The WNBA needs a Vin Scully — Veronica Burton talks rookie year — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, August 3, 2022
It’s hard to focus on basketball today, honestly. Vin Scully, the voice of my father’s childhood, who spoke eloquently and beautifully on a sport I love, died Tuesday at the age of 94.
While it is easy in retrospect to think of Scully’s path, and impact on the game of baseball, as inevitable, the truth is far more fraught. Scully was a young kid of 23 when he got the chance to broadcast with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He only ascended to the top seat at Ebbets Field because the Yankees lured away Red Barber and Connie Desmond couldn’t overcome his problems with drinking.
And even then, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, and it was no sure thing Scully would join them. The New York kid and Fordham grad had to be convinced.
it is easy to see how, through a women’s sports lens, this whole story might have been covered, isn’t it? The Dodgers, leaving Brooklyn after attendance declined. An announcer hired, out of step with the region and broadcasting games at the Los Angeles Coliseum, famously bad for baseball. We all know what the skeptics would have said.
That’s not how it all went though. New York immediately set about replacing the Dodgers and Giants, eventually ending up with the Mets. Scully, the master of his craft, led his new town into a love of baseball that has persisted for generations and will continue to flower in his memory for as long as the game is played — in Los Angeles, yes, and all over the world, with the Internet allowing us all the chance to enjoy his transcendent storytelling wherever we live.
I mention all this not just because Scully is on my mind today, more than most days, but because the WNBA is at a similar inflection point, in my view, to the Dodgers arriving in Los Angeles. It is a moment where the demand is obvious and strong, and there are new markets to be conquered, large groups of new fans to be won.
How did Los Angeles do it? With someone who never talked down to his audience. Not someone who made his rooting interests obvious, or let them interfere with his honest brokering of the game he saw in front of him. A magnetic personality who you wanted to spend time with.
To circle back to the conversation here a few weeks ago, the WNBA, as it considers its media rights future, can create that direct connection with its audience if and only if its games can be found in a single place. It was “time for Dodger baseball”, and those who wished to consume it away from Dodger Stadium had Vin along as their guide. Who can be that person, the Vin Scully of the WNBA?
I think there are some obvious choices. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the WNBA’s best ratings came on NBC, where Ann Meyers Drysdale was the consistent voice. The voice of the WNBA needs to have gravitas, and understanding and love for the game, but doesn’t have to be one with a pre-existing fanbase from the WNBA, anymore than the Fordham college outfielder who grew up rooting for Mel Ott and the Giants needed pre-existing Dodger ties.
Two obvious candidates to me for such a role are LaChina Robinson and Ari Chambers, leaving aside my personal affection for each of them. Neither one played in the WNBA. Both understand the game and could provide a warm, welcoming guide to both established fans and newcomers. The WNBA has an opportunity to create not just a new television home, but relationships as well. That’s how you build the habit — not by finding as many different networks as possible.
Incidentally, Major League Baseball has fallen victim to this money pursuit as well, but is protected by the kind of relationships in market that keep people watching. I know here in New York there are people who watch the Mets because Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez are on the television, longtime figures that are like family to them. Same on the radio side with Howie Rose. And across the league, we’ve seen it from Jack Buck in St. Louis, Harry Kalas in Philadelphia, Jerry Remy in Boston, Bob Uecker in Milwaukee… the list goes on and on.
So as long as there are WNBA local broadcasts, teams need to make certain there is continuity within those games, and season-to-season, to build this habit. Make the broadcasters visible, and a key part of the coverage, even beyond the games themselves. Don’t make broadcast hires an afterthought, a committee assignment, or with pay low enough that you cannot retain talent. There are too many stories I won’t tell today about how often the latter has led to unnecessary turnover.
Back in 1976, fans were asked who the most memorable Dodger was after nearly 20 years in Los Angeles, a time of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, Walter Alston at the helm throughout, Maury Wills stealing bases and Tommy Davis slashing doubles into the gap.
There’s so much to learn from Scully, from his life, from his words, from his passion for being a good person ahead of any professional ambition.
But there’s a lesson, too, for the WNBA.
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This week in women’s basketball
Love the stories Erica McCall is telling on her pod.
Fantastic look back at the UNC women’s basketball origin story.
My latest at FiveThirtyEight focuses on Han Xu.
Sabreena Merchant’s pod with Jack Borman focuses on the next chapter in Minnesota.
Jackie Powell’s latest power rankings are here.
We should all be as productive in general as Alexa Philippou is while on vacation.
Five at The IX: Veronica Burton, Dallas Wings
I’m a big Veronica Burton guy, so when the Dallas Wings made her postgame answers available after her first start, well, I knew I would be sharing them with you.
On having her first career start
“It was awesome for sure. I didn’t know, it was definitely unexpected going into it so it was for sure a pleasant surprise I’m sure for all of [my friends and family]. It was great to see some of my old teammates there too and [Northwestern’s Women’s Basketball Head] Coach [Joe] McKeown was sitting courtside with his family. It was a special moment, and I had some family there too, so it was awesome.”
On Head Coach Vickie Johnson’s discussion with her about starting
“It definitely wasn’t a major conversation, but it was more so just ‘be ready’ and if there were any questions or anything I wasn’t clear about to be sure to speak up and ask.”
On her evaluation of her performance versus Chicago
“I think it was solid. There were definitely a few moments. It was up and down just how basketball is. I had some moments of error and turnovers and stuff like that, but overall I think it was a solid outing and I think just the way we played as a team. I feel like my teammates gave me a lot of confidence and my coach gave me a lot of confidence, so that helped me the most honestly.”
On keeping her composure last night
“I was definitely nervous. I think some people said i didn’t look nervous, but I was. I think it just came down to repetition. This is stuff that I’ve practiced and situations that I’ve been in before. Obviously maybe not on as big of a stage or just as big of a moment being in the WNBA. Free throws are something that we practice every day in practice and something that I do every day, so just reminding myself of that and not letting the moment become too big.”
On her development from college to the WNBA
“I think it still has a long way to go, but I definitely think I’m moving in the right direction. For me that’s the most important thing is just to continue to get better every day – that’s a major goal of mine. I think over the course of the season as well, I’ve slowly gotten better and better and ultimately that’s my end goal.”
On Kayla Thornton
“KT is the best for sure. Just from a leadership standpoint alone. She’s one of the most vocal people on the team. You have someone telling you where to be and she’s just a very reliable individual on and off the court. She’s especially helped me throughout my process of coming into the WNBA. Her and Allisha Gray have both taken me under their wings and have helped me tremendously. She’s also just a player that will do whatever she needs to do to help the team, whether its scoring, rebounding, effort, or defense. Whatever it may be, she’s always willing to do the little things that might not always get the glory, and at the end of the day that’s what you want in a teammate. She’s had a tremendous impact on me. More off the court than anything. Just the type of person she is and type of leader that she’s been to me and just some things with life too. She’s very strong in her faith and that’s something that’s very important to me too, so that’s been helpful. Just a lot of little things she’s definitely been paving the way for me.”
On if her performance against Chicago was her best of the season
“Yeah, I guess. I think just the opportunity I was given a great one and being in that position in a starting role. And obviously, with Arike [Ogunbowale] out, I got more minutes. I think there was a greater opportunity there and I was able to take advantage of it as much as possible. I definitely think I had an impact.”
On the lessons learned during her rookie season
“There were a lot of lessons learned. One is patience. If you know me, I’m a perfectionist. Whatever it may be, I like to do it to the best of my ability so when you have those early struggles – you expect but you don’t exactly know what it’s going to feel like. And obviously, it’s a different role. Being patient with myself and understanding that it’s not going to come that easily right away. Things click and develop over time. I think that was one of the biggest things I had to realize. Also, to not be too hard on myself when it came down to it.”
On her opportunities for improvement for the future
“Developing more of a leadership role and as a point guard, I do think you have to be that leader. Being a vocal and active leader on this team and developing in that area over the course of the next year is definitely something that I hope to accomplish
On talking to her parents after the win in Chicago
“It did take a little bit longer than usual. After every game, they’re the first people I talk to. But because I had people in Chicago, I had to go out there. My mom’s sister was at the game. I took a little bit longer – probably an hour or so. They were happy, definitely nothing crazy but some positive thoughts. They’re always so supportive so it means a lot.”
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