Basketball's Glass Ceiling

Dateline: 01/22/97

When I began at The Mining Co., I had the option to write a column on many things, from movies to music to women. But I really know nothing about movies. I thought Forrest Gump was a good movie, not an important American symbol of the inner child being rewarded for innocence. As far as music, I have been heavily criticized for not listening to lyrics, especially when some woman wants me to...

...Which brings me to the third thing. It is eminently clear to me that I know nothing about women. Basically, what I know about women comes down to three things:

  1. If you say something wrong, they will stop talking to you. It doesn't matter whether it was critical or something nice. "Honey, your hair looks nice" could cost you three weeks of dirty looks if she was hoping you'd say, "Dearest, you look absolutely angelic in that blouse."
  2. Apparently, impressing a woman is as simple as offering her Taster's Choice.
  3. Never ever ask a woman for her Bud Light. Why Not? Pole

So now I tiptoe to write a column not so much about women as about women's basketball. This really shouldn't be too hard because I have no reason to talk about coffee or Bud Light. The only thing that might get me is #1. Just by saying something, I could have most of the management team here shutting me out and talking about me behind my back.

So, before I start, let me just say to any women reading this:

  1. I'm sorry.
  2. I really can be a fool sometimes. We men are very fallible.
  3. You must have gotten your charming personality from your wonderful mother.
  4. Your boyfriend/husband really should treat you to a candlelight dinner by the ocean.

Women's Basketball

I have been watching women's basketball diligently for about six years. My first paid scouting job ever was an NC State women's game in which they crushed Athletes in Action by 52 points. In that first game, I was a little surprised because many of the women's games I had seen were fairly sloppy -- not this game. I had seen several average Division I teams having a hard time running a fast break and generally reacting poorly to defensive pressure. This NC State team, coached by former Olympic coach, Kay Yow, could run and handle any defense. In fact, the Lady Wolfpack ran a lot, shot well, looked strong on the boards, and completely dominated the game. They turned out to be a legitimate top 10 team with talent at several positions.

And they were fun to watch. Top women's basketball was getting better quickly. The top teams may not have had athletes who could dunk like Michael Jordan or inside players with arms like David Robinson (thank goodness), but they executed cleanly, making the shots they should make, not committing foolish turnovers, and playing aggressively -- not playing like girls.

It is now six seasons later and the top women of college basketball have an option to play professionally in the United States. Fostered by the success of the Golden Lady Olympians, two professional leagues -- the WNBA and the ABL -- are real entities, with the ABL already three-quarters through their inaugural season. Their financial success is still in doubt, but popular acclaim for the sport has been more than rooting for the underdog women and more than politically correct rah-rah.

Among the compliments was this quote in the January 20 edition of Sports Illustrated, from writer Steve Lopez: "Here's a stat NBA players won't want to hear: At week's end the NBA's free throw shooting percentage was .730. The ABL's was .749."

Remember, I didn't make this comparison. Lopez did. I didn't start any competition between men and women. Lopez did. It's all his fault.

Now that I've disavowed myself of that, let's take a look at what Lopez says. Free throw percentage is a number that reflects nothing more than shooting ability. Not quickness, not strength, not height, not testosterone. What this number says is that the best women in the world are now shooting better than the best men in the world.

Of course, no one goes to a basketball game to watch free throws.

Beyond free throw shooting, the women do not shoot as well from the field as the men do. They also don't take care of the ball as well, committing more turnovers. Overall, the current ABL offensive numbers are well below the NBA's. NBA Commissioner David Stern, who denies the offensive woes in his league, might call this "good defense".

I don't know what this is supposed to mean. I don't know what I'm trying to say. I am stating facts. Here is another fact: the men's college game is also typically considerably worse offensively than the NBA.

This is, to me, just one of many interesting facts about women's basketball. Whether women play basketball "as well" as men by some measure isn't as interesting to me as the fact that there is a difference. With this difference, women are playing the game in a way that hasn't been seen in the NBA in fifteen years, running the court and making passes to someone other than the low post or a spot-up three point shooter. There are playing the game the way the old coaches used to suggest and they are getting better.

Another interesting thing to me is that no one has been brash (or stupid) enough to make comparisons of women's basketball to another successful women's league: pro beach volleyball. Especially since the WNBA plans on playing in the summer, I'm surprised we haven't heard suggestions for the women to play on outdoor courts in tighter uniforms.

Moving on (quickly), a third interesting thing is the economics of the leagues. Ticket prices are moderate, low compared to any professional men's league. Just as minor league baseball teams draw a lot of fans because the cost is low, women's basketball should draw a steady crowd. Unlike minor league baseball, however, the number of women's teams is tiny and the salaries are higher. Minor league baseball players make little money, but professional women hoops players make more than most of you reading this. Also, minor league baseball teams are in small towns without big time competition. Women's pro teams tend to be in big cities against major men's competition. I don't know exactly how to put together all the supply and demand involved in a true economic analysis, but it would be a shame if economics, rather than quality of play, brought down the push for a successful pro women's league.

Already Too Quiet

For months, I have been asking the ABL questions and trying to get the league to give me more access to their stats so that I can do more analysis, comparing players, trying to find stars, and evaluating teams for the playoffs. But for about a month now, they have been shutting me out. Their web site seems to have gone away. Probably my fault. One too many jokes about Bud Light.

Hmmm. I also notice that the Mining Company still has yet to find an expert for a site on women. Maybe no such expert exists....