By Bea Chang and Matt Kelsey
A sample of a conversation between two sports fanatics about basketball and football childhoods in upstate New York and southern California, about Lindsey Whalen and the Minnesota Lynx and the 2015 WNBA Finals, and our desire to pull more people into the conversation about women’s sports and generate exposure to the ever-so-exciting WNBA!
Bea Chang: We talk a lot about sports through texts, emails, on the phone, face-to-face. Sometimes, it seems like sports serves as the fabric of our friendship, the intensity of which rises with the ebb and flow of each season. It was, certainly, our beginning.
Back on a warm Seattle evening in 2012, a friend introduced you to me because you, like me, were a fan of Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. “You’d be great friends,” our friend said. Sure, we chatted for a while, and made small talk over LeBron and the others, but I never expected to see you again. And yet, a week or so later when I offered another friend a free ticket to the Seattle Storm, you showed up too. I didn’t think anyone would show up, much less two men in their mid-twenties, and then you went on and on about Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. You knew that Tina Thompson had won four championships with the Houston Comets before the franchise disintegrated. You remembered Sue Bird’s “Perfect Season” at UConn in 2002. I was ecstatic. I had hardly been able to find a friend to talk about women’s basketball, and then there you were, spieling with equal zeal for both men’s and women’s sports. So, tell me a little bit more about yourself, Matt. What role has sports played in your life? What about women’s sports?
Matt Kelsey: We have so many fond sports memories, don’t we? Thanks for reminding me of those initial days. Thanks, too, for being so willing to watch the WNBA with me. The league’s history is unfolding in all the right ways, except maybe for the financial side of things–and that’s not even the league’s own fault. More on that later, I assume. For now, let me cut to the chase and answer your questions.
“The most formidable experience, however, came in my senior football season, when Caroline Parsons, star of the soccer team, crossed over to football and challenged me for the kicking position.” – Matt Kelsey
First of all, the world of sports has played many roles in my life, some critical/vital, and some superficial and even dangerous. I was born to a family of sports fanatics and I played three sports–football, basketball, and track–during high school. I could actually talk a blue streak about the complicated ways sports influenced me as a pup, but I’m more eager to discuss women’s athletics.
I was fortunate–given my hyper-masculine, patriarchal family–to have met a lot of athletic women throughout my childhood. Not only were these female athletes serious about their sports, but they were so talented that they shattered long-standing notions about the physical differences between men and women. It began with my elementary school crush, who could outrun almost every boy in school and was one of the best hockey players on her club team. In high school, I dated a sprinter who was a state finalist–she, too, could outrun everyone in school save for a handful of us who were also on the sprint team.
Then there were the more humbling experiences. Of course, you already know that my high school basketball days are a point of pride—not only did my team play for the New York State championship, but we produced two Division-I players. (One of them is now an NBA journeyman.) We went 27-0 before losing that final game, and broke the all-time record for highest team GPA. (What nerds!) We’ve even been inducted into our hometown’s hall of fame. But our coach always encouraged us to share the spotlight, and to support the women’s team. One of their star point guards–Salem Shaffer–was one of those perception-challenging talents. Not only did she out-perform me in academics, but she was capable of beating me 1-on-1, despite my standing at least a foot taller than she did.
The most formidable experience, however, came in my senior football season, when Caroline Parsons, star of the soccer team, crossed over to football and challenged me for the kicking position. Long story short: she and I split duties the whole year, and though it was, at the time, a tough ego check for me, she and I got along and supported each other. She was graceful under all the pressure she faced–emotionally and physically–and she was far better at drowning out the social chatter and controversy than I was. I’ve learned a lot from that through reflection over the years, and feel grateful that I got to call her a teammate.
What it boils down to is this: I’m no stranger to the athletic and personal achievements of women, and I’ve been taught, through a number of experiences, how to take women’s athletic progress seriously. I’ve seen the WNBA grow through the years, and I’ve seen how talent and product is commensurate with the amount of attention, funding, and moral support that goes into it. If men don’t relinquish their dominant grip on the athletic world, then the world of women’s sports will continue to be insulated and overlooked.
Does that answer your question? How have you, Bea, worked to promote women’s athletics, other than inviting fellas like me to Key Arena? Also, speaking of the WNBA, are you seeing this Finals series? It’s some of the best WNBA ball I’ve seen. I definitely want your take on this season, but I’ll let you keep guiding this thread as you see fit.
Bea: I started to reply by telling you about the experiences of having been a girl who had largely grown up on the sporting field with boys such as yourself, but given that the WNBA Finals Game 3 just ended with a sort of Maya Moore-Michael Jordan flair, I will have to come back to that.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had not watched any games in the WNBA playoffs this season—up until last night. Not having subscription to NBA TV (who has that, by the way?) or ESPN 2 made access to the women’s basketball limited at best. Instead, I watched the scores on WNBA.com. I didn’t know what was happening on the court, but I was ecstatic when Indiana Fever took the lead and came out winners in Game 1. I was checking the scores during Game 2 when my new roommate walked in and asked what I was doing. When I told her I was just staring at the score, she inquired, “Isn’t that sad?” I ignored her because the Fever had just tied the game and there was too much to say.
I have nothing against the Minnesota Lynx. In fact, a printed photograph of Lindsey Whalen—and by photograph I mean a self-created poster I printed out in college from my second-hand printer—used to hang on my wall, right next to a glistening poster of Tracy McGrady I’d gotten from SLAM magazine. It’s just that the Lynx, with four Olympians, are stacked, and, like many of us who love sports, I happen to root for the underdogs.
Honestly, I did not think the Fever had a shot, until they pulled off Game 1 on the road and came close to doing it again in Game 2. So I was determined to catch Game 3. I figured, too, that I had to catch a last glimpse of Tamika Catchings before she, supposedly, retires. I ran through a list of names in my mind of friends who had ESPN 2 and who wouldn’t mind spending a Friday night watching women’s sports. Including the parents of the girls I coach, I came up empty. Then, I ran through a list of bars in Seattle that had at least five televisions. Then, I narrowed it down to bars whose identity is not too tied to masculinity, those that would not be ashamed to show women sports on its screens. Then, I chose the one that was located near enough bars to serve as backups. I then Googled all of the sporting events that were on that night to make sure it was worth it for my friend and I to make the trip.
“And my friend and I sat there, staring at the screen, dumbfounded—not only by Indiana’s defeat, but by that moment of beauty in itself, made for national television, a Hollywood ending to a hard-fought, perfectly executed game.” – Bea Chang
Of course the game wasn’t on a screen when we got there and the bartender refused to change the channel on their two large screens showing the Cubs game that no one was watching. He put us in the back of the bar, where we had to watch the game over a group of eight people chatting up a storm.
If Games 1 and 2 were anything like Game 3, this could be one of the greatest finals series I’ve ever seen. Over 16,000 people in Fever red packed into the field house in Indiana, and even though the television was muted, I could feel the energy and noise, the absolute insanity of men and women, boys and girls. For the majority of the game, I felt self-conscious in a way that made me wish I was home, alone. I could feel groups of men and women staring at us and laughing at us because we were talking about women’s sports. I remember I shot both arms in the air when Briann January drove the lane and finished a reverse lay-up, and I forced myself not to yelp out in joy. And when Tamika Catchings picked off a pass and raced the other way for a wide-open lay-up that would’ve given Indiana the lead and missed the basket, I finally let it out—I screamed, knocked over our check and just saved my drink from toppling over. Right then, the table of four men beside us were staring. I screamed again when the Indiana Fever air-balled a three-pointer and Catchings knocked the ball out-of-bounds with 1.7 seconds to go, the game tied. And then I watched as Whalen, who had sat for the majority of the fourth quarter, came into the game to deliver a pass over two defenders to Maya Moore, who ball-faked, stepped with a dribble to the top of the key, released the ball high and mighty and beautiful just as the backboard flashed and the ball hit the back of the rim and dropped effortlessly through the net. And my friend and I sat there, staring at the screen, dumbfounded—not only by Indiana’s defeat, but by that moment of beauty in itself, made for national television, a Hollywood ending to a hard-fought, perfectly executed game.
All that is to say, yes, the WNBA has come a long way and I’m so glad there are people like you out there to share it with. It’s amazing, really, to think how far the athleticism and competition had come since its infant days. I remember how, as a girl in middle school, when my classmates asked for my autograph, there was a part of me that truly believed that perhaps I could make it as a LA Spark. Yet, these days, whether it’s the Seattle Storm bringing home the city’s first major professional championship in 25 years in 2004 (I just have to throw it in here), the first time four women head coaches made it to the WNBA final four, or Elena Delle Donne’s single-handed 17-point come back in the fourth quarter a year ago, the playoffs filled with stories of drama and triumph sports has always promised. I cannot tell you the number of people I have encountered who have voiced their shock, in a tone that is meant to be celebratory, but comes out, at least to me, condescending: Wow, these women can play! My hope is that one day, the rest of us can catch up. Maya Moore’s shot is one for the history books. Yet, when I left the bar last night, I was saddened by the knowledge that the eight people seated directly in front of the television and the table of young men beside me did not see it. They had no idea what had just happened.
Matt: Your enthusiasm is contagious! As soon as you mentioned your Lindsey Whalen poster, I began to run through the list of my favorite players in my mind: Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo (I love that I still get to see her on broadcasts). I also liked the never-talked-about and perennially underrated RUTH RILEY. Let everyone remember that she was the first woman to win the MVP award in both the college and pro finals. Anyway, I could go on forever. But, unlike you, I saw the whole of Game 5, and there’s a lot to be said about that.
For one, I’d like to echo your appreciation for how loud the arenas were during these finals. The Target Center was absolutely rocking during Game 5, and though I was hoping for a (much) closer game, I was definitely happy for the Minnesota crowd, who got to see their Lynx celebrate a title on their home court for the first time.
And you might like Whalen, and that’s understandable, but look: there was no grittier performance in that game than what Seimone Augustus (Money Mone!) gave us. No one was even sure she’d be able to play in the finals after her in-season injury. But there she was, hitting smooth shot after smooth shot, hustling up and down the court, carrying her team on her back. And there was MVP-to-be Fowles, demonstrating her patented blend of grace and strength down low, and Brunson crashing every board, etc. The Lynx were unstoppable. By the way, how much do you think Elena Delle Donne misses Fowles? I sure wish she still played on the Sky. But maybe their positions/styles clashed? Whatever the case, I’ve never seen a team as balanced, point guard to center, as this Minnesota team, including any of their past rosters, and even including those 4-peat Comets of the mid-late 90s.
Of course, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to analyze this game. The Lynx didn’t HAVE to be great (Moore only scored 3 through the first half!) what with all the Fever turnovers, and their record-low 6 second-quarter points.
Now that the 2015 season is behind us, let’s talk about the game as it has evolved. Because yes: it’s a shame more people don’t know how good the women’s game has gotten, at least at its championship level. But for as much of a fan as I am of the WNBA, I remember how painful the first seasons were to watch. Fundamentals weren’t a sure thing, the game was slower, there was less parity. What changed, do you think? Have women been given more opportunities to play, in general? (Perhaps the greatest player ever—Cheryl Miller—never even got to show off in the WNBA, and I’m guessing not many women had the chances to play that her family afforded her.) How do we guide more attention to this league? (On the other side of that coin, of course, is how could the game be better? I’d still prefer to watch women’s college ball than the WNBA, after all. There’s more progress to be made.)
What’s your take, Bea?
Conversation to be continued in January 2016.
Matthew Kelsey was born in Glens Falls, NY. The recent recipient of a Bread Loaf scholarship, Matthew teaches at Everett Community College and the University of Washington. Some of his sports writing can be found in The Classical. Other writings can be found in Best New Poets, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.
Bea Chang grew up a basketball junkie in southern California and New Jersey. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. Her work has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Colere: A Journal of Cultural Exploration, Memoir, as well as an upcoming essay in Broad Street.