NEW YORK — Perhaps the WNBA should change the name of today's game to All-Stars of the future.
For the first time in the game's seven-year history, four rookies will participate and three other players selected have been in the league for three seasons. It's an interesting glimpse at what's to come at a time when the WNBA is looking back on its first 10 years.
"I've put a lot of years of working hard and determination to get to this point," said Phoenix rookie Cappie Pondexter.
Wait. You've been in the league for 3 ½ months.
"This is my first year, so I can only use college," she said.
The scene around Madison Square Garden is eerily like any recent NCAA tournament run.
WNBA All-Star Game, 4:30 p.m., ESPN
Minnesota rookie Seimone Augustus (Louisiana State) and San Antonio newcomer Sophia Young (Baylor), plus third-year veterans like Washington guard Alana Beard (Duke), Connecticut guard Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota) and Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi (Connecticut) all have represented their colleges at the Final Four.
Pondexter (Rutgers) played in the Big East tournament with fellow rookie All-Star Candice Dupree of the expansion Chicago Sky.
"It speaks volumes about the college game and the talent that they have coming out," Augustus said. "It's just the evolution of the women's game. The established veterans are here, but so are some of the younger players. It's great that we are actually here and I can talk to Lisa [Leslie] and Sheryl [Swoopes]. I've looked up to them for years."
And the fresh faces are finding that being an All-Star carries some responsibility.
Not only is the league looking at the players to be marketing tools to carry it through another 10 years, but fellow players are looking to the young stars to help shed light on issues that affect everyone. It can be a pressure-packed spot for a rookie still trying to comprehend travel and what it means to be a professional.
"It took me a year to figure out what the CBA [collective-bargaining agreement] was all about intricately," said Connecticut forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin, an eight-year veteran. "I don't even think they [rookies] have time right now because it's such a whirlwind of playing. Your first year, you're only feeling stuff out. You don't want to be thrust into the spotlight, especially of making critical decisions. Even though you want to be in the league 15 years, I don't know if at 21 I wanted to make life decisions for the league that affect 1,200 people. But you do have to because that's your league and your future."
None of the rookies is that knowledgeable about most issues regarding the league. Augustus, the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick this year, was the only one of the bunch who has talked to an elder about the players' union. Forward Tamika Williams is the player representative for the Lynx; and, before Williams retires, Augustus said she wants to have enough information gathered to continue the momentum.
Beard, who has improved her game to average 18.2 points and 4.7 rebounds, says she needs to understand the business side of the league.
"I need to find time to get more involved," Beard said. "I'm not familiar with it, and I can't say I'm the type that likes talking to people. I can be very bashful at times, and it's something that I need to get out of if I want to be part of helping this league continue with the movement."
All-Star Tamika Catchings (Indiana) is the acting union president, and Sacramento guard Kara Lawson, in her fourth season, is one of the more active players on the business side. The CBA expires at the end of the 2007 season, with an option to pick up the 2008 summer.
Catchings said salary remains a top issue and player opportunities to become coaches or general managers are also concerns. McWilliams-Franklin said she believes parenting should be a bigger issue, especially given the number of players who have had children the past four seasons. Storm forward Wendy Palmer, one of seven remaining league originals, said the league's lack of a pension plan is a major concern.
"I started when the league didn't even have year-round insurance, so a frustration for me is that the younger players don't have a desire to learn the business," said Palmer, who has played for five organizations.
"The Magnificent Seven, as we have been called, we're going to be gone one day," she said. "If they [younger players] don't take the time to learn ... I'm not going to be that pushy preacher that goes around trying to persuade people. Younger players can ask us anything, but it's just a different generation."
For now, everything is lace in glittery stars. WNBA president Donna Orender and NBA commissioner David Stern continue to talk about expansion, even though attendance has dipped again, and seemingly everyone is clamoring for the rookies' autographs.
Playing on the grand stage next to the same heroines who inspired them to play the game couldn't be sweeter. For the rookies today, the future is bright.
"I'm blessed and privileged to be a part of such a truly world-class group of athletes," said Young, the San Antonio rookie. "These are the best women players in the world, and to be playing with them and against them is such a great opportunity."
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org