Our ambitious 25-part series of articles reflects on the WNBA’s 25 years through the eyes of those who played a part, large or small, in its beginning and sustained growth throughout its quarter-century existence as a major league.
Black players from the beginning up to now have been the prime reasons for the WNBA’s quarter-century existence, which we are celebrating this summer. Put simply, the W wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for the sistahs, whose contributions throughout the past 25 years have been overlooked or marginalized, or both. Among the leading co-conspirators is the White male-controlled and dominated sports media.
Note the following historical timeline:
First signee – Sheryl Swoopes
First draft pick – Tina Thompson
First shot attempt – Vickie Johnson
First made basket – Penny Toler
First Black coach in a WNBA Finals – Cheryl Miller, Phoenix in 1997
First league MVP – Cynthia Cooper, Houston, who also won the first four Finals MVP awards
First player to outrebound the opponent in a game – Yolanda Griffith, 19 rebounds for Sacramento against New York that had 18 total rebounds
First dunk – Lisa Leslie, Los Angeles in 2002
First Black female team owner – Sheila Johnson, Washington – she also became the first Black owner to win a championship (2019)
First Black woman to lead a U.S. major pro league – Laurel Richie, 2011-2015
Winningest Black female HC – Pokey Chatman, 134 wins with two clubs (Indiana and Chicago, where she was league runners-up to champion Phoenix in 2014
Sistahs also made Minnesota Lynx history as well:
First All-Star – Tonya Edwards
First Black HC – Carolyn Jenkins, 2006
First Black assistant coach – Jenkins for five seasons, and helped Minnesota to their first-ever playoff appearance in 2003 and 2004
First HOFer in a Lynx uniform – Teresa Edwards, a 2011 inductee – she was the starting point guard for the Lynx’s first two post-season runs
First Minneapolis City Conference player in a Lynx uniform – Tamara Moore, North (2002)
“The league is full of excellence,” tweeted multimedia journalist Arielle Chambers, who covers the WNBA for Bleacher Report. In May she also authored “The 25 Greatest Moments in WNBA History” for Sports Illustrated. “The culture of the WNBA was also shaped by the players within the league,” she stressed.
Among those moments included Teresa Weatherspoon’s “The Shot” in game two of the 1999 Finals when she swished from behind half-court a three-pointer with two seconds left to defeat eventual champion Houston, and Nneka Ogwumike’s buzzer-beater in game five of the 2016 Finals for Los Angeles that defeated Minnesota at the downtown Minneapolis arena in front of a shocked home Lynx crowd. This reporter witnessed this, and Maya Moore’s earlier hoped game-winner shot and later wrote it was the best three minutes of sports that I have witnessed.
Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson, who won MVP last season and led the Aces to their first finals appearance, and Arike Ogungbowle of Dallas, one of the league’s best scorers, are among many sistahs making current history.
But as University of Massachusetts Associate Professor Nicole Melton and researcher Risa Isard co-noted in their recent analysis, WNBA coverage heavily favors White players more than Black players who make up the majority of the league.
The MSR last month featured highlights from the report: Wilson got half as much coverage last season as rookie Sabrina Ionescu who was injured for most of the season; Black players won 80% of the postseason honors but the top three most talked about players were White.
“This is not a WNBA-specific problem,” said Power Plays on Black females’ athletic accomplishments not receiving its rightful media coverage. WNBA fan Michael McManus told them that he noticed “the most single and subtle forms of [media] bias” towards Black players.
“Black women in sports are often ignored in sports media, and if they aren’t, they’re regularly misrepresented,” said Atlanta-based journalist Bria Felicien, who earlier this year started the weekly The Black Sportswoman. She concluded, “Black sportswomen history is … ever-occurring.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.