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WNBA oral history: Moving the ball forward

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20 years of excellence (3:28)

Before the WNBA, female basketball players couldn't play professionally in the U.S. Now, as the league celebrates its 20th season, current and former stars look back at the WNBA's history and reflect on the impact it continues to make. (3:28)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 23 WNBA Issue. Subscribe today! For more WNBA content, visit our WNBA20 page.

DAVID STERN WALKED down the hallway of the NBA offices in Manhattan and paused as he approached Val Ackerman's office.

The then-NBA commissioner poked his head in the doorway.

"This would be a summer league, right?" Stern asked.

"Yeah," Ackerman recalls saying, "that's the plan."

THE WNBA WASN'T launched by one landmark meeting. Rather, it evolved from a series of brainstorms, serendipitous circumstances and casual conversations: It was the right people working together at the right time. The NBA had reached a zenith of popularity and marketability in the early 1990s thanks to megastars such as Michael Jordan and collaborations with other organizations, such as USA Basketball. All of that delivered the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics.

So this was the time, Stern thought, to expand the league's reach globally and domestically, and he tasked his team with researching and developing big ideas that would do just that. Two of those ideas, after extensive research, eventually became the WNBA and the D-League.

Initially, Stern considered launching both at the same time, but he decided that would be too ambitious. The WNBA was the priority, and during 1995-96, the plan took shape.

Ackerman, WNBA president, 1996-2005: "The concept was that there would be some prime television windows and less competition from other sports [in the summer]. That was the earliest pillar. And to always, always call it the WNBA. There was never any discussion of another name."

Rick Welts, NBA executive, 1982-99: "If the NBA was willing to put its own name in the league, it gave people confidence that this wasn't just a 'We'll try it and see.' It was a long-term commitment. It sounds awfully simple, but I think that was maybe the most important decision."

Gary Stevenson, NBA executive, 1995-97: "I had just left the Golf Channel [which he helped launch], and [NBC Sports president] Dick Ebersol called me and said, 'I've got someone I'd like you to meet. He's got a couple of projects he'd like to talk to you about.' It was David Stern. And the WNBA was one of those projects."

Stern, NBA commissioner, 1984-2014: "I had no doubt about it. Here was an opportunity to develop new fans, more programming, have arena content outside the NBA season, give more girls an incentive to play basketball. Because if you play, there's more chance you'll be a lifelong basketball fan. So we thought it was an ultimate winner. But we knew it was going to be a long haul."

Adam Silver, NBA employee since 1992, current NBA commissioner: "We looked at the history, at other women's leagues; there had been attempts. But there was not a tradition of success. We were trying to buck historical trends. We knew it was revolutionary."

A CRUCIAL EARLY step was the NBA's alliance with USA Basketball, which had been developing since the late 1980s. While the U.S. men dominated the 1992 Olympics and 1994 FIBA World Championship with Dream Teams I and II, the U.S. women took disappointing bronze medals in both competitions. NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik was also vice president of USA Basketball then, and he helped sell the NBA's idea: Create a women's version of the Dream Team and take it on a multimonth tour in preparation for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Ackerman: "USA Basketball was ada¬mantly opposed at first. They did not think we needed to go to those lengths."

Granik, NBA executive, 1976-2006: "A lot of the officers at USA Basketball were out of the amateur ranks of the sport and were worried about where the money would come from. We guaranteed them contractually that NBA Properties would make sure they didn't suffer any losses. We were confident that we could cover all the costs with a solid marketing program."

Ackerman: "I was in the hospital the day after my daughter Sally was born and got a call from Russ and Rick to tell me USA Basketball had approved the national-team concept. I remember Russ saying, 'We're in the women's basketball business now.' Then we were able to convince Tara VanDerveer to take the year off from Stanford to coach the team."

Tara VanDerveer, U.S. national team coach, 1995-96: "There was a meeting we had with David Stern. It was really exciting. He was talking about preparing for the Olympics, all the money spent on training and travel. He liked to tease people. He said, 'There's only one thing that could screw it up: you.' I said, 'Don't worry.'

"He never came out and said it, but the NBA was looking at the national team as a way to gauge attention, or support, for professional women's basketball."

Granik: "I think halfway through that training year, we began to see that it was catching on. ... Part of the feeling was, 'If not now, when?'"

SHERYL SWOOPES' 47 POINTS for Texas Tech, Charlotte Smith's buzzer-beating 3-pointer for North Carolina and UConn's perfect record had capped the 1993-95 women's college basketball seasons and had others feeling bullish about the possibility of a women's pro league. Investors in the Bay Area announced that the American Basketball League -- playing in the traditional basketball season -- would start in the fall of 1996. The NBA, meanwhile, announced it would launch the WNBA in the summer of 1997. The NBA hired Renee Brown, an assistant to VanDerveer with the gold-winning national team, to sign players for the WNBA. That was made more difficult because several already had signed with the ABL, which offered higher salaries.

VanDerveer: "So many players were overseas, and some were having less than great experiences. They were very excited about the prospect of playing professionally in the United States."

Teresa Weatherspoon, WNBA player, 1997-2004 (played overseas from 1988 to '96): "It was almost like, 'It's time to go home now.' When I knew that the NBA was involved, I made my decision quickly: I was going to the WNBA no matter what."

Brown, WNBA executive, 1996-present: "I was traveling all over the world. I remember getting in a car with [future WNBA player] Rhonda Mapp and a translator and driving around Italy to find players. I had the WNBA lady logo pin on my lapel, and I could get into any game with that. It was bigger than my business card. Everyone wanted one of those pins.

"I couldn't find Cynthia Cooper for some reason, and I was sitting here in my office late at night. And Cynthia called me. I was like, 'I've been looking for you!' And she said, 'I really want to play in the league.' I'll always remember that."

Rebecca Lobo, one of the first WNBA players signed (along with Swoopes and Lisa Leslie), who competed from 1997 to 2003: "The WNBA, when I first heard about it, meant a dream being realized."

THE NBA DRAFTED a business plan for the WNBA, but it had about 14 months from the time the league was formally approved by the NBA board of governors in April 1996 to its first game in June 1997. The NBA had to pick cities, nicknames and color schemes, hire staff, sign players and finalize sponsorship and TV deals. Oh, and then there was the matter of the color of the basketball ...

Stevenson: "We expected to get the board's vote; we had done the preparation and had met with a bunch of owners, so I don't think it was stunning. But the next day we all looked around the table and said, 'OK, now the work really starts.' "

Granik: "Phoenix and Indiana were interested from the start. But we knew we needed the two big markets; you couldn't hope to make an impact without New York or Los Angeles."

Stern: "One of the things that was insisted upon is we would have regular basketball uniforms. We weren't going to sexualize the players. And I remember conversations about the basketball itself. I think I take responsibility for saying we didn't want the WNBA ball to be in a store and look the same as other balls. So we decided on the oatmeal and orange colors."

Silver: "The WNBA was not a minor league. But we recognized when starting it that the best comparables would be from minor league sports. We looked at international salaries for players and at arena information for any events they had. It gave us a sense of what consumers would pay for tickets."

Welts: "We were trying to create a brother-and-sister relationship between the NBA team and the WNBA franchise it would be operating. Through colors and team names and in most cases trying to capture a different version of what had been so successful as an NBA product in each market."

TELEVISION WAS KEY to the WNBA. Deals were made with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime. The NBA's clout drove sponsorships. The WNBA also brought in business.

Ackerman: "ESPN was coming in for a big meeting to talk about a television deal in the summer [of 1996]. The Sports Illustrated Olympic preview hit, and the cover was our women's Dream Team for Atlanta. I got a copy and walked into David's office to show him. He had this big smile, and then we walked into the conference room and he put the issue on the table."

Stevenson: "There were some existing corporate partners of the NBA who wanted to be in with the WNBA. And it opened new doors to some companies the NBA would never have thought of having. Monistat was a good example."

Welts: "Part of what unfolded was just good luck with the American women having so much success in the Atlanta Olympics. There was a corporate awakening that this women's sports thing in America was for real and if you were a major brand it was time to take a look at being supportive."

THE FIRST GAME was played June 21, 1997, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. The New York Liberty defeated the Los Angeles Sparks 67-57. A few days later, the Liberty played their first home game in Madison Square Garden, and Stern, who'd grown up a Knicks fan, attended.

Lobo: "I remember driving in LA on our team bus from the airport to the hotel, seeing this huge billboard, a picture of me and a picture of Lisa [Leslie] with the 'We Got Next' tagline underneath it."

Welts: "Val and I were at that first game. There was a feeling you were a part of something that was a little more important than another sporting event, a kind of social movement. It was a symbol of change."

Stern: "It was a great feeling to see that first game [at MSG]. It was the same enthusiasm, but a lot of the voices were at a higher pitch than you got at a typical NBA game because there were more women and children there. I do remember feeling really good about it, but I never could understand the disconnect and the absence of media coverage. So that became a source of intense focus for us."

Silver: "We underestimated how much marketing the WNBA would require. Historically, sports leagues are reliant on the media, and we also underestimated the media's willingness to cover us. We were also moving into a changed world where being on broadcast television didn't bring the same premium it once had."

THE ABL FOLDED in late 1998, and most of its players migrated to the WNBA. At one point, the WNBA grew to 16 teams. At first completely centralized in ownership and operation by the NBA, the model changed in 2002 to allow owners from outside the NBA. Now starting its 20th season, the WNBA is at 12 teams. Only three of the original eight are where they started: New York, LA and Phoenix. Lisa Borders is the fourth WNBA president; this is her first season.

Stern: "I guess I was mistaken in the view that we should expand to as many teams as necessary so early. I wanted to try to accommodate all the players that were coming from the ABL."

Welts: "The last 20 years have shown we did some really smart things. But we guessed wrong on at least as many things as we guessed right. We thought that the best stewards of our WNBA teams would be the NBA teams. ... That didn't always prove to be the case. We were wrong on the audience, though people still debate the audience."

Silver: "Just because someone is a fan of NBA basketball doesn't mean they will carry over to the WNBA. It's not the same target audience. We've actually done a really good job of reaching older men who were already predisposed to like what they see as good fundamental basketball. But I tell the WNBA players, 'For us to take this league to the next level, we need the demographic that is you: young women in their 20s and 30s.' "

Ackerman: "That first season was a lot of travel and went by in a whirl. We were enjoying the moment, but we had to immediately look forward. It was an amazing thing to be part of. We felt like we were doing more than starting a sports league. It was about what this meant for women. It was a work environment that would be hard to replicate exactly: We were all united by this sense of purpose. We were moving the ball forward."