Tribute to David Stern, an architect of the WNBA

David Stern at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, on the occasion of his induction into the hall in 2014. Photo by Joanne Lannin

When the WNBA began, way back in 1997, I was annoyed with David Stern. The NBA commissioner had put his full weight and influence on the side of this fledgling league. In fact, he and Val Ackerman, the WNBA’s first commissioner, had worked together on the blueprint for the league in the early 1990s and used the tremendous popularity of the 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic team (which won the gold medal in Atlanta) to help launch it.

But I was annoyed because I didn’t like the idea of the WNBA. I didn’t like the fact that the league was a “little sister” to the NBA (in fact most WNBA teams were owned by the NBA team in their city and shared administrative staff).

Mostly though, I didn’t like the fact that the WNBA only played its games from April to September. I was gung ho for the American Basketball League’s approach. That league, that began around the same time as the WNBA, was founded on the premise that women should be playing during the traditional basketball season — and that the interest in college women’s basketball would naturally sustain it and help it to grow.

Well David Stern, who died this week at the age of 77,  obviously proved that his vision was the right one. While the ABL folded after three seasons, the WNBA is going into its 25th year. Women’s basketball players and coaches are hailing Stern today for his belief in the WNBA and for coming up with a model that has proven to be sustainable.

Ackerman, who released a statement upon Stern’s passing, summed things up pretty well.

“We mourn a titan, an innovator, a perfectionist, a taskmaster, a role model, a mentor and, most of all, a dear friend,” Ackerman said. “We will sorely miss his boundless energy, his unquenchable intellectual curiosity, and his irrepressible habits of asking hard questions, never backing down and always speaking his mind.

“Those of us who have given our lives to the game of basketball owe it to David for taking the sport to heights Dr. Naismith never could have imagined.”

This is not to say that the WNBA is without its flaws still. The “little sister” tag still fits in some ways. Just ask the players who have to fly in cramped seats on commercial airlines to their games. Or the players who must go overseas to make the kind of money they deserve. Still, people are quick to point out, and I certainly can’t disagree, that without Stern’s vision, women’s basketball might still be hoping for a professional league to play in here in the states. If Stern had decided that a women’s pro league had to wait until the women’s college game had gained the popularity of the men’s game, we might still be waiting.

Because let’s face it, our society is still plagued by sexism. Women are still seen as both inferior and a threat (both ironic and paradoxical) by a segment of male sports fans. These guys don’t just ignore the women’s game; no, they are vitriolic in putting forth the notion that women in sports has no value whatsoever. As a consequence, most news outlets still can’t bring themselves to cover NCAA women’s basketball or the WNBA on a regular basis. Women rarely make the front page unless a fight breaks out or the game involves some sort of scandal.

So thank you, David Stern. You not only guided the NBA for 30 years, you also helped grow the “league of their own” that has brought enjoyment to so many women’s basketball fans.

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