Women's Basketball Now Means Business
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 1998; Page A01
KANSAS CITY, Mo., March 27 Tracy Reid's tears had dried by Tuesday morning, which was a good thing for the all-American women's basketball player from the University of North Carolina. It was, apparently, time to get down to business. Just hours after her collegiate career had expired, ended by her team's heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss Monday night to Tennessee, Reid discovered a dozen telephone messages on her dormitory room answering machine, about half of which were left by well-wishers.
The other half came from agents, eager to be the caretakers of Reid's future in professional basketball.
"It was crazy," said Reid, here to play in an all-star game Saturday that is being held in conjunction with the women's Final Four. "I was devastated from the loss at the time, and I realized I had to start preparing for my future.
". . . The agents have been calling and calling and calling. It's like they were waiting for you to get done with your season so they could jump on you right away."
The sales pitches, pleas and promises for Reid have escalated here, as big business and women's college basketball intersect like never before. Agents are here. Shoe companies are here. The two professional leagues, the Women's National Basketball Association and the American Basketball League, are the most awesome presence of all. Each has thrown parties. Each has set up information booths. They brought in legions of officials and their own star players and coaches, including Jim Lewis, coach of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, and the nascent team's marquee player, Nikki McCray.
The Final Four provides a fertile recruitment ground. Dozens of graduating seniors are here for postseason award ceremonies or the all-star game. Hundreds of college coaches have assembled for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association convention.
The WNBA's second season gets under way this summer. The ABL starts its third in the fall. Both will host scouting combines in the next month. Professional decisions must be made quickly.
"Year two, we have a definite direction," said WNBA Detroit Shock Coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline, who played for the Phoenix Mercury last year. "We know what our competition is about. A year ago, we were wondering what the ABL would do, and likewise they were wondering how the WNBA was doing. . . . That's over. This is a business and everybody is going to try to make their business better.
"The coaching is important, but you've got to have the horses, and the horses are the players. Last year, we didn't get all the top players. We got the Olympians, the veteran players. This year, it will be a high priority to get the college kids."
While the competition for top players can be both intense and, from the players' perspective, suffocating, both leagues have maintained a certain dignity and civility.
Yet, to many observers here, the warning lights are flashing rapidly. Concerned about the changing climate, the WBCA has scheduled a professional summit for its coaches on Sunday, to acquaint them with the world of agents and scouts and professional contracts.
"It's beginning to become a concern for all of us," said WBCA President Carol Alfano, an assistant coach at the University of California. "It's an area we're going to have to learn about and develop. There are a lot of bumps in the road when you're dealing with agents and players deciding which league to play in. . . . Most of us haven't experienced this before."
The ABL and WNBA have internal rules against recruiting and signing non-seniors. Officials of both leagues say they haven't even considered pursuing Chamique Holdsclaw, a Tennessee junior who has won several national player of the year awards, is the star of the defending national championship team and is considered by some to be the best woman college player in history. Yet Holdsclaw hasn't announced whether she will return for her senior year at Tennessee. Should she decide to offer herself to the professional leagues, would either turn her down?
"We're just looking for seniors right at this minute," said Tracey Williams, the ABL's director for player personnel. "If something happens, we will deal with it when the time comes. We hope it doesn't happen. . . . It might sound old fashioned, but it's our approach now."
Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, who said he observed professional scouts and coaches, and agents at all of his team's games this season, isn't convinced the leagues' good intentions will remain in place should a talented non-senior offer her services. "I would hope they would stick to their guns," Auriemma said. ". . . From a business standpoint, somebody is going to start telling kids they need to come out early. Let's hope the kids don't listen. Let's hope the pros don't listen. But when money is involved, people do funny things."
After Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer bumped into an unknown agent roaming the hallways near her office last year, she said she decided it was time to start taking precautions. VanDerveer gave her players written guidelines for dealing with agents and league representatives early this season. She asked Stanford graduates in the ABL and WNBA to conduct informal question-and-answer sessions with her team. Reid, the North Carolina player, said she has not been approached inappropriately by anybody-agents or league representatives. The conduct of ABL and WNBA personnel, she said, has been beyond reproach.
"There's been more agents than anything else," Reid said. "I've been talking to Tracey Williams and [WNBA player personnel director] Renee Brown all the time, and they're very nice. They don't harass you or anything like that."
High-profile agent Bruce Levy, who already represents more than 30 WNBA players and nine ABL players, flew here to take advantage of the opportunity the weekend offered. Levy said his agency steadfastly avoids dealing directly with college athletes until they have played their last games. However, he said, that policy could change.
"This may be the last year we do that, because we may be at a disadvantage," Levy said. "So many agents have come out of the woodwork. . . . Next year, we might ask permission from the coaches to talk during the season."
Millions of dollars still separate the men's and women's games. In the NBA, players sign nine-figure contracts. In the WNBA, players receive one-year contracts ranging from $15,000 to $62,500 and in the ABL, players get multiyear deals ranging from $40,000 to $150,000 annually. But in both cases, outside shoe contracts or other endorsements can substantially increase those figures. A handful of WNBA players, including McCray, have special services contracts that allow them to earn much more by being the league's primary spokeswomen.
While there remains a potential for abuse, coaches and players say the professionalization of women's basketball has been mostly positive so far. For some, it's been pure pleasure.
"It's the first Final Four with the pro leagues and some history-albeit short," Mystics coach Lewis said. "It's a wonderful time for women's basketball. Where both pro leagues were at the Final Four last year, it was certainly on a more skeleton scale.
"We're going into a weekend of celebration of women's basketball," Lewis added, "with all the guns blaring."