Category Archives: women’s basketball

UConn basketball and credit where it’s due

Allow yourself a rubbernecking moment. It’s a rare thing for any team to go 100 games without losing, so this is a good time to tap the brakes and eyeball various aspects at play in the extraordinary UConn women’s basketball streak.

There is, of course, the victory total itself, something no other college or professional team—men or women—has compiled. The numbers nuts out there recognize how forcefully UConn’s record—up to 101 games by Feb. 18—blows away the 88 straight won by UCLA’s men from 1970 to ’74, the 33 in-a-row by the NBA’s Lakers in 1972, the 47 consecutive college football victories by Oklahoma from 1953 to ’57; the 35-game unbeaten run (with 10 ties) by the NHL’s 1979-’80 Philadelphia Flyers.

Still, there somehow have been so-what reactions. Even, in the case of a Boston sportscaster named Tony Massarotti, a sneering, total dismissal of UConn’s feat, based—counterintuitively—on the argument that too many of the UConn victories were too lopsided. “It doesn’t count,” Massarotti blustered. “Please. What a crock.”

Wait. Might such a take have anything to do with gender?

In 1994, I was dispatched by Newsday to Chapel Hill, N.C., to seek metaphysical and cultural explanations for a situation similar to the current UConn basketball reign. The University of North Carolina women’s soccer team had just lost for the first time in 102 games (with one tie). And lost for only the second time in 204 games over eight years (with another seven ties mixed in).

My clear impression was that Carolina’s players approached their sport in the same way that Hall of Famer Bill Russell tackled his in a 13-year pro career during which he played for 11 NBA champions. Because there is a scoreboard, Russell once said, every athlete obviously plays to win.

The star of that ’94 Carolina soccer team was Tisha Venturini, and what she noticed about her teammates’ reactions, when their 102-game unbeaten streak was ended, didn’t reflect the individuals’ competitive will so much as their distinct personalities. “The ones who usually are emotional were crying hysterically,” Venturini said, “and the ones who never get emotional were just stone-faced.”

The team’s coach then—and now, going into his 39th season—was Anson Dorrance, and it was he who wondered at both the meaning of victory and what he called “the guy thing.”

“In our society,” Dorrance said, “we put too much stock in athletic success and failure. That’s men. Men lose sight of what’s critically important, your reason in life and the quality of your relationships. I think men measure their lives in these kinds of successes and failures. Numbers. Streaks. I think that’s why you see movies of the old high school quarterback pumping gas somewhere, to say: He just had a great arm; it didn’t make him a great man.”

That’s like the Bruce Springsteen lyric about ephemeral eminence…

    I had a friend was a big baseball player back in high school.

    He could throw that speedball by you

    Make you look like a fool, boy.

    Saw him the other night at this roadside bar

    I was walking in, he was walking out.

    We went back inside sat down had a few drinks

    But all he kept talking about was

    Glory days, well they’ll pass you by

    Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye…

Dorrance believed that he was “not a bad loser. One of the things I’ve never been able to accept about sports is that one team has to lose. And yet, I’m best at arranging for other teams to lose. I mean, there’s something wrong with that, philosophically, don’t you think?”

He admitted to being “teed off” by the losses, as astoundingly infrequent as they were, “yet, why does this irritate me that’s I’m teed off? And if it irritates me that I’m teed off, why don’t I sever that part of my personality? Because I don’t want to? Is it just winning that I’m after?”

And is that really just a male trait?

Dorrance claimed that his female players “have taught me their ability to relate…they’ve taught me to be more human.” Yet that didn’t stop them from maintaining an athletic dominance. Since the team materialized in 1979, Carolina has won 22 national championships. “It’s not world peace or cancer research,” Dorrance readily conceded. But there was no getting around the fact that his players’ accomplishments were “impressive. Heck, I’m impressed,” he said.

Just as Carolina occasionally lost in soccer, UConn, at some point, will lose a basketball game. Because there are scoreboards and two teams trying to win. But when a team—any team—wins more than 100 consecutive games, it counts.

 

 

Women’s basketball doesn’t need (unimaginative) dunking

With all due respect, a recent proposal to enhance fan interest in women’s basketball by lowering the rim is deadly on arrival. The argument, put forth in a New York Times essay by decorated energy and environment reporter Asher Price of Austin, Tex., is that a lower rim would “lead to more of what is arguably the single most exciting maneuver in all sports: the dunk.”

cartoon

Ah, the dunk. That numbingly defiant routine in men’s basketball which runs the gamut of athletic creativity from A to B. Just what the women need, a belligerent power move on steroids—all testosterone, no nuance—at a time when the game could use more passing, teamwork and pinpoint shooting.

A case against the promotion of more dunking, by men or women, can start with Stephen Curry in the current NBA championship finals. To witness the efficiency and theatrical style of Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ spindly guard, is to appreciate enthralling skills under substantial duress—not based on mere size and strength.

Cleveland’s self-proclaimed “best player in the world” LeBron James (6-foot-8) is far bigger, more forceful and frightening than the 6-3 Curry, but it is Curry who has displayed all of hoopdom’s brilliant colors. Deft passing, whirligig circumnavigation of defenders, soft floating layups, darting crossover dribbles that produce defenders’ whiplash. And, with the accuracy of his trigger-quick three-point shots, there is a lesson in the physics of the perfect parabola: Flawless arches, launched from his hands through considerable space, directly to the bottom of the net.

James deals in angry thunderbolts. Curry gives us lovely rainbows. And, as Kermit The Frog noted, there are good reasons we have so many songs about rainbows. Those binocular-range Curry jumpers provide a fizz that the bullying monster slam just can’t equal.

Price’s contention is that the 10-foot basket is unfairly high for women because they are, on average, roughly seven inches shorter than their male counterparts. Therefore women “are deprived of the opportunity to fully express their raw athleticism,” he reasons.

That’s a weird conclusion, since being able to shoot down into the basket does not require a particularly wide range of physical skills. For a combination of keen passing, back-door scheming and deft shooting, what I witnessed more than 30 years ago at the girls’ Iowa state high school basketball tournament was far more entertaining than some slam-dunk highlight reel. More to the point, those games drew a decidedly larger following than most male players enjoy.

At that time, and as recently at 1993, Iowa used a set of rules that were out-of-date and, to many, sexist: Girls still were restricted to playing an old six-a-side game, wherein three forwards remained on the offensive half of the court and three defenders in the defensive half, on the troglodyte theory that females couldn’t handle full-court runs.

Yet nowhere else had high school girls been as accepted as athletes as those playing basketball in Iowa, with a state tournament dating to 1919. I saw overflow crowds in excess of 14,000 at the finals in Des Moines, front-page coverage in the local papers that was three times that afforded the University of Iowa men’s team simultaneously playing in the NCAA tournament, live television coverage that spread to neighboring states, six-figure TV-rights money paid to tournament organizers.

Denise Long

Denise Long

The restrictive rules hardly kept those Iowa kids from rendering a crisp, fast-paced style with precise, telepathic teamwork and dead-eye jump-shooting. In 1969, it was an Iowa state high school girls’ senior, 60-plus-points-a-game Denise Long, who became the first female drafted by an NBA team (the Warriors of Stephen Curry’s future). There were elements of a publicity stunt to that pick, which quickly was negated by then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy, but at least Long was not being sought for the single ability to dunk, what Price gushingly calls a “swaggering, swooping move.”

Really, the dunk is mostly just the tallest guys showing off, and there is nothing intrinsically admirable about being 7-feet tall. Watch perennial NCAA women’s powers UConn, Notre Dame, Tennessee or Stanford and there will be aggressive defense, seeing-eye passing and dead-eye shooting. There will be neon offensive skills akin to some brilliant jazz quartet, the individual players meshing their applause-inducing solo abilities together as one ensemble.

So why predicate the women’s potential appeal on the need for dunking, just because the men emphasize (overemphasize?) it? Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril, who spent 29 years at Princeton before working as an NBA assistant after “retirement,” long ago lamented the “obviousness of the attack” that evolved in the men’s game—“Here I come! Try and stop me!”—while the “finesse part is dwindling.” Carril preferred that a player learn to “probe, look around, set up, use your head a little bit.”

So, careful what you wish for. This is not such much espousing a vive la difference approach as simply advocating that we not take basketball—women’s or men’s—to a new low.

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