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#FlashbackFriday: The NBA Approves Concept of the WNBA

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On April 24th, 1996, the National Basketball Association’s Board of Governors officially approved the concept of a Women’s NBA. The league was set to start the summer of 1997 with eight teams. The WNBA was not the first professional basketball league for women in the United States, but it was the first that had the full support of the NBA. David Stern used the momentum from the 1996 US Women’s National Basketball team in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to create a league with a mirrored logo and franchises in NBA cities. The NBA itself was the collective owner of every franchise.

The beginning of the WNBA was dominated by the Houston Comets and their “big three” of Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, and league MVP Cynthia Cooper. The Comets opened the history of the WNBA with four consecutive championships, even as the folding of the American Basketball League (the previous professional league for women) led to an expansion of eight new teams by the end of 2000. After dominating the league, the Comets were the first women’s team of any sport asked to visit the White House. Houston’s streak only came to a close with the 38-year-old Cynthia Cooper’s retirement in the fall of 2000 (Cooper returned in 2003, but much like Michael Jordan and the Wizards, we’re going to leave that out of the story). Lisa Leslie and the LA Sparks filled the Houston void in the coming seasons, and then the championships began to spread out.

In 2002, the NBA officially began selling teams to owners. The autonomy was a sign of strength. Owners moved some of the teams, and Connecticut became the first WNBA franchise not in an NBA city. However, two teams were forced to fold (Miami and Portland) because no one picked up the tab. Four years later, Chicago launched its own WNBA team.

Bill Laimbeer brought his “Bad Boy” Pistons’ toughness to the Detroit shock. Laimbeer and the Shock improved by 16 wins between his first two seasons, and won three titles in the first six years he was at the helm. Similarly, Paul Westhead used his background with the “Showtime” Lakers to create a powerhouse in Phoenix.

The mid-2000s also saw the launch of the WNBA on bigger television networks. In 2002, ESPN agreed to air at least eleven games a year, nationally on ESPN 2. The WNBA on ESPN show began in 2003, and Tuesday nights became a night for the WNBA. In 2007, ESPN and the WNBA agreed to expand to 18 games across ESPN, ESPN 2, and ABC, as well as a slate of postseason games. ESPN’s deal was the first of its kind for any professional sports league made up of women.

More games meant the country got to watch more “Paul Ball” from the Phoenix Mercury. Diana Taurasi, along with Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor, ran the fastest and highest-scoring offense in the league in 2007. The faster play led to more fans as well. Phoenix won the championship in 2007 in front of a record 22,000 fans.

2007 would also bring the end of two eras. With the recession hitting the United States, the Charlotte Bobcats organization had to announce they could no longer afford to operate the Charlotte Sting. Similarly, Houston Rockets’ owner Les Alexander was financially forced to sell the Comets. The WNBA took the franchise on in 2008, but the team was forced to fold after they went a year without a bidder. Houston’s four titles remain (tied) for the most by a WNBA franchise, even though the team has been absent for twelve years.

In 2009, the Maloof family also attempted to sell the Sacramento Monarchs before having to disperse the team. Also tied to the recession, the Shock moved from Detroit to Tulsa, and eventually to Dallas.

The league built up steam leading up to the NBA’s lockout. Between the TV deals and ticket sales, indications were that the league had weathered the storm of the recession and was primed for a strong year. The NBA Lockout of 2011, in turn, may have actually helped the league. Players that the average fan was familiar with from college, like Maya Moore, Tina Charles, or Seimone Augustus, were providing basketball throughout the summer while the fate of the NBA season appeared bleak. The following summer, after having a rushed 66-game NBA schedule, the WNBA saw fans return in droves. Between 2010 and 2012, nine of the twelve WNBA teams had increased their average attendance.

2013, however, was the turning point. The 2013 WNBA draft featured three stars from the NCAA: Skylar Diggins from Notre Dame, Elena Delle Donne from Delaware, and Brittney Griner from Baylor. These three women had dominated college basketball for several years, and all went pro at once. Diggins dominated at Notre Dame and took the Irish to three Final Fours and two title games. Delle Donne, a five-star recruit committed to UConn, ended up staying home near her family. After a quick stint with volleyball, Delle Donne got the Blue Hens on nationally televised NCAA tournament games in front of bigger crowds than the school had ever seen before. Griner gained notoriety in high school by dunking as a junior. At the time, only a handful of women had dunked in WNBA games. Griner dunked 52 times her senior year of high school. By the time Griner was done at Baylor,  she had paired post moves and hook shots with her power inside.

2013 also saw a new TV deal. ESPN and the WNBA reached a TV deal in March of 2013 that extended their relationship through 2022, and meant the league was going to get more than 30 regular-season games and the entire WNBA Finals on television every year. Diggins, Delle Donne, and Griner were walking into a league as new stars with an elevated platform. The league was preparing to grow, and the $25 Million per year TV deal meant the world could see it.

Today is 24 years since Stern and the NBA Board of Governors set out on the journey to launch the WNBA.  While sports in a broader sense are fragile and hanging in the balance in 2020, the league is set with a new CBA. WNBA players in 2020 begin earning more than any year prior, earning more than 50% of revenues. Travel accommodation requirements were increased, and players were guaranteed their full salary while on maternity leave. 2020 is also going to be the first year of the WNBA having an in-season tournament. The “Commissioner’s Cup” was going to be a mid-season, ten-game tournament.

2020 also launches a new set of TV games. In addition to the ESPN Deal, CBS has picked up 40 regular-season games and 19 WNBA Playoff games. This WNBA season, whenever it resumes, is going to be the most visible since Stern and the governors set to create the league 24 years ago. And all of those TV broadcasts have a new star: Sabrina Ionescu.

Ionescu has a following unlike any woman before her. Other stars have come to the league following successful college careers, but the following Ionescu has takes things to another level. Sabrina’s 460,000 Instagram followers are only a portion of the story. The former Oregon Duck would’ve been the number one pick a year ago but decided to return for a shot at an NCAA title, which she wasn’t able to play for due to COVID-19. Her off-season regimen with and connection to the late Kobe and Gigi Bryant was well documented. After the incredibly trying and challenging year she had, the nation is rooting for Ionescu’s success.

And her stage? New York City. The Liberty moved back into the city limits, playing their home games moving forward in the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. They’ve launched new seafoam green and black uniforms in anticipation of her arrival… which sold out on WNBA Draft night. She signed a Nike deal, and the deal became a trending topic on twitter.

Perhaps she is exactly the case for what’s next in the WNBA. For comparison, the NBA started in 1946. Televised sports have changed a lot, but the NBA was still airing the Finals on tape delay until1980. In the earliest stages of the NBA, the dominance of the Celtics was dwarfed by the (bad) hockey team in town. The Bruins, who posted losing records, frequently had more fans at their games throughout the Bill Russell era.

The NBA changed when Stern sought to get his NBA stars on television. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson became faces and created fandoms. Their rivalry began in college, and carried its way into the 1980s and the NBA. Then, a guy named Michael Jordan came in, and the league blew up. The WNBA, for the last six years, has been dominated by names we learned about as college kids. Diggins, Delle Donne, and Griner all battled as amateurs and had slews of fans before they were drafted.

Now, incomes Sabrina. And the country is rooting for her to help take the league to the next level as we enter the 25th year since the concept of the WNBA was approved.

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Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen

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Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.

How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.

With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.

LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.

No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.

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Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21

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There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.

Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.

Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.

Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.

Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.

For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.

Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.

If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.

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Stephen Jackson: Journey Man

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Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.

Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.

And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.

Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”

Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)

While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.

In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.

Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.

Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.

In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.

What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.

The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.

However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”

Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.

Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story.  As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.

“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”

But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?

“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”

“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”

“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”

The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.

However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).

Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.

But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.

And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.

If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:

The George Floyd Fund

Black Lives Matter

Bailing Out Protestors

Know Your Rights Camp

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund

Secure The Block

ACLU

Gianna Floyd Fund

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