Two nights ago, I sat courtside at the New Orleans Arena for the National Basketball Championship. The University of Connecticut women were playing to see who was the best team in the country---them or their arch-rivals, the Lady Vols of the University of Tennessee. It-s a privilege to attend the title game in any sport, but as the players hustled and finessed their way through this championship evening, it came to me that I was witnessing history. History on two fronts.
Diana Taurasi, the senior guard from U Conn brings a palpable sense of something exceptional onto the court. She has been called perhaps the best college player to ever sprint down the hardwood and Tuesday night you believed it. A middle-class street scrapper from Chino, California, Taurasi patterned herself after Magic Johnson and now she-s so good they say she plays like a boy. She-s cool. Makes no-look, behind-the-back passes, long arcing 3-pointers, and even bump-and-grind under-the-basket shots look effortless. She skips and strides down the court like a field general, motioning her army to switch and sway with her.
I sat right in front of her mother, Lily, for the game. Lily-s Italian accent is so thick she could audition for the Sopranos. I don-t think she blinked for 40 straight minutes and when Connecticut won at the final buzzer, Lily flooded with tears. For her, it was understandably a moment pride. A daughter so accomplished, such a champion. When Diana climbed up the ladder to perform the ceremony of snipping the net from the hoop, you saw a 21-year-old who represents all that America-s supposedly obese, depressed, lost youth should be. A young woman in pursuit of excellence. Diana Taurasi in her final college game was more than spectacular. She was sublime.
I mentioned another bit of history in the making Tuesday night. More than a hundred years ago, in the late 1800-s, as boys and men started playing basketball in New England schools, so did girls and women. Back then, it was actually the women-s game that drew the bigger crowds. Long about 1930, caught up in a flurry of conservative, anti-suffragette misogyny, women-s basketball suffered setbacks. Ever since, the American public has been inclined to embrace pretty figure skaters and elegant divers while women team sport players have been denied media coverage, shut out of endorsement deals, and basically been both ignored and reviled.
We all thought soccer would pave the golden path. Here-s a game where a highly appealing, talented, marketable team took center stage in 1999 and won the World Cup right here in the USA. Mia Hamm. Brandi Chastain. They posed for the covers of Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated. With these stars at the top and millions of little girls playing across the grassroots suburbs of America, soccer was bound to be the rage of professional sports. But now, only a short three years after its inception, the women-s pro league, WUSA, has already gone under.
There is undeniable growth and a foreseeable future for several team sports that women are playing-and playing well. But many of today-s best are sick of being called pioneers. How many generations will yet come and go before women team sport athletes can take their share, get to show their stuff?
I guess it should have been obvious, tracing back through college basketball history, but it only struck me Tuesday night at the U Conn/Tennessee game. It-s women-s college hoops that are breaking ground for women in all team sports. This was the first year that all 64 games of the Championship Tournament were televised. Newspapers from USA Today to The New York Times ran cover stories every day through the tournament. These college women command respect.
I-d say the Connecticut women-s team got as much ink as the winning Connecticut men-s team this week. Now, that-s history.