Blanche McCrary Boyd
I don’t know why everyone hasn’t been watching women’s professional basketball, because, really, who has ever seen women behaving like this? The WNBA players are glamorous yet androgynous, muscled like Greek statuary, and more than 80 percent of them identify as black. They are also collectively organized, nakedly political, and intransigent about diversity. They appear to be having a blast while they play, so watching them is both a joy and a relief, at least for me, because I got tired of fretting about heavily armed white supremacists out in the woods rehearsing for race war. Now I’m proclaiming that joy is more powerful than fear.
I’ve been a women’s basketball aficionado since high school, and in those very dark ages I used to pray - or at least mutter - why oh God, why can’t I move around the gym like my cousin Dianne and her twin sister? They made basketball skills look effortless – Dianne even developed a jump shot before we knew what to call it - and they led our team to the state championship while still looking good in those dreadful, skimpy uniforms. This was the early 1960s and girls had to play on a divided court, three guards on one side, three forwards on the other, because we weren’t supposed to be strong enough to run the full court.
Our teams, like our schools, were all white. As far back as 1910 there had been black women’s professional basketball teams - the Spartan Girls, the New York Girls, the Chicago Romas, and, you can’t miss this one, the Chocolate Coeds. But in the Deep South where I grew up, poorly funded ‘separate-but-equal’ schools were unlikely to be financing girls’ basketball.
Since the inception of the Women’s Professional Basketball Association I’ve been a serious fan, and for the past fifteen years I’ve held season tickets for the Connecticut Sun. I watch my team avidly, whether they are winning or losing. The Sun are based at the Mohegan Sun Casino, an hour from my home, and they are the only professional team owned by a Native American tribe. The Mohegan Chief, Marilynn Malerba, is reported to be a terrific leader and supporter. I’m pleased by all that, of course, but it’s the games themselves, the wildly skilled interactions on the court, that thrill me. I never thought anything could get me standing on my feet screaming, other than raw political outrage.
Women’s professional basketball is revolutionary, and here’s why: In feminist intellectual circles (okay, yes, I used to be one) there’s a famous document written in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective which posits, as I interpret it, that black women must become the foundation of any genuinely radical change, because, to put it simply, black women as a group are not standing on top of anyone else. The Combahee Collective were the first to offer this analysis of what is now called, in academic circles, ‘intersectionality’, a descriptor for the interlocking oppressions of race, gender, and class. The Combahee group provided a brilliant document, but they were avowed socialists, and the WNBA players certainly are not: they are happily embracing every access to fame and income being thrown at them. Nevertheless, this women’s professional basketball phenomenon represents something genuinely new, both culturally and politically.
The WNBA organization tried directly to influence the outcome of the 2020 elections, and they may have succeeded. When the owner of the Atlanta Dream, Kelly Loeffler, a Trump supporter who’d been appointed interim senator from Georgia, wrote an open letter to Cathy Engelbert, Commissioner of the WNBA, objecting to the players wearing warmup shirts that said BLACK LIVES MATTER and SAY HER NAME: BREONNA TAYLOR. Loeffler suggested that their shirts should display, instead, the American flag.
Loeffler was running hard, but not on the court. She was running for the Senate against Raphael Warnock, the respected black pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a congregation with a storied civil rights past. The entire WNBA membership rose up in outrage against Loeffler. Their warmup shirts soon read: ELECT WARNOCK.
Loeffler, whose corporate career had skyrocketed when she married her company’s CEO, had lots of funding, but what the WNBA had was free publicity. Since the election took place during the pandemic shutdown and all of their games (played without fans present) were being televised, it is not a stretch to think that the WNBA’s campaign affected the outcome of the election. Georgia’s voters surprised everyone by going Democratic, helping win both the presidency as well as retaining crucial control of the Senate. Soon afterwards, while Trump tried frantically to reverse what had happened in Georgia and Arizona, Kelly Loeffler agreed to sell the Atlanta Dream. The three people who bought the Dream include Renee Montgomery, a black pro player who is now an ESPN sports broadcaster and entrepreneur.
It's All in the Nails
This evolution of black women into recognition and even prominence in American sports has been - and continues to be - rocky. Women of color first achieved individual success in track and field events in the 1980s, when women like Florence “Flo Jo” Griffith Joyner made headlines with her “black” fashion sense, including long, polished fingernails.
But track and field required little investment in equipment and funding. Tennis, also primarily an individual sport, began to offer the possibility of large financial gains, yet tennis requires expensive equipment and coaches and facilities. Arthur Ashe notwithstanding, tennis had remained primarily a white affair until Serena and Venus Williams burst out of Compton, California.
The Williams sisters brought to the tennis world a style that was startlingly black. Venus and Serena wore their hair in braids or in boldly natural styles, they wore bright colors whenever they were allowed to (not at Wimbledon, still), and their muscular, heroic bodies were actually mocked by some white players. Many of the discriminations against Serena and Venus in their tennis careers, some of the subtle and overt racisms they had to endure, are brilliantly articulated by Claudia Rankine in her book Citizen: An American Lyric, which also contains a full-page color photograph of a white player who had balled up towels inside her clothes to parody Serena’s fabulous physique.
The most recent women’s team sport to break into national consciousness was soccer, when America, led and represented by Megan Rapinoe, won the World Cup. But Rapinoe and most of the other players on that team are white, since soccer in this country is not really a working-class sport; it’s unlikely that there was a soccer club in the Little Haiti area of Miami, where Sylvia Fowles, one of basketball’s GOATS – a term that means ‘Greatest of All Time’ - grew up. And there were probably no soccer clubs in Alabama, where DeWanna Bonner spent her childhood. What Fowles and Bonner had was access to basketball, because almost every American neighborhood, no matter how poor, has a basketball hoop nearby. And, luckily, Fowles and Bonner grew tall. Fowles is 6’6”, Bonner 6’4”. Their height and basketball potential attracted the attention that sent them to college and then upward to pro ball.
Four out of five members of the Women’s Professional Basketball Association identify as people of color, and, although there are exceptions, many WNBA players, whether white or black, are working-class women who had to fight their way up through talent and ambition and relentless hard work. If a white woman chooses, the signals of class may be disguised or overcome, but, to paraphrase Jonquel Jones, who was the MVP in 2021, no matter how brilliantly she plays basketball, when she leaves the court, she becomes simply another black woman.
It's not just racism that continues to play out in the rise of women’s basketball, it’s also the phenomenon called colorism. Jonquel Jones happens to have very dark skin, so she does not get the kind of press visibility, or the offers that can come with such high achievement, that lighter-skinned or white players often do. Recently the New York Times published a profile of Sylvia Fowles examining the fact that Sue Bird, retiring this year like Fowles, has become a household name, yet Fowles, whose record is equally stunning, is much less noticed. Sue Bird addressed this phenomenon herself: “I’m white,” she said, by way of explanation, adding that because of how she looks, smiling sweetly, people often assume she’s straight, which is less threatening for the general public. Fowles, on the other hand, is tall and forbidding and sternly professional and, like Jones, has very dark skin.
The history of racism in American sports is appalling. Our first popular sport was baseball, and it remained an all-white venue until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, while this country was still chock full of overt racist prohibitions. One dreadful example: black veterans returning from WWII were not eligible for the GI Bill! There are now many black players in baseball, yet nothing like the percentages who play pro basketball and football.
The New York Girls 1910-1911
The Black Gods of 70s Ball (Yes, They Were Men)
In the 1970s, people like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlin, and Julius Erving made basketball their own, transforming the game into something balletic and exciting, with a faster pace and higher scoring. In a word, basketball went street. The players became the sports equivalent of rock stars. Soon city courts were thronged with hoop dreamers.
Bill Russell, who died July 31, was known not only for his athletic skills but for his intellect, his politics, and his wit. A five-time NBA Most Valuable Player and 12-time NBA All-Star, Russell became the NBA’s first black head coach. Later he worked as a TV commentator and interviewer, trading quips with Dick Cavett, who introduced him as the man who invented the modern game of pro basketball, and, on his own show, interviewing the country's two most notorious racists: George Wallace and Lester Maddox.
Yet it was not that many years ago that a major network sports commentator implied on the air that the reason there weren’t any black quarterbacks was that black men weren’t smart enough. It seems impossible now to imagine that any announcer would say that, or that any white player would ever have dared to mock Serena Williams’ body.
It only took half a century but, finally, the audience for women’s basketball is growing fast, and part of the breakthrough came, ironically, through the pandemic. In March 2020, when the country had begun a frantic shut-down, a group of cops in Louisville, Kentucky, used a battering ram to burst into the apartment of a young woman named Breonna Taylor and shot her six times, killing her. Breonna Taylor was black, Breonna Taylor was an EMT, Breonna Taylor was a professional young woman just living her life.
Louisville police later said they were executing a search warrant for her ex-boyfriend, a suspected drug dealer. Note the “ex”, a man who was already in custody. Anyway, how many of us have dated a bad boy or girl and then gotten out of it? But for Breonna Taylor that night, the stakes were as high as they could possibly be; higher than they were likely to be for anyone white. Many black women have reported this immediate thought: That could have been me.
Then, in May, a white policeman in Minnesota slowly murdered George Floyd on video right in front of the entire country, and despite the pandemic - sports had been halted, schools shut down, hospitals were overloaded, refrigerator trucks stored bodies, and no vaccine was yet available - between 15 and 20 million Americans showed up for anti-racist demonstrations erupting across this country.
Despite the demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, and the all-pervading fear of illness or death, the NBA and WNBA decided to try to hold an abbreviated basketball season. They would isolate the teams into environmental bubbles and play fewer games with no fans present. All games, however, would be televised.
Both male and female players debated whether to accept this situation. Finally, a group of NBA players agreed to go into what was soon called the Bubble in Orlando, Florida, and 144 players from 12 teams in the WNBA consented to play in Bradenton, Florida, in a location that became known as the Wubble. The players could bring their children and a caretaker, and they could bring a partner. Otherwise, their isolation was complete. The television crews could not leave, the medical personnel could not leave, and even the food providers could not leave.
Tests for the virus were administered daily. Players from all 12 teams lived in the same place, ate the same food, and used the same facilities for physical conditioning. The players only had a couple of weeks to train, and they had to play almost every other day, which is not only exhausting but hard on their bodies, which must be cultivated and protected as much as possible.
Inside the Wubble.
Dope on a Grand Scale
Cheyenne Parker, forward center of the Atlanta Dream, from her own calendar.
The WNBA decision to enter the bubble was not only about basketball. Chiney Ogwumike sat out playing to become the executive producer of an ESPN documentaryabout the Wubble experience called 144, saying “This is our one shot to show that the WNBA is dope on a grand scale.”
The WNBA players were changing the game, and not only by speaking out on racial justice and electoral politics. Only the year before, Maya Moore, a major star for the Minnesota Lynx at the height of her career, had withdrawn from pro ball to fight for the release from prison of a man she later married. It’s hard to imagine a male player putting his ambitions aside the same way. Not impossible, but hard. Moore’s decision, too, was a political act.
The NBA was much more popular than the WNBA, so having every game televised gave the women players an invaluable platform. The players met collectively to arrive at decisions, and they suspended play for several days to protest about another horrific shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake.
Not surprisingly, the activism of the basketball players in both the NBA and the WNBA led to controversy, even anger: Why weren’t these athletes just playing sports? Sports were supposed to be entertainment, a relief from thinking too hard, and even my two best friends, as enamored of women’s basketball as I am, quit watching. But many people who were trapped in their living spaces began to see women’s professional basketball for the first time, and the viewership rose. New fans were discovering how wonderfully entertaining and highly skilled the WNBA players are.
The major networks and ESPN have become increasingly supportive of women’s professional basketball, and Sports Illustrated and State Farm Insurance have jumped on board, as have other sponsors. Grumbling continues that the women’s game is not profitable, and, by comparison to the men, the women players are under-supported and severely underpaid - so underpaid, in fact, that many of them must play in other countries during the off season, which is how a superstar like Brittney Griner has ended up a Russian political prisoner.
It’s worth noting that when men’s professional basketball first rose to prominence, it was difficult to develop their audience as well. Men’s games were often televised on tape-delay, and team owners gave the standard complaints about not making enough money. Rumors still circulate that owning a team in any sport is partly about prestige and partly about having enough losses to declare for the IRS. Maybe so, but Renee Montgomery owns part of the Atlanta Dream, and I sure wish I did too.
Women and men play basketball on the same size court. The basket stands at the same height, although the balls women play with are slightly smaller. As the popularity of women’s professional basketball increases both in physical attendance and on television, recognition grows that this game is not simply a weaker version of the men’s. One revealing quality about the women’s game is its reliance on assists. Assist statistics indicate an emphasis on teamwork and less reliance on individual stardom. Also, traditional roles like center, forward, and guard have become less relevant. Players exhibit multiple abilities, so forwards and even centers might shoot three-point shots or bring the ball up the floor, and point guards can become important rebounders and shot-blockers.
Recently I took the train to NY and convinced an old college friend to go with me to see the NY Liberty playing at the Barclay Center. Billy is a fervent Knicks fan, and he had assumed the women’s game would be boring. He ended up on his feet screaming and so thrilled with Sabrina Ionescu’s playing that I bought him a jersey with her name and number on it.
During a time-out Billy asked me if Ionescu was a lesbian, and I said I didn’t know, so he looked her up on his phone and learned she had a boyfriend. I couldn’t tell whether he was surprised or relieved.
The issue of lesbianism in women’s basketball and in all sports and in the larger world is a thorny one. Brittney Griner once spoke about the difficulty of being gay during her undergraduate years at Baylor. Kim Mulkey, her coach, had asked her not to come out, but as soon as college was over and Griner had been named the number one draft pick, there she stood proudly in a cool white suit talking to reporters about how confusing and painful it had been to have to hide her identity.
WNBA players, like many young people, have become increasingly public about their relationships and untroubled by issues about who is gay and who is straight and who is whatever, which might be why we have a host of letters like LBGTQIA+ and only one category for straight folks. It’s common knowledge now that Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, the starting guards for the Chicago Sky, are married to each other - announcers often mention it - and that DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree were married and had twins. Recently, Natisha Hiedeman of the Suns posted photos of her as she proposed marriage to the team captain, Jasmine Thomas.
DiJonai Carrington and NaLyssa Smith did recently create a small stir with their sappy post about how much in love they are. “This is the woman who will have my babies,” said Smith, and I know from my own life how confusing that remark can be. My wife and I have twins who are now 22 years old, and Leslie was their birth mother. I helped choose the donor, I was in the delivery room, I was the first person (besides the doctor) who ever touched and held our children, yet, a few hours later, when a nurse said to me, who are you? I turned to our doctor and said, who am I? Their birth certificates read that they have two mothers, but still……
A few weeks after our foray to watch the Liberty, I invited Billy to attend a Sun game here in Connecticut with me, and he got a good look at DiJonai Carrington running the floor. That is a beautiful woman he said, and then he said it again. Yes, I answered, DiJonai is classically built and good-looking, sort of like those Greek statues we studied in art history class, and she is so athletic that, when she runs the floor, she seems to be running downhill. He said, but she’s a lesbian? Are you sure? I said I don’t know, I don’t know what any of those words mean anymore (even though I’m married to a woman). I just know DiJonai is 24 years old and she’s now proclaimed her love with another woman, that’s all.
So, about those Greek statues, and about glamour too. DiJonai Carrington understands how attractive she is because she’s remarked, more than once, “I’d never go onto the court without my mink eyelashes.” And those exquisite white marble statues Greeks artists like Praxiteles and Phidias created during the Classical era?
They were once painted in rich, vivid colors. Even the Caryatids were painted. The sculptor Auguste Rodin could not bear the thought that Greek statuary had been colored, and Michelangelo, of course, never even knew. What might the statue of David look like if he had? The women playing basketball in the WNBA remind me of those Classical Greek sculptures, only these women are flinging themselves up and down polished wooden floors as they illuminate what heroic female bodies can look like.
Blanche McCrary Boyd is a novelist, essayist, and professor. Her most recent novel, Tomb of the Unknown Racist, was a Finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award in 2019.
Basketball Jones ::: Barry White and Chris Rock
Joy ::: Lucinda Williams
Black Woman ::: Sonny Sharrock
The Invention of Color ::: Tigana Santana
Say Her Name ::: Janelle Monae
Anger ::: Marvin Gaye
Basketball ::: Kurtis Blow
Everyone's A Winner ::: Hot Chocolate
Anyone For Tennis ::: Cream
Heroes (live) ::: David Bowie