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My Daughter, The Point Guard

John Edgar Wideman

From The New York Times

In her famous essay, "A Room of One's own," Virginia Woolf posed a question: If Shakespeare had a sister, what might have been her fate if she dared write poetry? Would a female sensibility produce distinctively "women's sentences"? Well, what if "Michelle" Jordan, motivated by the same fiery determination as her brother, had the chance to hone her hoop skills against the best female athletes in the whole world? Would women competing in a professional league evolve a vocabulary and grammar for the game that speaks a new language to fans? In its second season, the WNBA is answering questions we are just learning to ask about women's sports. Although the WNBA was financed with Big Brother NBA money (and piggybacks onto NBA facilities) we shouldn't expect a mirror image ofthe men's league. Indeed, so far the women's games have had a truly distinctive feel. Sports pundits say that the rhythm of the women's games — with its greater reliance on passing and the absence of the showboating, skywalking dunks — is different than that of men'sbasketball. But such talk misses the point. What's exciting about theWNBA, is that the sport is developing, evolving, before our eyes. I've been a WNBA partisan from the beginning. How could I not be? My daughter, Jamila, is a point guard for the Los Angeles Sparks — and I've watched her in action ever since she jogged onto the court as a starter in the league's very first game. With that peculiar acute, extrasensory susceptibility of parents who can't help sharing the emotions they believe their children are experiencing, I follow the arc of each Jamila jump-shot. The intensity level easily surpasses what I felt during my own college days at the University of Pennsylvania. I marvel at her waterbug spurts though glowering opponents neck to neckwith other players — Sophia Witherspoon , Micelle Timms — who are equally willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to capture a loose ball. Given money and space to practice their craft, can women like Jamila change the game? Change the world? Then again, should the WNBA be saddled with that kind of responsibility? Male athletes aren't. For good reasons and bad, stars like Charles Barkley have chanted Hell no, we wont go at those wanting to recruit them as role models in the world's fight. But what's exhilarating is that women of the WNBA are embracing responsibility. Players seem anxious to expand the possibilities of their sport past entertainment into politics. They want to be seen and heard at the barricades. The league sponsors a campaign to heighten breast-cancer awareness, runs clinics and summer camps for aspiring young hoopsters and offers assistance to community organizations. WNBA women graciously avail themselves for public appearances, autograph sessions, and acts of public service. Believe me, I'm a witness. Last year I waited two hours on a hot afternoon after a game in Los Angeles while a tired Jamila smiled and schmoozed with an endless line of admirers outside the Forum. This season in the Forum stands I passed a bouncy, smiling group of teen-age girls waving Jamila signs. They were the guest of the Sparks from a local youth center where my daughter runs a reading, writing and hoops program she designed herself— and persuaded Nike to finance. Seeking fans and advertising revenue, the NBA schedules the WNBA season in TV sports' "dead time," after the NBA playoff and before theWorld Series and the NFL. But the games have been full of life. C'mon, everybody join in is this season's mantra. Much like a high school, college, minor-league and the sandlot athletics, the WNBA wants its team to belong to their fans. Be part of a community, representative, responsive, responsible. And it's working. How else to explain the full houses in Washington cheering for the last place Mystics? But don't simply count the number of fans in the stands. Check out their faces, the banners they flourish, their body language, their exuberant dancing and gyrations — how they are configured in family groups, all-female parties, as well as father-daughter and mother-son combination. The fans project pride and possessiveness, alively, personal, face-to face intimacy with their team. In the inaugural WNBA season, buying a ticket to a Liberty or Comets or Sting game expressed more than a mere entertainment preference. It was a chance to feel good, to support a new, worthy — and long overdue —women's enterprise. You could be part of the wave. Raise the stakes of the game. Participate in a lively bit of consciousness-raising. Players and fans appear determined to keep the feel-good spirit alive. The WNBA is defining a niche for itself that may turn out to be as lucrative as it is emotionally satisfying. Won't fans welcome a change from the virtual reality of channel-surfing between look-alike games with no local connectedness, no history, featuring win-at-all-costs conglomerate teams, whose interchangeable players are auctioned off during the off-season? What's more, the league offers a transforming riff on two of male America's primal preoccupations: sports and girl watching. But girl watching with a healthy twist. The female bodies on the court are displayed not on high-fashion runways or in centerfolds, nor as bait in commercials. Function not form, freedom not iconization, performance not passivity are what count. The players' bodies create the speed, rhythm and tempo of the game. The spectators' gaze is not directed inwardly on errands of voyeuristic fantasy but outwardly to finely conditioned athletes working, sweating, competing, busy trying to win a game. All sizes, shapes, colors are rigorously tested by the physical demands of basketball, and out of the action come new perceptions — a new appreciation of what it means for a woman to struggle for self-expression inside her envelop of flesh. New strength. New beauty. See for yourself, as women rewrite the script of basketball — a game we thought could be only a certain kind of thing. Go on with your bad selves, sisters. I love it.