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: Being in awe.
It wasn’t that long ago when the only choice for professional employment for women basketball players was overseas, and only two Americans were allowed on most foreign teams. The rise of the WNBA altered those prospects.
The WNBA began around the same time Kaayla Chones was still in high school in Ohio. “It became real that if I do go on to play college and do well, I see a chance to go on to the next level and not have to go overseas,” remembers Chones, the daughter of Jim Chones, who played in the NBA.
His daughter was later a highly touted prep player in the Cleveland area, a two-time Co-Miss Basketball for Ohio in her junior and senior years. She went on to play at North Carolina State (1999-2004) and finished there as a double-figure scorer all four college seasons and sixth on the school’s all-time rebounding list.
Then Washington, an Eastern Conference team in the then-seventh-year women’s pro league, selected Chones in the second round of the WNBA draft in 2004.
“My fondest memory of the WNBA actually is being a ball girl for the Cleveland Rockers before I even got a chance to play,” admits Chones. “To be able to be around those girls…then be able to see Lisa Leslie and players like that right before my eyes.”
The 6’-3” Chones played two full seasons in Washington, then in Seattle (2006), and was in camp in Los Angeles in 2007. She later played eight seasons overseas (Spain, France, Italy and Israel) before retiring as a player after the 2013 season.
But the “awe” she then had as a youngster watching WNBAers didn’t completely dissipate once she became a pro herself, continues Chones, who now works in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office.
“To literally have Lisa Leslie [who at the time was pregnant] coming out there and telling you how to post up on the block and how to ask for the ball, those are the tangible things you don’t get over,” notes Chones. “She is a Basketball Hall of Famer. To have her come out there coaching you and positioning you [along with now-Atlanta coach] Michael Cooper, who’s a great coach as well, things like that you never forget.
“[Then] going to Seattle and being around Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird,” she continues, “I don’t think you ever get over it. You realize how fortunate you are to actually be on the same team with them, to hear their knowledge and coach you along with your coach — you never really get over those things.”
As the W heads into its third decade, Chones says it is still a head-scratcher that the league is still fighting for full acceptance as a major league sport in this country. “I don’t think anybody has the answer, as the WNBA has been around for 20 years and still doesn’t have the notoriety that you think they should. I sit at my desk, look out the window, and watch the Lynx practice every day. We have a team full of Olympians who have gold medals.
“How in the world our league…is not [on] prime time?” asks Chones. “Why [are] we not having prime-time games like the NBA? You don’t know — there are so many factors that go into that. What sparks interest in people in the States?
“I know I’m interested in it, and my family is interested in it. We are going to continue to support and watch.”
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.