Sabrina Ionescu vs. Steph Curry is a step forward — Jasmine Thomas talks Dallas Wings

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Jan. 31, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday. Amid all the WNBA free agency reporting we’re doing over at The Next, and the college hoops season reaching peak conference showdowns, it feels strange to be talking about an exhibition. But the Sabrina Ionescu vs. Steph Curry showdown coming up at the NBA All Star Game was officially announced this week.

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Longtime readers know the way the WNBA is treated at the NBA’s signature events is a longtime focus of mine. I believe it tells us everything from how much value the NBA sees in promoting the WNBA to a more general state of play about how women’s basketball fits into the overall landscape. I presume if you are reading here, you share my view, which is: basketball at the highest level is basketball at the highest level, and it is a synergy no-brainer to have the WNBA fully integrated into the NBA’s All Star weekend.

But that participation has seen ebb and flow. Recently, the extent of the WNBA’s presence in the weekend has been WNBA players in the Celebrity Game. A year ago, I wrote about this:

“And then there’s the argument — who cares? That’s a primary argument you’ll hear. It’s just a Celebrity Game. Leave it alone.

“The thing is, that’s not all it is. It’s a message, too. It’s a stand-in for thinking bigger. And it’s a status quo that dates back to the Celebrity Game’s earliest days. The critical reason, one I’ve had league sources tell me for years? You can’t do anything basketball, really, because the biggest names tend to be overseas. (Notably, I was told nothing could be done about the Final Four/Women’s Final Four logos because they’d been made years in advance and it was too expensive to change them until whoops, there was a big public outcry and they changed real fast.)”

As is clear, there are even more WNBA big names (and small and medium names, too) who are here. 40 of them are about to play in Athletes Unlimited. Others are taking free agency tours as we speak. The idea that there aren’t enough WNBA players to have a big-time exhibition game at the NBA’s weekend is moot.

Extrapolating the message that the WNBA is a sideshow, hence WNBA players are participating in the Celebrity Game, is one I hope has gone by the wayside. I hope that this Sabrina vs. Steph game is a conscious choice about how WNBA players are and are not presented — as masters of their craft, not as players akin to actors or comedians. And in a position I rarely take, let’s have less WNBA involvement in the way it manifests is the Celebrity Game. (Surely, we can build on Sabrina vs. Steph in the years to come in a more considered way.)

There is a fraught element to this. Immediately upon hearing the announcement, the vitriol started rolling in. Sure, Sabrina vs. Steph, but look, Sabrina’s playing with a smaller ball, and she’s shooting from closer in. Ionescu was aware of that and took to social media to address the latter point:

Of course, plenty of the responses immediately jumped to: yeah, how about the ball? In these uncertain times, it is at some level refreshing that we can always count on the fragility of some men to always show up, hiding behind a keyboard and denigrating the accomplishments of women even before they happen.

The part that gives me pause here is thinking it matters, in any way, how the best women’s players measure up to men. And so much of the WNBA creating its own space has been about reckoning with that framework, that using men as the center of the universe, the benchmark, forever casts the WNBA into “yes, but” territory, something that entirely ignores how big a gap exists between the opportunities, investment and effort put into growing men’s and women’s sports.

I’ve gotten questions like this on occasion in interviews — could Diana Taurasi have played in the NBA comes up repeatedly for some reason — and my answer is not to compare them but rather to make the point: once we see multiple generations of equal investment and opportunity for men and women in basketball, then I’m willing to entertain such a question. Until then, it is like measuring the height of two plants, one which is watered every day and placed in direct sunlight, the other watered once a month and stored in a dark closet. That the latter has kept growing as much as it has is miraculous! It suggests not that men are superior, but could well mean that equality of inputs would put women miles ahead. That, too, is speculation! We do not know. It’s why the question is so pointless.

Ultimately, here is what we do know: Sabrina Ionescu’s shot is a thing of beauty. We saw her at this past year’s WNBA All Star Game do things we simply haven’t seen in the three-point competition. The large audience for NBA All Star weekend on Saturday night will get to see it, too, some of them perhaps for the first time. This is a win.

Will she also make more threes than Steph Curry? Does making more threes than Steph Curry make her a better shooter than Steph Curry?

Honestly: I don’t care. And neither should you.

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This week in women’s basketball

Terrific piece on male college practice players in women’s basketball programs.

Greg Bibb joined Ben and Sabreena on The Athletic wbb podcast.

Alexa Philippou broke the Satou Sabally return to the Wings with characteristic in-depth detail.

Jackie Powell takes you inside the terms bringing Jonquel Jones back to New York.

Of course PJ Brown finds a Tara VanDerveer connection to… Arizona.

Five at The IX: Jasmine Thomas, Dallas Wings

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Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
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By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.