By age 22, Rebecca Lobo had picked up a nationwide school basketball championship, quite a few player-of-the-year awards and Olympic gold on the 1996 Atlanta Video games.
However the 6-foot-4 (193 cm) middle’s future on the court docket was unsure: She joined the Ladies’s Nationwide Basketball Affiliation (WNBA) in its inaugural 1997 season, at a second when some questioned whether or not knowledgeable girls’s league might survive for the long run.
The U.S. Olympic workforce was “a bit little bit of a check balloon (for the) marketplace for girls’s skilled basketball,” Lobo, now a 47-year-old Basketball Corridor of Famer and ESPN basketball analyst, informed Reuters.
“Are these girls marketable? Are these tickets that we are able to promote?,” had been among the many questions that swirled across the girls’s sport.
The reply got here quickly sufficient, and it was a decisive sure from the followers.
Taking part in for New York Liberty within the workforce’s first dwelling recreation, Lobo mentioned the near-capacity crowd of 17,780 stuffed Madison Sq. Backyard with deafening cheering.
“I keep in mind it being so loud in Madison Sq. Backyard, we could not hear the PA announcers say our names,” mentioned Lobo.
Lobo and different pioneers of the WNBA by no means seemed again.
‘HOW FAR IT COULD GO’
As play launched, Kym Hampton at age 35 was nearer to the top of her profession than the start after spending greater than a decade abroad taking part in for groups in Europe and Japan.
Then a virtually unimaginable alternative introduced itself: an opportunity for knowledgeable basketball profession in the USA. Hampton was one among two gamers the Liberty picked up within the WNBA Elite Draft.
“Little boys in my period, they at all times grew up having knowledgeable baseball league, skilled soccer, skilled basketball, skilled leagues,” mentioned the Louisville native and ambassador for the Ladies’s Sports activities Basis “As girls, we did not have that.”
“I did not envision how far it might go,” the 58-year-old recalled.
Hampton scored the primary basket for Liberty on the WNBA’s inaugural recreation on June 21, 1997, between New York and the Los Angeles Sparks on the Nice Western Discussion board, then the house of the Los Angeles Lakers.
She was struck by the connection she felt to the NBA stars who performed there when she noticed their locker room stools.
“Consider all of the butts of the athletes, the previous professional males’s NBA athletes which have sat on this,” she remembered telling herself.
“So I went and sat in each stool,” mentioned Hampton. “I am taking all the nice play from each participant that is ever set their butt on this stool proper right here.”
JUGGLING CHILDCARE AND DRILLS
Whereas the WNBA teammates might have been taking part in in the identical areas as their male counterparts, they had been removed from parity. In 1997, they earned a base wage of $15,000 whereas even low-ranking NBA gamers made six figures.
“We had been prepared to do no matter we needed to say and do to ensure that this league to achieve success,” mentioned Vickie Johnson, a Liberty second-round choose within the inaugural elite draft.
“It wasn’t in regards to the cash. It was about taking part in the perfect league on the earth and being acknowledged as knowledgeable league and having a seat on the desk,” recalled the 49-year-old, who after 13 seasons taking part in within the WNBA went on to function head coach of the San Antonio Stars and Dallas Wings.
In the present day’s high WNBA gamers can earn upwards of $500,000, courtesy of final yr’s landmark collective bargaining settlement, which assured new maternity advantages and higher journey circumstances.
“It’s a blessing to nonetheless be part of a league that I sweat, I sacrificed my physique for, and a league that I really like,” Johnson mentioned.
Final yr, the sacrifices included all of the groups quarantining inside a “wubble” in the course of the pandemic. A number of moms had their youngsters with them, they usually balanced childcare with a demanding coaching regime and recreation schedule.
“However that simply goes again to girls, interval,” mentioned Johnson. “We’ve got at all times endured greater than our share of duty.”
Because the season kicks off Might 14, the WNBA is dealing with strain to confront problems with race and equality like establishments all through the USA are. Johnson is the league’s solely Black lady head coach regardless of the gamers being predominantly Black.
NBA management are “going to have to plan a plan that permits these girls to have alternatives,” mentioned Hampton.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert informed reporters just lately that the league is making progress however “we’ve got to do higher.”
The gamers sense the league is prepared for a significant breakout. Tv rankings are rising, and extra video games had been broadcast final summer time than ever earlier than.
WNBA is “proper on the verge of simply mainstream large reputation,” mentioned Lobo.
Our Requirements: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.