By: Jeffrey Newholm
One of the more cliched and well-worn philosophical questions is: if a tree fell in the forest and no one was around to hear it, would it make a sound? Well today I present to you the basketball version of this question. If there was a well-played, enjoyable game between two contending professional teams, but no one bothered to see it, would it matter? Such a conundrum occurred to me after representing NBS at our (and my) first WNBA game Friday night, between the Chicago Sky and Seattle Storm at Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The Sky list the official attendance for the game as 5,997. Well take a look for yourself to judge the accuracy of this claim:
In my estimation, there couldn’t have been 200 fans in attendance. Sadly these dishonest “Arthur Anderson accounting” attendance figures are all too common in the women’s league. The league doesn’t seem to want to admit the truth. And the truth, from my point of view, really hurts. The Sky can’t possibly be in the black financially with pretty significant salary and travel costs. True, there are many other entertainment options in Chicago. Perhaps the Sky are a small fish in a big pond. But the league tried to put a team in Tulsa and that didn’t work either. The WNBA faces attendance problems in nearly every city, not just Chicago. But is this just because, as the trolls say, the product is really bad? From what I saw, I would strongly disagree with this characterization. Let me explain what was hinging on the game, and how it unfolded.
The Sky is tied for the fourth playoff spot, which would give the team a bye into the second round of the playoffs. The Storm is in a three way race for the eighth and final playoff spot. Trolls often complain about supposedly bad shooting percentages in the WNBA. Well, the league average in the NBA last year was 45%. The rebuilding Storm shot 41%, and the more experienced Sky shot 47%. This doesn’t appear to be a legitimate reason for complaint for me. The game was also a tight affair, with the Sky winning by four, 92-88. This is a reflection of the league’s parity, with only four games separating the fourth and tenth-placed teams, with only the last two teams out of the race. And the game essentially came down to one play-and it was a play of great interest from my perspective.
With the Sky up two in the last minute, Elena Della Donne missed a shot, and the Storm’s Breanna Stewart pulled down the board with five seconds left. My immediate response was, “quick, timeout!” A timeout in the last minute, of course, would advance the ball all the way up to the front-court with no time coming off the clock. It would also allow Seattle’s coach time to draw up a play. But Stewart passed the ball up ahead to teammate Sue Bird, who missed the last shot. (The Sky finished the scoring with two last-second free throws). It was, in my judgment, the incorrect play by Stewart. But it’s understandable given where Stewart came from.
In Stewart’s career at UConn, she finished as one of only two four-time national champions in the history of NCAA basketball. She and her classmates rode off into the sunset on a 75 game winning streak. But such absurd dominance is not part of the job in the real basketball world (apart from rare, special teams like the 2016 Warriors). Games are won and lost based on just a few plays, or perhaps just one play. Friday’s game came down to one play Stewart’s team couldn’t make, so they lost. Frustrating? Certainly. But that’s the way real life works. Small decisions often have huge consequences. Even this year’s dubs had their historic season come down to one minute, which they couldn’t execute sufficiently. The margin between winning and losing in pro ball is razor thin. The NBA’s Thunder had the franchise’s future tarnished by five bad minutes in the playoffs. It can be a burden for adults to make decisions with such large consequences. But the world couldn’t keep turning were it not for such decisions.
So, to return to my original question: did this game matter? Does the WNBA matter at all? To many basketball fans, perhaps not. But for the players who played the game, I would argue in the strongest terms that it matters very much. When the Sky went on a second quarter run, it was clear from their body language that it mattered a lot. Their players were vehemently asserting their dominance and taking control of the game. And Seattle’s coach used every trick in the book after Bird’s miss to extend the game. The players seem to care every bit, if not more so, in the summer league than in the NBA show. And if they can play with such a passion in front of empty seats, then that’s an even larger testament to their love of the game. Did Chicagloand seem the least bit aware that there was a pro ballgame on Friday night? Absolutely not. But the Sky and Storm still battled the whole 40 minutes as if their livelihoods depended on it-which it does. And that’s what pro basketball should be, and was in the NBA before salaries skyrocketed. So, what do I have to say for the fans who don’t care? I would say: alright then, your loss.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.