ORLANDO, Fla. - Here's a riddle: When is an All-Star game more of a conundrum than an exhibition of the best talent that the sport has to offer?
The not-so-funny answer: When it's being thrown by the WNBA.
The league, in its fifth year, is staging its third midseason game tonight amid signs that some of the bloom is off its impressive early days.
Attendance and television ratings continue to slide as the league battles for acceptance, with shrinking or nonexistent news coverage in many cities. Meanwhile, many other media outlets pay more attention to a Playboy online poll to identify the WNBA's sexiest player and offer her a nude pictorial than to the play on the floor.
And so, tonight's nationally televised game (8 o'clock, ESPN) at the TD Waterhouse Centre becomes more than just a fun-filled exhibition that All-Star gatherings are in other sports; it is an opportunity for the players to prove that they belong in the national spotlight.
"Anytime you bring what is supposed to be the best in your sport, the media expects a good game, the fans expect a good game," said Charlotte Sting guard Dawn Staley. "That's a tremendous amount of pressure to place upon the players, especially when you don't have a great amount of preparation. You get two hours, one shoot-around and one practice.
"But I think it's going to be exciting. You'll see great athletes go out there and try to give an exciting game. You can't please everyone, but hopefully the people who will be here will enjoy a great basketball game."
Additionally, the game will give the 24 players the opportunity to refute critics who say the women's game is slow and turnover-hampered.
"It's important for us to come out and play good basketball. We can't become `Showtime' all of a sudden and ... [play like] `Showtime,' not connect and throw passes out of bounds too much because it is on TV," said Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie. "Naturally, you do want to send out a message that, `Hey, these women can play this game and they are playing at a very high level and they're executing very well.'
"However, there is a need for the one-on-one skills to be seen and a little bit of excitement. But there's a bit of a Catch-22. When it is basic, then [the criticism is:] `It's boring, but they played good,' and when it is `Showtime,' it's like, `Oh, God, there were way too many turnovers.' It's very hard to find that fine line. There's always going to be criticism, so we just say, `Hey, get out there and play and have fun, and whatever happens, happens.' "
The game and players might be different from the All-Star experience most fans are used to, but there are a few similarities to other games.
For one, injuries have taken a toll on the rosters. Chamique Holdsclaw of the Washington Mystics - the leading vote-getter in fan balloting - will miss tonight's game with a fractured right foot, an injury that will keep her out of action for another week. Reserve forward Chasity Melvin of the Cleveland Rockers also will miss tonight's game with a fractured eye socket.
Another link to other All-Star games is the quirkiness of fan voting. The 10 starters for the two conference squads are composed of players from only four teams, which just happen to be among the league's attendance leaders. The four-time defending champion Houston Comets provided two Western starters, guard Janeth Arcain and forward Tina Thompson, and the Sacramento Monarchs produced the other three starters, guard Ticha Penicheiro, center Yolanda Griffith and forward Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, a controversial choice because she doesn't start for Sacramento.
On the Eastern side, the New York Liberty's Tari Phillips, a center, guard Teresa Weatherspoon and forward Vickie Johnson were voted in, as well as Holdsclaw and Mystics teammate Nikki McCray.
McCray's election is particularly odd, because the Mystics have the league's worst record and she is having her worst professional season, averaging 9.7 points and hitting 18 percent of her three-point attempts.
"I'm grateful to have the chance to play. I had the opportunity to play the last few years, and I put up the numbers and I deserved to be here. This year, I think I deserved to be here, even though our team isn't playing well and I haven't been putting up the numbers," McCray said.
"I know that I can play this game. It's been kind of a shock for our team and for me. But I'm so appreciative of being here and I'm thankful that the fans recognize what I can do and appreciate my talent night in and night out."