Tuesday’s night’s NCAA women’s basketball championship game was a blowout that re-established UConn as a powerhouse certain to inspire fear and trembling among opponents going forward.
Unhappily, what some people found themselves talking about at the end of the college basketball season was not Louisville’s unlikely run or Connecticut’s return to the top of the heap, but the possibility that Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks would draft Baylor’s Brittney Griner, who greeted the news with a shrug and a smile. “I’ve never backed down from a challenge,” she said, “and I never will.”
Griner is big and strong and good enough so that last spring, UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma said she had added a new dimension to the women’s game, which is quite a thing for the guy who coached Rebecca Lobo and Maya Moore to say. But regarding Griner’s potential tryout with the Mavericks, last week Auriemma said, “I think it would be a sham.” He characterized the notion that a woman could successfully compete in the NBA as “absolutely ludicrous.”
Nor was Coach Auriemma alone. Joanne McCallie, who coaches the Duke women’s team, dismissed Mark Cuban’s gesture as “silly” and went on to say, “Let’s be who we are. Let’s be really good at who we are.”
Mark Cuban’s grab for publicity got publicity because numbers of people cannot accept women’s basketball as different without regarding it as inferior. “Being really good at who we are” is not sufficient for them. They don’t take female basketball players seriously because the females don’t play alongside the males, whether as Baylor Bears or Louisville Cardinals or Dallas Mavericks.
Does this mean there’s something wrong with the women’s game? No, as numbers of other people have noticed. The UConn women play before sellout crowds, and at Baylor and Notre Dame, the women outdraw the men. At last count, the top seven women’s programs in terms of attendance all averaged more than 8,500 fans per night. Try telling the people seated in those arenas that the women play a lesser game.
The women currently playing basketball at the D-I and professional levels in this country and in various places overseas are, to use Joanne McCallie’s words, “really good at who they are,” and in more places than ever before they’re getting better. Do they still have something to prove, and can they prove it only by playing in the NBA? Mark Cuban’s flamboyant scene stealing and Brittney Griner’s cheerful contention that she’s willing to “push the envelope” notwithstanding, the answer is no.