It’s a journey whose steps began long ago.
A marathon that’s still being run.
A mountain that’s still being scaled.
But the grind continues. There’s no turning back now. Too much ground has been covered, and there’s still much more left.
Women basketball players. Women who hoop. Ballers. Athletes on a quest to prove to the world that they are just as skilled, just as competitive, just as worthy of investment as other athletes. There are many who set the table, paved the way and took the hits to make others sit up and take notice.
Women like Dawn Staley. Long before she started her own dynasty as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, she was part of one of the greatest sports dynasties ever: the USA Women’s National Basketball Team.
The team claimed its seventh consecutive gold medal at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, their 55th consecutive Olympic victory since the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The WNT is a hoops dynasty reigning and holding court for more than 25 years.
Staley won three Olympic gold medals with Team USA as a player and then another as head coach in 2020. Her literal blood, sweat and tears helped lay the groundwork for today’s athletes. But she wasn’t alone.
Team USA teammates like Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes were there, too, helping kick down the door and show the competitive nature of female athletes—both on and off the court.
Swoopes chartered new territory by being the first woman to have a Nike basketball signature shoe, the Air Swoopes, in 1996. The Air Swoopes showed that female ballers could sell athletic footwear, too. She was also the first player to be signed in the WNBA in 1997. The three-time League MVP and Hall of Famer has won three Olympic gold medals and is one of only 11 women basketball players to have won an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA Championship, a FIBA World Cup Gold and a WNBA title.
Leslie, a three-time WNBA MVP and a four-time Olympic gold medal winner, raised the bar, becoming the first player to dunk in a WNBA game and paving the way years later for Brittney Griner to thrill fans with her own high-flying dunks. Leslie is also charting a new course for female basketball players. In 2019, she joined Ice Cube’s BIG3 professional basketball league and is currently the head coach for the Triplets team, whom she led to the 2019 BIG3 Championship in just her first year at the helm.
Breaking barriers, inspiring generations, silencing the naysayers—in the words from Nike’s 2020 Dream Crazier commercial: “It’s only crazy until you do it.”
Another early barrier breaker was Tamikia Catchings, one of the most decorated and legendary female basketball players of all time. Catchings won a WNBA championship, regular season MVP, Finals MVP and is a 5x Defensive Player of the Year winner. Add to that four Olympic gold medals, a plethora of other awards and honors and you can see why the Hall of Famer and former president of the Player’s Association is a trailblazing icon for young female athletes everywhere. She’s also helmed a team as both VP of Basketball Operations and General Manager, showing that women are about more than Xs and Os when it comes to sports.
The baton was picked up by future Hall of Famers Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore. Bird, considered to be one of the greatest players in WNBA history, is a four-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm. She’s won a historic five Olympic gold medals. With three other athletes, she recently co-founded the digital production platform TOGETHXR, which uplifts women in all sports.
Taurasi, her Olympic teammate, is often called the GOAT of the WNBA. The League’s all-time leading scorer, on June 27, 2021, she became the first player to surpass 9,000 points. Taurasi is one of 11 women to win an Olympic Gold medal, an NCAA Championship, a FIBA World Cup Gold and a WNBA championship.
Moore is a 4x WNBA champion and Olympic gold medalist who is considered one of the greatest winners in women’s basketball history, with championships that span across the League, college and EuroLeague. Off the court, Moore walked the walk by taking a hiatus from the League in 2019 to focus on reform in the American justice system. Before 2020 heightened the country’s concern for social justice, Moore was already at work, helping set the stage for the social and political activism rising among women athletes. Their activism has extended from racial injustice and voting inequalities to rights of LGQBTIA citizens and pay and health inequities.
With examples of the aforementioned and many more, a new generation has arrived on the scene to keep pushing the sport forward. That includes the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson, the League’s 2020 MVP, who won her first Olympic gold medal last summer in Tokyo. She’s also a key player in the W’s push for social justice and reform as a member of the Social Justice Council and spends time encouraging and uplifting young girls through her foundation, which advocates for bullying prevention and educating about dyslexia.
Two-time WNBA champion Jewell Loyd of the Seattle Storm, Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier and the Washington Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne are other examples of the newest generation of women basketball players carrying the torch into the future.
As we honor the past and celebrate the present, let’s take a look to the future of the women’s game. It is indeed bright—almost blinding—as one thinks of what’s on the horizon. There are so many ways in which the women’s game can be brought up to the level of the men’s game, and I’m not talking about the level of play.
Personally, I see a female head coach of an NBA team, sooner rather than later. Leslie has already proven it can be done on a smaller scale with the BIG3. Why can’t men in the pros listen to, learn from and win championships with a female coach? Also on the horizon, and definitely long overdue, is expansion of the WNBA from 12 teams to more, and what many are advocating for—Summer League and a Developmental League, much like those in the NBA. Twelve teams and 144 spots is simply not enough for all of the talented, athletic women coming out of our country’s high schools and colleges. They need the same opportunities to hone their skills and play alongside some of the best of the best. This can only happen with expansion, investment and commitment on behalf of the League, fans and businesses.
I also see a future where there is equal coverage of the WNBA and NBA drafts. Sports pundits, writers, columnists, photographers of all races and genders will be sent to cover WNBA games as a regular beat, not just for the moment because it’s the “it thing” to do. They’ll be present to capture the WNBA draft as a major event just like the NBA’s. Covering female ballers won’t be an afterthought, it will be a given.
There’ll be more women-owned sports conglomerates like Bird’s TOGETHXR, pushing female athletes, stories, passions and projects forward into the minds and hearts of all. When a new SLAM cover featuring A’ja Wilson or Sabrina Ionescu drops, it’ll go viral, just like a new Kevin Durant cover would.
I see a future where support—financial and otherwise—will be equal. From facilities to funding to amenities to pay (for the pros), things will be a lot closer to equal than they are now, regardless of the level. It’s all long overdue.
Nike said as much in its 2020 ad, “One Day We Won’t Need This.”
“One day, we won’t need this day. We won’t need a day to celebrate how far we’ve come. We won’t need a day to prove we’re just as fast or strong or skilled; We won’t need a day to relive the comebacks, the firsts, or the titles we’ve won. We won’t need a day to rally behind the ones fighting to change the rules. One day we won’t need this day at all. Because one day, this day, will be our every day.”
Let’s make it happen. In fact, let’s just do it.