I’m going to let you in on an open secret among basketball fans: All-Star Games aren’t usually worth watching. Sure, the game gets a lot of hype — especially on the men’s side — but the games are rarely competitive or have any stakes associated with them. Players are weary of getting hurt before returning for the second half of the season, so they don’t over-exert themselves too much, especially on the defensive end. At most, the best you can hope for is an offensive showcase, including the occasional dunk. But this year, the WNBA is making its annual All-Star Game count.
Tonight, Team USA will face Team WNBA, a collection of All-Stars selected by the league’s coaches from a pool voted on by fans, media and the players. It’ll be the first of three exhibition games before Team USA’s Olympic competition begins. There’s not time for lackadaisical defense: with just two weeks until their opening round game, every game is crucial. If Team USA wants to continue their Olympic dominance, they’ll have to start with beating their teammates.
Before tonight’s tip-off, two basketball obsessed Southern gals got together and chatted about the WNBA’s historic 25th season, the league’s evolution as it relates to queer visibility and tonight’s All-Star Game.
Heather: The WNBA All-Star Game is tonight, inexplicably on a Wednesday, live from Las Vegas, where the both the men’s and women’s national teams have been preparing for the Olympics. But tonight, it’s all about the women! And, especially, the gay women! I went back and looked at all the previous rosters and I think this is the most openly gay All-Star Game ever. How are you feeling about that?
Natalie: Of course, I love it. You and I are a bit older so we remember when the league was just starting out and there seemed to be a premium on making everyone look as wholesome (read: straight) as possible. I remember how the league forced the players into taking Femininity classes and how they kept the spotlight on as many straight, feminine players as possible….and now look at this roster…filled not just with gay players but with married gay players (some with children even). The roster is really a reflection of how much the league has evolved over these last 25 years. What about you?
Heather: That is exactly how I feel. I’m honestly so glad that young girls growing up will get to experience these players as the norm — and expressing their queerness in so many different ways — but, like you, I’m always watching the WNBA as my adult queer self and as my childhood queer self at the same time. And, of course, you and I didn’t even have professional women’s basketball to watch when we were growing up! For these young kids to have it, and to have so many players be openly gay, and to have the WNBA just be so freaking cool — to be such trend-setters — it makes me really emotional, honestly.
There’s even been this shift in the past few years where — like, for most of the WNBA’s days, there’s been a “stigma” that everyone’s gay. Like how many players did Candice Wiggins’ say were lesbians? 98%? Ha! I wish! But now it’s like an inside joke.
Natalie: Oh God, that Candice Wiggins thing….the suggestion that when she came into the league she experienced discrimination because she was straight….and the news media ate it up because they have this skewed perception of the W when the league was actually hostile to out queer women (and out queer fans, if we’re being honest) at that point.
Heather: She also said that the lesbians tried to basically indoctrinate her, which was just the wildest thing in the world to me, because most queer players at that point were probably terrified of being known as The Gay Player.
I read an interview during Pride with Candace Dupree and Amanda Zahui B and Dupree was saying two of her teammates didn’t show up for the Pride parade with the rest of the team, and they said it was because they didn’t want people to think they were gay, and Dupree said, “First of all, you play in the WNBA, so everybody already thinks you’re gay.” And she and Zahui B laughed and laughed. And in that same interview, they were like, you know, “If you’re in the locker room with me, you better be comfortable with me talking about my sexuality and bringing my girlfriend everywhere.” It’s so amazing! These women are so beloved, such a part of the cultural zeitgeist, and SO GAY.
I’m curious, as a Black bisexual women from the south, does it hit even more for you? There are almost as many queer Black women on TV in the WNBA as there are on fictionalized TV.
Natalie: That’s true; I probably see more black queer women in one season of the WNBA than I do in one traditional television season. I don’t know that it hits more for me, though… in part because I’m older but also because I’ve watched these players for years. The thing that really touches me, though, is that it’s really a player-led movement to create more visibility. I’m sure you read Katie Barnes’ great piece on Layshia Clarendon but their work has really been the thing that’s touched me… like they’re single-handedly pushing the league forward on all these issues and other folks are standing up behind them. I think of that quote, “As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same,” and that’s what Lay’s done in the league.
Heather: Yes! I mean, that’s the entire thing about the W. They lead the way on social issues and it’s 100% because of the players. Layshia is a perfect example of that. They work on the Social Justice council; they’re encouraging the use of multiple different combinations of pronouns from teammates, coaches, journalists, and announcers; they’re visibly showcasing pride in their top surgery and the body they’ve built after it; and on and on and on, while also having an absolutely phenomenal year with the Lynx after getting cut by the Liberty. And obviously that’s not an easy road to walk, that’s a lot of weight to carry, but they are doing it while still being a leader on the dang court. I don’t use the word “blessing” much or lightly, but getting to watch them grown and flourish has absolutely been a blessing to me.
Lay’s got a couple of teammates on the National Team which will be facing off against the WNBA All-Stars, and while this game is usually just a chance to have fun and show out, there’s some different stakes this year! We’ve got a couple of veteran player on the All-Star team who aren’t on the National Team roster (Candace Parker, who already has her Olympic medals; and Courtney Vandersloot, who, at 32, may have now missed her chance at a medal). And you’ve got some young league-favorite hot-shots like Arike Ogunbowale who didn’t make the National Team, but are on the All-Star team. How do you think these dynamics are going to play out?
Chasing seven 🥇
— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) July 5, 2021
Natalie: Is it bad that I really want the Olympic team to lose? I think I’m still bitter about the exclusion of Nneka Ogwumike so maybe my opinion is not to be trusted.
Heather: No! I also want them to lose! For the same reason and also because I have some stronger attachments to the All-Stars! Do you think Team WNBA has a chance?
Natalie: I don’t know if they have a chance but I’d bet all my money on the fact that this will be the toughest competition that the Olympic team faces this year…no shade to all the other teams but it is what it is.
Alright, here’s my question: imagine that you’re Dawn Staley [Head Coach of Team USA], who’s your starting five?
Heather: Hang on let me bask in the glory of imagining that I’m Dawn Staley for a second. Okay so obviously of course, A’ja Wilson and not just because I coached her and she wore my 1996 Olympics jersey to her pre-game the other day. (Wow I really slid into role-playing Dawn Staley with ease.)
Heather: Seriously, though: A’ja’s the best player in the league again this year, in my opinion; she lifts up everyone around her; and she makes anyone who tries to guard her pay with foul trouble on the regular. She’s not the most senior player on Team USA but she’s the all-around most talented, a natural leader, and she’s just so fun.
Natalie: The reigning M’VP. Good start.
Heather: These next four are going to get our readers so mad at me but it’s Tina Charles, Chelsea Gray, Jewel Loyd, Ariel Atkins.
Heather: I know. I would love to hear your less controversial choices.
Natalie: See, you went with a three guard line-up. I’m going with the bigs: I’d probably slide A’ja to the 3 and have Tina at the 4 and Sylvia Fowles at the 5, with Sue Bird and Loyd in the backcourt.
Heather: That’s a really solid plan! I was combining speed and transition with the ability to just start knocking out the other team’s bigs like pawns on a chessboard.
Natalie: I think Tina’s playing the best basketball of anyone in the league right now, so I like her anchoring that starting line-up.
— WNBA (@WNBA) June 30, 2021
Heather: She is unstoppable, and a joy to watch! So say you’re the Bigs Wonder Twins Duo of Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie. Who’s YOUR starting line-up?
Natalie: Oh God, I am not going to imagine myself as Lisa Leslie.
Natalie: This is harder, I think.
Heather: It is harder, I agree, especially on the outside.
Natalie: I like Vandersloot at point, Arike at the 2, Betnijah Laney at the 3, Candace Parker at the 4 and Jonquel Jones at the 5.
Heather: Whew, see, and when you roll out that line-up I want Team WNBA to win even more. Sloot and Parker have had instant chemistry, so that’s an awesome choice. Arike is my heart-fave, even though she’s tricky in a game like this because, as Vicki Johnson is learning the hard way, she’s so streaky you gotta let her get the bad shots out of her system to get her racking up points like a pinball machine. I’ve watched Laney play more than anyone else this year because the Liberty are my (transplant) home team, and she is a consistent powerhouse. And Jones is just proving over and over this year that she is a force to be reckoned with. I love this line-up. And as a lifetime Lady Vols fan, I love a Candace Parker with something to prove.
So just in terms of the fun factor, what are you hoping to see? What players do you specifically want to see go off? What kind of moments do you want to see GIF’ed all over Twitter?
Natalie: I want to see Arike go off for like 40 points or something. There’s legitimately no player in the league that’s more fun to watch than her.
Heather: I *ABSOLUTELY* agree.
Natalie: I’m also partial to Satou Sabally because of our shared German roots and because she has such a great story…I just want her to have a great game. Did you imagine that she’d be the first member of that groundbreaking Oregon team to get an All-Star berth?
Heather: I don’t think anyone expected that, but I am absolutely delighted with it. Sabally has all the makings of a league MVP in my opinion. She can score in so many ways, she’s so tough on the boards, she’s got great floor vision, she’s an awesome teammate, and she does all those intangible things that coaches love but that never show up on the stat sheets. She’s got hustle for days, her help defense is so intuitive it’s like she’s got eyes in the back of her head, and she’s just as comfortable rushing at a three-point shooter as she is banging around in the paint. The Wings have been a completely different team since she got back from overseas. And she’s SO young. She left Oregon early to make money to help her family. She’s a star to me. I have legitimate cartoon heart eyes for her.
Natalie: I agree. As we wrap up: what have been your highlights of the WNBA season thus far?
Heather: Oh great question! Arike has been one of the brightest light of the season for me. Just watching her grow as a player and gain maturity without losing the joy and spark that make her so special. Watching her join those elite names with her double-digit scoring streak. And watching The Wings grow too, under VJ’s leadership. On any given night, they could beat any team in this league (besides maybe the Aces).
Betnijah Laney becoming The Liberty’s star player after her most improved season in Atlanta last year. She came into a situation where everyone just expected her to be a supporting player and she has carried that team on her back with grace and tenacity, and is the only reason they’re in that clump of middling playoff teams right now. Layshia Clarendon not only getting a shot with the Lynx after getting cut, but changing the Lynx’s entire trajectory once they arrived. Candace Parker showing how much she’s still got it by doing the same in Chicago, just turning the entire team around when she could play again.
And I have loved this WNBA Fit culture that has sprung up all over Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram. I love seeing these players become household names, for what they’re doing on the court and for what rad as heck, beautiful/handsome, stylish, aspirational people they are off the court. And I truly do love just how gay everyone is.
How about you?
Natalie: I love how unexpected this season has been: I mean, the Indiana Fever were 1-16 and now have won three straight games. I don’t think that anyone expected Tina Charles to come back from injury and dominate like she has or, as you noted, for Betnijah Laney to come into New York and be the centerpiece of that squad. Of the 2021 draft class, I didn’t expect Michaela Onyenwere to be the lead candidate for Rookie of the Year nor did I expected Sylvia Fowles to be the lead contender for DPOY. Connecticut and Seattle are for the moment the best teams in the league but it really does feel like anyone could come up and steal a game…and maybe even a playoff series when we get there. I love how unpredictable this historic season has been.
Heather: Yes, yes, yes! So, final prediction, who’s gonna win the All-Star game?
Natalie: My heart wants the WNBA All-stars but my head says the Olympic team.
Heather: Same for me. Well! We’ll be back here after the game and beyond for the Big Gay Olympics, assuming the IOC doesn’t come to its sense and cancel!
Natalie: Absolutely! I can’t wait.
What do you think: who’s your starting five for Team USA and Team WNBA? Tune in tonight at 7PM ET on ESPN/ESPN App for the most consequential WNBA All-Star Game of all Time.