Forty-four years after Billie Jean King slammed Bobby Riggs in the gimmicky tennis match dramatized by the movie Battle of the Sexes, the battle endures. In tennis, at least, women play for the same prize money as men in major tournaments, but men overwhelmingly dominate the attention and the revenue in most professional sports.
Did anybody notice that the WNBA Finals came down to a Game 5 thriller last week — the Minnesota Lynx staving off a frantic last-minute rally by the L.A. Sparks — while the Dodgers were heading for the baseball playoffs and the football season was in full swing?
There is a women’s basketball team that does command substantial respect every four years. It is Team USA, which has won gold medals at six consecutive Olympic Games dating back to 1996. The national team’s preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Games began with a three-day training camp two weeks ago at Westmont College and UCSB.
Point guard Sue Bird, one of two basketball players with a shot at an unprecedented five gold medals, was an inspiration to the younger hopefuls with her court smarts and her all-out hustle. (Diana Taurasi, the other four-time gold medalist, did not attend the camp.) Bird looked as fresh as she did 20 years ago, when she was MVP of Santa Barbara’s 1997 Tournament of Champions, leading New York’s Christ the King High to the title.
“A bunch of Queens kids coming out here to play in the sun,” Bird said. “I remember that.”
The nation’s top prep player, Bird went to Connecticut, where she led the Huskies to two NCAA championships. She was the number one pick in the WNBA draft and has spent 15 seasons with the Seattle Storm — winning two more titles — as well as playing professionally overseas. Bird turns 37 in a few days, but with special attention to nutrition and fitness, she’s optimistic that she’ll be running the floor in Tokyo.
Bird knows lots of guys jeer at women’s hoops, if they aren’t ignoring it. Would she want to show what she’s got against a male player, say in a half-court, one-on-one basketball version of the Battle of the Sexes? “I’m not a huge fan of the idea,” Bird said. “Basketball is a contact sport. It presents different challenges [from tennis]. To me, the issue is not whether I can beat Kyrie Irving one-on-one. I can’t. But when it comes to knowing the game, playing the game, making shots, making the right pass, Kyrie Irving and I are equals. That’s where things get kind of lost in translation. Regardless of gender, a good basketball player is a good basketball player. A lot of men — not NBA men, not guys that play — need to see that.”
Anybody who watched Team USA go through passing drills and scrimmages at warp speed could appreciate that. “I just want to win,” new head coach Dawn Staley said after the first practice. “We’ve had some great coaches, and I just want to follow suit.” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, the USA coach in Rio de Janeiro, observed the practice as a consultant. Shortly after Staley was named to succeed him last year, she led South Carolina to the NCAA championship.
There were plenty of winners in Westmont’s Murchison Gym. Bird’s record with the national team is 128-5. Seven other past and present UConn players were there, including Breanna Stewart, who picked up her fourth Final Four MVP award in 2016 and then played with the Olympic champions in Rio. Her college record: 151-5.
Bird said it is the epitome of teamwork when the American women get together on the court. “There are subtleties to being a member of this USA basketball team,” she said. “A lot of it is doing the little things. [If somebody asked,] who was the leading scorer in Rio? … Nobody would know. Who was the leading scorer in London, or Beijing or Athens? You might guess, but nobody knows for sure. But you remember who has that gold medal. That’s all that matters. It’s bringing your individual talents, because that’s why you’re here, but putting everything else aside and doing every little thing that’s needed to win.”
Every team in every sport, male and female, could learn from that selfless attitude.