Toliver Helps Sky to Victory: "Sometimes as a Young Player All You Want is a Chance."

. Saturday, August 29, 2009
Make a comment!

After hitting a free throw with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter to increase her career high scoring to 24, Chicago Sky rookie point guard Kristi Toliver stood at the free throw line with a huge grin.

It was hard to say what exactly she was grinning at because it looked like she was grinning in response to someone off camera.

So let me recklessly read into her grin a little: it had to be a relief to play so well after recording a DNP-CD in Los Angeles against the Sparks.

Toliver finished the game with a career-high 25 points, going 5-8 from the three point line, and played a key role in a huge 21-4 run that propelled the Sky to a 96-77 victory over the New York Liberty.

In a way, I suppose you could say it was a "boring" 25 points. As the commentators discussed entering the fourth quarter, a number of those shots were literally loose balls falling into her hands and her shooting almost indiscriminately over the outstretched arms of defenders.

But even in seeming like one of the most accidental 25 point performances the league has seen, her shot is just so beautiful. Her shot looks almost effortless and has an almost perfect arc before falling softly through the net. Dare I say she has one of the prettiest jump shots in the WNBA?

During the third quarter, as New York Liberty rookie post player Kia Vaughn was on a roll on her way to her own career-high 12 points, Mary Murphy said, "Sometimes as a young player all you want is a chance." And really, the statement seems to apply more directly Toliver than Vaughn, who has not had as many explosive performances during her rookie campaign.

It's hard not to wonder sometimes if Kristi Toliver has truly gotten a chance to have the rookie season people expected of her when she was drafted #3 in the 2009 WNBA draft. Of course there might be reasons for that which are beyond the reach of us outside observers.

But the strange thing is that aside from a turnover problem that's no longer any worse than her rookie point guard counterparts who are receiving a lot more playing time, Toliver has performed well in spurts when she enters the game. In fact, she has arguably outperformed teammates who take her time.

If the Sky had firmly secured a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference or at the very least shown consistent play this season, perhaps this would be a non-issue. However, as things stand now, it's difficult to make sense of the situation in Chicago.

Talent-wise, there's no reason Chicago should not be a playoff team. The fact that they're not should raise questions. If everyone who watches the team is perpetually wondering what the *bleep* are they doing?, then perhaps there's reason to believe things aren't quite right.

I would have remained silent on the Sky because...well...they defy explanation moreso than any team I've watched this season. It's not like the Sacramento Monarchs who are aging and injured or the Liberty who seem to be a poorly constructed and managed team. This team has too much talent to not be in a better position.

And Candace Dupree's comments to the media the other day don't exactly help assuage doubts

"I just feel like people have no motivation, Dupree said. "This is the first time in franchise history we could potentially make the playoffs and I don't feel like everybody plays like that every night. We've got to pick it up."

Doesn't that sound like a red flag that something really is not quite right with this team?

Continue reading...

Tia Jackson Greets University of Washington Fans at Key Arena: “A Defining Year” in a “New Era”

. Friday, August 28, 2009
Make a comment!

It did not occur to me that there were almost 70 people at the University of Washington women’s basketball gathering at Key Arena last night until head coach Tia Jackson called the group together for her remarks about the team.

“Come on, get closer,” said Jackson with a casual and unassuming demeanor, before saying something to the effect of I won't bite.

After dispensing with the formalities of making small talk with the crowd of season ticket holders donning a mix of Storm gear and civilian clothing, she moved into the business of discussing the team. She introduced the players accompanying her – guard/forwards Kristi Kingma and Sami Whitcomb and center Regina Rogers -- and then went into some more formal remarks and Q&A for about 15 minutes.

The event took place in the northwest corner of Key Arena just behind section 111 about 30 minutes before the Seattle Storm clinched a playoff berth with an ugly 86-74 victory over the Connecticut Sun.

But one thing that can be said about Jackson: she’s honest while simultaneously maintaining a positive tone about some potentially trying circumstances. Expectations for this team are low after finishing last place in the Pac-10 in Jackson’s third season last year and this season will be about searching for bright spots as the team tries to escape the cellar.

I am intent on following women’s college basketball this season and UW will likely be my gateway into the Pac-10. Since I was already planning to be at Key Arena to watch Lindsay Whalen with Shoals, I figured I’d drop by Jackson’s chat just to get a sense of where the team is coming from and whether there are any particularly interesting story lines to follow and get excited about.

Of course, a pre-season talk for a team with low expectations is going to be more about cultivating faith than enabling hope. But that’s part of what I like about college basketball: although some people may find it depressing to watch a losing team full of players who will probably “go pro in something other than sports”, I actually enjoy it. At it’s best it becomes basketball for the sake of basketball, with the added incentive of a fully funded college degree. I will always like the pros more, but the sappy side of me cannot avoid folks playing for pride while getting an education.

Seventy percent of the UW team has been around during the summer, sophomore forward Liz Lay has “lost 26 pounds and looking remarkable”, and Jackson is also excited about recruiting -- UW has two early commitments from the state of Washington and one from California.

Another emerging bright spot entering the season is point guard Christina Rozier who started 19 games last year, but wasn’t in shape so it took her awhile to find her rhythm. She’s worked in the off-season to get in shape, is in “extremely good shape” right now and is looking forward to being a larger contributor this year.

However, the most intriguing bright spot for the team this season is undoubtedly Rogers, a 6’3” transfer from UCLA who is returned home to Seattle for family reasons. The former McDonald’s All-American who received an honorable mention on Pac-10 All-Freshman team is expected to make an impact this season after red-shirting last season.

“If you just take a look to your left,” Jackson said, referring to Rogers amidst laughter in response to a fan’s question about expected changes in offensive philosophy, “I think that should sum it up right there.”

Rogers exudes confidence in speaking about her own game and Jackson spoke briefly about some of the things she brings to the team in addition to a large physical presence.

“She’s probably one of the most physical players…at UCLA in her freshman year, she ate us alive,” said Jackson, referring to a January 2008 game. “I thought she would score over her right shoulder, we jumped over there and she didn’t care – she said, ‘Ok, I’ll just stay here.’ And she ate us alive.”

Rogers may not really have eaten UW alive that game, only scoring 6 points and grabbing 3 boards off the bench. Nevertheless, she will be interesting to watch for me because she represents the type of player and attitude that many people don’t expect from women’s basketball – the dominant physical player who looks to over power opponents rather than out-finesse them.

Even if Washington ends up struggling to define themselves again this year in this new era, I find the transition of Rogers into a major contributor on the team to be a compelling story and worth watching.

Transition Points:

The main reason I went to last night’s game was to get a glimpse of Connecticut Sun guard Lindsay Whalen and even in a loss, I still believe she’s the best point guard in the country not playing for Russia. So congrats to Whalen for making the national team. It’s about damn time…

Shoals came to the game as well and posted about Whalen and the WNBA on his blog Could more players like Whalen attract more people to the WNBA? I don't know. I’ll have more to say about Whalen tomorrow.

Continue reading...

“Our Little Girl”: No Winners in this Semenya Controversy

. Thursday, August 27, 2009
Make a comment!

Rather than merely fanning the simple-minded flames of conflict, good journalism – intellectual journalism – captures the vital moments of our shared culture and provides us with the perspective that allows us to step back and consider alternative perspectives.

However, that function becomes all the more difficult and more necessary when a conflict that should not even be a conflict arises.

That South African runner Caster Semenya is being subjected to gender testing is bad enough. That the media has now made an already difficult personal matter the subject of public discourse only exacerbates the problem.

How is this relevant to women’s basketball? Or rather, how did this topic make it out of my “randomness” tag?

As an observer of women’s basketball interested in the intersection of race, gender, and sport, this issue of how gender is perceived by the mainstream is of direct interest, if unsettling, to the WNBA. After all, the very notion of a “female athlete” is in many ways a challenge to standard notions of femininity.

And yet, I didn’t even pay attention to the issue when it first hit the public eye. I thought to myself, “how ridiculous – let the woman run” and went on about my day. But after an email exchange with some friends and reading a few half-baked articles, I started to pay more attention.

Fortunately, two real journalists – ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel and The Root’s Kai Wright -- have stepped up and provided the kind of perspective I’ve been craving. As evidenced by the need for Voepel to write her thoughts in two parts, sometimes good writing doesn’t fit neatly into the arbitrary noise of the 24 hour news cycle.

What stood out to me was their thinking about the implications of this story for gender in society beyond this individual athlete.

As bad as it is that her competitors made assessments of her gender based upon her physical appearance, it’s equally bad that those who sought to defend her made equally snap assessments, as Voepel describes.

But … all of this anger directed toward the IAAF and the insistence by so many people that this is unfair and discriminatory seems to be ignoring the possibility that Semenya may have a medical condition that causes gender ambiguity, and that she might also be facing gender-identity conflict.

In the understandable urge to “protect” a person who faces gender questions, well-meaning, sympathetic, open-minded and loving people might be making a mistake. They may be forcing that person into a “closet” that I think is even deeper and harder to talk openly about than that of homosexuality.

Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, said this in a story from the Associated Press: “I stand firm. Yes, indeed, she’s a girl. We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children.”

But I want to know this: Has Caster Semenya ever really had the chance to describe and define herself? Isn’t she the only one who has the right to “stand firm” on her gender? Could it be that she’s been convinced by all those around her –well-intentioned as they are – to “be” what they have decided she is?
Even in attempts by the well-intentioned to defend her, it’s as though we’re “always already” trapped within this binary thinking. If indeed, she does have a higher testosterone count – defying our categorizations – what do we do then?

And unfortunately, as described by Wright, this binary thinking is the problem moreso than how we choose to define her within our binary.
We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re man-made, and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place.

Semenya is hardly the first woman — notably, never a man — forced to undergo sex testing to compete in amateur sports. From 1967 to 1999, all female Olympiads were forced to take versions of the test. The phantom menace of men gaming the system to compete as women never materialized, but athletes were nonetheless routinely deemed to have insufficiently pure femininity. Eight women were barred from the 1996 Olympics, the last at which the tests were used, the Los Angeles Times reports.

But the tests are, of course, rigged—because witch hunts always produce witches. That’s the point. Which is the real tragedy of the IAAF’s attack on Caster Semenya. Whatever the doctors determine about her biological sex, at the young age of 18 she’s already learned that she’s a social monster.
The problem beyond the fact of testing is our rigid adherence to gender binaries and our inability – due partially to a lack of language, partially to the privileges that these unjust social hierarchies grant some members of society – to step outside of those boundaries.

Rather than continuing to dismiss the whole thing because we want to fit Semenya in one of our two well-defined boxes, perhaps it’s time to think about the toxicity of the boxes themselves. Gender does matter – it influences our lives. But are these boxes really working? From Courtney at Feministing:
Their first reading could be a new book by Gerald N. Callahan, Ph.D.: Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of the Two Sexes. He reports that every year more than 65,000 children are born who aren't obviously either boys or girls. He writes, "In truth, humans come in an amazing number of forms, because human development, including human sexual development, is not an either/or proposition. Instead, between 'either' and 'or' there is an entire spectrum of possibilities.'" The book is really beautifully written, highly accessible, and visionary in its own right. For more on this topic, I also suggest Anne Fausto-Sterling.

The ambiguity of sex may not even be at play with Caster Semenya, but the public's reaction to her performance and body are flash points for our continued discomfort with admitting that the world does not come in such simple dichotomies as we safely like to think it does. My heart goes out to Semenya, who meanwhile has to deal with this shit instead of celebrating her victory and reveling in the moment.
That we so strongly desire to characterize things as normal and abnormal/deviant is a major part of the problem. So even if gender tests fail and people go on calling her “our little girl” does anyone really win? Because either way, Caster Semenya is going to have to deal with the issue on her in private...without the world watching.

Continue reading...

A Point Guard to Build a Dream On: Penicheiro is Still Creativity Personified

. Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Make a comment!

Long time WNBA fans have probably seen Sacramento Monarchs point guard drive baseline and hit a cutting teammate for an easy layup thousands of times.

But I still have to step back and say wow.

With just under 6:30 left in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Dream last night, Penicheiro brought the ball up the court at about ¾ speed in transition. As Dream defenders had done all night, rookie point guard Shalee Lehning was sagging down to the free throw line as Penicheiro got to the three point line, exploiting Penicheiro’s notoriously inconsistent jump shot.

And yet in typical Penicheiro form, she used a series of changes of pace, hesitations, head fakes, and changes of direction to get to the baseline and rendering Lehning almost helpless to stop her. As the Dream defense collapsed – seemingly leaving Penicheiro with nowhere else to go – two of her teammates suddenly became open: forward Hamchetou Maiga-Ba popped out for a jumper on the wing while Rebekkah Brunson waited and cut to the basket through a now clear lane.

Surrounded by four Dream defenders Penicheiro got Dream center Sancho Lyttle to shift her weight in the wrong direction with a subtle ball fake, took to the air and hit the cutting Brunson who was left unattended in the lane. After the defensive havoc Penicheiro had just caused, all Dream forward Erika Desouza could do was foul, sending Brunson to the line.

With the Monarchs down 21 points at that moment in time, the play is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The Monarchs ultimately lost and Penicheiro didn’t pick up the assist although it was her effort that undoubtedly created the scoring opportunity which ended in free throws. But the way in which she seems to be in total control even as she’s in the middle of switching gears and throwing a flurry of fakes at her opponents never ceases to amaze me.

It’s not necessarily original to say that Penicheiro is the epitome of basketball as an art form – creatively drawing upon the resources revealed to her in a situation to make beauty out of a chaotic world. And even in the twilight of her career, in a 103-83 blowout that pushed the Monarchs further into the cellar of the Western Conference, appreciating Penicheiro is almost a mandate for anyone who considers themselves a true fan of the sport.

Forgive the basketball snobbery, but if you can’t recognize the beauty in Penicheiro’s game, it’s time to move on from basketball and find a new sport.

Given that, it’s probably not a stretch to say that Penicheiro represents something of the archetypal point guard in the basketball universe. She is a pass-first player, with court vision and seemingly in control of every single moment on the court, keeping her dribble live as a means to create things even when everything seems to break down.

Just the other day, Shoals and I briefly exchanged emails about legendary NBA point guard John Stockton and Shoals suggested that Stockton is “an elite role player” – a player who became a Hall of Famer simply by playing his position to perfection. Although Stockton was by far a better shooter than Penicheiro – it still amazes me that a point guard shot 51.5% over a 1,500 game career – Penicheiro is an “elite role player” in a similarly complimentary sense. She plays the position just as most people would imagine it being played in its most ideal sense and excites us when she does something beyond what we’re able to imagine.

Dream point guards Lehning and Ivory Latta pale in comparison to this point guard dream come true from Sacramento. It almost makes you wonder how a team like the Dream can even pull off a win with mere mortals running the point opposite Penicheiro.

But then you remember that this is ultimately a team game – players like Penicheiro can help facilitate plays for her teammates, but if the team doesn’t work well as a unit to begin with, it’s all rendered moot.

The Dream's one-two combo at point guard offer very different things that can be useful at different times – Latta did do what she does well in scoring points but picked up 2 of her three turnovers in garbage time while Lehning did what she does well running the team and picking up 10 assists but didn’t even get a shot off until missing a contested fast break lay up.

The best we can say is that in this situation -- a team with two all-star post players who they went to early and often -- Lehning is working out well running the offense and helping the team get them the ball.

That’s not a final objective judgment of either player’s talent or future as a WNBA player. But to use the notion of a player being functionally effective within a role, Lehning – while not nearly the image of positional perfection that Penicheiro has been – is filling the function of point guard well enough to keep the Dream in second place.

If the question shifts from an assessment of talent based on an idealized positional standard that nobody aside from Penicheiro (or Stockton) are likely to achieve to a question of who fills the role of point guard well enough for the team to be successful, Lehning is doing just fine.

Of course we all wish to have a Penicheiro or Stockton on our favorite teams, but somehow we have to find a way to appreciate the less-than-elite role players too.

Continue reading...

What Might Briann January’s Future as a “Future Premiere Point Guard” Look Like?

. Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Make a comment!

With 2:18 left in the third quarter and her team down 14 points against the Seattle Storm, a light seemed to go on for Fever rookie point guard Briann January.

January brought the ball up court, shifted her weight left just enough to freeze All-Star guard Sue Bird who was defending her, then made a swift crossover dribble and took the ball hard to the basket to draw the foul and hit two free throws.

However, it wasn’t just one play that stood out on Saturday.

January took Bird to the basket repeatedly – she got to the free throw line off a drive again with 6.6 seconds left in the quarter -- and even though she didn’t make every shot, it was her confidence in a game that was still within reach that was impressive.

Although the Fever ended up losing Saturday's game 74-60, January demonstrated a beautiful mix of athleticism, determination, and skill that gave the fans that were still paying attention a glimpse into a bright future. Most of all, demonstrating such confidence against Bird – who January idolized as a young player – seems to just add something special to the moment. It’s not that Bird is a standout defender – it’s that January approached Bird with such fearlessness.

Despite struggling with her jump shot for much of the season – she went 1-8 against the Storm – January is having an impressive season as a rookie point guard. She’s an adept ball handler who can not only get herself to the basket, but also knows when to pick and choose her spots.

Although her passes sometimes go errant when she gets over-excited, she has also shown the ability to make pinpoint entry passes to the post or perfectly float passes over the outstretched arms of defenders to a moving teammate, putting them in scoring position on the run.

And of course, the two time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year is no slouch on defense. Her quickness and strength allow her to stay with and challenge even the likes of Bird.

The combination of skills that January displayed in Saturday’s game and the previous Saturday in their comeback win against Detroit is what makes it so tempting to look past the present and into January’s seemingly bright future. The point was underscored by Fever coach Lin Dunn’s comments after January’s career-best performance against Detroit.

“You’re starting to see January develop more and more into what I call a premier point guard in this league. Her strength combined with her quickness, her speed and her shooting ability – I just think that she’s got a lot of upside as one of the top guards of the future of this league.”
Dunn’s comment leads me to wonder about what type of point guard January might become in connection with how we might describe point guards: what type of point guard is January likely to become? And how does she compare to the league’s current premiere point guards?

January seems to exude star potential, both because of her skills and the leadership she exhibits when on the court.

It was somewhat ironic to see January – a 31.8% shooter in her young career – standing up on the sidelines with her arms crossed like a coach yelling, “Shoot it! Shoot it!” as veteran Ebony Hoffman passed up a shot opportunity that came within the flow of the offense.

Although the frustrated eye roll at the dead ball is probably not the most effective way to build relationships, she seems to have the quality of a natural leader, even as a backup point guard. On a successful team full of veterans, she’s not afraid to hold her own and bark commands, even when she’s not on the court running their offense.

And in having such an eye for the game and implicitly demanding so much of her teammates and visibly bothered by every single mistake she makes – but not afraid to
solicit feedback from others – it’s hard not to think that she’s destined to improve.

When you combine her approach to the game and disposition toward her teammates with her skill set, it seems like the sky is the limit for January.

But you have to wonder: what might that potential look like?

Something I found interesting as I was doing point guard rankings last week is that if you were to omit scoring efficiency – shooting percentages, the ratio of possessions she scores on vs. possessions that she wastes – January’s statistical profile as a point guard is remarkably similar to Lindsey Harding.

Based on the point guard statistics, the only major difference between Harding and January are scoring efficiency numbers. And given Harding’s emergence this season after struggling her first few years, it’s not hard to imagine January having an impact on the court similar to Harding as she becomes a better scorer.

Harding had the better rookie season, but a large part of that was that she started and got big minutes on a non-playoff team. What Harding might have on January in terms of physical gifts – Harding is undoubtedly among the fastest guards with the ball in the league -- January has on Harding in terms of feel for the game and defense.

And I would argue that January is probably the better passer in terms of mechanics and court vision. That’s high praise and a lofty comparison for January given Harding’s all-star caliber year…but I really think she has that kind of potential.

When you start to see the ability to do things for her team at crucial moments on multiple occasions – even if they lose a game on the road in one of the toughest arenas in the league against the second-best team in the Western Conference --- it’s fair to start projecting her as something more special than what meets the eye.

If she does end up developing into a premiere point guard, she might end up in a class all her own. She just stands out as a special individual.

A superstar in the making.

Tony J. Antonucci, January’s elementary school counselor, wrote recently in the Spokane Spokesman-Review that January is “today’s real true all-American superstar athlete” who has been surrounded by a large support network on her ascent to the WNBA. And a portion of that network she’s spent a lifetime building was present not too far from the Fever bench at Key Arena.

As I was leaving Key Arena, January was coming through the tunnel to meet a group of 20-30 people that waited after the game to greet her. As I was walking toward her, she was surrounded by a bunch of credentialed individuals giving her directives or advice of some sort. I almost got out my voice recorder to go over and ask the player I’ve been following for about a week a few questions that would probably only result in answers similar to those in print elsewhere.

Just as I got close, she turned and flashed that “warm beautiful smile” that Antonucci described, wiping away any trace of having suffered a bad road loss, and walked out of the tunnel, greeted by a loud cheer from the people that eagerly awaited to see her.

And at that moment, she seemed to be more than Briann January the future premiere point guard, but Briann January the recent college graduate who was returning home from her first post-baccalaureate job to visit her family and looking for a good homecooked meal from mom.

Indeed, a special set of attributes for a star athlete in today's world of professional sports.

Continue reading...