Thursday, December 3, 2009

Slam Magazine: Dedicated to Their Profession

Dedicated to Their Profession
Even the champs have little time to enjoy their success.

by Ben York

The 2009 WNBA year was irrefutably one of the greatest seasons in the WNBA’s short history. With the amount of talent, athleticism, and supreme competition that was featured on a daily basis the league gained a form of admiration and reverence that was long overdue. But perhaps more importantly, it led to an increase in overall awareness regarding the extraordinary lives these athletes lead and a perfect example of what true hard work and devotion is; something these remarkable ladies don’t get an adequate amount of praise for.

The year was capped off with what is being called the best WNBA Finals series ever between the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever. Storming out of the gates with one of the finest individual games you’ll ever see, Game 1 of the Finals created a buzz and excitement about women’s basketball that was unprecedented. Fortunately, this continued throughout the rest of the series with the Phoenix Mercury coming out on top in Game 5. With record-setting TV ratings and in-game attendance, the 2009 WNBA Finals provided a platform to showcase an amazing product that is still not being fully appreciated.

“This season was so amazing that I couldn’t even began to put it in words because I’m afraid I would leave out an important part,” Mercury center Tangela Smith said. “Every time I think back to that last second with the buzzer going off, all the confetti, and the song ‘We Are the Champions’ blasting in U.S. Airways Center it bring chills down my spine.” It truly was a magical scene; the players finally feeling fulfilled after a long, arduous season, the release of emotions, and the realization of attaining the pinnacle of sports achievements.

“This year my theme has been ‘expect the unexpected’ and so far it has been that,” Mercury guard Temeka Johnson said. “I couldn’t have painted this picture any better, and to win it all with the group of women I was among topped everything. This championship season was something very special.”

The emotions that Tangela and Temeka speak of are very real, and very humbling. It truly does become difficult to articulate that euphoric moment. For a brief second in time, the Mercury could celebrate and bask in the glory of coming out on top of what has been called the greatest WNBA Finals series of all-time.

Unfortunately, the window of time to reflect and enjoy that success for the Phoenix Mercury was far too small.

For players in the WNBA, the salaries they receive during the season aren’t quite enough to sustain themselves and their families throughout the year. Surprised? Some players make less than an elementary school teacher. With a collective salary cap hovering around $800,000 total per team, the 11 women are forced to look for financial opportunities elsewhere. During the past few decades, the most popular alternative has been heading overseas to play professionally during the WNBA off-season. And while this has been a blessing for these ladies and provided a viable means of supplementing their income in order to adequately provide for their families, there is an enormous toll it takes on the body both physically and mentally.

“I really don’t think many people understand what these ladies go through,” said Mercury head coach Corey Gaines. “They play all year long. In Europe, they practice twice a day all year. They’ll wake up and head to their first practice in the morning, do some sprints and conditioning, then head home for a short break, and come back for a full practice in the afternoon. This is all year long! A lot of them head overseas just hours or a couple days after the WNBA season ends. I remember my first year coaching the Mercury in 2007 we got Diana [Taurasi] and Cappie [Pondexter] back the day before our first game – and it’s not like they are just coming back from New York or something, they’re coming all the way from Russia. On top of that, we played our first game on national television and it was the debut of Candace Parker. But you know what? To Cappie and Diana’s credit they came out and played their butts off, they came out balling. Plus, Diana was sick and not feeling well. Truthfully, I don’t know many men that could handle it.”

Gaines has been around all facets of the game since high school. He played at UCLA and Loyola Marymount in college, had a stint in the NBA for several years, and played professionally in Europe for a long while. Gaines says the amount of time that these women put in is unbelievable, and makes for a challenge in terms of coaching. “It’s a fine line,” Gaines said when asked how much basketball is too much. “If you add the European season onto the WNBA season it’s an incredible amount of basketball. Sometimes the Olympics or World Championships are even in there. It’s tough. You want your players to play during the off-season but you also want them to have a break. It might not necessarily be a break from basketball all together but you want some of their stresses to subside after a long season, whether it’s in the WNBA or in Europe. But at the same time I understand the financial part of it and the financial need. Plus, most of our [Mercury] players are playing in the Championships overseas so it adds that much more basketball. Like I said, it’s a fine line and the amazing part to me is that they do this for years at a time. I really don’t know a lot of men that would be able to handle it.”

Even more remarkable, is that their courageous sacrifices aren’t being talked about. WNBA players simply accept this as part of their lives and don’t make a big deal out of it. The vast majority of players have a humbleness inside them and feel extremely fortunate even to have the opportunity to play overseas. Not only does it speak to the incomparable work ethic of these ladies, but also to their immense love of the sport.

“To be honest, when you still have that burning desire for the game and the love for it is still strong in you, there is no such thing as too much basketball,” Temeka Johnson said. “You are thrilled to be able to what you love to do, continue to entertain those that love to watch you play, and the passion and desire of getting better drives you even more.”

For some players, the amount of basketball played year round is not even something they think about. It’s almost second nature. Their love trumps any and all of the negatives that playing so much can have on your mind and body. “For me, I’m in love with basketball,” Mercury All-Star Cappie Pondexter said. “It can never be too much for me. This is a sport I was born to do and so I cherish every moment I have with it.”

There is a true sense of appreciation and thankfulness that these women have received from playing basketball. “If you really love something I think there is never too much of it,” Mercury guard Ketia Swanier said. “So, until basketball breaks my heart, there is never too much of it.”

At the same time, balancing their love of basketball with their personal lives and families who are hundreds of miles away for half the year can become increasingly difficult, especially for veterans. Tangela Smith has played in the WNBA for 12 years and understands the impact it can have on one’s life more than most.

“This year I was able to take a one and a half month break, but most of my other teammates were not as fortunate,” Tangela said. “They had to go overseas right after we won the championship and that’s what I have done for 11 years out of my 12-year career. It’s very hard and it really takes a toll on your body but I love the game so much that it’s all very much worth it to me. You have to really take care of your body and stay as healthy as you can because that will definitely keep you in the league for a very long time. The traveling is difficult as well because not only are you traveling within the country you are playing but if your on a team that plays in some kind of Euro-league or Cup you would have to travel to other countries as well. Sometimes you are all alone and you are playing with a team full of women who don’t speak English and sometimes even the coach doesn’t. Nowadays it’s better because you can have more than one or two Americans on the same team and more English is spoken. But, like I said before it’s so worth it if you are very passionate about playing and the good definitely outweighs the bad.”

Being gone for several months makes the time you do have with family that much more meaningful. “It’s hard to head overseas when you only have ten days to divide over what loved ones you will visit and getting everything prepared to leave America,” Ketia Swanier said. “I always feel like there is never enough time to spend with my family but basketball is what I’m committed to do and love doing it.” It’s certainly not surprising that staying in touch with friends and family is next to impossible when spending multiple months of every year in a foreign country. Relationships can quickly fade and if there is a family emergency, a car ride or flight isn’t a viable option for the majority of the time. On the other hand, WNBA players and their families have accepted that it comes with the territory. “The hardest part about leaving is the amount of down time you have and you don’t get to enjoy family, friends, and being at home,” Cappie Pondexter said. “It’s the hardest thing to do but at the same time we have to because it’s our livelihood.”

From a coaching perspective, it also becomes tricky to maintain cohesion with your team while they are overseas. Unlike in the NBA where contact can come easily with a quick flight or phone call, many of a coach’s players are hundreds of miles away in various foreign countries. “I stay busy, that’s for sure,” Corey Gaines said. “It’s another fine line. The players need their privacy but at the same time you can’t go months without talking to your team or knowing what’s going on. That’s one of the reasons I make sure I visit as many players as I can when they are overseas. We stay in touch with texting and phones but seeing them face to face is better than a phone call. It also provides an opportunity to see other players up close in practices and games where you wouldn’t get that chance otherwise. So although it’s challenging it helps with the relationship when we can connect overseas as well.”

When the players do return to American to play in the WNBA season, a lot of people aren’t aware that they just finished a grueling European season maybe just a few hours before. They come back to America and are expected to head into another training camp and be mentally prepared for the increasingly competitive WNBA schedule. For WNBA coaches, the key philosophy is balance. “Doug Collins said that the game is now 80 percent percent managing and 20 percent Xs and Os and I believe that,” Gaines said. “Look at the greatest coaches in the game – Phil, Popovich – they manage their team the best. They know their players the best. With the way we (Mercury) play it’s tough because we want the team to be in running shape but you also realize you don’t want to burn them out. Paul Westhead and I never believed in running as a punishment so we like to get the players in shape while playing and going hard. Again, it’s a fine line.”

While the trials and tribulations that WNBA face can be exceedingly difficult, many are pointing to 2009 as a turning point for the league. The appreciation of what the players do all year and the sacrifices they make are beginning to be known. Is the WNBA finally hitting the mainstream? “I hope so,” Corey Gaines said. “It looks that way if you go by the numbers. More people watched on TV and more attended the games; it was sold out in the Finals. When we won in Detroit in 2007 that game actually wasn’t sold out. Hopefully the attention will carry over next year. I’m hoping it does.”

Regardless if it carries over or not, it’s about time these ladies get the recognition they deserve for the sacrifices they make and for their dedication to basketball. Quite simply, it’s unprecedented in professional sports – and should be honored.

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