A (Flagrant) Case for Women's Basketball
Ron Artest was ejected after flagrant on Pao Gasol
Ron Artest was ejected after flagrant on Pao Gasol
Posted Jun 3, 2009

Has the men's game become too muscle-bound? Before the catcalls begin, let's pause for a sec. If there were a card to carry, I'd be a card-carrying fan of the NBA and men's college basketball. I find little point in the all-too-frequent comparisons of the athleticism and skills of male v. female basketball players. Despite overlapping rules, they're playing two different games, in my opinion.

But as we stand on the cusp of the WNBA's 13th season, with some predicting the league's imminent demise, it's worth taking note that an excellent case was made today for the worth of women's basketball.

And, no, I'm not referring to the Chicago Sky's 102-55 victory over an all-male team of Entertainment League All-Stars (a collection of minor celebrities, who seemed to be pretty good sports about taking a drubbing at the hands of female pros) in what was touted as basketball's "Battle of the Sexes." Such exercises are pretty pointless, apart from their entertainment value and such funds as they may raise for charities. A professional team of either gender should be expected to prevail over an ersatz assemblage of amateurs, again of either gender. (Moreover, in this case, whether by good fortune or design, on top of being pros playing amateurs, the Sky held a distinct height advantage over their male counterparts--an unlikely fortuity, as we shall see, were they to have played a men's collegiate or pro team.)

No. I'm referring instead to an article, "It's all fouled up in the NBA," that appeared in Tuesday's edition of the Los Angeles Times. The logic of the piece, by sports columnist Bill Dwyre, ought to make every true lover of the game consider an outing to their local WNBA franchise at least once this summer.

Of course, that wasn't the writer's intent. The journalist in question was writing about the NBA, not the "W," and, more specifically, the NBA playoffs. Indeed, the writer makes no mention of the women's game at all.

Published online under the alternate title, "Goofy is the Name of the Game," the article makes the argument that as the men's players have become "bigger, stronger and faster and the coaches talk more about power and muscle than finesse," NBA basketball has become "now more rugby scrum than basketball."

Dwyre quite rightly takes his fellow sports journalist to task for becoming part of the herd, "mooing at great length and great volume," in celebration of the muscularization of the sport. He also decries the difficulty of officiating a game ("impossible" is the word Dwyre actually uses) in which the "court's too small, the players are too big and too fast, the rules are too funky, and the pressure to cater to superstars is too severe" -- particularly in an environment in which, he argues, the league's post-game review of technical and flagrant fouls to ensure the availability of those stars turns any attempt to enforce the rules even-handedly into a joke.

Dwyre lets the refs off the hook more than a little too easily for the contribution their own inconsistency makes to the disintegration of the game. (And let's not forget, the NBA refs are arguably the best-of-the-best -- at the very least, a giant step above many of the crews that police the women's game.)

But who can argue with Dwyre's characterization of the current state of the rules and their (non) enforcement:

  • Three seconds in the lane: "A joke."
  • Moving screens: "A joke."
  • Taking more than two steps off the dribble before shooting: "A joke."

I nearly broke into a private ovation at Dwyre's observation: "What our high school coaches taught us to avoid is now done every time down the court in the NBA and the TV broadcasters call them 'great moves.' Referees used to call that 'walking.'"

Of course, women's basketball has it's fair share of traveling and three-second violations too. And while there's the occasional moving screen, my complaint is that, far too often, players neglect to screen for one another at all (or do so ineffectively).

But Dwyre saves his greatest opprobrium for the sheer brutality that has become men's professional basketball (and for the tendency of the sports media to applaud when officials fail to blow the whistle on it. "A great non-call," Dwyer explains, "apparently means that the specific physical assault that took place was not severe enough -- no broken bones protruding or gashes needing stitches--" to warrant a foul call.

As a case in point, Dwyre cites the lack of a whistle last year when the Laker's Derek Fisher "draped several portions of his body" over the Spurs' Brent Barry, as the latter attempted a last-second shot. The press decreed the incicent a "great non-call," apparently, says Dwyre, because "Barry didn't have to be put into traction."

It's a strange argument, in many ways, for a columnist on a major national newspaper that whose sports pages whined pitifully about the Lakers' lack of physical toughness in this year's playoff serious against the Rockets and which cheered wildly when Fisher and Ron Artest were each ejected (Fisher leaving the court with his head bleeding, and Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom and the Rockets' Luis Scola were all assessed technical fouls on various "physical" plays in Game 2 of that series. Rockets' guard Von Wafer was spared a technical, but was "ejected" by Rick Adelman for jawing with the coach during the second half of the same game.

"It took a while, about a game and a half, but the Lakers finally checked into their playoff series with the Houston Rockets, carrying several intriguing elements with them, including the one with the greatest importance -- an attitude," the Times' Mike Bresnahan raved, in describing the incidents. "Odom's walk on the wild side gives fans a special glimpse," the paper headlined its jump page article on the game.

To mix sports metaphors, game, set, match, Mr. Dwyre.

The Bucks' Charlie Villanueva was charged with a flagrant for this foul on Charlotte Bobcats guard Gerald Wallace.
Los Angeles Times sports writer Bill Dwyre contends that the size and muscularity of NBA players, and the coddling of superstars, has turned the men's game into more of a "rugby scrum" than pure basketball. Manhandling of opponents not only characterizes today's "Goofy Game," but is applauded by the press, Dwyre maintains. Here, Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva (31) commits a flagrant foul against Charlotte Bobcats guard Gerald Wallace (3) during the second half of the Bobcats' 102-92 win in January of this year. At top, the Houston Rockets' Ron Artest was ejected after this flagrant foul against the Lakers' Pao Gasol in Game 3 of the second round of this year's NBA Western Conference playoffs.

But what has all this to do with women's basketball?

To repeat: Despite overlapping rules, they're two different games. The very characteristics of female anatomy some would point to (wrongly, in this writer's opinion) as evidence of the "inferiority" of women basketball players serve to ensure that the women's game is unlikely to become the kind of "rugby scrum" that Dwyre decries -- at least at any point in this generation.

According to a 2007-2008 NBA.com survey, the average height of an NBA basketball player is 6'6.98." The last official WNBA survey of player heights, done in 2002-03, put the average height of a WNBA player at 5'11.84" and unofficial surveys based on published roster information continue to put the average height of players in the league at between 5'11" and six feet.

Despite the proliferation of female ballers who can, and have, thrown it down, that's enough of a height difference to mean that the women's game is going to be played predominantly below the rim for the foreseeable future.

According to the same NBA.com survey, the average weight of an NBA player is 221 pounds. (It's an interesting survey, "2007-2008 NBA.com Player Survey", where you will learn, among other fun facts to know and tell, that, at least at that time, the skinniest players were to be found in Memphis -- averaging 210 pounds and change per person -- and the heftiest in New York -- where the players hit the scales at 234 pounds even.)

By comparison, going back to that "2002-2003 WNBA Player Survey," the average female pro weighed in at a modest 166.61 pounds.

That difference of more than six inches of height and nearly 70 pounds per player on average also means that the nature of women's basketball is less likely to become characterized by "rugby scrums" or "hockey brawls," or the like. Even if the refs and the league's front office were to tolerate that style of play, on the whole, there would be relatively little advantage for the average female player to attempt to use her body in that fashion.

What's the alternative? Classic basketball. Teamwork. Speed. Passing. Sharp shooting. Finesse.

Sure, there will always be the female "enforcer," the "banger" with a size advantage over her average opponent and the will (and skill to use it). Just as the NBA will find the occasional specimen as physically dominant as Shaquille O'Neal (in his prime), who will use his unique size to advantage over the average NBA opponent. But at an average of a hair less than six feet and a skosh less than 170 pounds, the "W," despite its worst critics, is not a league of muscle-bound Amazons prone to bulling their way to the basket and using mini muggings as an alternative to skillful defense.

That point is underscored by what the WNBA survey told us about the heaviest and puniest players in their survey. Several, though by no means all, of the heftiest players in the women's survey were considered by many to be chronically out-of-shape under-achievers. Prime examples: The now-defunct Houston Comets' Tiffani Johnson, who topped the charts at 240, and Alisa Burras of the Seattle Storm, who weighed in fourth in the survey at 218. Exceptions: Margo Dydek, most recently of the Los Angeles Sparks, the league's tallest player at 7'2" and one of its beefiest at 223. Though Dydek still holds the league's record for blocks, she can be considered an under-achiever in the sense that she never seemed to learn to move her feet or, for that matter, leave the floor when rebounding and, accordingly, never achieved the physical dominance that her size (taller than Tim Duncan and the vast majority of her male counterparts; as tall as NBA-legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar) promised. But Dydek appeared almost gangly (Duncan weighed in at 255) and, though lacking foot speed, was not generally considered out-of-shape (with the possible exception of a period immediately following her return from giving birth). Another exception: The Detroit Shock's Cheryl Ford, at 215 pounds the fifth-heaviest in the WNBA, a fine (though injury-prone) athlete by any standard, and one of the league's closest to the "male" model of aggressively physical players.

This year, rookie Courtney Paris, who holds the NCAA all-time record for scoring and rebounding for either gender, would hit the high end of the WNBA charts at 6'4" and 250 pounds. The result? Paris dropped to number 7 in this year's draft over concerns about her weight and conditioning, and was received by her new team, the Sacramento Monarchs, not with great revelry over how they now hold a tremendous size advantage in the low post over their prospective opponents, but instead by an article in the Sacramento Bee opining that Paris wound up on the right team. It seems, says the Bee's Ailene Voisin, that the Monarchs specialize in whipping their players into shape and, naming several key players (Ticha Penicheiro, Kara Lawson, and Nicole Powell, to be specific) who have dropped 20 to 30 pounds under the Monarch's demanding program, Voisin notes that in addition to her training camp two-a-days, the Monarchs have Paris working with a trainer and participating in extra conditioning drills under the "watchful eye" of coach Jenny Boucek.

Perhaps even more telling, take a look at the other side of the chart, the league's smallest and lightest players, and you'll find some of the WNBA's all-time greats: Future Hall-of-Famer and three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley (who retired from the Houston Comets), the league's fifth-lightest player at 134 pounds and shorter than average at just 5'6." Four-time WNBA All-Star and MVP contender Becky Hammon, then of the New York Liberty and currently of the San Antonio Silver Stars, checked in at a mere 5'6" and 136 pounds. Betty Lennox, still knocking them down (lately for the L.A. Sparks), 5'8" but just 135 pounds. Australian Olympian and World Champion Sandy Brondello -- 136.

And the beat goes on. Too young for the 2002-03 survey, Temeka Johnson might be a "chunky" (by WNBA standards) 145 pounds, but she managed to take Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 at a mere 5'3." (When did the NBA last have a 5'3" Rookie of the Year? In fact, when did the NBA last have a 5'3" player? Trivia answer at the end of this article.) Though she's now moved on to the Phoenix Mercury, last year, Johnson was teamed with the even shorter (5'2") and lighter (130 pounds) Shannon Bobbitt, as the L.A. Sparks appeared bent on capturing the Guinness World Record for tiny backcourts.

To look at the issue from a different perspective, at 6'4" and 175 pounds, last year's WNBA MVP and Rookie of the Year, Candace Parker, is both taller and (marginally) heavier than her average female counterpart. But she would not make the top 10 in the league in either category. Not even close.

Parker made her mark by becoming the second player in WNBA history to dunk during a game (and has shown the ability since high school to do so with fair regularity). She also notched a less distinguished footnote in league lore by becoming a participant in the infamous "Catfight at the Palace" in a rather toothless mini-brawl between several players, and a coach, from the Sparks and the Detroit Shock.

That's right. If you come to a WNBA game this season, you might see a player pick up a technical and possibly, though not likely, witness a flagrant foul or (vapors!) even a yet more rare bench-clearing altercation.

But here's the distinction. Though dust-up in Detroit probably brought the WNBA more prime-time coverage (not to mention You Tube eyeballs) than anything up to and quite possibly including Lisa Leslie's first-ever WNBA dunk, you didn't see the newspapers touting the Sparks' (or the Shocks') new-found "attitude" as some kind of asset. Some fans may have championed what they perceived as Parker's right of self-defense against the Shock's Plenette Pierson (6'2" and 178 pounds, just so all the cards are on the table), but, as usual, the identity of the aggressor had a lot to do with the color of jersey hanging in the closet of the fan making the assessment. At least as many complained bitterly of the league's failure to punish Parker and other participants more harshly.

I don't recall a single article -- or even message board post -- calling for the league, either team, or any of the players to get more physical. If anything, the incident evoked such widespread handwringing that I feared the refs would resort in reactionary fashion to enforcing a kind of tea party etiquette on the court.

The women's game gets its share of physical contact too.
Fair enough--you'll see some "contact" in the WNBA as well as the NBA. Here, Detroit Shock forward Katie Smith collides with San Antonio Silver Stars defender center AnnAuters of Belgium during the fourth quarter of Game 2 of last year's WNBA basketball finals. (Detroit won, 69-61.) But despite the increasing the muscularity of many women players, brute force has not come to characterize the women's game in any way comparable to the men's, as the female players (on average more than six inches shorter and nearly 70 pounds lighter) rely on teamwork, speed and finesse, rather than physical aggression, to gain an advantage.

Sure, a lot of the difference has to do with cultural stereotypes about conduct deemed appropriate for men and women generally being transplanted onto the playing fields of male and female athletes. But a healthy part also has to do with the difference in the kinds of athleticism the average NBA and WNBA player brings to the court and how they engage that athleticism to gain a competitive advantage.

One of the appeals of the WNBA, both to women and to the male fans who appreciate the sport, stems from its accessibility. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average height of an adult American male is 5'9." The average height of an adult American female is 5'5" (roughly an inch-and-a-half taller, by the way, than the average height of American women in 1971-74).

That means that for most men and virtually all women, the nature of play in the NBA is a far-off fantasy. No matter how much one works on his jump shot, a 5'9" male has about the same chance of successfully competing in the land of the giants -- a league populated by players averaging 6'7" and dominated by an intensely physical and forceful style of play--as, say, a woman would. Zero. Zip. Nada. In either case, genetics have determined one's destiny, and no amount of effort and only the rarest gift of skill could possibly change that calculus.

In contrast, that same 5'9" male can look around the WNBA and tell himself, "Hey, I'm not that much shorter than the average bear here. In fact, there are plenty of players shorter than me." Even the average 5'5" female can find at least some players she's taller than, and more that she doesn't have to bend her neck too far to look up at.

For some, that realization opens a window of imagination. The fan can visualize him or herself competing in a league like this one. Maybe not right now, as one looks down at one's protruding beer belly. "But if I whipped myself into shape. If I'd spent more time in the gym. If I'd committed myself to taking those 1,000 shots a day my high school coach used to preach about. Perhaps I wouldn't be as good as Lisa Leslie or Lauren Jackson, but if I'd tried hard enough, maybe I could have taken Swin Cash, one-on-one, on a good day."

Suddenly, the limiting factors become effort and commitment, and choice. To an extent that's hard to measure and varies from player to player, there's also the element of raw talent, regardless of size. But by and large, the prospective fan is not "eliminated" from picturing him or herself as a "player" by the inalterable circumstance of size alone.

Of course, there are those, and they are many, for whom the very factor that makes women's ball more accessible to others makes it less valuable to them. These, I would argue, are those who have inflated egos, but inadequate self-esteem. In a riff on the old saw that "I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would accept me," males with these shortcomings may be inclined to think that if (under the right circumstances) they could have played competitively in the WNBA, then it must not be a very good league at all. Giving short-shrift to the constellation of commitment, effort and skill that would have been necessary to have made that possible, they conclude that the league from which they are barred from competing only by gender must certainly be inferior to the league from which they are barred from competing only by height.

In truth, it is that very commitment, effort and skill that sings to the true lover of sport. And these qualities, equally essential to success in either the men's or the women's game, are there to be admired in abundance in the WNBA--as well as the NBA--for those with sufficient self-awareness to recognize and appreciate them.

There can be little doubt that female pros, on the whole, are becoming stronger and more muscular as the league matures and fills its ranks with newcomers who have been frequenting the weight room since high school. For a handful of players, that training, and fortunate genetics, has provided a dominant advantage, particularly in the post. (The Sky's 6'6," 200-pound center Sylvia Fowles comes quickly to mind.) But in most cases, that hasn't translated into rosters chock full of muscle-bound body builders dependent on brute force to steamroll their way to the hole (or to manhandle their opponents away from it).

Instead, the nature of the game of basketball as played in the WNBA favors athletes with speed (of foot and reaction), stamina, and conditioning. It favors athletes with a multiplicity of skills -- 5s, for example, who can shoot the three as well as pound the ball in from the low post; posts who can handle the ball and dish well enough to be an asset to their team even when double-teamed, players at any position who can make their shot equally well off the dribble, in the half-court set, on the break. It favors players with persistence, ready to hustle back on defense rather than hanging from the rim (or otherwise celebrating) each offensive success. It favors unselfish team play and a strong work ethic. The Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings (6'1", 167 pounds) might be the paradigm of the WNBA's brand of athleticism.

Returning for a moment to the example of last year's MVP/ROY, Candace Parker is obviously another example of WNBA-brand athleticism. Muscular? Yes, in a well-toned, sleek kind of way. But certainly not an athleticism of brute force. Indeed, if there were one prime criticism of Parker's play in her rookie season, it was a tendency to avoid contact as much as possible. At times, it was a defensive liability, as she seemed unable or unwilling to stand in the lane and take the brunt of a charge. Quite obviously, it was a deficiency more than made up for in other departments, as Parker posted a near-double-double for the season -- 18.5 points per game (on 52.3% field goal and 42.3% three-point shooting) and 9.5 rebounds per game (won with speed, timing, anticipation, and sheer hustle, much more than brute "banging"), to which she added 3.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game.

Some six years ago, while covering the 2002 Women's World Championships in China, I was approached by a FIBA official from Africa who, noticing that I was the only U.S. reporter covering the event from start to finish, wanted to know why Americans cared so little about the sport when they had such a great team. I tried to explain the common "wisdom" about how the majority of male basketball fans preferred the fast-moving, more physically aggressive, "above-the-rim" game of men's basketball, and accordingly considered men's basketball more exciting and women's ball less athletically appealing.

The official, who towered above me by a good foot or more (making him at least 6'10"), shook his head with visible disgust. "But don't they understand?" he asked me. "Basketball is such a beautiful sport. It is so much more than simply to hang from the rim like a monkey."

I thought back on his comments later that week as I watched the women's national team of Spain move across the court with the grace of a troupe of dancers, delivering impossibly long perimeter shots with sideways, lilting leaps reminiscent of ballet. It was a jump shot I'd never seen in any book, a style of play I'd never run in any drill as a player or a coach. But it was a thing of beauty, and with remarkable regularity the ball found its mark.

Would this team be quickly dispatched by the powerhouses of the Lakers or the Orlando Magic--or, for that matter, by the average college men's team? Of course. They'd be carrying the poor gals off on gurneys before the end of the first quarter. Why? I'll say it yet again: Despite the overlapping rules, they're playing a different game.

Indeed, after a shaky start, the U.S. Women's team readily dominated the game. But did that make these Spaniards any less athletic in their own right? Did it make the game any less beautiful, any less worthy of being watched and enjoyed?

That depends on what you came to see--a wrestling match or basketball at its sweetest and purest and most elegant.

On a given day, one would expect any team in the NBA to defeat handily nearly any NCAA men's team? Does that make college basketball less worth watching? Many would argue that the collegiate game is more interesting and accessible.

In a contest pitting gorillas against gazelles in close quarters, the safe money is on the gorilla. Does that make the gorilla "better" than the gazelle? Even more "athletic"?

Would we not enrich ourselves by valuing the virtues of both? The power, the strength, the might of the gorilla? The grace, the speed, the energy of the gazelle? (And, while we're at it, relish, too, the speed of an unusually fast gorilla or the stamina of an unusually strong gazelle--without diminishing either by comparison to the fastest or strongest of the opposite species?)

I'll be watching the Lakers and Magic as they battle it out for this season's bragging rights, and I'll be getting a kick out of every in-your-face dunk, every powerful not-to-be-denied drive to the basket (even if there is a step or two too many on the way), every "not in my house" denial. I can do without the posturing, the jawing at refs and opposing players, the elbows (too frequent in both leagues), and overly aggressive "take downs" from behind as an opponent flies by on the way to a lay-up, but I can take them in stride short of outright brawls or mayhem.

The question facing the WNBA, as it struggles to survive, is whether true fans of basketball, male and female alike, have a sufficiently broad palette to similarly enjoy the nuances of the women's game and its brand of athleticism when executed at its best. Can we appreciate the differences between athleticism and brute force? Or has the mob appeal of the "Goofy Game," as Dwyre describes the current state of NBA play, wiped out our appetite for anything different?

*Trivia Answer: Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues was the shortest player ever to don an NBA uniform at -- you guessed it -- 5'3." Best known for his stint with the Charlotte Hornets, Bogues, a point guard, played for five teams in his 14 years in the NBA before retiring in 2001. Though Bogues was picked (12th overall, by the Washington Bullets) in the first round of the 1987 NBA draft, and won a gold medal playing with the U.S. National Team at the 1986 World Championships, he took no significant league honors.

Coincidentally, the diminutive Bogues was teamed with the NBA's tallest-ever player, Manute Bol (7'7") during his rookie year with the Bullets. Following his retirement, Bogues went on to a brief stint as head coach the WNBA's Charlotte Sting from August 2005 until the team folded in January 2007. Bogues was at least three inches shorter than all of his WNBA players.

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