The 2009 WNBAFinals were what every sport's championship series aims to be: aback-and-forth, suspense-soaked battle between equals. This one featured thebest offensive team (the Phoenix Mercury) against the best defensive team (theIndiana Fever), the league MVP (Phoenix's Diana Taurasi) and the DefensivePlayer of the Year (Indiana's Tamika Catchings), and tight, high-scoringgames.
(The opener, whichthe Mercury won 120--116 in overtime, set a scoring record.) It also hadcelebrity sightings, record crowds and drama that never let up: With 38 secondsto play in Game 5 of the best-of-five series, Phoenix's lead was just twopoints. Behind Taurasi and forward Cappie Pondexter (who had 26 and 24 points,respectively), the host Mercury held on to win 94--86 and hoisted the trophyfor the second time in three years. But the Fever, a Finals newbie, gainedsomething just as valuable: a flock of new fans.
Before the seasonIndiana co-owner Herb Simon had warned that his team would need to double itsattendance and sponsors to survive. Slowly at first, and then all at once, thecommunity responded. During an 11-game winning streak, the local media startedpaying closer attention and fans followed suit, boosting attendance (andhelping bring in new sponsors). Another catalyst came before Game 3 of theEastern Conference finals against Detroit when Pacers executive Larry Birdbought out the 9,000-seat upper bowl of Conseco Fieldhouse and gave away thetickets, which were snapped up in two hours. People liked what they saw: ForGames 3 and 4 of the Finals, all 18,165 seats at Conseco were sold, none ofthem as giveaways. Suns execs and players countered by buying all 7,000 seatsin the upper deck of U.S. Airways Center for Games 1, 2 and 5. "For anyonewho doubts the WNBA level of play, this is an opportunity to see foryourselves," said Suns general manager Steve Kerr.
WNBA presidentDonna Orender sees the people who took up that challenge, the presence at theFinals of stars like Peyton Manning and Larry Fitzgerald, a third consecutiveseason of higher leaguewide attendance and a second straight year of increasedTV ratings as evidence that the WNBA is on a roll. "We have a chance toride this wave of enthusiasm, so we have to go out and proselytize," saysOrender.
Indiana, meanwhile,has two tasks for the off-season: acquire one more big-time player and stayconnected to its new fans. If the Fever's return to Indianapolis last Saturdayis any indication, the latter task may be easier. Five local TV news crews and300 fans, many of them gushing about the 2010 season tickets they'd alreadypurchased, were at the airport to greet the runners-up. "Even though wedidn't win, we opened the eyes of a lot of people," says Catchings."That's a pretty big prize by itself."
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Lisa Leslie wasn't the only WNBA star who made this herfinal season. Three other league stalwarts recently called it a career: YolandaGriffith, a 6'3" center, was the WNBA's 1999 MVP, a seven-time All-Star anda member of the league's all-decade team. Griffith won two Olympic gold medalsand a WNBA title, with Sacramento. Her 2009 season, with Indiana, was cut shortwhen she injured her left Achilles tendon in June.... Shannon (Pee Wee) Johnson(below), a speedy 5'7" guard, earned four All-Star nods and a spot on the2004 Olympic team while playing for six league franchises.... Vickie Johnson, a5'9" guard and two-time All-Star, is one of only three women to have playedin every WNBA season and is the career leader in games played (410).
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (TAURASI)
DIANA'S REIGN Katie Douglas (left) and the Fever couldn't keep Taurasi from a second title.
DUNCAN WILLIAMS/ICON SMI (JOHNSON)