There is a lot of tak about Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban using one of his team’s picks in the June NBA Draft to give women’s college Player of the Year Brittany Griner a chance to show what she can do in the men’s pro game. Let’s hope talk is all this is, and that Cuban or any other NBA owner or general manager is not serious about affording Griner the opportunity to test the gender barrier with an NBA tryout.
The whole notion is patently ludicrous and nothing but an ill-conceived publicity stunt that is better off left undone. The two-time national Player of the Year is almost certain to be the the top pick of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in next week’s annual player draft, and she has said that any interest and intrigue she might have with participating in an NBA tryout would be secondary to her inaugural season in the WNBA. The way the two professional leagues are set up, the women’s season falls during the NBA offseason.
We can only hope that by the time the WNBA season winds down later in the summer, Griner’s ego trip of taking her game to the NBA will have come back to reality.
We have seen this picture before. Professional golfer Annika Sorenstam entered several PGA Tournaments several years back and actually competed pretty well against her male professional counterparts, but certainly not at the same level she did on the ladies professional tour. After that, super teenage golfer Michelle Wie tried her hand playing with the men in a couple of well-publicized tour events. Same result – only, in Wie’s case, her performance wasn’t nearly as impressive or competitive as when Sorenstam preceded her.
There are other instances of women attempting to cross the gender barrier to compete in the highly segregated world of men’s professional sports, including in professional basketball. Nancy Lieberman, herself a national Player of the Year and three-time All-American while attending Old Dominion in the late 1970s, was the first woman player to actually play professional basketball in a men’s league. She made several short appearances with the Springfield Fame of the former United States Basketball League over a two-year span.
Lieberman also got some interest from the NBA early in her pro career. The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz gave her a look in the NBA’s summer league in the early 1980s. Lieberman played and coached in the WNBA in the late 1990s.
In 1980, Ann Meyers Drysdale, a collegiate star at UCLA at about the same time Lieberman was at Old Dominion, was invited to tryout with the Indiana Pacers of the NBA, the first woman to be afforded such an opportunity. She was cut during training camp, however, and did not make the team.
Both Lieberman and Drysdale are in favor of Griner taking the Mavericks’ Cuban up on his offer should he follow through in drafting the Baylor star or invite her to tryout with the team. Yet Lieberman acknowledges that Griner would have a more difficult time than she did because of the size, strength and sheer athleticism of the players today and because Griner plays an interior position.
“I was extremely average on my best days,” Lieberman told ESPN.com. “And I was a point guard, so I could stay away from the physicality of the game and still do my job.
“I can tell you from experience, you cannot compensate for the physical difference,” she said. “But (competiting with the men) made me see the game better, think the game better and understand the game better.”
Lieberman, now 54, is assistant general manager of the Dallas Mavericks’ Development League affiliate, the Texas Legends, which could partially explain why she supports the idea of Griner giving the NBA a shot if she’s given the opportunity.
Griner stands 6-8, 200 pounds and has a lean build. Center was her natural position at Baylor, and that is where she is likely to play in the WNBA, if not one of the forward positions. Her wingspan is 7-4, and she has a vertical stretch of 9-2, just 10 inches shorter than the basket height. Grinter averaged a league-leading 24 points and nine rebounds a game this season. She averaged 23-plus points each of her last three years at Baylor.
The three-time Big 12 Player of the Year and four-time Defensive Player of the Year says she is well aware of the challenges she would face against NBA players. “They are strong, definitely bigger than me, she says. “I would have to, as you say, man-up. But I’ve never backed down from a challenge, and I never will. If I get an elbow to the chest from one of those big guys, at least I can say I was there and tried it.”
And that’s about all it would amount to, quite candidly, a trial, or public exhibition, of sorts, that would serve no beneficial purpose. Given her skills and physical size and ability, Griner can and probably will be a star in the WNBA. In the NBA, she would be a joke and would accomplish nothing but to demean herself, and for what?
A couple of prominent college coaches think the idea of Griner toying with the notion of playing in the NBA is a bad one. “(Mark Cuban’s) genius would take a huge hit if he drafted Brittany Griner,” said Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma in an interview with the Associated Press. “I think it would be a sham. The fact that a woman could actually play right now in the NBA, and compete successfulyy against the level of play that they have, is absolutely ludicrous.”
Said Duke’s Joanne McAllie: “There is simply no way on Earth that will happen. It’s a silly thing. Let’s be who we are. Let’s be really good at who you are. I appreciate Mark Cuban watching the game, but let’s not forget who we are.”
Griner says she is looking forward to the WNBA. She also says she is open to playing overseas and would like to be on the U.S. team in the 2016 Summer Olympics. We think she is talking about the women’s Olympic squad, but you can’t be sure.
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