Lisa Leslie remembers her surprise at the big arenas and luxurious locker rooms. Rebecca Lobo, Penny Toler and Teresa Weatherspoon recall the excitement of finally getting to play before family and friends. For everyone involved in the WNBA’s first game in 1997, there was also plenty of nervousness to go around.
With the New York Liberty facing the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday, the matchup falls on the anniversary of the game the teams played to begin the league’s inaugural season. Now in its 15th year, the WNBA has outlasted an early rival, endured a struggling economy and overcome naysayers perennially predicting its doom.
“It’s a good sound to hear — 15 years — because when we first started not too many believed it would remain,” said Weatherspoon, who teamed with Lobo to lead the Liberty to a 67-57 win over Leslie, Toler and the Sparks in that first game. “Only we did as the athletes. And to hear 15 years is amazing.”
Leslie wasn’t expecting much when she was one of the first players — along with Sheryl Swoopes and Lobo — to sign with the new league.
“I had no idea we would have the opportunities to play in such first-class arenas,” said Leslie, a three-time MVP and nine-time All-Star who retired after the 2009 season. “I really thought it would be a summer league where we’d probably wear reversible jerseys and play in much smaller gyms.”
To her surprise, her Sparks played at The Forum, then the home of the Lakers. The Lakers moved to Staples Center two years later and the Sparks joined them there in 2001, winning titles in their first two seasons in the building.
“I really thought the WNBA would be nothing more than a summer league,” she said. “So I was totally not prepared for the first-class treatment, the opportunity to play on such a grand stage as The Forum, to share the same locker rooms as Magic (Johnson) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Coop (Michael Cooper) and those guys poured champagne on each other, and I saw that on television.”
For players like Toler and Weatherspoon, who had spent years in leagues overseas, there was a lot of excitement over the opportunity to play at home.
“Being able to finally play in front of family and friends in America,” Weatherspoon said. “I didn’t sleep very well the night before … really excited to get on that floor.”
All the players remember the fanfare surrounding the start of the league, the media coverage and support from fans as they arrived to The Forum the day of the game, and the celebrities in attendance.
“It was lights, camera, action,” Leslie said. “It really felt like Hollywood.”
Before the game, there was a ceremonial tipoff. Val Ackerman, then the league president, came out to center court and tossed the ball up for Leslie and the Liberty’s Kym Hampton. Photographers and video cameras there to record the moment.
“Kym Hampton and I were even being competitive about that jump, wanting to be the one to get the ball,” Leslie said before adding with a laugh, “but, of course, I got it.”
Hampton recalled it a little differently.
“I thought we were just posing for pictures going up,” she said “But I got the real tip and we won the game.”
Toler holds the distinction of scoring the first basket in league history, a baseline jumper with just under a minute gone.
“The good thing about that,” she said, “records will be broken, but that’s one that never will be broken.”
Leslie, who lives in Los Angeles, will be at Tuesday’s game, along with Toler, now in her 12th season as general manager of the Sparks, and Lobo, an ESPN analyst who will be working on the network’s broadcast of the game. Leslie and Lobo will also be involved in a roundtable discussion of the league’s history during halftime of the broadcast.
As part of the festivities, the Sparks will be showing a video and the league will announce the 30 finalists for the All-15th Anniversary team, with the 15 players to be selected in fan voting.
That the WNBA has made this far is a source of pride for those there at the outset.
“I don’t think we were in any way considering not being around,” said Sparks star Tina Thompson, the only player in league history to have played in every season. “I don’t think I thought I’d be playing 15 years, but I definitely thought the WNBA would be here.”
Thompson, in her third season with Los Angeles, began her career with the Houston Comets and helped them win the league’s first four championships.
The founding players are pleased with the evolution of the game. They note the increased versatility of today’s young stars, believing the increased exposure to the women’s game has helped their development.
“The players are better now, stronger, they’re more athletic, they’re more skilled,” Lobo said. “I think that’s because they watched women’s basketball played at the highest level since they were young kids. It’s a whole different sports world that young girls have been able to grow up with the last 15 years.”
Weatherspoon, who coaches the women’s team at Louisiana Tech, agreed.
“Everyone can play inside, outside, shoot the ball, extend defenses,” she said. “It’s good to see that every year it gets better, every year someone tries to change their game to look even better.”
The league outlasted an early challenge from the ABL, which played in the winter and had completed its first season before the WNBA tipped off. The ABL, however, disbanded on Dec. 22, 1998, just after the start of its third season and most of the players joined the WNBA the following year.
Lobo chose to sign with the WNBA while most of her teammates from the gold medal-winning Olympic team from the 1996 Atlanta Games went to the rival league.
“With the NBA’s backing, with David Stern’s backing — not only financially, the marketing power that they had,” Lobo said, “I just thought businesswise it had more of a chance to succeed.”