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The Sky Is Limited

Chicago's new WNBA team is off to a rocky start. But don't give up yet.

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As if selling women's pro basketball to greater Guyville wasn't challenge enough, the new Chicago Sky faces another hardship. The Sky just isn't very good. Like any expansion sports franchise, the Sky was constructed from the leavings of the other teams, their least-wanted players. So unless some miraculous chemistry develops among teammates who'd always wanted playing time and never gotten much of it (a la the Bulls' playoff-bound inaugural squad back in 1967), they're destined to be losers their first few seasons.

What's more, the Sky got no breaks from the Women's National Basketball Association in the recent draft of college players. As a team composed of the worst players of other teams, one might have expected the Sky to at least start out with the top pick in the draft, which would have allowed it to bring Marshall High alum Cappie Pondexter back home from Rutgers. Yet (again like most expansion franchises) the Sky was told to take its punishment for at least a full season to earn that top pick--the worst WNBA teams from last season were adamant about that--and instead was awarded the sixth choice. By then, Pondexter was off the board, gone to the Phoenix Mercury, and the Sky selected Candice Dupree from Temple. Dupree has an array of talents, from an erect outside jump shot reminiscent of Bob Love's to decent size at 6-foot-2, yet she didn't figure to be either an instant "franchise" star or the boffo box-office draw Pondexter would have been.

Under coach Dave Cowans--the "undersize" Boston Celtics center of the 70s who through heady, determined play eventually earned recognition as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history--the Sky won both of their exhibition games and then its opener on the road in Charlotte, North Carolina, against the Sting, the worst team in the WNBA last season. Playing all-out all game long, the Sky took a 16-point lead into the last three minutes of their premiere, only to lose the lead to an 18-point burst from the Sting. But Jia Perkins was fouled on a three-point shot in the last few seconds and made all three free throws for the 83-82 victory. Dupree led the Sky with 19 points and six rebounds.

That win was as good as it got for the Sky in the early going. Coming home for its debut at the UIC Pavilion, the team got thumped by the Sacramento Monarchs, last year's WNBA champions, 76-63. The Indiana Fever followed the Monarchs into town and won 75-60. The Sky lost its third straight at home, 64-55, to the Los Angeles Sparks. These games were distressingly similar. Each time, the Sky faced a marquee star: the Monarchs' Yolanda Griffith, the Fever's Tamika Catchings (both Chicago-area products), and finally the Sparks' Lisa Leslie, widely considered the best player in the league. Each opposing team established itself as bigger and better. Dupree and Stacey Lovelace typify the Sky as a collection of lean, lithe players, but Dupree in particular wilted against the bruising opposition offered by Sacramento's Rebekkah Brunson and Indiana's Tamika Whitmore. The Monarchs were led by two exceptional point guards--Ticha Penicheiro and Kristin Haynie--both better than the Sky's counterparts.

Worst of all, the Sky didn't play well as a team. The players allowed the Monarchs a bunch of easy hoops on back cuts, and on offense were reluctant to move without the ball. As the ball handler tried to create a shot, everyone else tended to stand around and watch. Like the Bulls with their draw-and-dish offense, the Sky did a lot of driving and drawing attention, but there wasn't much dishing to open shooters, and when the Sky did get an open shot it was usually missed. The other teams drew on chemistry created in seasons past but the Sky could not, and Cowens didn't seem able to instill any; he also couldn't find an advantage in his players' athleticism. With each game the Sky looked more like an expansion team.

The Sky faces an uphill battle for acceptance. The WNBA is an NBA brand extension that fills the summer off-season, with NBA owners given first dibs on WNBA teams. Yet the Bulls' Jerry Reinsdorf took a pass when the league was created in 1996, believing women's basketball in Chicago to be a losing proposition. It wasn't until local real-estate developer Michael Alter ponied up $10 million that Chicago got a WNBA franchise, one of the few not formally aligned with the local NBA team. But even if it's not yet reflected on the floor, I think the Sky has put together a decent product. President Margaret Stender, a former Division One player with high-level executive experience at PepsiCo and Quaker Oats, is a skilled marketer, and she's picked an endearing combination of robin's egg blue and gold as the team colors. (Though what's with the airy-fairy name? The WNBA has too many teams called Sun, Storm, Liberty, Mercury, Fever. Simple, anthropomorphic Bulls, Bears, and Cubs have worked well in Chicago. They could keep the colors and call the team the Robins.)

The players understand that establishing the franchise calls for openness and high spirits with both the fans and the media, and after the first game Lovelace stepped to the podium outside the Sky locker room and said, "I feel like the president. It's so weird." She went on to compare the relatively intimate Pavilion favorably to the 11,800-capacity Target Center where she'd played for the Minnesota Lynx. While she was speaking, Cowens butted in playfully to ask if that was one of his own hook shots she'd taken in the lane, later adding of a three-point set shot she made, "Howzabout that? . . . Who'da thunk?"

I took my wife and daughters to the second home game, against the Fever. We bought the cheapest seats in the upper deck, and though there isn't a bad seat in the Pavilion (which has become much more inviting since the main entrance was rehabbed and given an open, glassy facade), a Sky representative invited everyone in our section to move down. We eventually wound up next to a women's group from Manley High School and behind a big family with three young children. Everyone in the section--all 3,150 in the building, in fact--seemed to be yelling and chanting and shaking the free plastic clackers. A guy behind me urged on the Sky by shouting "Dee-fense!" and "No love! No love!" when the Fever had the ball and "Take it to the hole, baby!" when the Sky had it.

The Sky was whomped and has continued to be whomped, entering the week at 1-5, but there seems to be enough interest in the team to get the franchise through these difficult postpartum days. Now if only it gets a chance to draft a female Michael Jordan in the next year or two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images.

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