WNBA legend Weatherspoon remembers first game in league history

Former WNBA President Val Ackerman: If Revenue Increases, Pay Gap Will Diminish
Former WNBA President Val Ackerman: If Revenue Increases, Pay Gap Will Diminish

Teresa Weatherspoon was one of the WNBA's first stars, all-time fiercest competitors and notable winners. That much you remember.

What fans might forget, though, as the WNBA has begun its 20th season, is that 19 years ago this week, Spoon's New York Liberty defeated Lisa Leslie and the Los Angeles Sparks in the league's first game at Great Western Forum.

"First of all, we wanted to perform well," Weatherspoon remembers about that historic contest on June 21, 1997. "There was a game plan; we had to go out and win a basketball game. We had to make sure our performance was good because this was bigger than us, and we wanted to make sure to show the world that this was real because when this league first started, everyone said this won't last five years."

Anyone who saw Spoon play and caught a glimpse of the heart and attitude knows she paid no attention to snickering about the WNBA failing to survive past a few years. But she wanted no parts of being on the losing end of such a historic game, either.

"The moment the ball goes up, we're competing," said Weatherspoon, who now serves as director of player development for the franchise and was just named to the WNBA 20@20 as one of the league's most influential players of all time. "We're not thinking about anything else. Of course before your mind is racing, but when the ball goes up, nothing else matters, this is a basketball game."

Penny Toler scored the first basket for the Sparks, but Weatherspoon and the Liberty got the last laugh with a 67-57 road victory.

Ultimately the Liberty came just short of becoming the WNBA's first champions, losing in the championship to the league's first perennial powerhouses, the Houston Comets. The Comets, led by Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, won the first four championships, beating the Liberty for the title in three of those four series.

Time has barely healed the sting of those losses.

"Does it still bother me? Yes," said Weatherspoon, dragging out the last word for emphasis.

Weatherspoon is upset
Weatherspoon is upset

Before the agony of defeat came the joy of finally being able to play professional basketball, the game she loved all her life, in the United States. In 1997, nine years after graduating from Louisiana Tech University and playing overseas in Italy and Russia, there was the phone call that officially brought Weatherspoon's ball bouncing back home.

"I remember very well. I played on a team that played in the European Cup and we were actually in France at the time, and when I was called and told where I would be playing we were actually getting ready for the game. We were in our pre-game nap. And getting the call about where we were going to be playing, I couldn't believe it. At first I was told I would probably play in Houston because I'm from Texas. But when they said I was chosen to play in New York City, I was like, 'What? Are you serious a little country girl like me to play in New York City? It's fire now.'"

TERESA WEATHERSPOON, BACK THEN:

For women's basketball players in America before and several years after Weatherspoon, any aspirations to play basketball beyond the college level meant living thousands of miles from home. A phone call about joining the WNBA was the opportunity of a lifetime.

"We were just excited to be able to perform in America because the majority of us had played over in Europe for quite some time," Weatherspoon said. "That was the sacrifice we had to make in order to continue our professional careers."

Today's players make a different sacrifice in exchange for growing up with the WNBA as a reality. The season lasts roughly five months, including playoffs, and many players join teams outside of the country during the off-season to continue to make a living off of basketball.

"Everybody talks about salary of course. You would like to see them here year-round with us; with the WNBA. But that's not where we are, they have to go overseas and make their living."

For the 2015 season the WNBA saw one of its biggest stars, Diana Taurasi, opt to rest for the summer, at the request of her Russian club team UMMC Ekaterinburg, instead of playing for the Phoenix Mercury. The Mercury would have paid her a league maximum of just more than $100,000 -- significantly lower than the almost $1.5 million she made last season with UMMC.

Teresa Weatherspoon v Annie Burgess
Teresa Weatherspoon v Annie Burgess

"Taurasi had to do what she had to do for her career and I don't knock it one bit," said Weatherspoon, who retired in 2004 after one season with the Sparks, her only WNBA season not spent with the Liberty. "She made that choice for herself, the betterment of her body, and her decision as a young lady in life."

Weatherspoon is excited about the improvement in the overall talent level in the WNBA, but she admits it's been years since a Liberty game has seen a packed Madison Square Garden buzzing with the energy reminiscent of one of the early acts in the Liberty-Comets rivalry. In fact, the Comets franchise folded in 2008.

"Excitement was different for the first one or two years because it was a new, fresh thing and everyone wanted to know if it was going to work," explained Weatherspoon. "Now the excitement is there, but we just need more butts in the seats, with the same excitement, the same newness that they saw when we first started this thing."

Recently the WNBA has also had its fair share of victories as it nears the end of its second decade. Weatherspoon's former teammate, Becky Hammon, became the NBA's first-ever female full-time assistant coach when she joined the San Antonio Spurs last summer, before the team notched the most regular season victories in franchise history.

Three-time NCAA Player of the Year Breanna Stewart is looking early on like another star the WNBA can lean on as she lived up to the hype and earned Rookie of the Month honors for May. And last month, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, NBA rising star Draymond Green gave a nod to the league as a whole, saying he learns more from watching the WNBA than the NBA because of WNBA players' fundamentals.

"It's huge for him to say that about us because look where he is," Weatherspoon says in response to Green. "He's in the NBA, he's well-known, and for him to say 'I learned from them,' that says we are pretty got-doggone good."

Teresa Weatherspoon #11
Teresa Weatherspoon #11

However, it's the voice of the players that Weatherspoon believes is the key to the growing success of the WNBA.

"The respect factor we get from the players of today, it lets us know that they understand what we had to go through in order to give them an opportunity to be able to play. They understand the responsibility that was on our shoulders to make this a success for them to be able to move forward in it to make sure that they do the same for the next generation to come.

"We want to continue to be a tremendous success. Not just these 20 years, but we want 20 more."

By: Julian Michael Caldwell

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