Women's basketball doesn't need dunks to be relevant and popular, but paradoxically Candace Parker's dunks may give the WNBA just the boost it needs. Parker, the Los Angeles Sparks' rookie forward, dunked in the waning moments of L.A.'s win over the Indiana Fever on Sunday. Then on Tuesday, she threw it down again in the Sparks' 76-62 win over the Seattle Storm.
For fans of women's basketball, Parker dunking is not news. She dunked during her days at the University of Tennessee while leading the Lady Vols to consecutive national titles, and most impressively she won the dunk contest at the 2004 McDonald's High School All-American game festivities, beating out future NBA slam dunk champion Josh Smith. By comparison to those dunks, her slams this week were pretty garden variety.
That isn't to say that Parker's dunks weren't popular or significant. YouTube clips of her first dunk this week attracted more than 60,000 views, and other clips at the site, as well as on blogs and accounts of the game, attracted tens of thousands more. There's a clear interest in women dunking; several NBA cheerleader squads have dunk lines where the dancers go off of trampolines often doing summersaults and the like before throwing it down.
But dunks are kind of the antithesis of women's basketball, which typically involves artistry below, not above, the rim. An archetypal women's hoops play might go like this: The point guard beats her defender above the free throw circle, drives the lane and dishes to the center, who fakes toward the basket attracting multiple defenders before snapping a pass to the free throw line to a forward. She then starts a drive, but kicks the ball out to the point guard who is now standing in the corner, behind the three-point arc. Blessed with enough time to text a friend if her phone not in her locker, the point guard drains a three before a harried defender can reach her.
Plays like that aren't unusual in WNBA games or women's NCAA games (and I presume they are quite common in women's pro games in Europe and Australia too). Tuesday night, when I watched the Houston Comets down the San Antonio Silver Spurs 82-81, I saw an abundance of plays that involved crisp passing and superb teamwork. But while crisp passes often lead to points, they rarely lead to the highlight reel, which is a dominant vehicle for sports news, whether it is ESPN's Sportscenter or YouTube or even smaller packages delivered to cell phones, podcasts or even clips shown at airports.
The point-guard-to-the center-to-the-forward-back to-the-point guard sequence takes about five seconds too long for most highlight clips. But dunks fit that medium perfectly which is why Parker's slams are so important; they give her league—and by extension her sport—visibility in a key realm. Purists like me know that dunks are hardly the essence of basketball, but visibility in all spectrums of the sports marketplace is a key to success.
There's been some talk on the Web about whether Parker will "save" women's basketball, but that's silly. Women's basketball was thriving long before Parker came along. WNBA teams are increasingly owned by business people with no ties to the NBA, so they market their teams aggressively and in ways (meet and greets and picnics) that most pro-team sports owners would never consider.
The WNBA has continued to improve in the caliber of play; it will always suffer from being the summer sidelight to the more lucrative October to April leagues overseas, but the players are doing a better job of conditioning themselves for a year-round season. And this season, the WNBA has an influx of talent that is its equivalent of the 2003 NBA draft, which was full of likely Hall of Famers and all stars like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Parker, Chicago center Sylvia Fowles and Minnesota guard Candace Wiggins are all likely to be perennial all stars, and Wiggins in particular is a close match to Parker in charisma and charm. The question that extends from this parallel is whether Parker is the LeBron of the WNBA. I think the answer is yes, but with the caveat that the WNBA hasn't had the history of crossover stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan that preceded James.
The WNBA has had numerous stars like Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, Swin Cash, Kara Lawson, Diana Turasi, Lindsay Whalen and Parker's L.A. teammate Lisa Leslie, but it hasn't had a player who likely has a Vogue cover and possibly a hosting spot on Saturday Night Live in her future.
Such endeavors aren't necessary for good basketball, but they are for good marketing, and particularly since Parker's game is a lot more than dunks—put simply, if she didn't have a league of her own, Candace's ball-handling and shooting abilities would have made her a first round pick in this month's NBA draft. With her combination of hoops, skills, looks and charisma, Parker is likely to take women's basketball to new heights. Dunks are just a small part of the package.
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.