Women's pro basketball is often compared to the men's game of an earlier era. The comparison may be most apt in this regard: In the WNBA, as was true in the infancy of the NBA, even the best players have a second job.
Because the WNBA's maximum salary is only $101,500, close to two thirds of the league's 132 players spend the off-season playing overseas, where some ultrarich owners pay salaries ranging from $250,000 to $1 million. Typically players go abroad after the WNBA season ends in September and return for the beginning of training camp in May with no break between seasons.
While lucrative, playing year-round exacts a toll. Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, who at 28 is the league's reigning MVP as well as a veteran of five Russian League seasons and two Olympics, recently told reporters she was considering taking a WNBA season off to rest and recuperate. While the announcement caused a minor stir in the media, it came as little shock to the league's other players.
"That thought crosses every player's mind at some point," says Connecticut Sun forward Asjha Jones, who had played almost nonstop for eight years before an ailing left Achilles tendon forced her to take last winter off from her Russian team. Balancing the importance of playing in the highly competitive WNBA, where players establish the credentials that earn them overseas contracts, against playing in a foreign city, where the money is better and the schedule less grueling, "is really, really hard," says Jones, 29. "It's something you think about every year, and then you wind up just doing it all."
A few veterans, notably four-time All-Star guard Deanna Nolan of the Shock, are taking the 2010 WNBA season off. But it's a tougher choice for the handful of superstars like Taurasi who command top dollars overseas and have sizable shoe contracts that are tied to their presence in the WNBA. Eight-year vet Janell Burse, a center for the Seattle Storm, is also taking the summer off before playing in Poland, "but if she had a big shoe contract, I think she would think twice about doing it," says her agent, Boris Lelchitski.
The loss of Taurasi from the defending champion Mercury would be a financial blow to that franchise. Phoenix has the league's third-highest attendance and has traded on Taurasi's popularity in selling sponsorship space on players' uniforms, one of the creative steps the WNBA and its teams have taken to stay afloat.
League officials recognize the strain their players are under. In 2009 they pushed the start of the season back two weeks to give overseas players more rest time. That's not possible this year, however, because of the world championships in September. While the WNBA tries to figure out other ways to avoid having exhausted stars skip seasons, the players grind on. Says Jones, "It's just something we have to deal with."
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Rookie Tina Charles is wowing people with her stats—16.1 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds a game for the 12--8 Connecticut Sun—but her former coach at UConn, Geno Auriemma, the man she credits with her smooth transition to the pros, would have expected nothing less from the center. "He wants his freshmen to play like sophomores, his sophomores to play like juniors and his seniors to play like pros," says Charles (below), the national player of the year for 2009--10. With 15 double doubles through 20 games (the league record is 19), Charles has impressed Sun coach Mike Thibault with her willingness to mix it up in the paint and also with her attitude. "Her expectation is to win," he says. "When you bring that every day, it helps you stay focused."
P.A. MOLUMBY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
ON THE RUN Taurasi has played five years without a break for Phoenix (left), Team USA and in Moscow (below).
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DARRELL WALKER/UTHM/ICON SMI (CHARLES)