Courtside Column: The WNBA's first game was a defining moment for me

When the WNBA tipped off in 1997, it changed the course of my life. And so many others.

Hello and welcome to Courtside.

Take a break from the game. Pull up a chair. Settle in. Have some water. And relax. 

Now and again, I’ll be posting columns focusing on what’s happening in the WNBA or sharing my thoughts about basketball-related current events, issues, and/or players in the news cycle.

Let’s get to the Courtside Column.


WNBA

There are certain moments in everyone’s life that become a permanent part of who they are. These moments run the gamut from thrilling to devastating, embarrassing to affirming, hilarious to frightening and everything in between. They are cemented into your memory, woven throughout the fabric of your being. And sometimes, when you close your eyes, you can see those moments as clearly as if they were happening all over again — the same sounds in the background, a familiar scent in the air, a sensation that you can’t quite describe. 

Some of my moments include the first time I scored a goal in a soccer game when I was five. Had my first major injury and went to the hospital. Drove a car by myself. Graduated high school. Went to a Buffalo Bills playoff game with my father. Flew on an airplane. Saw the ocean. Went to Europe. Left for college. Sat in a hospital room with my mother for the last time. Rode on a roller coaster. I could name a hundred more of these moments. But the one I’m thinking about today, the one that stands out the most at this point in time in my life, is the day the WNBA tipped off.

It was summer 1997. I was 19 and had just finished my freshman year in college at a school that was eight hours away from my hometown in Buffalo, NY. It was a confusing time. I wanted to get away and be on my own and yet I had been incredibly homesick the entire year. I was adjusting to the freedom of college life as well as the rigors and demands of a college education. And it was not going well. As a two-sport athlete all throughout high school, I wasn’t playing any sports in college. It was a Division III school, and I could have easily walked on the basketball team. I just didn’t have the confidence in myself to try. I didn’t realize how much I missed the structure and commitment of practices and games, and just being a part of a team until I no longer had it.

At the start of the summer, I got a job at a local Wendy’s and spent most of my time working or hanging out with friends. Then one day in June, I was lured back to basketball in such a profound way that it shaped my future. This isn’t hyperbole. I’m not overstating this. It’s very hard for me not to look back and think about how I wouldn’t be doing what I am today — a sportswriter, writing about women’s basketball — had it not been for the WNBA.

I remember it so clearly. It was a Saturday afternoon. I had heard about the start of the league and like so many others, I was fascinated and eager to see it unfold. I had followed Rebecca Lobo all throughout her four years at UConn. I knew about Lisa Leslie. I wanted to see what “We Got Next” looked and felt like on the professional stage. It all seemed so foreign to me back then — a women’s professional basketball league. Growing up, I had no idea such a thing was even possible. Yet, there it was. On my TV.

From the tip, I was hooked. That familiar feeling of rooting for players, critiquing the game, soaking in the energy of the crowd (14,284 fans to be exact), agreeing and disagreeing with the commentators — it was all encompassing. I didn’t want the game to end. And when it ended, I wanted more. I didn’t care who won (the New York Liberty beat the Los Angeles Sparks 67-57). I wasn’t even invested in a team yet (I would become a Phoenix Mercury fan later in the season because I loved watching spunky Aussie guard Michele Timms). But something had shifted inside of me that day, even though I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was.

When I went back to school in the fall as a sophomore, I got involved in intramural sports. I started playing basketball again. During my junior year, I started a team and we played against men’s teams (there weren’t enough women ballers to have our own intramural basketball league since it was a small school). I had so much fun taking on those guys, talking trash a la Diana Taurasi, and loved every second of it. My senior year, I played pickup ball with the school’s women’s basketball team and managed the team for half of the school year (I needed a physical education requirement to graduate, apparently). I even lived with three of the basketball players in an on-campus apartment. But I never tried out for the team. I still didn’t have that confidence, but that’s another story.

After graduating, I moved to Boston, MA, for a little bit. I got a job as a community relations assistant at a local college. Every day after work, I’d play pickup ball with some of the kitchen staff and other guys who worked odd jobs around campus. I was always the only woman. When I moved back to Buffalo, NY, I got my first job in sports journalism as a high school sports reporter at a weekly town newspaper. My first assignment? A women’s basketball game.

I continued to play pickup basketball for years, in different leagues and with different people. It became part of my routine, part of me. And as I made my way along my twisty career path in sports writing, women’s basketball remained a focal point. Eventually, I found myself writing and commentating on the WNBA —first as a freelancer with an occasional article or two, then as a regular voice in the women’s basketball space. Now, 25 years later after the league was first established, and 24 years after that very first WNBA game, I’m sitting here at my desk, writing on my computer, about a 19-year-old kid who saw her future flash before her eyes the same moment Penny Toler scored the WNBA’s very first basket in league history.

It’s kind of crazy to think about. Yet, my story isn’t unique. 

When the WNBA began, it changed the course of countless lives off and on the court. It influenced, inspired, and cultivated dreams of women athletes young and old. I revel in the fact that young girls today get to grow up knowing that women’s professional basketball is the norm, not a novelty. It’s a luxury I didn’t have. That’s why I will never forget the moment the ball was tossed in the air at the start of that first WNBA game. 

The only thing I can’t remember — who won the tip?


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