UConn-Tennessee rivalry helped launch WNBA



SOECharlesHallmansquareFounding WNBA president Val Ackerman recently cleared up a long-held belief about the league since its debut almost 20 years ago.

The two-year unbeaten U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team’s successful run, which culminated with a gold medal win in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, wasn’t the inspiration for then-NBA commissioner David Stern to push forward a league-owned and operated women’s pro basketball division. Rather, it was the 1995 NCAA Women’s Final Four winner in Minneapolis that lit up Stern’s brain lightbulb.

Asjha Jones
Asjha Jones

“Did that have anything to do with the start of the WNBA? The answer is yes,” admitted Ackerman during an MSR interview this past spring in Chicago.

Connecticut and Tennessee played against each other for the first time ever during the 1994-95 season, an 11-point Huskies home win in an ESPN televised game. A rematch later that season came in the national title game inside the downtown Minneapolis arena, which again was won by UConn. It was the first of the program’s 10 national championships.

More importantly, that first championship actually was the inspiration for the longest running women’s pro league in U.S. history.

Val Ackerman
Val Ackerman

“We were thinking on that back in the early ‘90s, on how that program in particular energized the Northeast media, ESPN, and the rivalry between UConn and Tennessee and what that meant,” continued Ackerman, now the Big East commissioner. “It was one of many factors that made the WNBA launch [in 1997] possible.”

“I never heard her say that,” said Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore when a reporter told her about Ackerman’s “secret.” She was a grade schooler at the time but later would enroll at UConn, where Moore’s Huskies clubs went 150-4, including a 90-game winning streak and two consecutive NCAA crowns before she became the WNBA’s overall top pick in 2011.

“There probably were a lot of things that led to the birth of the WNBA, and the ABL [American Basketball League, 1996–1998] was before that,” said Moore.

Asjha Jones, also an UConn alumnus — her 2001-02 club also went unbeaten and won the 2002 NCAA title — also didn’t know Ackerman’s “secret.” She and Moore became first-time pro teammates when Jones signed with Minnesota in May. The two were 2012 London Olympics teammates with Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen and won a gold medal for the U.S.

When reminded about her legacy status of women’s college basketball dynasty, “It’s the culture,” said Jones on Connecticut’s success. “Everything we did, we did aggressive. When you go on the court for practice, there’s tape all over the court — X’s and lines where you need to stay. We learned how to read each other so well that we could play with our eyes closed. He (Coach Geno Auriemma) gets the best out of his talent, no matter who’s on his team.

“You were looking forward to games because practices were so hard. That’s also why we were so good,” surmised Jones. She (4th) and her UConn teammates Sue Bird (1st), Swin Cash (2nd), and Tamika (Williams) Raymond (6th) were among the top six picks of the 2002 WNBA Draft.

“If that hadn’t happened in women’s basketball,” concluded Ackerman on UConn’s success, “there wouldn’t have been a WNBA.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.