The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, December 18, 2019

Dunking is (women's) basketball — Karen Aston conversation — Must-click women's basketball links

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Dunking is (women’s) basketball

I know, I know, who am I to argue with Phog Allen, right?

Allen wrote an article, “Dunking Isn’t Basketball”, back in 1935, saying: “Those tall fellows were leaping at the ten-foot baskets and were literally ‘dunking’ the ball into the hoop, just as a doughnut is inelegantly dipped into the morning coffee. And I say that is not basketball. My conception of the game is that goals should be shot and not dunked.”

Leave aside that I now want a doughnut and consider the perspective: few, if any people would argue that the 1935 version of basketball was more interesting than the NBA game of today, which, and I checked, has dunking and is considered basketball.

But that conversation has moved, from one that, in the mind of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, aimed at slowing the growth of African-American participation in basketball (with the scars and rule aimed at him to prove it), to a differentiator between men’s and women’s basketball.

I’ve always cringed a bit when I hear folks try to argue for the purity of the women’s game. The idea that there are greater fundamentals in “women’s basketball” is silly. It’s entirely too broad. There are NBA teams who play a beautiful, movement-based offense. There are other NBA teams, and I say this as someone who has watched NBA basketball in New York City for a long time, who… don’t.

And the same is true, as we all know, in women’s hoops. We don’t have to name names. We’ve all sat through those games. We’ve seen the 2019 Mystics and we’ve seen… well, there are four teams in the lottery this season. Let’s leave it there.

Even so, there is an undeniable difference between the men’s and women’s game at the moment: there are far more dunks in the NBA than the WNBA. I get a media email alert when Brittney Griner dunks. I do not get said alert when, for instance, Anthony Davis dunks. (And thank goodness: my inbox is too flooded as it is.)

But the debate over whether to do things like lower the rim to produce more of those above-the-rim plays has always felt too limited by present circumstances to me. And so it was gratifying to hear Natalie Weiner chime in with the following observation, part of an excellent prediction thread:

That seems like such an obvious point, yet it is anything but a mainstream view as of now. That women’s sports is going to produce more outliers as the funnel of opportunity widens shouldn’t require any non-sexist thinking, just a basic understanding of math. More talent in, more chances to develop skills against others, more, and earlier, and with competition elevated, it all acts in concert to supercharge how the games will be played, no different than how the game of men’s basketball changed dramatically from the 1940s to the 1960s, the 1960s to the 1980s, even the year 2000 to today.

A handy rule of thumb I find useful is, for every likely outcome in women’s basketball, just take men’s basketball and add 40-50 years, a rough estimate of the opportunity gap, expressed chronologically.

It is the difference between the explosion of men’s college sports in the 1920s and Title IX become the law of the land in 1972. It is the gap between John Wooden’s UCLA men’s teams with Lew Alcindor and Geno Auriemma’s run with Breanna Stewart. The NCAA men’s tournament premiered in 1939, the women’s version in 1982.

Is Brittney Griner the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of our time? Hard to argue otherwise. Have Candace Parker and Elena Delle Donne served as the WNBA’s Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, not in terms of rivalry, but as redefining play at their size? Absolutely.

Do the math. We’re about due for Michael Jordan in the women’s game. (It might be Fran Belibi?)

Accordingly, we’re seeing more women coming into college, let alone the pros, able to play above the, yes, 10-foot rim. Now, this isn’t, to my mind, going to change the minds of many folks who pretend they don’t watch women’s basketball because there isn’t enough dunking. Sexists will always find a fig leaf, and it doesn’t behoove the women’s game to chase those viewers, anyway.

Do I think there’s a non-zero percentage of folks who will tune in more as the WNBA transitions to a more above-the-rim league? Sure, just as better marketing and more expansive TV deals do that as well. The trend line is up, and I doubt we’ll be able to tease out exactly why that happens.

But in the same way that I’ve always believed any argument that the audience for women’s sports is smaller than the audience for men’s sports is entirely specious — take two entities, invest less and showcase less by a matter of vast degrees one of those entities, and of course the end result is a massive gap — any conclusions, usually provided by men with the pseudo-science imprimatur, that women can’t do things men do are ridiculous.

It’s also weird, frankly. The best athletes in the world are outliers, and share more in common than a vastly larger subset based on gender. LeBron James and I are both men but, I think it’s fair to say, we probably shouldn’t decide what men are capable of doing generally based on the athletic achievements of either of us. Certainly not me.

Such pseudo-science is also ignoring, for instance, that a fully equal playing field could yield a number of things women do, especially outlier women, that men cannot do.

Or maybe I just imagined that Elena Delle Donne shoots free throws better than any man or woman in the history of professional basketball.

It’s time, as we enter a remarkably exciting new decade for women’s sports, to retire the idea that what women don’t do is what sets the WNBA apart. Because, in case you haven’t noticed, that is in many ways a strategic construct, and you can bet by the time we’re having our next decade in review, it’ll be a historical argument buried beneath Fran Belibi highlight videos, and all the women who come after her.

This week in women’s basketball

Some PJ Brown goodness on Cate Reese and Arizona’s defense.

I look at the role of the blocked shot at UConn and Tennessee.

Jenn Hatfield profiles one of my favorite players to watch in women’s college basketball, Carlie Littlefield of Princeton.

More Jenn, this time on Rebecca Greenwell.

Great deep dive on Deborah Temple from Kurtis Zimmerman.

Amari DeBerry explains why she wants to join the defending national champions at UConn in 2021. (No, seriously, Paige Bueckers is coming in 2020.)

The Chicago Sky’s all-decade team includes Elena Delle Donne, of course.

Great read from Danielle Lerner on Kylie Shook.

Learn more about South Dakota State from Christine Hopkins.

Nia Hollie is emerging for Michigan State.

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi get things done.

Terrific joint byline from Meg Linehan and Hannah Withiam on breaking down silos in women’s sports, also known as why The IX Newsletter exists.

Get to know Kansas State’s Emilee Ebert.

David Berri wonders why the NBA hasn’t called Cheryl Reeve. (So do I!)

Doug Bruno and Geno Auriemma had a memorable game, then sprinkled wisdom generously to media folks.

I wrote about why WNBPA leadership matters so much.

Terrific Ben Dull Pac-12 column.

Tweet of the week

Five at The IX: Karen Aston, Texas head coach

(I spoke at length to Karen earlier this month. I wanted to share some of her insight with you.)

HOWARD MEGDAL: So obviously there’s a lot to go over with the team that you have on hand this year, but I would be remiss not to talk about the team that you have coming. And a little bit of a sore subject I would think for a lot of coaches around the country is something that you’ve experienced as well with Karisma Ortiz who despite the fact that there’s a coaching change and she applied for a waiver.

And typically in the past that’s been pretty straight forward, it didn’t come to pass. The waiver was denied the way so many of them have been. Can you take me through just your experience on that side of it and what you think of the current setup and the current rules as they apply to transfers here?

KAREN ASTON: Well, I mean, I think the one thing that we all have to remember as you get frustrated with the appeal process and whether it’s … how it’s working. And I think the one thing that we don’t know is for the ones that do actually get the appeals, we don’t know their story. So I try to just keep that in mind like we don’t know what someone else’s situation is.

And, I mean, quite honestly, I didn’t expect Karisma’s waiver to be accepted. I mean, we appealed it, we tried everything we could, but I definitely wasn’t necessarily on the side of thinking that that was going to happen. I mean, if that was going to happen, then they might as well just say, “Okay, anytime there’s a coaching change, kids should be allowed to transfer and be eligible,” but that’s not the rule.

HOWARD MEGDAL: But should that be the rule? I mean, it feels like it didn’t help anyone.

KAREN ASTON: I don’t know. I think that kids are really, most of them, should be deciding on … in particular, women’s basketball, I mean, I do think the degree is important. I mean, I think the coach is incredibly important also and the staff, current players, all of those things. But I also think that once they commit to a school and a city and getting a degree, then that should be the main focus for them.

And that’s what you wish that they would get to the point to is that it’s about what school they choose, not necessarily who the coach is or who the assistants are and all of that. Again, I kind of go back to Joyner [Holmes]’s situation. I just appreciate the fact that we’ve had coaching changes from assistants, she’s had different position coaches.

And she wanted to get a degree at the University of Texas and she was committed to Texas. And I appreciate that about a kid because I think it’s a life lesson for her. She stuck it out, she’ll have a T ring, she’ll be a Texas ex and she’ll have all the benefits of that that go way beyond the four years that she spends here. And I think that too many of them are not keeping all of that in mind.

I mean, once you stay somewhere for years and you have a four year career at a school then you are a part of a legacy. And those ties go way, way beyond just a couple of years. I mean, those go into your professional career, whatever you choose to do professionally. And I just think that we need to get to the point where there’s a little more thought process going into that.

And we’re just not there yet. I don’t necessarily have an opinion on how the transfer status should go, I mean, that’s for someone else to decide. I have to adjust. I think all of the coaches are just having to adjust to the world that we live in right now which is that you don’t know what your particular roster is going to look like the following year. You can’t control the portal, you can’t control the whether they deny or admit a waiver.

I mean, we can’t control a lot of this and we can spend all of our time worrying about something we can’t control or we can just try to dive in with the kids that we have and grow them. And this particular team I have right now, I mean, do we wish we had a few more players? Probably so, but I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. And I love coaching them and I love that they’re buying into the process of being better.

HOWARD MEGDAL: There are some others you have coming in who also are really intriguing, whether it’s Katie Benzan coming as a transfer from Harvard or even this new recruiting class was Ashley Chevalier, the point guard. Can you take me through the way in which you see them adhering to and replacing some of the really significant players you have graduated and coming out of this year?

KAREN ASTON: Yeah, I mean, the very first priority for us, and again, this was before we had a couple of departures. I mean, the very first priority for us was understanding that we were losing Sug and LaShann all in the same year and even Izzy Palmer came in here with a bit of an injury. So we knew that we needed to address the point guard situation very quickly. We were very, very fortunate that Ashley Chevalier decided last year as a junior.

And we knew that we had a young player that was willing to come here and take the responsibility of that position very seriously and Ashley does. Best thing I can say about Ash is that she’s just a winner. She’s undersized and, I mean, probably people would look at her and say she’s definitely got some limitations, but I don’t see any limitations in her competitive spirit and her ability to make others around her better.

And I think those are the qualities that you’re looking for in a point guard.

HOWARD MEGDAL: That sounds a little bit like an undersized point guard who has done relatively well, considering she’s in the WNBA now.

KAREN ASTON: That’s exactly right.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Stephanie Livaudais, @Livaudais
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

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