June 21, 1997 — The referee tosses the ball up between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks. It hangs in the air for a moment as the crowd of 14,284 fans hold their collective breath.
The WNBA has officially tipped off, and women’s basketball will never be the same. When Sparks guard Penny Toler scores the first official basket, the significance of the moment starts to sink in.
Twenty-five years later, the WNBA is still here. And the impact of that first game is still being felt.
Over two and a half decades, the league has evolved on every level, from player autonomy to fan engagement and social media interaction to marketing and visibility. And along the way, it has inspired young athletes who grew up knowing that professional women’s basketball is the norm and not a novelty.
Today’s WNBA spans many generations, from 18-year veteran Sue Bird to 21-year-old rookie Charli Collier. What’s unique about this class of players, in the league’s 25th year, is the majority of them started their basketball careers with the WNBA as a real, living, breathing end goal. They could watch women play basketball for a living and think to themselves: That could be me someday.
“My first WNBA memory is going to a Washington Mystics game. It was actually the 10-year anniversary of the league, and I was playing AAU and our whole team went,” says Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams. “I think one of the Miller sisters was on the Mystics at the time. I just remember the whole experience and especially kids my age being excited to even see a pro league.
“I think that was the first time where it was like, whoa, this is actually a possibility for us as female athletes.”
The image of that game stayed in the back of Williams’ mind as she got older and played college basketball at Duke University, with aspirations to make it to the WNBA. Many players of Williams’ generation had similar experiences.
“The first WNBA game I went to when I was little, I think I was eight or nine. I remember the L.A. Sparks and I remember Candace Parker,” says Kennedy Burke of the Seattle Storm. “And I knew then, I was like, oh, this is what I want to do, because I love basketball.”
A little over a decade later, Burke was guarding Parker during a game, “wowed” that the player who inspired her dreams was now her opponent.
Burke’s teammate, Breanna Stewart, went to her first game with her AAU team. They traveled from Syracuse, N.Y. to Madison Garden to see the Liberty play. Stewart hoped that one day, she would be out there, too. Washington Mystics guard Myisha Hines-Allen also went to her first WNBA game at the Garden with her AAU team, and it changed her relationship with the sport. Before that game, she was just playing basketball; afterward, she began watching it all the time.
“For so long, you’d only see men play in the NBA on TV. I’d watch women’s college games, but on the professional level, you didn’t see any women,” says Shey Peddy of the Phoenix Mercury. “So now it was like, OK, I see somebody who looks like me out here ballin’ day in and day out, just on the big stage, on TV. That was the main goal, to be on TV playing basketball in front of all of the fans, to have your family and friends cheering for you one day and, hopefully, have a miracle shot like they did.”
Jessica Shepard of the Minnesota Lynx doesn’t remember her first WNBA game, but she does remember her first WNBA jersey, which came as a Christmas gift when she was in kindergarten.
“My parents got me a [Orlando] Miracle jersey with my name on it,” she recalls. “I mean, they’re not a team anymore, but at the time I probably wore it, like, every day of the week when I was playing basketball. That was my earliest memory.”
Almost every WNBA player has one. Whether it’s a game they watched, a team they followed or a player they admired, the players understand the significance of carrying the league through its 25th year and setting an example for the next generation.
A’ja Wilson was born in 1996, the same year the WNBA was officially founded. So the reigning MVP and Las Vegas Aces forward never had a chance to watch some of her role models play in their prime, but that didn’t stop her from identifying with all-time greats like Lisa Leslie.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to watch her play, but she’s definitely someone that I model not just my game but the way to go about it,” Wilson says. “She’s such a lady off the court. She’s so easy to talk to. She’s just an all-around cool person. And I just hope that if I can be half of that role model that she is to me to a young Black girl, that I’m doing my job.”
Wilson wasn’t the only one who missed out on the formative years of the WNBA. Jonquel Jones wasn’t able to watch the league on television while growing up in the Bahamas because games weren’t available in her region. She would hear about Leslie and Parker, but that was it. Instead, she watched the NBA and modeled her game after players like Rip Hamilton and, later, Kevin Durant.
Liz Cambage of the Aces also had a hard time following the WNBA on a regular basis due to time-zone and access challenges in Australia. But when she could watch, she spent most of her time following Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson, who are also from Australia.
Unlike Wilson, Cambage and Jones, Sun forward DeWanna Bonner was able to watch one of her favorite players regularly.
“I liked Cynthia Cooper. I watched her a lot,” she says. “I think just her leadership and the way she led the [Houston] Comets to four championships at the point guard position. Just an unbelievable player. So she would be the player that I looked up to because of her leadership skills.”
Williams was a Yolanda Griffith fan, drawn to the Hall of Famer’s defense and reliability. Hines-Allen found a connection with Essence Carson, Leilani Mitchell and Cappie Pondexter, but Rebekkah Brunson and Alyssa Thomas have had the biggest influence on her overall.
“Brunson, just how she’s able to rebound — I was amazed by that to be honest with you. Alyssa Thomas, I’m still a huge fan of hers because we’re kind of the same size and just to see what she’s able to do … from every aspect of the game,” says Hines-Allen.
Peddy looked up to Sheryl Swoopes and Cooper on offense and Deanna Nolan on defense. But she felt an even deeper connection to Diana Taurasi when she entered the league. Peddy had watched Taurasi since her UConn days and now, the two of them are teammates with the Mercury.
Dream rookie Aari McDonald still can’t believe it when she sees Taurasi on the other bench, knowing she’s playing against her.
“It’s crazy because I’ve always loved Diana Taurasi. I loved her attitude. I loved the swag she brings to the court,” McDonald says.
Shepard distinctly remembers the moment she walked into the Lynx locker room and came face-to-face with Seimone Augustus.
“I had just gotten [to Minnesota], and Seimone walked in and I was a rather nervous little rookie. It’s surreal. I think, when you’re in it, you don’t realize just how crazy it really is,” she says. “I mean it’s awesome, just to look across and be playing against people that you grew up watching and are on the same stage as them.”
Lynx guard Crystal Dangerfield had always wanted to meet Augustus, too. Growing up in Tennessee, she watched a lot of SEC basketball and became fans of Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. As a rookie in 2020, Dangerfield was playing with Fowles and against Augustus. But the most surreal moments for her are the times she plays against Parker.
“The earliest that I can remember back right now was watching Parker come into the league. I remember trying to get a Sparks jersey and everything. I just remember it goes all the way back to when she was at Tennessee,” Dangerfield says. “Being on the floor with her, having conversations while we were out on the floor is just … we’re at the same level. That’s my peer. Not at the same level playing-wise, but that’s my peer now and I’m competing against her.”
When Sydney Wiese was a kid, she had three goals for herself — to play on the varsity team in high school, to get a college scholarship and to become a professional basketball player in the WNBA. The now Mystics guard checked the third and final goal off of her list in 2017, when the Sparks selected her in the first round of the WNBA Draft.
“I heard my name get called, it was like, oh my gosh, this is real. This is a real thing now. Now, what do I do with this?” Wiese says. “That’s as far as I thought. It was one of those moments that you work for your whole life, but when it actually happens — and it’s so cliche — but there were really no words to describe the feeling when I heard my name.”
Wiese grew up in Phoenix, and one of her early memories of the WNBA was meeting Taurasi at a camp at a local high school. Wiese used to watch Taurasi on TV and practice Taurasi’s moves in her driveway during halftime.
“To see her in the flesh, not just in uniform, but to see her as a person, to get a picture with her, to get autographs from the whole team, it’s like you’re standing in awe of these women that you dream to be one day,” Wiese says. “And they’re right in front of you and you can ask them questions. Then you can learn from them and just take it in. It became real for me in that moment when I was a kid, where I wanted to be able to do that someday, too.”
Bonner had a similar experience when she arrived at her first WNBA training camp in 2009, after the Mercury drafted her with the fifth overall pick.
“Coming to training camp the first time and playing with Taurasi, and how hard she worked and led the team,” she says. “I had Pondexter as one of my vets as well, so just some great names there and great leadership. Just how hard they worked on the court was unbelievable to me.”
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Peddy’s connection to the WNBA was more personal. Peddy’s first WNBA game was in Cleveland, where she and her mom could watch the Cleveland Rockers and Michelle Edwards, who played with Peddy’s mom when they were younger. The experience has stayed with Peddy to this day.
These kinds of stories are common among today’s WNBA players. The long and winding thread of the league has been woven into the fabric of their lives, in one way or another, and it will continue to do the same for generations to come.
“It’s funny how life kind of works like that,” says Williams. “Things come full circle. I’m always humbled to be in this position, to even be in the league. And I’ve been in the league for a couple of years now, so then it’s even more humbling.
“We all kind of play for that little girl that grew up watching the game. So, it’s cool that now there are other girls watching us.”