(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
For the last week, most of the sporting world has been captivated by the men’s NCAA Tournament, and rightfully so. This year’s tourney has had plenty of upsets, buzzer beaters and Cinderfellas still alive chasing that elusive glass slipper.
But there’s another tournament going on that features all of those same things. It’s called the women’s NCAA Tournament. If you weren’t aware of it before, you probably snapped to attention when you heard Tennessee’s Candace Parker threw one down – not once, but twice – in the Lady Vols first round 102-54 dismantling of Army.
You might remember Parker as the girl who won the High School Dunk Contest two years ago, beating players like Josh Smith of the New Orleans/Oklahoma Hornets and Kentucky’s Joe Crawford.
After her two flushes in the first round, many pundits were simultaneously proclaiming it was going to be either the savior or death knell of women’s basketball. The savior because it would draw male fans to the sport and the death knell because eventually girls would forget the jump shot and practice dunking all day.
Personally, I think it was neither. It was just two dunks in a college basketball game. Sure, it was cool to see a woman play above the rim, but it’s not going to make me tune in or turn off any more games than I would have prior to it.
The strength of the women’s game is in the fundamentals. Their game is what the men’s game used to be. A game predicated on moving without the ball, setting screens, back cuts, passing the ball and hitting the outside jumper.
The women’s game is often much more fluid to watch than the one played by their male counterparts. It’s easy to see in international competition the difference between the two. Since most of America’s men’s team is only concerned with looking pretty, trash talking and dunking on someone’s head, the finer points of the game usually get neglected. And it shows in the U.S.A’s recent lack of success against the rest of the world.
The women on the other hand, are as locked into the fundamentals as our foreign competition is. For evidence look no further than the women’s 8-0 record on their way to the gold medal in 2004.
The women’s game doesn’t need dunking. It was a much bigger deal to reporters and fans than the players themselves. It was almost as if Parker was implying, ‘Here, we can dunk too. Now shut up and watch us play some real basketball’.
It’s not as if Parker was a trailblazer. While it’s true she became the first woman to dunk in the NCAA Tournament and the first woman to dunk more than once in the game, there are three other ladies who have caught some serious hang time.
In 1984, West Virginia’s Georgeann Wells was the first, followed by Charlotte Smith of North Carolina in 1994 and Michelle Snow of Tennessee in 2000. Lisa Leslie of the WNBA has done it as a pro for the Los Angeles Sparks.
With more and more high school and college young ladies receiving access to weight rooms and strength and conditioning programs, the dunk is sure to become more prevalent in the coming years. And it’s my guess that it will be no big deal.
Just like it was no big deal for Parker, who implied that she did it more for her teammates than herself or the betterment of the women’s game.
I believe it was also for herself. Before her freshman season last year at Tennessee, Parker blew out her knee, resulting in knee surgery and a lengthy rehab. For her to come back after an injury like that, and still be able to elevate, displays a strong work ethic and a belief in herself. The dunk was more proof of Candace Parker’s heart than the equalization of men’s and women’s basketball.
If it draws a few more viewers in, so be it. I became a convert after covering girl’s high school basketball the past three seasons.
I saw as much competitiveness, athleticism, and determination as I see when the other sex hoops. And I saw teams and players who were often more fundamentally sound than the guys.
Tennessee plays again this Saturday. If you can tear yourself away from that other tournament, tune in to see if Parker will dunk again. But while you’re waiting on that, check out everything else about the game.
You won’t be disappointed.