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A Hoop Junkie Gets a Fix From WNBA

Women’s professional basketball is just plain fun.

A creature of the men’s NBA, the televised new WNBA is the answer to a basketball junkie’s (blush) summer blahs, featuring lots of quickness, flying bodies, over-dribbling, sporadic good shooting and inconsistent play that’s wild, wild, wild.

Think of good boys’ high school basketball, where energy often exceeds the uneven skill level, and you pretty much have the picture. In other words, a real hoot.

And the Los Angeles Sparks’ big woman, 6-foot-8 Zheng Haixa of China, could teach Shaq plenty about shooting free throws. A real dead-eye on the line, she actually grins with anticipation when she’s there.

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A pro actually having a good time on the court? Shouldn’t that get her tossed from the game? What’s going on here?

The WNBA has a 28-game regular season and, significantly, a TV contract split among NBC and cable’s Lifetime and ESPN. Grrrrreat exposure. It also has some articulate glamour players, such as the Sparks’ Lisa Leslie and the New York Liberty’s Rebecca Lobo, and enough NBA-style advertising acumen to promote them effectively as star glitter.

Women’s basketball just has the goods all around.

Those who cover sports regularly say there’s much more talent in the ABL, the less-publicized, under-marketed, under-televised other new women’s pro hoops league that plays in smaller cities and has already completed its first season. Here’s hoping they both thrive and perhaps even merge.

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In any case, the Sparks and their conquerors, the Utah Starzz, showed more than enough in their ESPN-carried game in Salt Lake City Monday to induce any basketball enthusiast to return for more.

The Starzz became the first WNBA team to crack 100 points in the league’s 2-game-old season, erasing an early deficit to ultimately pull away from the Sparks and win 102-89 in a game that was terrific entertainment, affirming just how athletic, exciting and competitive these players are, but also that white women, too, can’t jump. Go figure.

Steadier than play on the court was the ESPN team of veteran Robin Roberts and Geno Aurienna, successful head coach for the women’s team at the University of Connecticut.

Roberts and Aurienna did commit one blunder in failing to note L.A. coach Linda Sharp’s boggling decision to leave her star, Leslie, on the floor with three personal fouls in the first half--six and you’re history--something that came back to haunt the Sparks when she picked up her fourth shortly before halftime. (The teams play two halves, as collegians do, instead of four quarters like the male pros.) However, Roberts and Aurienna did emphatically note another bizarre decision by Sharp to replace Leslie about a minute before the break with Haixa, who also had three fouls.

Aurienna, in particular, spoke candidly and got things off his chest--at one point, for example, slamming the Sparks’ undisciplined shot selection as being “beyond description.” Very nice, for the last thing ESPN should do is go soft and gooey on these teams just because they’re female--that would be an insult--or because, as one of the league’s TV voices, it has a proprietary interest in polishing the WNBA’s image.

Which in its infancy is pretty gleaming: Athletes playing the game not for big money, but seemingly for the love of it. No showboating. No trash talking. No cheap shots. No female version of the Worm, Dennis Rodman. No, none of that.

Yet.

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THAT INGRATE. How dare a professional athlete stop being a professional athlete.

Take the colorful, charismatic and once-formidable Andre Agassi, formerly an 800-pound gorilla of professional tennis, but someone who seems to have lost his zest for the game and has played only a dozen matches in 1997. Citing a recurring wrist injury, Agassi withdrew from this year’s prestigious Wimbledon tournament, which began Monday.

Uh oh. So now comes HBO, spiking its coverage of rain-swept Wimbledon with Frank Deford’s Monday piece on Agassi, setting the tone with somber music, likening his tennis inertia to a tragedy of Shakespearean size, and equating him with Richard Burton and Marlon Brando, who Deford maintained never reached their great potential as actors because they gave in to easy roles and women.

“The image, sadly even the player, is growing more tarnished,” groaned Deford, usually one of the planet’s most insightful, sensible sports journalists.

What? Agassi marries Brooke Shields, dumps tennis, and all of a sudden he’s King Lear? Hardly. What if he had given up tennis to work selflessly for suffering children or for lepers? Would that be catastrophic, too?

In HBO’s studios at Wimbledon following Deford’s piece, Mary Carillo found some perspective about Agassi. “He’s thinking, ‘I want to be happy. I’m married. This [tennis] isn’t making me happy anymore.’ ” Added Martina Navratilova: “He’s done well in the sport, maybe he doesn’t want to play. Maybe tennis is not No. 1 for Andre anymore.”

And maybe, just maybe, what he chooses to do with his life is no one’s business but his.


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