I had never been to a WNBA game before, and I was offered a free ticket. So why not? Last night I found myself taking the two hour drive to Tulsa to see the Tulsa Shock game.
As with any good basketball fan, I did some research before going to the game. I discovered that the Shock were 1-17, worst in the WNBA. Their roster seemed to be a mix of has beens (Sharyl Swoopes and Betty Lennox), will bes (Elizabeth Cambage and Kayla Pedersen), and never will bes. Nolan Richardson had just been replaced as head coach, and the Shock seemed to be under really hard times.
As I approached the BOK Center, I really admired the architecture. While the newly-christened Chesapeake Energy Arena looks like nothing more than your standard arena, the BOK Center looks like a unique architectural wonder, giving a face to the city of Tulsa. There were a good number of fans streaming into the arena, but once you got inside, you realized just how empty it was. I kept seeing the same faces walking around, something I can't say for Thunder games. But perhaps it was just my big-city mentality, not used to seeing a smaller sporting event.
As I entered the actual arena, I have to admit, there was a good atmosphere about the place. Even though this team was playing worse than the Pittsburgh Pythons, the fans who were there seemed to be pretty hardcore, and cheered louder than Laker fans do when the game isn't on the line. I sat in my seat to watch the teams warm up. I looked at the team in front of me, and they seemed to be really confident in what they were doing. They were doing layup drills, impromptu one on one games, and had a certain swagger about them. This couldn't possibly be a team that had only won one game the entire season.... And then, I realized. As I saw the "F" on the front of the blue warmups, I realized I was watching the Indiana Fever, while the Shock were warming up on the other side.
Eventually, after some extended warmups, the game began. The game initially appeared to be somewhat even, with the Shock working very hard for their first bucket. After a couple of miscues, a Kayla Pedersen jump shot went in, and the Shock were up, 2-0. But the Fever immediately and almost effortlessly responded on the other end, and you could tell the Shock were in for a long night. The Shock continued to scrap in the first quarter, and it looked like they were somewhat holding their own. But before long I realized I was delusional, as the Shock were behind 15-6.
Style-wise, the WNBA very much reminded me of what basketball looked like 20 years ago. I know it's an old adage that women's basketball focuses on fundamentals, but it's somewhat true. There's a lot more mid-range jumpers and crisp passes, and less reckless drives to the hoop and ridiculous trick shots. I'm not passing judgement on which style of play is better or worse, as I find both enjoyable to watch. And I'm not saying that my judgement is absolutely correct, for I only witnessed one game. But the style I saw in this game made it different enough to be interesting, even when one team was getting blown out by almost 30 points.
As the game wore on, the fans didn't really waver. Any score was seen as a glimmer of hope, and people still yelled at the refs for what they thought were bad calls. But the game on the floor was a different story. The only shirt sold in the store with an actual player on it featured the 6'10" Elizabeth Cambage, but she was almost nowhere to be found during the game, coming off of the bench for only 9 minutes. The point guards (Andrea Riley and Ivory Latta) mainly seemed to function are turnover machines. Jennifer Lacy served to be a decent scorer, and Sheryl Swoopes would occasionally show flashes of her former glory. But other than that, nobody really played long enough or did enough to have an impact. The lineups were changed frequently with no real rhyme or reason, and all 12 women saw time on the floor, even the recently signed Abi Olajuwon.
Of course, the Fever simply cruised in this game. After building up a 13 point lead in the first half, they pushed the Shock to the brink of 30 in the third and let the bench finish the game. The Fever featured two names even a non-WNBA fan might know (Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings), and it was pretty clear that they were the Eastern Conference leaders.
Part of me wants to make fun of the Shock for being so bad. But if I bring it from within myself to remember three years ago, it occurred to me that the Thunder weren't all that different. They had their hopes resting on a young star (Durant). They had has-beens like Joe Smith and Malik Rose getting time. They had Robert Swift, Johan Petro, and Damien Wilkins, who had no real business being on a NBA team at all. They went through a coaching change mid-season. And, many people doubted that the team would survive. But, despite all of the hate, fans showed up and the team prospered.
It's clear that the Shock were a nice thing for Tulsa, and that fans had a good time. There were next to no rich and famous people at the game, allowing people who would normally be in Loud City at the Thunder games to sit near courtside. There were several troops of Girl Scouts in the stands, some girls basketball teams were there, and several breast cancer survivors were honored throughout the game. Heck, Thundor (the well-known Thunder fan who paints his belly and wears a luchador mask) got some free seats just for being a crazy fan, and I tagged along with him because they offered additional seats. I have no idea whether this team will survive the hard times without folding, but I couldn't think of a better way to spend my Friday night in August. Go Shock!