Lynx give WNBA a chance to thrive

MINNEAPOLIS – After the Lynx launched a 25-point comeback to beat the Atlanta Dream on Sept. 7, the mood around the Minnesota locker room was close to ecstatic.

Players reveled in what they’d just done, exhausted but pleased. Coach Cheryl Reeve seemed nearly as worn out from her sideline pacing and the anxiety that comes with such a deficit, but even she was proud.

“I told our team that through the last three years that I’ve been here I’ve been proud of our team in so many situations,” Reeve said. “I didn’t know if there would be anything that could top some of the moments that we’ve had in the past. I told them tonight did that, in terms of how they responded.”

It was the most natural of reactions, perhaps the same way a fan or a disinterested bystander would feel after watching such a momentous comeback. The emotions were real, and in that moment, I realized how different the WNBA, or perhaps just the Lynx, might be. Of course the Lynx knew they shouldn’t have let themselves fall so far behind, but they didn’t let that overshadow everything else.

But in many other sports, no coach would allow such a positive reaction to that kind of game. He or she would gripe and moan about the fact that the team put itself in such a position, implying that a win could or should have been easier. It’s a dialogue found too often, one that makes players and coaches seem like alien perfectionists, impossible to relate to in most circumstances.

And so for a second in my head as I listened to Reeve speak her refreshingly normal words, I cheered. Not for the Lynx, which would go against the ethics of sports journalism, but for the league, for these women and what they’re trying to do to succeed. I silently cheered for something that might be good for sports, for society, for the little girls who hope to someday see their own names on the backs of jerseys.

Six months ago, I had never watched a WNBA game, and I didn’t care. It was an apathy borne of little more than ignorance and lack of exposure, and it’s been worn away throughout this season. No, I’ll never be the WNBA’s No. 1 fan, but that doesn’t change the fact that this league deserves respect, and a handful of games and a multitude of conversations later, here I am hoping for its success.

In Minnesota and perhaps across the country, that success right now seems interwoven with the fate of the Lynx, who are looking to be the newest WNBA dynasty and the first repeat champions in a decade. They boast a lineup studded with three Olympians and perhaps the league’s biggest star in Maya Moore, and they’re good candidates to boost the league to the next level with their success.

Here’s a scenario that might work: The Lynx win this year, raising the profiles of Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Cheryl Reeve and company even higher. They’re the darlings of the league for a second consecutive season and targets for every other team. In the spring, Phoenix drafts Baylor’s Brittney Griner with the No. 1 overall pick. The Mercury, who boast an already solid roster and one of the league’s best players in Diana Taurasi, are, with the addition of Griner, as dangerous as the Lynx, and a real rivalry develops, among the biggest, most universally recognized names in the league.

That couldn’t hurt the WNBA. In fact, if anything is going to help, it’s that. No, it won’t come close to pushing the league on par with men’s sports, but that’s a more distant goal. Got a better way to boost the league’s profile? I’ll take it, but that’s the best I can come up with at this point, with the Lynx and two Eastern Conference teams still alive this season and Griner looming on the horizon.

Now let me explain for a minute why this even matters: It matters because of little girls and women. It matters not because our country needs a female professional sports league but because at this point a league should be able to survive, if not succeed. It matters because these are role models and talented athletes whom we for many years shipped to other countries for their own benefit despite the fact that they can and should thrive here.

Look back at the London Olympics, where some of the biggest names were women: Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Hope Solo, Moore, Sue Bird and Missy Franklin, among others. We were as glued to their performances as we were to the men’s, but with the exception of the WNBA, there’s no venue for these women to become mainstream stars past that two-week jaunt overseas. They’re once-every-four-years phenomena, largely confined to their niche fan groups and audiences. There are too few venues for them to compete and become household names, and that is the real reason that the state of women’s sports must improve.

And so we look to the WNBA, which likely has the greatest infrastructure in place for female athletes in America to thrive. It’s a growing league that has learned how to turn profits, and it has a president, Laurel Richie, who’s most concerned with marketing her product. With all that already established, it’s perhaps the best and fastest hope to make women’s sports more mainstream, but even it has a long way to go.

Maybe it needs rivalries. Maybe it needs a dynasty, or perhaps these college stars like Moore and Griner, who came of age in the Internet era and earned widespread celebrity before turning pro, will be its best shot at gaining notice. There are so many questions about what it needs and what the tipping point will be, and only time and trial will answer them. That’s stressful for the league, of course, but it already has so much in place to make it relatable and enjoyable. The problem is that many sports fans simply don’t know about it.

Take the Lynx, for example. Watching them is fun, especially in person. One must accept that some things taken for granted in the NBA simply don’t happen here – dunks, anything above the rim, a certain level of brute physicality – but once those limitations are accepted rather than derided, this is a good product. There’s rebounding and scoring and precision ballhandling on the court, and off it there are women who give themselves to their sport as fully as the men, if not more.

There’s also an inherent level of normal to these women. They don’t look like celebrities or act like them. They shake fans’ hands and interact more than most professional athletes, and they can grab a coffee at Starbucks without inciting a mob. After games, they react the way you’d expect them to react, with real emotions and even pleasure, which are often lacking elsewhere in sports.

Many sports thrive on the celebrity, the distance, the inability to relate to these vaunted specimens. Can this one thrive on the opposite?

So let’s celebrate these women for what they offer: role models for young women, the ability to relate, a good and improving product and a sport that should be able to thrive, if perhaps on a different tier. On the eve of the 2012 WNBA Finals, let’s cheer for whatever will help the league, not just for the sake of these women and women in general but for the hope that maybe someday this will be something more than just a niche.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.