As the WNBA opened its seventh season on May 22, it seemed as if
the only thing that hadn't changed was the league's name. The
players sported new uniforms (designed for a woman's figure) and
new shoes (coming soon to a mall near you) and even competed with
a new ball (courtesy of Spalding). Most important, while a new
collective bargaining agreement gave the players free agency and
slightly higher pay, it also established a hard salary cap
($622,000), which the players will have to deal with.
A change in the ownership structure--instead of the
single-entity, league-controlled model, teams can now be owned
independently--led to a rejiggering of the WNBA map. The Utah
Starzz became the San Antonio Silver Stars, the Orlando Miracle
became the Connecticut Sun, and the Portland Fire and the Miami
Sol became defunct. The Sun, which will play home games at the
Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., became the first
franchise in a non-NBA market, a sharp departure from the
league's original business model but a change likely to become a
trend. According to WNBA president Val Ackerman, the league is
considering expansion to Knoxville, Tenn., and Pittsburgh by
Thanks to free agency, Jennifer Gillom, a 38-year-old
forward-center better known as Grandmama, became the first
high-profile player to switch teams. The 6'3" Gillom gave up her
starting job with the weak Phoenix Mercury to play center behind
All-Star Lisa Leslie in Los Angeles. Signing Gillom to back up
Leslie bolstered an already potent Sparks lineup and put L.A. in
good position for a three-peat.
In the category of everything old is new again, 40-year-old
Cynthia Cooper has returned to the Houston Comets after a
two-year retirement. When Cooper, a two-time regular-season MVP
who won that honor four times in the playoffs, told Houston coach
Van Chancellor that she was ready to come back, the decision was
a no-brainer despite a potential salary-cap problem. On a squad
with star veterans such as forward Sheryl Swoopes making close to
the league maximum ($85,000), fitting Cooper into the mix wasn't
Since Cooper retired after Houston's fourth consecutive
championship, in 2000, the Comets have been bounced out of the
playoffs in the first round in each subsequent season. Whether
Cooper's return will be enough to get them back to the top
remains unclear, but Chancellor likes their chances. "The secret
to coaching is pretty simple," he says. "Load the bus with good
Another oldie but goody suiting up is Teresa Edwards, 38, who
will play for the Minnesota Lynx. The 5'11" point guard, who was
a five-time Olympian and a star in the American Basketball
League, was selected 14th in the draft this year. "She can still
play," says Minnesota coach Suzie McConnell Serio, a former WNBA
point guard and an Olympic teammate of Edwards's in 1988 and '92.
"I shake my head at some of the things she does. She's been a
great leader already."
The big question about Edwards is, Why return now? Over the years
she has repeatedly turned down offers to play in the WNBA,
reportedly because she was seeking a six-figure salary. "The
boring answer is it just felt right at this point in my life,"
says Edwards, who will make the WNBA rookie minimum of $30,000.
"The opportunity to play and work with Suzie was bigger than
anything else. I love the fact that we have professional
basketball [in the U.S.], and it's great to be a part of it."
During the off-season Detroit Shock coach and director of player
personnel Bill Laimbeer earned the nickname Trader Bill after
remaking the team's roster--only six of 13 players remain from
the 2002 squad. One addition is rookie center Cheryl Ford, the
daughter of Laimbeer's onetime nemesis Karl Malone. Other teams,
such as the Sacramento Monarchs, hope that simply getting key
players back from significant injuries and ailments will push
them to the top. Sacramento appears to be in good shape now that
forward Yolanda Griffith (neck), point guard Ticha Penicheiro
(shoulder) and guard Edna Campbell (breast cancer) are back. The
Monarchs also got a boost when they picked up forward DeMya
Walker from the Portland Fire in the dispersal draft.
The league had its best Memorial Day weekend in three years
(average attendance: 11,314), including sellouts in Charlotte,
Connecticut and San Antonio. The 35-game regular season ends on
Aug. 25, but at least one thing should remain unchanged: For the
third straight season the WNBA champions will be the Sparks.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK DUNCAN/AP DRIVING FORCE Leslie hopes to lead the Sparks to their third straight championship.
COLOR PHOTO: BRETT COOMER/AP (COOPER) Cooper
COLOR PHOTO: JESSE D. GARRABRANT/WNBAE/GETTY IMAGES Weatherspoon
How They'll Finish
SI writer-reporter Trisha Blackmar predicts the outcome in each
1 LOS ANGELES SPARKS
Entering the season, Lisa Leslie and Jennifer Gillom were ranked
1-2, respectively, in WNBA career scoring; guard-forward Mwadi
Mabika is terrific off the dribble.
2 SACRAMENTO MONARCHS
Yolanda Griffith had 27 points, 11 rebounds and five steals in a
65-56 opening-night victory over the Mercury on May 22--a sure
sign that she's healthy.
3 HOUSTON COMETS
Forward Tina Thompson seems to have recovered from a preseason
back ailment; Cynthia Cooper's return should provide a big boost.
4 SEATTLE STORM
Guard Sue Bird and forward-center Lauren Jackson combined to
average nearly 32 points per game last season; Storm is counting
on guard Sandy Brondello to become a dependable third option.
5 MINNESOTA LYNX
With no true pivot, they'll have a center by committee; even with
Teresa Edwards, Katie Smith and loads of young talent such as
Svetlana Abrosimova and Tamika Williams, Lynx will miss the
6 SAN ANTONIO SILVER STARS
A good mix of veteran leadership (Jennifer Azzi and Adrienne
Goodson) and young talent (Marie Ferdinand and Gwen Jackson) will
keep them respectable.
7 PHOENIX MERCURY
The Mercury is too green to contend in the tough Western
Conference; lightning-quick guard Tamicha Jackson is fun to
1 NEW YORK LIBERTY
Teresa Weatherspoon leads a solid core of veterans; team improved
by picking up Elena Baranova, who was the MVP of the Euroleague
2 WASHINGTON MYSTICS
Stars such as Chamique Holdsclaw, Stacey Dales-Schuman and Coco
Miller will make the Mystics exciting; they will contend for the
conference title if Holdsclaw stays healthy.
3 INDIANA FEVER
Tamika Catchings is an MVP candidate; the addition of Natalie
Williams (acquired from the Silver Stars) gives the Fever a force
in the paint.
4 CHARLOTTE STING
Still primarily a perimeter team with Dawn Staley, Andrea Stinson
and Allison Feaster; it needs Tammy Sutton-Brown to play well in
5 CONNECTICUT SUN
One of the two most experienced teams in the league is led by top
point guard Shannon (Pee Wee) Johnson. Huskies legends Rebecca
Lobo and Nykesha Sales will sell tickets.
6 DETROIT SHOCK
The league's youngest club is much improved but needs another
year to develop; formidable front line with Swin Cash, Cheryl
Ford and Ruth Riley.
7 CLEVELAND ROCKERS
Team should improve with the return of point guard Helen Darling
(she gave birth to triplets on April 13, 2002), as well as the
drafting of LaToya Thomas, a three-time All-America from
Mississippi State who is a strong Rookie of the Year candidate.