WNBA's Comets Flame Out

Houston's Cynthia Cooper, right, waves to the crowd after leading the Comets to a fourth straight WNBA title in 2000. (AP)
Houston's Cynthia Cooper, right, waves to the crowd after leading the Comets to a fourth straight WNBA title in 2000. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, December 6, 2008

With not nearly enough fanfare, the best women's basketball franchise the game has ever seen has been put to bed. The Houston Comets, a four-time champion and one of the WNBA's original teams, essentially expired this week. You want to know how the crippled economy is affecting sports? The league shut down the team after it couldn't find a new owner for the Comets, who almost certainly were the most important franchise in the history of women's professional sports.

Artistically, the league and supporters of women's basketball will point to teams in San Antonio and Los Angeles and the arrival of talented young players such as Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins as evidence that the sport will keep on keeping on. But economically, one has to wonder about the future of the WNBA and whether the NBA will be the source of ongoing bailouts. The Houston Chronicle, in remembering the Comets earlier this week, editorialized, "One wonders what is in store for the rest of the league if a franchise with the Comets' history -- in a huge market that has displayed as much interest in women's basketball as Houston did -- can't survive."

Almost everyone associated with the WNBA has said the Comets' demise doesn't suggest the league is in trouble. Donna Orender, the WNBA president, told reporters earlier this week, "You can't ignore the fact that this team was the engine that drove the league." But she added, naming Parker and Wiggins: "Talent has been absolutely blooming. . . . There are new cities in the pipeline and prospects for continued growth are bright. . . . The league is stronger than ever."

That concept becomes more and more difficult to wrap one's head around as the recession deepens. After all, NASCAR's lucrative teams have all but abandoned December/January offseason testing.

General Motors decided it cannot afford Tiger Woods's $7 million endorsement deal.

A woman who sees the league from the perspective of an active player (Sacramento Monarchs) and a reporter/analyst for ESPN, Kara Lawson, said in a conversation earlier in the week: "Anytime you have a franchise that folds it's not a good thing. You couple that with the fact that this was the team that carried the league the first four years . . . it's not a good sign. . . . But, I'm buoyed by the fact that we're pocket-friendly in this economy, meaning it's not going to cost an arm and leg to bring a family of four to our games, and as somebody working for ESPN, I know the product itself has a great foundation because of the kids coming into our league."

The WNBA could probably use a super-team to help it through the recession during the next season or two. But even with this new infusion of talent, including players such as college all-American Maya Moore and Texas high school phenom Brittney Griner, it's doubtful any one team will be able to put together the kind of run that will command fan and sponsor attention the way the Comets did when the league began play.

Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson were the stars. Kim Perrot was the immensely popular guard who helped the team win championships in 1997 and 1998 before dying of cancer in the summer of 1999. I always thought those four Comets teams (1997-2000) were the best women's basketball teams I ever saw, including Olympic teams. They were coached by Van Chancellor, now in the Basketball Hall of Fame and head coach at Louisiana State.

"When I was in high school," said Lawson, who attended West Springfield before playing at the University of Tennessee, "Houston was the team you wanted to watch. Houston is the team I looked up on the Mystics' schedule. I can't think of a player more dominant in any one position than Cynthia Cooper was. They were ahead of the curve. That's the team that would stand the test of time, that would hold up in the coming years with comparisons with any champion the WNBA would ever produce."

Cooper's poster was on Lawson's bedroom wall . . . alongside a poster of Michael Jordan. Thompson stayed in the league long enough for Lawson to play with and against her in the WNBA. "And Van Chancellor," Lawson said, "was the perfect coach for that team. He was pretty hands-off. He allowed them to play. He was more into managing personalities than being involved in every minute detail. That's been a difficult thing for the WNBA, having college coaches adjust to the pro style of coaching. A lot of people feel it's why former professional players, like Bill Laimbeer, Michael Cooper, Richie Adubato, have had so much success in the league; they weren't coming straight out of college. Well, Van was ahead of it all. He got it from the beginning, that the college game and the pro game are different. That was his genius."

Lawson actually played in the last WNBA game in the old Summit arena, the same building where the Rockets won NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. Some will remember it as Compaq Arena. Lawson helped eliminate the Comets in Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs in 2003 to close the doors on women's basketball in that arena. There would be no more summer parades through Houston to celebrate the champs.

That irony isn't lost on Lawson, and neither is the fact that women like Cooper and Swoopes were among the first wave of women who could make a living right here in America playing professional basketball.

Previously, American women had to travel to Europe and Asia to play basketball professionally, and many still play overseas during the winter because it's not like the WNBA is going to secure their financial futures. Still, playing professionally at home for any pay at all was not a given for the women on those Comets teams in the late 1990s, who in a sense were to their league what the early Minneapolis Lakers teams (five championships in six years in the late 1940s and early 1950s) were to the fledgling NBA before moving to Los Angeles.

Lawson thought back to the older women who attend WNBA games, "who remember playing only half the court . . . It's important culturally for girls who participate in sports . . . really for boys and girls who participate in sports" to see women play in a league here in the United States. A women's professional soccer league, remember, has already folded.

It wasn't exactly a stunner to folks in the know that the Comets were in serious trouble. Because of a hurricane threat earlier in the season, Lawson and the Monarchs had to play a rescheduled, meaningless game against the Comets in San Marcos, Tex., late in the summer because the club was entertaining prospective owners. It was a long way from Houston, where the Comets would draw sometimes, 13,000, maybe 14,000 for big regular season games. Cooper, Swoopes and Thompson would go years without disappointing fans there. "They were the first women," Lawson said, "who were primarily associated with their WNBA teams, not their Olympic teams or their college teams. They were so good and represented so many good things about our league."

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