The 2000 WNBA season that is expected to begin in May poses a scheduling plight for some of the league's top foreign players planning to compete in the Sydney Olympics in September: Do they stay in their home countries next summer and train with their national teams, or do they play in the WNBA until late August?
WNBA all-star guard Sandy Brondello, the Detroit Shock's leading scorer last season, has made her decision. She will skip the WNBA season to train with the Australian Olympic team.
Calling her decision "a difficult one," Brondello said: "I have decided to give my full attention to the Australia team. . . . Having the Olympics in our country and having the chance to play for gold is what motivates me."
Several of Brondello's Australian teammates and other foreign players also are weighing what to do, players and agents said. Of the 34 non-U.S. players on WNBA rosters, 18 are from countries that have qualified for the women's basketball competition, which begins Sept. 16.
"Clearly the players are going to have to make a hard decision," WNBA President Val Ackerman said.
Player personnel officials around the league said losing key foreign players could severely impact their teams. In addition, each of the league's 12 teams lost two players in yesterday's expansion draft to stock the rosters of franchises in Seattle, Indiana, Miami and Portland.
Shock Coach and General Manager Nancy Lieberman-Cline said that in addition to Brondello, she could lose Aussie forwards Rachael Sporn and Carla Porter and Brazilian guard Claudia Maria das Neves because of the Olympics. Another Detroit player, forward Astou Ndiaye, is expected to return to the WNBA next season although her native Senegal has qualified for Sydney, Lieberman-Cline said.
"It has to be very devastating," Lieberman-Cline said. "It is a very unusual year in that you have four teams expanding and the Olympics."
In yesterday's expansion draft, Brondello was selected by Indiana, which subsequently traded her to Miami.
Seth Sulka, vice president for operations for the Phoenix Mercury, has three Australians--guards Michele Timms and Trisha Fallon and forward Michelle Griffiths--and Russian center Maria Stepanova on his roster.
"It's a struggle to prepare your roster for the season," he said.
However, Timms and Griffiths said they plan to return. Less certain is the situation of Utah Starzz General Manager R. Tim Howells, who said that he hasn't heard anything official from starting center Margo Dydek and reserve guard Krystyna Lara of Poland and starting forward Elena Baranova of Russia. Baranova was traded to Miami in yesterday's expansion draft.
"Margo is a very significant part of our team," he said. "I'm just hoping that no news is good news. . . . I'm not certain that anyone, including the league, can tell what's going to happen."
Cleveland Rockers Coach Dan Hughes said he is hoping that France's Isabelle Fijalkowski, Cleveland's leading scorer in 1998 who skipped last season to rest a back injury, will return for 2000. But her agent, Bruce Levy, said the French national team coach wants the forward-center to stay in France and spend the summer training for the Olympics.
One factor in the WNBA's favor is money; the average salary last season was $38,700, which doesn't include bonuses and personal services fees. Players who remain to train in their home countries would receive a small stipend at most.
In an effort to accommodate both foreign and U.S. Olympians, Ackerman said the WNBA regular season could begin as early as Memorial Day and end around Aug. 9, with playoffs ending no later than Aug. 27.
"We have attempted to create additional time for any player, including the U.S. team, to return to their national teams and train," she said.
But in Australia, national team coach Tom Maher said the WNBA schedule still would pose too much of a conflict.
"We begin our preparations at the end of April," said Maher, who is organizing a European tour for his team in August. "We can't handle the whole team being away."
Having his players stay home and train before the Olympics is similar to what the U.S. national team did prior to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Maher said. Before there was a U.S. pro league, most of the top U.S. players competed in European pro leagues. Members of the 1996 U.S. squad skipped that season and stayed home to train and tour.
Timms said she understands her coach's concerns, but plans to return to the WNBA for financial reasons.
"I may have another three or four years in the WNBA left," said Timms, 34. "There is a bit of urgency to try and make some money. So it would be hard for me to give up my only income for the year, which is playing in the WNBA, and just try to survive with nothing."
Lieberman-Cline said she will be disappointed if her non-U.S. players don't return this season but understands the pressure they face, particularly the Australians.
"There is national pride involved here," she said. ". . . This is a very historic Olympics for Australia and it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of our players."