The Washington Mystics and Phoenix Mercury were scrapping it out at MCI Center back on June 21 when two of the WNBA's brightest young stars had an impromptu meeting near the Mystics' bench.
Mystics shooting guard Alana Beard and Mercury point guard Diana Taurasi, both second-year players desperately trying to get their teams a victory, bumped into one another and exchanged words.
The actual conversation couldn't be heard from press row but the two obviously weren't making plans to share a postgame meal.
When asked what was said, Beard broke into a sly smile.
"Oh, it was nothing all that serious," said Beard, whose Mystics went on to a 77-56 win. "It was just a case of two competitive people doing everything they could to help their team win."
Beard and Taurasi will share a court again today at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., under far less stressful circumstances. Beard will make her first all-star appearance as a reserve on the Eastern Conference squad while Taurasi will play in her first all-star game as a starter for the Western Conference team.
Barring injury, it should be the first of many all-star experiences for Taurasi and Beard, who went first and second, respectively, in the 2004 WNBA draft. Taurasi, who was named WNBA rookie of the year last season, is fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 16.9 points. She also averages 4.4 assists.
Beard, who led the Mystics to the playoffs last season after Chamique Holdsclaw left the team, has overcome ankle and hamstring injuries this year to average 14.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.
The WNBA has its share of veterans such as Houston's Sheryl Swoopes, Seattle's Lauren Jackson, Minnesota's Katie Smith and Holdsclaw, who will make her first all-star appearance as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks, her fourth overall. But the development of Taurasi and Beard as well as young players such as Connecticut's Lindsay Whalen, Washington rookie Temeka Johnson and Indiana rookie Tan White has brought new energy to the league.
"You're starting to see a little bit of a changing of the guard," said Nancy Lieberman, a trailblazer in women's basketball who played for Phoenix, was a general manager and head coach of Detroit and currently covers the league for ESPN. "Now, these vets aren't going to go away easily, but it's obvious when you see some of these young players that the overall quality of play is improving. The game is in good hands."
Taurasi, who won three national championships at the University of Connecticut, and Beard, who was named national player of the year at Duke, entered the WNBA with built-in name recognition.
Whalen, who has led the first-place Connecticut Sun to a 12-3 record and arguably deserved a spot in the All-Star Game, made a name for herself by leading the University of Minnesota to the Final Four as a senior.
Washington's Johnson became the SEC's all-time assists leader while at LSU and White led the nation in scoring as a senior at Mississippi State last season. White, who was selected second overall by Indiana, and Johnson, who went sixth overall to the Mystics, are battling it out for the rookie of the year award.
"I think the exposure we received in college and the level of competition we faced prepared us to come into the WNBA ready and, because of that exposure, a lot fans already knew who we were," Taurasi said. "It's like the men's game. People identified with players because of what they did in college and that just naturally carried over to when they came into the NBA."
The young wave also has brought a combination of old-school basics and new-school color to the game. Taurasi is a master at driving to the basket with either hand, drawing a foul and finishing the play with a tough shot off the glass.
Beard is a crafty left-hander with a deadly step-back jumper, Johnson possesses a spin move that would make Earl Monroe jealous, and Whalen gets herself free with an assortment of crossover dribbles, stutter steps and floating jump shots.
When asked about not making the all-star team, Whalen jokingly told the Hartford Courant, "If they wanted to see a little crossover shake in the game, they would have put me on the team."
"You are seeing a difference in style of play between the young and the old," said Mystics forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, who is in her seventh season. "Nowadays, the young players can get it done with solid fundamentals, but they also can show some of that flash. The older players are more textbook, not about style but just about getting it done. But some of these younger players are doing that while bringing a little extra to the game. You've got people like Tan White coming down, crossing people over and throwing a behind-the-back pass. It's like: 'Wow.' That is only going to help bring fans to the game."
That's what the nine-year-old WNBA is banking on. The league will expand to 14 teams when Chicago comes on board next season, and league president Donna Orender and NBA Commissioner David Stern are considering adding a Kansas City franchise when the city completes an arena in the fall of 2007.
For the league to continue growing, it must be able to fill its roster with talented players.
"The WNBA is just getting started when you consider how long the NBA and some other leagues have been around," Beard said. "The people who have been here for us are pioneers and now we have to be pioneers. We grew up saying 'I want to be like Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes.' The young girls now are seeing us, saying: 'I want to be like Alana Beard and Diana Taurasi,' except I tell them: 'No, be better than me.' That's how the game will grow."