Mercury Beat Monarchs in a Thriller: Who Says WNBA Basketball Isn't Exciting?

. Saturday, July 11, 2009
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Whoa -- what an amazing game between the Mercury and Monarchs! One of the best played overall of a very well played week in the WNBA.

You have to feel for the Monarchs -- they really outplayed the Mercury for the majority of the game and completely neutralized the type of Mercury blitz that the Sparks and Sky had to endure...

But the Mercury really showed something special tonight -- winning a close game (107-105) on the road after really playing a lackluster first half. I'm not anointing them the champions...but they are just doing things that champions do lately.

Even more exciting was the play of DeWanna Bonner and more importantly Courtney Paris -- trading baskets with less than 10 seconds in a tie game before Temeka Johnson lifted the Mercury to victory on a buzzer beating jump shot off the dribble.

More on the rookies later -- their development just gets more and more exciting by the day.

But I will say this about this past week in WNBA basketball: we've seen at least three rookies really turn a quarter and have breakout games within the last week or so between Paris, Renee Montgomery, and Shavonte Zellous.

I know people are saying DeWanna Bonner has the ROY contest all wrapped up, but it's only a third of the way through the season. If these other rookies continue to improve, things could change rapidly...

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Women's Pro Football

. Friday, July 10, 2009
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As a fan of the WNBA, I've also tried to pay some attention to the development of other women's professional team sports.

Well...not lingerie football...but sports where the focus is actually the sport...

Anyway, I just caught this article about women's pro football by Jordyn White on and found it to be an interesting look at a sport in the early stages of pre-salary stages...

We spend eight months out of the year like this, running, lifting, sweating, hitting, hurting and bleeding for the game we love. And it’s all for the moment we will experience this Saturday, when we battle for the Eastern Conference championship against the Boston Militia.

None of us do it for the glitz or glamour. Our injuries—sprained ankles, broken toes, torn ACLs—may slow us down or temporarily take us out, but as soon as our bodies can handle it (sometimes even a little sooner) we get back out there.

We definitely don’t do it for the money. Our average salary is hundreds of thousands less than the average NFL salary (which amounts to roughly $0). Our manager, coaches and medical staff (one sports doc, two chiropractors, a podiatrist and a physical therapist) receive the same modest salary. And every day at least one D.C. Diva, be it a rookie or a nine-year veteran, is faced with the task of convincing a naysayer or non-believer that women’s full-contact football does in fact exist.
And of course one could read between the lines and say that the issue is not just convincing people that "women's full-contact football does in fact exist", but more annoyingly, convincing the lunkheads of the world that it's even worthy of existence.

Wonder if there's any precedent for women's full-contact football at the high school level...if for no other reason to see the response from all those insecure male opponents of Title IX...

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Renee Montgomery's Breakout Game and the Minnesota Youth Movement

. Wednesday, July 8, 2009
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Those who watched the Minnesota Lynx’s 96-94 victory over the Washington Mystics witnessed a special performance from Renee Montgomery that is not fully captured in the standard game summary.

By now you’ve probably heard that she re-entered the game with 3:14 left in the 4th quarter and proceeded to score 12 consecutive points and 18 of her season-high 21 points over the course of seven minutes between the 4th quarter and overtime.

Her game has been variously described as “electrifying”, a “scoring rampage”, or my personal favorite from the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Rookie guard Renee Montgomery, who usually provides a spark for the Lynx off the bench, was a flamethrower.”

And it was all capped by some of the best post-game comments I have ever heard – simultaneously honest, humble, and humorous – including a clarification for those who might consider Montgomery “on fire” (or throwing flames) last night: "I didn't really catch fire, I just shot layups. It wasn't like I was on fire from (three-point range)."

However, the ability to get to the rim eight times in seven minutes at the end of a close WNBA game is no small feat. And though it was apparently the same play, she wasn’t exactly scoring in the same way.

The first was a drive to the basket to earn two free throws within seconds of entering the game. After a missed jumper, the next two were drives for contested layups and three point plays. The next started with a nice crossover move from the wing.

In overtime, she continued to focus on getting to the rim. The first came off a steal and fast break, which earned her another three point play opportunity. The other two were drives early in the offense in which she just went right through the defense.

Montgomery is talented no matter how much she attempts to minimize her performance. The Mystics did give her different looks after the first few drives. She just continued to dominate the game. She can handle the ball extremely well, use screens, and she can find holes in the defense.

If Montgomery’s season goes anything like this game – a slow awkward start punctuated by an absolutely dominant game-changing finish – she should be right in the thick of Rookie of the Year conversations.


Because Montgomery has something intangible that makes you want to believe she’s destined for greatness.

In Jim Peterson’s comments about Renee Montgomery on the Lynx Weekly radio show, he discussed how he had his reservations about her because she’s small and hasn’t been practicing well but that when the game starts she’s “a gamer”. He discussed some of the intangible factors that make her great as well:

When you go 39-0 that’s a resume builder…Some of us were thinking about DeWanna Bonner, but you know the specialness of Renee Montgomery, the fact that Geno Auriemma who’s had so many great players at Connecticut was so high on her and elevated her to the top of his list in terms of all-time favorite players [snap]…boy that just spoke to us a lot…

She’s one of those gals that in huddles in practice – you know when Jen is talking about this that or the other – she’s front and center. And she’s looking up at the coach. And she’s paying attention. You’ve got her full attention. And that sets a tone too. She’s an old soul and I think that speaks well of her and what she’s all about.
The whole package – the clutch performance, the personality, and the practice ethic – is what will probably make Montgomery great, in addition to being in a system that is coherent and structured enough to bring out the best in her. And a large amount of credit for that should go to Jennifer Gillom.

Jennifer Gillom is the clear frontrunner for Coach of the Year

Gillom has the Coach of the Year award all locked up as far as I’m concerned. Barring a complete collapse in which they lose the remainder of their games and miss the playoffs, she’s done a masterful job of keeping this team together when it had every reason to fall into utter chaos.

But she did something else last night that I love: she stuck with her talented rookie in the clutch and put her confidence in her. So often this season I’ve seen coaches pull “hot” rookies from a close game in favor of a veteran, likely thinking that the veteran savvy is necessary to win games. There is some logic to that.

However, there is also a stronger pedagogical logic to what Gillom has done with Montgomery – instilling confidence in her talented rookie by not only putting her in the game and giving her the opportunity to succeed, but also taking the time to actually design a play that maximizes her strengths and actually allows her to succeed. If this team is going to win games without Olympian Seimone Augustus, they are going to have to maximize the remainder of their talent. For Gillom, that started from the moment she took over the team, as Nicky Anosike, Charde Houston, and Roneeka Hodges are all improving and contributing their unique strengths to the team.

It’s those little things that separate the great coaches and organizations from the mediocre ones. This season, it’s separating the top teams in the conference from the fringe playoff teams. And it’s why sometimes, even as outsiders, we can make reasoned assessments of coaching.

Coaching is not just about x’s and o’s, it’s also fundamentally about inspiring people and finding ways to help them succeed. I can’t think of a coach who’s done a better job of that this year than Gillom, especially given these extremely trying circumstances.

Getting the best out of a young, talented team

There was a point in the overtime period when Gillom had Montgomery, Candice Wiggins, Charde Houston, and LaToya Pringle in the game for the Lynx. To win a close game with that many young players in down the stretch not only speaks to Gillom’s coaching ability, but also just how talented this team is…especially once Seimone Augustus comes back next season.

Add to that mix Nicky Anosike and Quanitra Hollingsworth and this team has the makings of a dynasty. Yes, they are making their share of mistakes. But they are not only learning how to play professional basketball and play as a coherent unit, but they’re learning how to play successful, winning basketball. That experience will go a long way to helping them become a great team in the future.

Related Links:

Full transcript of that lovely Renee Montgomery post-game interview

Transition points:

Crystal Langhorne and Charde Houston (in addition to Renee Montgomery) were actually major reasons I wanted to watch this game. Both are top candidates for the Most Improved Player award and both could also make legitimate claims to an all-star spot at their position.

Last season, Langhorne looked like an athletic, but awkward center who would be something of a long-term project. This season, she’s playing as though we were just sleeping on her. More impressive than her league-leading offensive rebounding prowess so far this year, is the array of offensive moves she’s added to her repertoire. She’s scoring off drives, with double post moves, and hitting contested shots in the paint. She almost looks like a different player.

Charde Houston seems to just have put it all together this season and become more consistent. And by consistent, I mean close to dominant. Although Nicky Anosike and Renee Montgomery have gotten the headlines for winning last night’s game, Houston deserves a large portion of the credit as she did a little bit of everything – scoring off drives, scoring from the perimeter, getting offensive rebounds. She is an extremely impressive player and if she continues to improve along with the rest of this Lynx core, they will be a force for years to come.

The WNBA game is improving
, even if it is struggling financially. I swear that just between this summer and last the talent level is increasing and as a result the games themselves are getting better and better. If there is any silver lining to contracting a team and shortening rosters it is that each team is probably more talented, player for player, than they’ve been in a long time.

It was my intent to post rookie rankings today, but after Montgomery’s performance last night and tonight’s upcoming match between the Chicago Sky (Kristi Toliver, Chen Nan) and the Phoenix Mercury (DeWanna Bonner), I decided to hold off and get one more look. Over the past few I’ve had a chance to see all the top rookies and have thoughts, but figured one more game of analysis wouldn’t hurt. Unfortunately, last night was the only time I’ve seen Marissa Coleman play, so I’ll have to wait until another time to give her a complete analysis. But I will say this – statistically, she might not be out of the running for Rookie of the Year.

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Renee Montgomery’s Hilariously Refreshing Anti-Cliche Post-Game Comments

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One of the highlights of the Minnesota Lynx's thrilling 96-94 overtime victory over the Mystics was definitely Renee Montgomery's post game interview.

Two things went right in this interview: first, Montgomery is an engaging personality and second, radio commentator Alan Horton engaged her in a real conversation rather than asking the normally ridiculous post game questions ("What were you thinking when you took that game winning shot?").

I started to take excerpts from it for another post and then just decided to post the whole thing.

Montgomery is now officially a Rethinking Basketball favorite, with her own label in the label cloud and everything. Hopefully this is the first of many fun post-game interviews with Montgomery.

More to come on the actual game and Montgomery later, but for now, enjoy the interview.

Alan Horton, radio commentator: Renee Montgomery puts on the headset, joins us here courtside.

Congratulations, young lady!

Renee Montgomery: Thank you.

AH: Wow, what a game.

RM: Yeah…I’m..I’m still…I can’t believe we…I’m embarrassed right now to stand here.

AH: Why are you embarrassed?

RM: Because…you know you saw that foul…I’m so embarrassed.

AH: Oh the three point-…on the three pointer?

RM: Yeah

AH: Yeah… you guys committed two fouls –

RM: Idiots.

AH: [Laughs]

RM: You can say it…you can’t say it, but I’ll say it: that’s probably the dumbest minute of basketball anybody’s ever seen.

AH: But is that…are those kind of the learning steps you go through as a young team? You guys have not been in a lot of close games -- only the win in Sacramento. Are those the kinds of things you gotta learn along the way?

RM: Yeah-um…that stuff you learn in elementary, I think junior high. Maybe by the time you get to college, but we should know better. Um, I’m just happy we got the win. We really dug deep. So…

AH: Talk about your fourth quarter -- you kinda took over this game. You had 12 of your, uh, your 15 points at the end of regulation, 12 of those in the fourth quarter. What did you guys see in that fourth quarter that you were able to take advantage of?

RM: Um, the coaches actually put in a couple plays yesterday in preparation for this game. And she called it! And it just happened to work. So we was like, “Ok, we’re gonna keep on running it until they stop it.” And it worked. Like a lot of times Candice would set amazing screens. Um…and I was just getting an open lane to the basket.

AH: You went down a couple of hard times. How are you feeling?

RM: Yeah I’m gonna have to get in a cold tub and call Tina – you know, the massage lady. And ask her to help me out a little bit. But it will feel good in the morning when I know we won.

AH: A career-high 21 points, that has to feel nice. But that also has to feel nice that it comes in a victory…If you guys had lost this one off of the loss to Sacramento, that really would have been two tough back to back games.

RM: That would hurt. And it would have been our own fault because we would have shot ourselves in the foot. But hey, we won. So that’s all that matters.

AH: You know you guys couldn’t find a way to win that one in Sacramento. But you kinda found a way to do it here tonight. You kinda feel that way?

RM: We did. You know we did learn from the Sacramento game – you learn that the game isn’t over till that buzzer rings and you saw that…it really wasn’t today. You know we had .4 seconds and she really almost-…she coulda hit that shot that she just shot. So…I mean…it’s a 40 minute game – but in our case, you know, 45 minutes – but you know, you gotta play till that buzzer.

AH: Ok, thoughts on facing San Antonio, a tough Western Conference power, coming up on Friday night and rounding out this home stand.

RM: Um… I’m excited…um…you know, it’s exciting for me, personally, to play a team for the first time because this is my first year in the league and I don’t know what teams are like. And it’s just exciting, I’m playing against a great point guard – Becky Hammon – so it’s just exciting and I’m just looking forward to it.
And more (via the American Chronicle, I assume from the post-game press conference):
Said Montgomery: "I didn't really catch fire, I just shot layups. It wasn't like I was on fire from (three-point range)."
OK, so maybe she dropped a few cliche's in there near the latter half...but it was still great. And how great is it to hear someone just be so excited to play the next game? Will be keeping an eye on her development this season.

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Rethinking Rookie Performance: Beyond Hyperbole and Absurd Expectations

. Tuesday, July 7, 2009
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Candace Parker was like everything anyone has ever wanted any rookie to become.

From my limited perspective, she was arguably one of the best rookies to ever enter any professional sport.

No WNBA rookie has ever won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season (and only two NBA players – Wes Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain – have accomplished that feat). To that feat, you can add winning an Olympic gold medal and NCAA championship in the same year, within six months of each other. And, yeah, she also dunked…twice.

Parker set a gold standard for rookie performance last season that no player is likely to reach again. She was clearly at the top of an outstanding rookie class, which included other future all-stars like Candice Wiggins, Nicky Anosike, and Sylvia Fowles to name a few.

What’s funny is that even if people know Parker is a rare phenomenon, there is a tendency to treat almost every single rookie drafted like they’ll be the next big thing. And if they aren’t the next big thing, we really don’t have a good way to think about rookie performance. At no time is that more evident than draft day. I missed the WNBA’s draft this year, but did catch the NBA draft (as I do every year) and I think the spin is probably worse there.

Hyperbolic NBA draft day talk has become so commonplace that normally I wouldn’t bother to comment. And really, it makes a lot of sense: even if everybody except the newly minted millionaire’s mother knows that the player has no business being drafted in the lottery, you can’t just say that on national television.

It would be boring to say, “He’s going to be a great journeyman who will contribute 5-10 minutes off a fringe playoff team’s bench for 5-7 years.” Instead you have to say something like, “He’s a hardworking winner who can contribute to a team right away.” (Oh no, I’m not referring to anyone in particular).

And yet, ESPN still managed to go over the top during this year’s NBA draft.

In fact, it was one of the worst commentated NBA drafts I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that they were making dumb comments; the problem appeared to be that the litany of meaningless clichés that have accumulated from draft days past had cemented in their minds to the point of preventing any sort of original thoughts being uttered about any player.

The comment that really generated a buzz among the basketball geeks I was watching the draft with came from Fran Fraschilla. After calling Ricky Rubio the best passer drafted in a decade (by “best” I’m assuming he meant “fanciest”) and comparing his feel for the game to Wayne Gretzky’s (feel for hockey, I assume), he later called Rubio “transformative”. Of course, the geeks object. This led us to talk about the difference between transformative (“the skies open and completely alter our way of life”) vs. transformational (“having the potential to change a team’s fortunes”).

(Note: Yes, I do find that type of conversation “fun”.)

Of course, what everyone is looking for – especially early in the draft – is those “transformative” players who can walk on water, part the defense, and float through the air to put the ball in the basket. So it’s not really uncommon I suppose for any league on draft day – I vividly remember Michael Cooper comparing Candace Parker to the Showtime Lakers’ entire starting five or something.

And occasionally, those players come along: most recently LeBron James and Candace Parker have been somewhat transformative. But even they have not been able to win championships in their first seasons (this is what separates Magic Johnson from most mortal basketball players).

Anyway, I always find it funny how after summer league (going on now), pre-season, and failing to get a starting spot on a losing team, the tone of the analysts change. After trying to cast everyone as the biggest thing since the pick before him, reality sets in and you start hearing things like, “It’s going to take time for him to adjust” or “He’s going to have to spend some time learning the game.”

Hopefully, reality has set in for you regarding the WNBA by now.

We’ve seen just enough to get a sense of what each player offers, but not quite enough to make any real solid claims about who is “best”. Nevertheless, after checking out the rookie point guards earlier this season, I did wonder about who was the best rookie overall. Which brings me back a question I asked last year: what is the fairest way to evaluate rookies?

There are many metrics we could use to determine who the best player in the WNBA is. In fact, most of the biggest APBRmetricians have a metric of their own to evaluate player productivity. However, I would argue that most of those are completely inadequate for evaluating rookies for one reason: rookies are wildly inconsistent.

Unless you have a rookie like Candace Parker or LeBron James, it’s almost impossible to know what you’re going to get game to game. That’s just natural: in addition to adjusting to the level of competition, they are learning a new system, figuring out how to move from star and/or leader of their college team to professional role player, and then there’s the issue of opponents eventually figuring out how to best defend them and constantly throwing different looks at them.

As Atlanta Dream commentator LaChina Robinson said during the webcast of at game in which McCoughtry failed to score as fellow rookie first-rounder Shavonte Zellous attempted to carry the Detroit Shock from the free throw line, it’s extremely difficult for a rookie to carry a team and it’s impressive when they do, even if briefly.

So although we are all looking for that dominant game changing rookie who can lift a team from the depths of the cellar to the glory of a WNBA championship, we probably will not get it this season. We are much more likely to be evaluating the player who is best able to adjust to the rigors of professional basketball and have any sort of impact.

Even trying to find predictors of future success is difficult because it all depends on which team they end up on, the role they are able to get on the team, and how hard they work behind the scenes. Given that, I tried to think to take a step backwards and rethink what exactly we should be evaluating when we look at rookie.

Rethinking Basketball rookie refresher

So last year I approached rookie evaluation from two angles: most promising/potential and most outstanding. This year, I’m abandoning the most promising approach simply because there are so many intangibles involved in realizing potential that I am not sure a statistical analysis is that valuable (I do however find Diamond Rating interesting and petrel has already posted those). So I’m just going to try to do an analysis of top rookies, with an eye on how well they contribute to team success.

Last year, I used the following statistics, based on Oliver’s Four Factors and past email exchanges with David Sparks:

Ball movement (unselfishness)
Turnover ratio
Offensive rebound rate
True shooting percentage
Valuable contributions rating

This year I am adding:
SPI versatility

The goal of this approach was simply to examine the different ways each player is able to contribute to the key factors of success rather than trying to use one overarching metric to evaluate inconsistent production.

However, when I looked back at last year’s numbers I wasn’t quite satisfied with the process…especially for a year like this one when there is considerably less star power, but still a number of solid players. The problem is that every rookie this year has glaring flaws that keeps them from being a great all-around player conducive to high ratings on many of the linear production metrics that one might choose to use.

So I wanted to figure out a better way…

Two tidbits of wisdom regarding rookies

So as I looked around the web for wisdom about how to evaluate rookies, two things really stood out for me – nobody really has a good way of evaluating rookies…aside from waiting to see how they turn out. But within that, just surfing the web and reading other people’s analyses did yield a few useful tidbits.

First, Dave Berri has done some very interesting work looking at the NBA’s Kevin Durant and today he compared Durant’s rookie campaign to Carmelo Anthony and Jerry Stackhouse.

But Anthony is simply not outstanding at any aspect of the game. And to be outstanding, you have to do something outstanding. Yes, it’s that simple.

And that is my point. Players should be evaluated in terms of what they actually have done. Not in terms of what we imagine they might do at some point in the future.
What I like about Berri’s analysis is the focus on what a player does well beyond just scoring points. We all know from past experience that points per game simply is not a good indicator of how good a rookie is in terms of their ability to contribute to a team.

What’s important, whether we are judging the best rookie or potential success, is that a rookie be able to do something well.

Which takes me to another bit of wisdom that I heard in reference to the NBA’s Bruce Bowen during a broadcast one time. Someone made the point that what allows a player like Bowen to succeed in the NBA is not that he wows you with athleticism or dominant talent, but that he has learned to do one thing well on each side of the ball (making spot up threes and playing tough perimeter defense).

Along with Berri’s analysis, I think that actually provides a helpful framework for rookie analysis – what has a rookie shown that they can do well? And more importantly, what can they contribute to a professional team?

Overall productivity measures are helpful to give us a player’s net effect, but don’t answer those more specific questions that are probably more important for making an analysis of a player who is constantly developing. And therefore, I’m not entirely sure overall rankings are helpful.

When you think about a player like Crystal Langhorne, she didn’t dazzle anyone last year, but she did do two things rather well – getting offensive rebounds and score with a high percentage. She established that she had skills to build on. So if we look for those specific assets and how well they do those, I think we might be able to find a more nuanced way to analyze rookies…

Hmmmm….more on this tomorrow..

Transition Points:

Best drafted passer in the last decade: I think Chris Paul, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Farmar, and Baron Davis would all argue that they were pretty good passers coming into the league. In fact there’s a whole league of fancy passers who would rather show off than win games – it’s called And 1.

Rubio’s moves are nice, but let’s try to keep things in perspective: fancy passing is entertaining, but does not necessarily translate to wins, though it might get you an early playoff exit before the team decides to acquire a point guard with substance. Just ask Jason Williams…and he actually had a jumpshot. And he was already compared to Maravich too. But I guess since it was more than a decade ago, we can forget about that.

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“Title IX and Sports”: The Impact of a 1974 Memo to President Richard Nixon

. Monday, July 6, 2009
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If you are a) interested in the education of our nation’s youth, b) interested in civil rights, and c) interested in women’s sports (as I am), you probably took note of the White House’s commemoration of the 37th anniversary of Title IX on June 23rd.

However, lest we assume that 37 years of existence is equivalent to the eradication of sexism in education generally or sports in particular, Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts turn our attention back to the issue of enforcement.

In a recent column entitled, “Title IX a start, but women athletes still seek level playing field” Roberts & Roberts write:

But girls need something more than the encouragement of exemplary women — they need the enforcement of the laws. That’s why a White House birthday celebration for Title IX matters. But it’s only a beginning. Valerie Jarrett, chairman of the president’s Council on Women and Girls, vowed to review every federal program affecting sex disparities with the promise that “we’re not going to rest on our laurels until there is absolute equality.” That’s a tall order, worth studying as anniversaries of other civil-rights bills occur.
As scholars continue to study Title IX, it will be interesting to keep track of the previously withheld documents released from the Nixon archives. A friend of mine brought one such document to my attention that speaks directly to the challenges of achieving full gender equity sports via Title IX.

Memo on Title IX and Sports

In a May 31, 1974 memo responding to concerns about “the potential effects of these regulations on intercollegiate athletics”, particularly concerns raised by the NCAA and Senator John Tower that Title IX would harm “revenue-producing sports”. The memo came 11 days after Senator Tower’s proposed amendment exempting “revenue producing sports” from Title IX regulations was rejected.

Ken Cole, a Nixon staff member, describes a proposed regulation for Title IX to clear up this controversy (link to library here, pdf here):
Finally, and most significantly, the proposed regulation states expressly that, "Nothing in this section shall be interpreted to require equal aggregate expenditures or athletics for members of each sex."

While HEW's [Department of Health and Education Welfare] treatment of athletics in the proposed Title IX regulation is designed to minimize the impact of the statute on competitive intercollegiate athletics it should be recognized that the mere fact that the statute covers athletics will increase pressures on competitive collegiate athletic programs to broaden athletic opportunities for females.
The complete set of regulations did not go into effect until 1979 and included the now famous “three-prong test”. However, it would seem that this proposed regulation from the Nixon administration took the teeth out of Title IX to some extent.

Granted, there is an argument to be made for major “revenue producing sports” like men’s basketball or men’s football to be funded in proportion to the money they bring into the school. Furthermore, consistent with the final HEW Policy Interpretation, differentials in expenditures neither prove nor disprove discrimination – an institution could conceivably fund men’s and women’s sports equally but still engage in discriminatory practices in terms of how funding is allocated.

Nevertheless, what is alarming about this particular memo is the intent to deliberately "minimize the impact" of Title IX. The concern here was clearly not the welfare of female athletes, but protecting the male athletes, which seems to contradict the spirit of the legislation. That it was withheld has to raise an eyebrow as well...

Further weakening of Title IX

And it’s worth noting that Nixon’s was not the last attempt to undermine Title IX. Further weakening of Title IX occurred during the Bush administration, as described by the National Organization for Women:
On March 18, the Department of Education (DOE) released an "Additional Clarification" that greatly weakens Title IX. Under the law, federally-funded schools must provide equal educational opportunities to female students, including equal opportunities to play sports. The education department's regulations give schools a "safe harbor," allowing a school to be deemed in compliance with Title IX if it meets any one part of a three-part test. With the DOE's new policy guidance, schools will now find it much easier to comply, while at the same time restricting athletic opportunities for young women.

The new guidance allows schools to show compliance with part three of the test—i.e., that they are "fully and effectively accommodating the interest and abilities of the underrepresented sex"—if they can provide evidence that their female students just aren't that interested in sports. Under the new guidance, this can be demonstrated through email surveys of female students. The result is that it will now fall to female students to show that: 1) there exists interest sufficient to sustain a female varsity team at a school, 2) female students have sufficient athletic ability to sustain an intercollegiate team, and 3) within the school's normal competitive region, there exists a reasonable expectation of intercollegiate competition.
This is not to say that Nixon’s initial weakening of Title IX was is the correct point of attack 37 years later – adding an explicit funding prong would clearly present institutions with a number of challenges and may result in more “gaming of the system” rather than less discrimination.

But it does make you wonder: What would Title IX look like if it provided guidelines for equal– or even equitable – funding? Would a three-prong test that included a concrete standard such as funding equity in addition to more tenuous standards like participation, opportunity, and interest be much stronger?

One major organization that claims to advocate for equal funding for women’s sports is the National Organization for Girls and Women in Sports, but it’s not clear exactly how they advocate an enforceable implementation of that vision.

The Nixon memo should certainly not come as a revelation, but it does provide some insight into how we’ve gotten to this current place with Title IX legislation. It’s a reminder that the struggle against sexism in sports still faces significant challenges at all levels and that these challenges are the result of deliberate action on the part of high-level officials.

In response to the recent announcement of the All England Club to take physical appearance of women into consideration when creating court schedules for Center Court matches at Wimbledon, Dave Zirin of the Nation wrote the following, which seems like an appropriate way to end this little exploration:
We like to think that women's sports can be a avenue for liberation--a place where young girls can sweat, frolic, compete, get healthy and have the safe space to do anything but have to feel "ladylike." I can't help but remember the words of Martina Navratilova who complimented the great Billie Jean King by saying she "embodied the crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock." It's long past time for a new generation of women athletes, coaches and sportswriters to grab the flag and say that having a zero-tolerance policy for sexism is at heart about asserting the humanity of each and every participant.

Related Links:

Title IX: A Picture of Dorianna Gray? (A critique of Title IX)

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How The Mercury Beat the Sparks in LA: From 0 to 22 in About 5 minutes 30 seconds

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The Phoenix Mercury’s impressive 104-89 road victory over the Los Angeles Sparks last night was one of those games that simply cannot be appreciated by reading the box score or even the play by play alone.

It’s not just that the Mercury posted a season-high 36-point third quarter, that they managed to out-rebound the Sparks 40-31, or that they ran off 11 straight points to start the fourth quarter. It’s how they did it that is noteworthy.

Although the game ended up a blow out, it was going back and forth until about three minutes left in the 3rd quarter when DeLisha Milton-Jones was whistled for a touch foul on DeWanna Bonner that forced Jones to the bench with her fourth foul.

After Bonner made the two free throws, the Mercury were up five. Then the shifting tide of momentum that the Sparks had seemingly held off for the previous three and a half minutes, swung completely in the Mercury’s favor.

What the Mercury did to the Sparks during the ensuing five and a half minute stretch spanning the 3rd and 4th quarters really cannot be measured, quantified, or even fully articulated without watching it.

To describe it as the Sparks “falling apart” would be to completely ignore that the Mercury got into a zone in which they seemed to be optimally coordinated as a team while almost effortlessly taking control of the game.

Commentator Tracy Warren may have described the sequence of events best at the end of the third quarter after Cappie Pondexter set up Bonner for a three to put the Mercury up 10.

You could see with that three a little bit of deflation from the Sparks. They’re feeling like wow. We’re can’t stop Taurasi, we’re having trouble with Pondexter, and now you’re us the rookie Bonner is gonna hit from outside. Tough matchup problems for the Sparks right now in the third.
That was before Cappie Pondexter took an outlet pass without about 6.5 seconds left, beat Shannon Bobbitt down the length of the court, and hit a seemingly ridiculous floating jumper from the wing with 1.2 seconds left to put the Mercury up 11.

That’s demoralizing. And sometimes that just means more on the court than anyone off the court can understand rationally.

What the Mercury did to the Sparks during that stretch was not just Mercury basketball at its best, but it was an almost perfect realization of what a fast paced offense should be. All the elements of what it takes to run successfully were on display: defense (to prevent the other team from making shots), rebounding (to initiate the fast break), and high percentage shots (to keep the pressure on the opposing defense).

When a team with three all-stars (yes, Temeka Johnson is having an all-star season) gets in that kind of zone, it’s difficult to imagine anybody stopping them…even if they are on the road.

From an analytical standpoint, the Mercury’s play during that condensed period of time is perfect for a case study of what the Mercury do at their best. However, it also reinforces the argument that the Sparks are simply not a running team but a team designed to thrive off of their Olympic frontcourt. And once they get all their pieces back in game shape, a team like the Mercury might not even get the opportunity to run them like that.

A tale of two halves

Obscured by the final outcome of the game is that the Sparks played a very strong first half despite Candace Parker returning to play her first game after pregnancy and Lisa Leslie still sidelined by injury. Forget whatever you thought about the Mercury prior to the season – the Sparks were playing neck and neck with the best team in the West without a full roster. That’s impressive.

In the second quarter, when the Sparks built a six-point lead, the Sparks completely neutralized the Mercury – the Mercury only shot 26.7%, made four unforced turnovers, and gave up five offensive rebounds. The Mercury were forced into a number of contested shots or bad decisions just from the aggressive defense of the Sparks. With 3:22 left in the second quarter, I wrote the following note to myself: “pho falling apart”.

Granted, the Sparks needed a miracle shot at the halftime buzzer to take a 5 point lead, but they played well and kept the Mercury at bay.

But of course a five point lead is not what one would normally consider “safe”.

With 8:56 left in the 3rd, the Sparks were up 8 after a layup by Kristi Harrower. What allowed the Mercury to cut the lead was the Sparks settling for perimeter shots or getting contested shots inside. Meanwhile, the Mercury were starting to heat up, getting open looks from the three point line within the flow of their early offense and getting to the free throw line 12 times. They were getting easy points.

And that was before the Mercury started demoralizing the Sparks.

How the Mercury can demoralize an opponent

Last season I noted that the Mercury were best when they started moving the ball. While Taurasi can certainly single-handedly take over games, when she can get help it makes the Mercury extremely difficult to defend, as described in the aforementioned Warren quote. However, both ball movement and rebounding are what made the Mercury’s run possible.

The Mercury’s six third quarter assists matched their assist total from the first half. That’s not including at least four other “lost assists” – missed open shots or plays on which a player got fouled on a shot after receiving a pass -- that I counted. When the Mercury get into their uptempo zone, it’s not just one player leading the way, it’s a team effort.

There are at least three key reasons for the Mercury being so effective in the open court this season. First, the addition of Temeka Johnson has been perfect for the Mercury’s system. She not only has the speed and ball skills to get out on the break and find players in rhythm, but she can also spread the defense by hitting perimeter shots.

Second, the addition of Bonner was perfect for this team. Bonner is able to beat everyone down the court for easy baskets, which only enhances the Mercury attack. However, another key asset Bonner brings is offensive rebounding. Bonner had five offensive rebounds in the game, three of which came in the third quarter.

The Mercury as a team are not known for their rebounding, but they out-rebounded the Sparks 25-10 in the second half. In the third quarter, they grabbed 57% of all the available offensive rebounds, which is dominant. That means they were not only getting easy baskets and wide-open shots, but also extending their possessions and giving themselves second chances to score. Bonner’s tenacity in the paint despite her slight build was a large part of that.

Third, the other major “addition” to the Mercury is Cappie Pondexter’s improvement as a facilitator. It is well known that Johnson and Taurasi are playmakers with great court vision, but Pondexter has been an outstanding playmaker in her own right this season. Whereas last season she spent a lot more time looking for her own shot, often literally bulldozing her way to the basket with her head down, this season, she's looking to set up her teammates. Last night, she recorded a pure point rating of 5.74 to lead the team.

That means that not only do opponents have to keep up with the pace of the Mercury, but they also have to find a way to defend a team with three perimeter players that can facilitate plays for all the other moving parts like Bonner, Le’Coe Willingham, and Tangela Smith.

It’s not easy.

However, most important is the Mercury’s defense. As coach Corey Gaines said in the pre-season, they are employing the Rover defense differently this season, choosing to alternate between that and a man-to-man defense. With about 4:30 left in the third, they briefly started alternating between the two defenses which worked to slow the Sparks down just as the Mercury were starting to heat up.

The Sparks looked as though they were having trouble recognizing exactly what defense the Mercury were in. When they play the Rover effectively and use it as a tactic to sway the tempo rather than their base offense, they further keep their opponents on their toes.

In the last 2:58 of the third quarter, all those pieces came together at once, along with Taurasi being Taurasi. That is near unstoppable.

Of course, with Leslie and Parker healthy, one would imagine that the Mercury could not possibly have been so dominant on the boards and that would definitely have changed the face of this game. Not to mention the fact that Milton-Jones was out for much of this third quarter stretch after picking up her fourth foul.

But at the end of the third quarter, this is the Mercury you saw: working extremely well together, scoring from all over the floor, and limiting the Sparks’ scoring opportunities on the defensive end. That team is going to be competitive any night of the week.

Anatomy of a fourth quarter run: The Sparks’ search for someone to step up

However, things just worsened for the Sparks at the beginning of the fourth. And what became obvious at that point is that the Sparks are still trying to figure out their roles on the team.

Warren mentioned that Tina Thompson has said that she would defer to Leslie and Parker as the leaders on this talented team. Lennox is a good scorer, but usually inefficient. Milton-Jones was clearly the third wheel on last season’s Sparks team.

In other words, when the Sparks still had a chance to get back in this game despite the demoralization process, they didn’t know where to look to get out of the rut. There is a leadership void without Leslie and Parker at full strength.

Meanwhile, Taurasi and, to a lesser extent, Johnson had a field day.

However, as I was watching I took note of who was taking the shots for each team. Here’s an excerpt from my notes in the 4th quarter until the 6:30 mark when the Sparks found themselves down 22:
LA to Hayden
Pho to Taurasi 83-70
LA to Quinn for 3
85-70: TJ for 2, open free throw line J
Lennox missed j
TJ to Bonner, fast break lay 87-70
Mercury switching zones
DMJ bad throw in, Swanier fast break lay + ft 1-1, 90-70
DMJ to, Taurasi fast break lay, 92-70
LA timeout
While the Sparks are looking for Vanessa Hayden, Noelle Quinn, or Betty Lennox, the Mercury have the ball in the hands of Johnson and Taurasi and getting layups or free throws. I’ll take Johnson and Taurasi in that contest any day. Warren made the following comment late in the fourth quarter that sums up what happened to the Sparks.
This is a team that has shown they’ve got multiple offensive weapons and unless someone can stop them all, they’re going to have their hands full.
There is no way the Sparks could have matched up with the Mercury last night, given their personnel. But again, it’s important to reiterate that if the Sparks had one of their designated leaders on the floor during that stretch, the play by play would look a lot different.

Last night’s game should not Spark panic in L.A.

However, the easiest thing to focus on in the Sparks’ loss is the fourth quarter when they looked completely discombobulated and without leadership. One could imagine that the 11-0 fourth quarter run is what motivated Milton-Jones’ post game comments (quoted in the LA Times), that seemed to have a sense of urgency about solving the Sparks’ problems.
As a team that has already played nine games and had their coach question their effort, the Sparks know their own rebuilding effort can't take too much time.

"We cant keep patching up the leaks," said Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, who tied her season high with 15 points but was scoreless in the second half.

"We need to re-pipe the system with copper piping to make sure there is no more damage later on. Right now we're suffering a lot of water damage and our foundation is slowly cracking. But we have to find ways to get wins, bottom line."
While Milton-Jones is probably correct that there are leaks that need to be fixed in the Sparks’ foundation, one could conceivably modify the metaphor – it’s as though the Sparks’ foundation of Leslie and Parker was removed altogether and the water is just creating a mudslide in the dirt below.

This season’s team was put together with the assumption that they would have Leslie and Parker playing together in the post. Without that, they will have an extremely difficult time finding wins. Until that point, it’s difficult to critique the Sparks, coach Michael Cooper, or the personnel.

They have to remain patient and looking forward to establishing their system so that they are ready to win once Leslie and Parker return.

Warren’s comment with 50.3 seconds left speaks directly to that point:
Now I think It’s a different game if you get a healthy Lisa Leslie and a healthy Candace Parker and you see what happens in August and September.
The Sparks will still have to fight their way into the playoffs and likely need help…but if they do get in with a healthy roster, they will absolutely be dangerous.

Transition Points:

BobsScoutingReport made a post on Rebkell saying that Nikki Teasley will be working out with the Sparks today for a possible signing. One would assume that means the Sparks will be dropping a point guard. That brings up two obvious questions: 1) would Teasley add anything to their existing group? and 2) if so, which point guard should go?

First let me say that I think Teasley's performance in Atlanta was inconsistent, but not nearly as horrific as some Dream fans make it out to be. But anyway...

My vague general opinion: it depends on how the Sparks want to play.

A more specific analysis:

If they're looking for a distributor who can protect the ball, Kristi Harrower is by far the best of the bunch -- she has an outstanding pure point rating of 9.55 and an assist ratio of 37.05...while only turning the ball over on 3% of the possessions she uses. Quinn is by far the odd person out if they want a distributor.

If they're looking for a point guard who can distribute and score, Teasley is the best shooter of this bunch with a 56% true shooting percentage, but again Harrower is more efficient -- she has a 2 point shooting percentage of 45% and scores 2 points for almost every possession she ends with a missed shot or turnover. Quinn is not nearly the playmaker of the other three, but is by far the best shooter, with a 52% true shooting percentage and a 54% 2 point shooting percentage.

Quinn's scoring ability makes her the best player overall according to any overall metric I use and has the highest plus/minus rating. In addition, coach Michael Cooper has said that he likes her versatility. So she's probably not going anywhere.

That leaves Shannon Bobbitt without any obvious statistical value to the team over any of the other players. However, while she is probably the least effective scorer of the bunch, she's by far the quickest player, as she's able to get the ball up the court quickly, distribute the ball efficiently (pure point rating of 7.16) and apply pressure defensively. And hmmm...isn't she friends with Candace Parker?

The only thing that Teasley offers is a higher true shooting percentage than any of the current Sparks point guards at 56.68%, which is among the best of any point guard in the league.

So if it comes down to the Sparks choosing between Bobbitt, Harrower, or Teasley to fit their style of play, I would probably opt with maintaining team chemistry and just not signing Teasley -- I'm just not sure what she adds to what they already have. But if they're looking for (very little) additional scoring and size, while not losing much on the distributor end, waiving Bobbitt and signing Teasley does make sense. Either way, I'm not sure it's a move that would substantially improve or hurt this team.

Fast break points: Phoenix 23, Los Angeles 4

Warren commented on Phoenix’s style of play
with about 2:20 left in the 4th quarter: “And you wonder how long Phoenix can keep this pace up? They really go about 7, maybe 8, deep – but typically about 7 players deep. So in August, can they still keep up this high-powered offense? They’ve done it the past three years.” So an interesting tidbit from last night's game: Phoenix used nine players for significant minutes. Those four bench players put up 37 points to the 22 points of the Sparks' significant bench players (Wisdom-Hylton didn't come in until late in the game).

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