In dying, ABL creates new WNBA

Wealth of talent spread around, building parity

June 10, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

When the American Basketball League decided to close shop on Dec. 22, the Women's National Basketball Association received a two-fold, early Christmas present. The move meant no competitor bidding for Chamique Holdsclaw and the availability of talented and seasoned ABL players.

For a glimpse of the impact as the league's third season begins tonight, please check out the opponent of Holdsclaw's Washington Mystics, the Charlotte Sting -- the most immediate beneficiary of the ABL influx.

The WNBA's Eastern Conference runner-up in 1998, Charlotte is a legitimate championship contender after nabbing a desperately needed point guard in ABL refugee Dawn Staley. However, the demise of the ABL has been a bounty for all.

"No one is a clear-cut favorite because everyone has new personnel," Charlotte coach Marynell Meadors said. "I feel confident with our team, and [the changes] have made us a stronger team. But on the other side, the other teams have the same thing."

The influx will probably be the No. 1 topic of conversation throughout the WNBA, whose motto of "We Got Game" is no longer a misnomer as its rosters become laden with players from an ABL that was considered superior in talent before it went under.

At the same time, Holdsclaw, a four-time All-American at Tennessee, gives the WNBA its first legitimate superstar by virtue of (a) her New York City roots; (b) three national collegiate championships with the Lady Vols, and (c) being widely considered the best player of all time.

"I expect nothing but for Chamique to be a star," Detroit Shock coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline said. "She knows she's supposed to be good and and that's why we have good players, great players and superstars."

While Sting coach Meadors has tried to downplay the us-and-them aspect -- "We don't consider them ABL players, we consider them players" -- products from the now-defunct league were 70 percent of the draft.

"I know that the ABL had a tremendous amount of talent and it's unfortunate that [the WNBA] only have 40 to 45 of them," said Meadors, who picked up Staley with the seventh pick of the draft, after two years of subsisting on rookie point guards.

"I'm very lucky that she was there, because for two years I've tried to get a veteran point guard. To get someone like Dawn and her ability, you know just the things that she's accomplished in the game of basketball."

The Sting, whose returning players include Tracy Reid (North Carolina), Andrea Stinson (N.C. State) and Vicky Bullett (Maryland), is just one of the teams capable of challenging two-time title-holder Houston.

The Comets, the Western Conference champs, are still favored to win their third straight title, even without point guard Kim Perrot, who has cancer.

Perrot's replacement will be Sonja Henning, who will join a nucleus of All-Stars -- Cynthia Cooper (league MVP and leading scorer), Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes.

This group will try to repeat with several greatly-improved Western Conference teams breathing down Houston's neck. Chief among them is the Phoenix Mercury, which came within minutes of beating the Comets for the league crown.

The effects of the ABL influx might be seen with the Utah Starzz and Sacramento Monarchs, who added the ex-league's best players-- center Natalie Williams and forward Yolanda Griffiths, respectively. Williams was an MVP and Griffiths was runner-up twice.

But Mystics coach Nancy Darsch says adding new players can be tough at first, no matter how good they are. "The quality of the league will be enhanced," she said, "but it can still be sloppy. That's just the nature of the beast."

Darsch said she hopes the ABL-WNBA distinctions will fade, but she knows that may not happen quickly.

After all, the NBA still deals with the ghosts of the American Basketball Association, 24 years after the renegade league folded for good after the 1975-76 season.

"Even on the NBA telecast," Darsch said, referring to a possible Indiana-San Antonio finals matchup, "they're saying it will be the first All-ABA matchup. So maybe we'll never be rid of it."

WNBA season at a glance

When: Third regular season begins tonight and continues through Aug. 21.

Who: Twelve teams playing 32 games; two new expansion teams in Minnesota and Orlando. Teams to beat: Houston has three all-WNBA first-teamers and two league championships. Phoenix was a league finalist last year and nearly upset Houston. Cleveland won the Eastern Conference last seaso but Charlotte has challenged and is expected to do so again.

League leaders: Scoring -- Houston's Cynthia Cooper (22.7 ppg); rebounding -- Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie (10.2 rpg); assists -- Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro (7.5 apg).

Players to watch: Cooper has been the league's only MVP, and is joined by 1998 ABL MVP Natalie Williams (Utah) and two-time ABL MVP runner-up Yolanda Griffiths (Sacramento).

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