Professional Basketball

Three former WNBA stars reflect on the league’s past and the future

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UNCASVILLE – Three of the WNBA’s brightest stars, who were with the league from the time the ball was thrown up 20 years ago, see themselves as role models for the newer players, who are faster, stronger and more confident in their future as professionals.

Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley discussed the past, present and future of the league in its 20th year, Thursday prior to the WNBA draft at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Swoopes, voted one of the league’s 15 best players last year, was the first player signed by the WNBA after the Houston Comets drafted her. She played there most of her 14 years, achieving every possible honor.

Swoopes, who is currently women’s basketball head coach at Loyola University in Chicago, said the early players didn’t worry about whether the league would succeed. “I think we were all just excited and thrilled to have an opportunity to play professional basketball.”

She said at the time, the players did everything – marketing, playing hard, working in the community – to keep it going.

She and the other two women acknowledged that when the league first formed in1997, analysts said it wouldn’t last. But then two years later, when the ABL folded, and the better players in that league came over to the WNBA, it got a new life and has strengthened each year, despite franchise changes and other issues.

“We were just wrapped up in the moment and being so thankful that we had this league for the first time,” Lobo said, that players didn’t really think that far ahead.

Lobo, who opted for the WNBA over the ABL, after leading UConn to its first NCAA title in 1995, said when the ABL players joined the WNBA improved night in and night out.

Then in 2004 a new generation of players came along and the league got even stronger, she said. “And now you have these women who have grown up not knowing a world without the WNBA.”.

Lobo played professionally for six years, from 1997-2003 (she missed a year to deal with an injury) primarily with the New York Liberty. Since retiring as a player Lobo has become one of the top women’s basketball analysts for ESPN.

Staley, who came over from the ABL, was drafted by the WNBA Charlotte Sting and her final year, 2005, played with the Comets. She is currently head coach at South Carolina University, where she has built a program into a national contender.

““I think the best part of the WNBA is that today dreams are being realized, that you can open doors for young people to walk through them and walk through them playing women’s professional basketball,” she said.

Staley, who was 29 when she was drafted, said she and others have an obligation to make sure the league remains.

During the draft several of the college players acknowledged that they grew up idolizing the early WNBA players and that they couldn’t imagine a world without professional basketball for them,

“This is something I’ve waited for my entire life,” said UConn senior guard Moriah Jefferson, when drafted 2nd overall by Dallas. Her entire life would certainly suggest the pro league has been on her radar – just as others pointed out.

In fact, the WNBA is such a permanent fixture in the sports universe that a lot of today’s players don’t even know its history.

For Staley, this means “we have to make sure that this league is around forever. We’ve got to approach it that way The people here.have to lend our experience of what this league has come from. “

“I feel that it is my job not only as a coach but a former player and a woman to educate them on where we came from and the opportunity that lies in front of them,” said Swoopes.

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