ON SEPT. 5 the WNBA hosted its annual Inspiring Women luncheon in New York City. The honorees included Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code (a nonprofit working to close the gender gap in technology and engineering); Democratic party operator Donna Brazile; former San Antonio guard Becky Hammon, who has joined the NBA's Spurs as an assistant coach; and Indiana coach Lin Dunn, one of the women's game's pioneers, who is retiring after 44 years on the sideline.
Sitting in the audience was an inspiring young woman from Philadelphia who emerged as a role model after becoming the first girl ever to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. WNBA president Laurel Richie made a point of pointing out 13-year-old Mo'ne Davis among the banquet's 300 guests and recognizing her stated goal of playing for the WNBA one day. "Our league exists to give talented athletes like you a place to play," Richie said.
Davis may or may not develop into a pro-caliber guard, but that's hardly the question. What's important is that a league filled with explosive young stars—and more than a few mold-shattering women—is still going strong. The WNBA concluded its 18th season last Friday night, when Phoenix beat Chicago 87--82 to win its third title in seven seasons. Game 2 was ESPN's highest-rated postseason WNBA contest since 1999, and overall Finals viewership was up 92% over 2013, largely thanks to the presence of 6'8" Mercury center Brittney Griner (left) and 6'5" Sky guard-forward Elena Delle Donne, two second-year players who are redefining their respective positions. Griner, who was named the league's top defensive player after blocking a record 129 shots, set yet another mark with eight rejections in Game 1. (It's been a banner year for Griner; she also proposed to Tulsa forward Glory Johnson in August.)
Meanwhile, Delle Donne played just 10 minutes in Game 1 because of an injured back. She recovered to average 22.5 points in the remaining two games, but the Mercury had already seized the momentum.
The series belonged to Finals MVP Diana Taurasi, an 11-year veteran who averaged 20.3 points on 24--45 shooting and hit the series-clinching and-one with 14.3 seconds left in Game 3. The 6-foot Taurasi, 32, is a trailblazer in her own right, not only because of her size at point guard but also for her I don't care what anyone thinks of me attitude. Just as Davis prompted THROW LIKE A GIRL posters at the Little League World Series, Taurasi's supreme confidence has led people to say that she plays like a dude. She once told SI, "You might get some girlie-girl who says, 'You play like a man,' like they're saying, 'Why don't you play in skirts anymore?' Please. You tell me I play like a man, and I'll tell you, 'Hey, thanks.' The best players in the world are men, so why wouldn't you want to play like them?"
Players, in fact, are breaking new ground all over the league. Atlanta point guard Shoni Schimmel, whose number 23 is the league's most popular jersey, is the first Native American All-Star and the first rookie to win the All-Star MVP award. Her playground style draws hundreds of fans to postgame Q&A sessions in almost every arena she visits and has earned her a new nickname from former Lakers star and current Dream coach Michael Cooper: Sho-time.
Schimmel takes the baton from Hammon, a seven-time All-Star whose creativity off the dribble and understanding of the game has drawn comparisons to the Spurs' Tony Parker, a longtime friend. That Hammon will be coaching Parker next season makes perfect sense.
So you see, the WNBA does more than produce a good show. On the court and off, the examples set by players such as Griner and Schimmel shouldn't inspire just girls like Davis, who prefers the women's game to other sports. ("The better I get, the more I love it," Mo'ne says.) It should be an inspiration to us all.
58.5 Shooting percentage (38 of 65) for the Mercury in Game 1 of the 2014 WNBA Finals, a record.
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