Oh man, can’t we all salute these women?
Sometimes it’s very embarrassing to be a male.
The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is in the midst of an extraordinary run that should be celebrated in song and story, with no qualifiers whatsoever. Yet we have been sidetracked into a male-generated debate, the purpose of which is to diminish the accomplishment.
OK, do you want to hear it? The Connecticut women, winners of 89 straight games, could not have defeated the UCLA men of 1971-74, winners of 88 in a row. Maya Moore is not better than Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes. Stefanie Dolson is not better than Bill Walton. Not only that, but there are no women who are going to become hard-throwing major league pitchers, playmaking NFL linebackers, athletic NBA small forwards, or puck-carrying NHL defensemen in the near future, either.
That’s not the point.
The women’s basketball game is not the men’s game, and for that some of us might say, “Thank God.’’ It’s entirely accurate to say that it isn’t played, as we like to say, “above the rim,’’ and perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Dunking is overrated. Always was, always will be. True, clev er dunkers occasionally can score baskets that would not otherwise have been scored, but in the end 2 points is 2 points. The general reverence for dunking eludes me. Why, for example, should Dwight Howard even be entered in a dunk contest? He’s a superb, 7-foot-tall athlete. He’d damn well better be able to dunk. Nate Robinson, well, that’s another matter.
The women’s game isn’t as fast or powerful or as airborne as the men’s game. It’s closer in spirit and execution to the men’s game of the ’40s and ’50s. It’s not about alley-oops and such. It’s just pure basketball. What a concept.
The point is that each level of basketball should be appreciated on its own merits. When I go to a high school game, I calibrate my sensibility to high school. If I go to Division 3, then it’s set at Division 3. If I go to Division 2, then it’s set at Division 2. If I go to Division 1, then I set it at Division 1. If I go to an NBA game, then it’s set at NBA.
And if I go to a women’s game, then it’s set at a women’s game. In each case, I know what the physical possibilities are, and I adjust. I can enjoy each of them on their own merits. Within each context, there are great players, teams, and games. Fifty years after the fact, I still rhapsodize about the thrill of watching a 6-1 kid from Hillside (N.J.) High School named Bill Schutsky play the pivot position as it was meant to be played. I later saw him at West Point and he was still doing it. Even if he weren’t going into the Army, he was never going to play in the NBA. But only Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis ever have matched the pure pivot artistry I saw that long ago night in New Jersey.
Similarly, I saw a great basketball player two nights ago. Her name is Maya Moore, and she won’t be playing in the NBA. But I’d go watch her play her dunkless game any ol’ time, because she is a pure basketball player. She can shoot, pass, rebound, defend, and, finally, lead. It was an under-the-microscope performance before what will be the best audience for women’s basketball until the NCAA championship game several months hence, and she personally made sure UConn would get that record. The final scoring total was a career-high 41, but that didn’t matter. Twenty-one, 31, 41 . . . she put on a show. She’s not Kemba Walker physically, but she’s as good a basketball player, and I bet the standout UConn point guard would love to play with her.
Critics say the UCLA streak had to be better, well, just because. They assume the competition was better. The fact that UConn has beaten 87 of those 89 by double figures has to mean the competition is inferior. Fine, but when UCLA was in the midst of winning 10 championships in 11 seasons I don’t recall there being any such concerns. But where was its competition? How come everyone else wasn’t, ahem, manning up?
Connecticut can only play what’s out there, and the fact is that during this streak it has ducked no one and has beaten 30 ranked teams — that’s a shade under one out of three! — by an average of 25 points a game. A hallmark of Geno Auriemma’s tenure has been his willingness to subject his players to the toughest conditions possible. He gets his share of the great players and more than his share of the good ones. Is he supposed to under-recruit just to guarantee there will be stronger foes? It doesn’t work that way.
Yes, I will concede that I’m disappointed that in women’s basketball the gap between the great and the good, and more importantly, the great and the not very good is as large as it is. There should be more strong teams in women’s basketball than there are. At the same time, I know how far this sport has come since the days of those UCLA teams. Those Walton-Wilkes UCLA teams could beat anyone out there today; I’m sure of that. But an All-Star team culled from the top 10 women’s teams of 1974 would not come within 10 points of this UConn team; I’m equally sure of that.
What UCLA did in its world, in its time, was great. What UConn is doing in its world, in its time, is great. I don’t know why that is so hard for all males to accept.