBA’s marketing muscle, which has been instrumental in making players into the type of celebrities who transcend their sport.
That visibility along with the growth of other women’s sports, said Kane, has given an entire generation of young girls a positive body image to aspire to.
“Girls can see that these women have not just beautiful bodies, but powerful bodies,” Kane said. “It’s not just bodies that they use to sell sex, which is the traditional female role, but bodies they use to perform great athletic skills. That too is something young girls weren’t used to seeing and experiencing.
“Instead of worrying about their body being a size 2, they can watch the women in the WNBA with big bodies and powerful bodies and they are not shamed for it, but praised for it.”
Bird said it’s great that for teammates like Stewart that this is the only world they have ever known.
“A young basketball player has people to look up to an emulate,” Bird said. “We are a pro league and we’re on television. It makes a difference. It’s shows what’s possible. And that’s having an impact on the quality league today because the talent level just gets better and better.”