As we were walking out of the Verizon Center, though, we spent less time talking about Griner — who was impressive in scoring 21 points — and more time talking about the rest of the game, a thrilling 101-97 Mercury victory that came down to the final seconds.
My links to women’s basketball go back to high school, where I was part of a group of guys that regularly scrimmaged the girls basketball team. One of my best high school friends was on that team, and I watched most of her games. I even went to a few when she went on to play college ball, and I covered women’s high school and college games here and there while working for both the student and local newspapers in college. I’d never really gotten into the WNBA though, probably both because of my own subconscious biases against it and because it falls at an odd time in the calendar when I’m generally worn out by basketball.
But last night was impressive, both on the court and off. The attendance was low by NBA standards, but at key moments, the place was buzzing. It was electric when the Mystics went on a run to take a double-digit lead in the second quarter, and the crowd cheered loudly as Griner waded deeper into foul trouble both in the first half and later. It erupted in boos when officials waved off Matee Ajavon’s desperation three-pointer that would have tied the game with less than four seconds left (it was, admittedly, the correct call). The Mystics have cultivated a following among different communities in D.C., from its gay population to its families with children, and there were multiple youth basketball teams there last night.
What will get me back for more games, though, was the play on the court. And I think my experience should serve as a lesson both to the WNBA and to basketball fans who have dismissed it. For the league, it’s evidence that Brittney Griner can bring people to the game. I was there solely to see Griner, but I left more impressed with former UConn star Taurasi, whose skills can’t really be appreciated until they’re witnessed live, and Candace Dupree, the Mercury’s do-everything forward who finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. I’d never heard of her before Thursday. So while I was there for Griner, I left as someone who will go back to games without her. I’ve said before that putting the future of the WNBA on Griner’s shoulders is too much to place on a rookie, but her visibility and influence have the potential to bring people to the game who wouldn’t see it otherwise — especially people like me and her colleagues who are drawn to her because she’s so willing to be herself in a world that hasn’t always allowed that.
For basketball fans, the lesson is even deeper. There exists among die-hards an inherent need to compare the men’s and women’s games, to argue about whether a state champion high school boys team could win a women’s NCAA title, to complain that women aren’t as athletic or as dominant, or that they don’t play above the rim. That comparison isn’t just unfair, it’s useless — the women’s game isn’t the men’s game, and it isn’t trying to be. Set that need to compare them aside, and people who like basketball in all its forms should have no problem appreciating the women’s game. That’s not a revelation I came to last night, but it’s one I didn’t truly acknowledge until I saw the WNBA up close. Diana Taurasi isn’t dunking on anyone, but she dominates her opponents in her own way. Watching Taurasi and Griner work inside-out on offense or the way the Mystics electric backcourt tandem of Ajavon and Ivory Latta carved up the Mercury both in the half-court and on the fast break last night, it struck me that if basketball fans can’t enjoy it, it’s more because of the need to compare every step to the men’s game than because it isn’t enjoyable.