I was a fan of the WNBA product – I just didn’t know it until recently. Attending my first San Antonio Stars, formerly Silver Stars, game two weeks ago, I saw Tulsa Shock super-guards Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims score 34 and 39 points respectively (both career highs). In the game’s waning moments, with the score tied, Stars guard Danielle Robinson used a Danielle Adams screen to blow by scrambling Shock defenders, scoring the go-ahead lay-up with just three-and-a-half seconds left in regulation. When Sophia Young-Malcolm secured the game-clinching steal for the Stars, I imagined Johnny Most’s immortal voice describing the action—“Malcolm-Young Stole the Ball! It’s all Over!”
I’m a basketball junkie and a San Antonio sports homer. But I found that the Stars offered a new and likable group of interesting players to throw my support behind – basketball I could really sink my teeth into.
So why would it take so long for a San Antonian basketball aficionado to actually see – or care to see – a Stars game?
Since its inaugural year in 1997, the WNBA has struggled to establish itself with fans outside of its niche base of supporters, identified by Phoenix lawyer and WNBA fan Barry Uhrman as “lesbian couples, heterosexual families with daughters who play sports, single African-American men, and senior citizens.” If that isn't offensive, I don't know what is, but it unfortunately sums up the stereotype images of the sport and its fan base shared by others.
There has been a continuing debate about whether the WNBA can cross over and achieve mainstream success enjoyed by other major professional sports leagues. Many, like Forbes sports reporter Tom Van Riper, view the NBA’s recent initiatives directed at celebrating the LGBT community, as a “tacit admission that the old strategy, basketball for the sake of basketball (i.e. for everybody), isn’t working.”
As a white, unmarried, male 20-something, falling outside the WNBA niche base, the league eluded me until recently. But having started to appreciate the game for all it has to offer, I think it would a shame if the WNBA stops trying to broaden its base.
So this is my attempt to awaken you, potential Stars fans, to what you’re missing, and give you a guide to Stars fandom that will make you feel like you’ve been on the bandwagon since 2002, the team’s first year in San Antonio.
Here are five reasons why you should be a Stars fan – and WNBA fan by extension. Once you're convinced, the Stars play the Phoenix Mercury tonight at 7 p.m. and the Los Angeles Sparks Sunday 3:30 p.m. at the AT&T Center.
Reason 1: Because Basketball is Entertaining
The number one reason for being a Stars/WNBA fan is simply that the game action is enjoyable for its own sake. If this were not the case, then all the other reasons combined couldn’t persuade me to be a fan. Nevertheless, the oft-repeated critique of women’s basketball claims that without the highlight reel dunks of the men’s game, women’s basketball becomes lackluster and loses (at the very least) the casual fans.
This argument fails to take account of the differences that make the women’s game unique while at the same time making a superficial play (a dunk is still only two points) out to be the be-all-end-all of inspiring basketball. I don’t watch women’s tennis expecting to see 144 miles-per-hour serves. As tennis strategy analyst Craig O’Shannessy illustrates, the disparity between men and women in power leads to the women’s different style of play that is equally enjoyable in its own right:
“Understanding this fundamental difference will let us appreciate the subtleties each version of the sport has to offer.”
This analogy should inform how we watch the WNBA. In place of dunks and isolation ball, the WNBA revolves around teamwork and fundamentals – what San Antonio basketball fan can’t get behind that? Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who has earned just about every accolade imaginable in her career, explained that since women rarely dunk, “you have to take as much pleasure in the extra pass.”
Taurasi, who for my money is the most captivating WNBA player in the league, can’t dunk. But does that stop you from marveling at highlights displaying her supreme confidence, ability to shake defenders out of their shoes, and complete the perfect no-look pass?
If you are a Spurs fan, you have probably already an appropriate devaluation of the dunk. Let the Clippers have the “Lob City” moniker. In the YouTube tribute The Beautiful Game ‘We’ is greater than ‘Me’, Magic Johnson declares, “I watched the Spurs carve the Clippers up by playing basic fundamental basketball, and it was beautiful to watch.”
If un-flashy, unselfish teamwork and execution is good enough for Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics and our Spurs and captivating enough to inspire countless Gifs and YouTube tributes, then why protest to its proliferation in the WNBA? It certainly shouldn’t be a stumbling block to your fandom.
Reason 2: Affordability, Access, Jerk-Free
One of the most salient reasons for supporting the Stars in person is incredible value of tickets relative to your overall experience. Photographer Scott Ball and I couldn’t wrap our heads around the poster within the AT&T center promoting a $10 deal including a ticket, soda and hotdog, and the ticket price doesn’t get you the seat behind the rafter that obscures your vision. As the top levels of the AT&T Center are closed off, it can be truly said that there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Also, a little not-so-secret secret, there is ample opportunity to move up a row midway through a game if you find it to be unoccupied.
It is also easy to see why the Stars are a perfect attraction for families. Not only is the experience affordable, imagine what the peripheral experience of a Spurs game would be like with less than half the usual attendance—the Stars average about 8,500 compared to the Spurs’ 18,500 per home game. And honestly, it feels even less crowded (in a good way), because you’re not sitting next to the obnoxious drunk guy. The ease with which you can take your kids to the bathroom, get through a food line, and of course get out of the parking lot make it a perfect, low stress experience.
The accessibility of the fans to the players and the team, along with the care shown by the Stars to their fans, is another strength of the experience.
Reason 3: Because You Will Love the Team
Before my first Stars game, the Spurs were the only team I could say I supported 100 percent. I don’t even really care about my alma mater teams—sorry, Bobcats. I suppose school spirit has never done it for me. The geographical connection I feel with the Spurs, and now the Stars, gives my fandom a basis where all my other teams feel somewhat arbitrary. Watching the first game I felt a strange reaction: because of this hometown connection, I already loved the team. But being a new fan, I was getting to discover which players I found most interesting.
I was immediately drawn to Stars 2013 #3 overall draft pick Kayla McBride’s beautiful shooting stroke and wide smile, mixed with her rookie deer-in-the-headlights look at times.
I found out that Danielle Adams’ deceptive appearance as a low-post banger belied her range and touch as a shooter. I loved watching 37-year-old Becky Hammon, recently hired by the Spurs as the first full-time, female assistant coach, penetrate the defense.
Any overview of the Stars roster would be incomplete without mentioning our third-year point guard, Danielle Robinson, who stands out on the court with her pink faux-hawk. Robinson was our one All-Star representative this season, and she deserves it as the Stars best wing defender, finisher, and free throw shooter. She doesn’t shoot 3-pointers but does just about everything else well, leading the team in steals, assists, minutes played, and points per game. If there is any silver (and black) lining, to Hammon’s retirement next season it’s that Robinson and McBride are going get more familiar with one another and grow into the leadership void left by the new Spurs assistant coach.
Reason 4: Like Spurs, Like Stars
I mentioned that the WNBA features a more team-oriented, fundamental play style. The Stars epitomize this style and share an uncanny resemblance to the Spurs from the front office to the team identities — which is to say, if you are a fan of the Spurs, you are basically already a fan of the Stars.
Starting at the top, the Stars are part of the Spurs Sports & Entertainment, owned by Peter Holt, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that both teams share such similar organizational beliefs. As is the case with the Spurs, Holt’s approach to owning the Stars is to find qualified organizational hires, then let them do their jobs with minimal interference. To this point, Stars Head Coach and General Manager Dan Hughes has been with the team since 2005. Both the Spurs and Stars have a knack for scouting international talent and finding productive players in the later rounds of drafts.
One interesting similarity between the two teams is that they are hard to hate. If opponents don’t outright respect the Spurs, then they at least find it difficult to find grief with the placid-faced Tim Duncan. As for the Stars, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve explained that she likes to vilify opposing teams to “create the ‘us against them, screw that,’ but she “doesn’t have that with San Antonio,” which she calls “a team full of good people.”
The Spurs and Stars are alike on the court in that they both rely heavily on the three-pointer and rank first in their respective leagues in team three-point percentage in 2014. Both Pop and Hughes employ deep rotations and feature “stretch-fours,” who create mismatches and are vital to their teams’ floor spacing: Boris Diaw and Danielle Adams.
No similarity between the teams is as direct, however, as the hiring of the face of the Stars, Becky Hammon, by the Spurs. The mutual admiration of Popovich is a testament to the intelligence and desire of Hammon.
Reason 5: It's the Perfect Time to Get on Board
The Stars are currently in fourth place in the Western Conference, which – as is the case in the NBA – is currently far superior to the Eastern Conference. The regular season ends on Aug. 17.
Hammon's last Stars home game before she starts her new assistant coach position with the Spurs is Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $15. After the game, an official retirement ceremony will be held in Hammon's honor. A special ticket price is available: for $25, fans receive a lower-level seat, a Becky Hammon basketball, a commemorative ticket and a custom lapel pin.