WNBA celebrates 15 seasons
In front of 14,284 fans at the Great Western Forum on June 21, 1997, Sparks point guard Penny Toler swished a 12-footer, scoring the first basket in the WNBA’s inaugural game.
Although Toler and the Sparks lost that game to the New York Liberty, her shot became a bit of sports trivia and has been used as a question on “Jeopardy.”
Toler, now the Sparks’ general manager, said the significance of that first WNBA game was “not about scoring the first basket.” Rather, she said, it was playing a role in helping establish a pro league that could inspire female athletes.
The Sparks and the Liberty will commemorate the 15th season of the WNBA by playing Tuesday night at Staples Center.
Long ago, many doubted the league would last.
“The naysayers said it wouldn’t get past two [years],” NBA Commissioner David Stern said of the WNBA in December. “It’s now a fixture on the major league sports circuits.”
Even players were skeptical at first.
Sparks forward Tina Thompson was a USC senior in 1997 and hoped to attend law school when she received a call from a WNBA official inviting her to play for the fledgling league. Worried the WNBA wouldn’t survive long, she hesitated.
“I wanted to make sure this was solid before I walked away from everything I had been working toward,” Thompson recalled. Hours before the draft, she decided to take a chance.
She doesn’t have any regrets.
Thompson, 36, is the only player who’s been with the WNBA since its inception and is the league’s all-time leading scorer, with 6,466 points. The WNBA offers “hope to little girls that they can be whatever they want because they have an example,” Thompson said.
That was certainly true for Sparks forward Candace Parker.
Parker, the league’s 2008 most valuable player, was only 11 when the WNBA started, but she clearly remembers watching the league’s inaugural game on TV and was mesmerized by the play of Lisa Leslie.
From then on, when Parker shot hoops in the backyard with her brothers, she pretended she was making WNBA buzzer-beaters. “I had female role models,” Parker said.
Although the WNBA has served as an inspiration for young athletes, the league has also been dogged by financial concerns.
The WNBA started out with eight teams, and grew to 16 before several franchises folded, and it now fields 12 teams. Maximum WNBA player salaries have increased from $50,000 in 1997 to $103,500 today, with minimum salaries climbing from $15,000 to $36,570.
League officials said the WNBA’s finances are improving.
After last season, former WNBA president Donna Orender said the league had its first-ever “cash flow positive” team in the Connecticut Sun.
And Stern, who acknowledged that the NBA has subsidized the WNBA in recent years by up to $4 million a season, said last winter, “The NBA is doing better than breaking even on the WNBA.”
Toler expects the WNBA to be around at least another 15 years.
When the league started in 1997, its slogan was “We got next.”
A decade from now, Toler hopes to see another slogan that sends the message: “We’re in it for good.”
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.