WNBA Reaches 15-Year Milestone

And they said it wouldn't last. 

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Rebecca Lobo shoots over Lisa Leslie at the inaugural game. (Getty)

The WNBA is marking a milestone this week: It will have been in business for 15 years. The league that started in 1997 as a showcase of women's talent in basketball is still making it happen, almost 15 years to the day when the inaugural game happened between the Los Angeles Sparks and The New York Liberty. 

Tuesday night the same matchup will occur on the anniversary of the first game between the two teams. Contrary to many predictions, the WNBA outlasted an early rival, endured a struggling economy and overcome many setbacks including low attendance.

The Associated Press reports, "It's a good sound to hear -- 15 years -- because when we first started not too many believed it would remain," said Weatherspoon, who teamed with Rebecca Lobo to lead the Liberty to a 67-57 win over Leslie, Toler and the Sparks in that first game. "Only we did as the athletes. And to hear 15 years is amazing."

Many of the players, including Lisa Leslie, weren't expecting much, thinking it would be a summer league of some sort. They did not know that they would play in the same arenas as male players, using locker rooms used by Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Michael Cooper and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in the case of the Los Angeles Sparks. 

For players like Toler and Weatherspoon, who had spent years in leagues overseas, there was a lot of excitement over the opportunity to play at home. "Being able to finally play in front of family and friends in America," Weatherspoon said. "I didn't sleep very well the night before ... really excited to get on that floor."

All the players remember the fanfare surrounding the start of the league, the media coverage and support from fans as they arrived at the Forum the day of the game, and the celebrities in attendance.

The league outlasted an early challenge from the ABL, which played in the winter and had completed its first season before the WNBA tipped off. The ABL, however, disbanded on Dec. 22, 1998, just after the start of its third season, and most of the players joined the WNBA the following year.

Lobo chose to sign with the WNBA, while most of her teammates from the gold medal-winning Olympic team from the 1996 Atlanta Games went to the rival league.

"With the NBA's backing, with David Stern's backing -- not only financially, the marketing power that they had," Lobo said, "I just thought businesswise it had more of a chance to succeed."

That was pretty much a safe bet. The WNBA is growing and getting better. With dominant teams like UConn, there is sure to be an abundance of talent to keep the league in business. The early players demonstrated strength and integrity in the face of detractors, low salaries and a lot of ridicule.