For 20 weeks, to commemorate the WNBA’s 20th season (the MSR having covered each season), the MSR sports section will feature a column or article on the W in our “20 in 20” series. This week: Sisters rule
Black women have been uniquely instrumental in almost every aspect of the WNBA from its beginning through today.
The WNBA last week honored the 20 greatest and most influential players in league history in celebration of its landmark 20th season. Of the 60 nominees, 47 were either Black or other females of color, as were 14 of the WNBA’s Top 20@20 finalists.
Renee Brown has been with the league since the beginning as a second-in-charge executive. Her first responsibility was to sign players; Sheryl Swoopes was her first signee.
Penny Toler, then playing for the Los Angeles Sparks, shot and made the W’s first-ever basket on June 21, 1997 in Los Angeles. She moved to the front office and as GM was instrumental in the Sparks’ first two championships in 2001 and 2002.
“Scoring the first basket is significant to me,” she told the MSR during a media conference call earlier this month. “As I get older, I will cherish it as I do now.”
Swin Cash, one of the historic 20, was a member of the league’s first heralded draft class in 2002 when she and three UConn teammates were selected in the first six picks. “Personally the downside was [that] when the WNBA first started there were certain stigmas, the discrimination I felt in different areas,” recalls Cash. “I am a professional athlete. I am a WNBA player.”
Her 20@20 teammate Teresa Weatherspoon is forever known for “The Shot” in 1999. She also played in that first game as a New York Liberty guard. She’s now on the team’s coaching staff and will be in town Wednesday, June 29 to play Minnesota.
“We were somewhat nervous before the ball went up,” she remembers. “We understood the magnitude and responsibility not just to play but perform real well.”
These women of color, whether recognized rightfully or not, impacted the league and in turn this country’s sports landscape for the better.
“I don’t think we just want to say ‘women of color,’” notes Weatherspoon. “The WNBA gave all [women] the opportunity and the power to play our sport. What we tried to do was empower all women with the sport we love and grew up playing in a sport where we were told we couldn’t be aggressive.”
“I never really looked at the game as far as color,” admits Toler. “The importance and significance of having a league that has women play basketball I think as a whole, it was great that the WNBA was born, as well as the ABL and all the other leagues. I don’t think of race as significant.”
Two decades later, Toler and Cash agree that no resting on laurels should take place now. “It’s amazing that the WNBA has outlasted all the other leagues. I think it is important to understand that it was great athletes and great people [involved],” says Toler.
Cash, now in her 15th season but planning to retire after this season, advises, “Don’t be afraid to speak on the WNBA.”
“When we began,” concludes Weatherspoon, “we were told we wouldn’t last five years. Here we are. Twenty years have passed.”
Teresa Weatherspoon and Tonya Edwards and their respective historic achievements will be featured in a future “20 in 20” article.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.