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Original Issue


The American Basketball League had much to celebrate at its
inaugural All-Star Game in Hartford last weekend. The fledgling
women's professional league, born in the giddy aftermath of the
U.S. team's 14-month pre-Olympic road show and subsequent gold
medal run in Atlanta, is drawing several hundred fans more than
its goal of 3,000 per game. Players such as Teresa Edwards,
Nikki McCray and Dawn Staley are hits in the eight-team ABL's
mostly midsized markets, like Hartford-Springfield, Portland,
Richmond and San Jose. "Corporate sponsors aren't only returning
our calls now," says league cofounder Gary Cavalli, "they're
calling us first."

But as players, coaches and league personnel were gathering for
the game, a three-point shooting contest and a whirl of catered
functions, a threat was looming from the outfit that first
turned the concept of All-Star Weekend into a sort of hoops high
holy days. Just down the road, in New York City, NBA
commissioner David Stern is fine-tuning plans to launch his own
women's league, the WNBA, in June. Were anyone else behind that
effort, there might be no cause for concern. The WNBA season
will be only two months long, and the league will feature teams
in huge markets like New York and Los Angeles, where women's
basketball risks being swallowed up. But Stern didn't transform
the NBA from a dying, drug-ridden entity that couldn't get its
Finals on prime-time TV into a global brand name by being a
live-and-let-live sensitive New Age guy. Stern has squished
superstations and a state lottery. He has all but annexed the
league's players' union and the game's international governing
body, FIBA. No way he'll readily cede the gender that more than
half the people on the planet call their own.

So as you gird for battle, ABL, here's some advice on how you
can coexist with the NBA beast.

--Remember that you're not a league, you're a movement. "If the
NBA starts a league, the men will always come first," Staley, an
Olympian and the star of the Richmond Rage, said last summer.
She's right: WNBA franchises will play in the NBA off-season and
be run out of the front offices of NBA teams. So play the
sisterhood card. Point out that before the NCAA (once an
implacable enemy of Title IX) devoured the Association for
Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, 90% of the coaches in
women's college sports were females; now the figure is about
48%. In contrast to the WNBA's top-down approach, with its big
markets and TV deals with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime, your
philosophy is grassroots. It's working--that's why the teams
with the worst records, the New England Blizzard and the
Portland Power, are drawing the most fans--so stick with it.

--Make sure you're the ABL, not the ACL. Your first months were
pockmarked by knee injuries to such stars as Clarissa
Davis-Wrightsill, Venus Lacy, Saudia Roundtree and Natalie
Williams. Examine all possible causes of this epidemic--from a
too short preseason, to overly permissive officiating, to
10-player rosters--and move quickly to address the problem.

--Enforce professionalism among coaches and players. "A lot in
the ABL is really positive," says Olympic coach Tara VanDerveer,
who's back in the college ranks, guiding No. 1 Stanford. "But I
see some players not recognizing their responsibility as pro
athletes. They're out of shape." VanDerveer says the WNBA has
noticed this, and recent college stars gone to seed won't get
contract offers. If there's another weakness in your league,
it's the quality of the coaches. The nation's best--including
VanDerveer, Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and Vanderbilt's Jim
Foster--have already been mentioned as possibilities for WNBA
clubs. Rest assured, they won't want to coach a bunch of lard

--There's nothing the NBA can't be expected to do. You think it's
a coincidence that ESPN has a deal with the WNBA and
SportsCenter won't air your scores? Your greatest weapon is the
clause in your standard contract prohibiting ABL players from
suiting up for another league. That ensures that you'll develop
the Edwardses and Staleys as ABL products. Sure, your smug
counterpart has no such clause, but if you even think of
relaxing yours, expect the WNBA to slap one on, crippling you.

--In German, Stern means "star." The NBA knows that pro
basketball is a game of stars. You failed to land four of the
five Olympic starters. You've missed out on signing electric
foreigners like Australia's Michele Timms, who's now in Stern's
stable. And on Dec. 10, when Atlanta's Edwards was setting an
ABL record with 41 points in the Glory's 95-86 win at San Jose,
the Lasers' P.A. announcer waited until the game was over to
tell the crowd, and Atlanta coach Trish Roberts kept Edwards on
the court to the end, instead of pulling her out and letting
fans shower her with applause. If that happens again, fine both
clubs. The NBA would.

Heed these Stern warnings and your future looks promising. You
and the WNBA are in different markets and seasons, with
different philosophies and corporate backers. There's no reason
you can't coexist and vindicate the words of that great
suffragette Mae West: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [NBA foot threatening three women wearing ABL jerseys]