- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

PASS THE MAALOX, Conn.

You usually need a strong stomach to watch a women's basketball game.

It helps to have character, too.

There are worse experiences in life than watching a women's basketball game. Having a root canal comes to mind.

Most women's teams don't play the game. They endure it. Most games are not won. Most games are lost.

Yet women's basketball wants to believe it has become a fan-friendly spectacle. The sport is kidding itself.

The talking heads and coaches sell the notion that theirs is a game steeped in fundamentals. Unlike the men, they say, the players pay attention to the tiny details. They know how to pass the ball and make good decisions. They know how to set solid screens and picks. They know how to box out and work the back-door cut.

They know how to do all the little things, it is said, because the women's game is played below the rim and lacks the eye-popping athleticism of the men's game.

This a great theory, but it is only a theory.

Most of the time, no one bothers to point out the nonsense, because, after all, it is only women's basketball and most schools are only concerned with complying with Title IX and providing a warm gym for the homeless people and relatives of the players who show up on game night.

There are a few exceptions, notably the programs at UConn and Tennessee. The coaches at these programs secure a good portion of the high school talent each year and play the game at an appealing level. These teams can make the skip pass. They can run the floor. They can run a halfcourt offense that doesn't damage Dr. James Naismith's good name.

Unfortunately, the teams at UConn and Tennessee can't play one another 27 times a season, although the idea is a good one, if selling the sport remains the biggest challenge.

"Exposure has a lot to do with that," Miami coach Ferne Labati says.

Exposure cuts the other way as well. It can be incriminating.

The talking heads on ESPN who are stuck with women's basketball are required to work their James Carville-like spin control at this time of the year.

You know you are watching an ugly game if the talking heads become obsessed with pointing out how tough the defense is. Tough defense is code for bad basketball. The talking heads have a game to sell, and they don't mean to insult your intelligence level. It's not personal. It's women's basketball, and the game is terribly young.

The game is at least a generation away from having a talent pool that is deep enough to raise the overall quality of play and command the attention of the masses.

"You see little girls in the stands now and they are not thinking about Shaq," Seton Hall coach Phyllis Mangina says. "They are thinking about Cynthia Cooper, Rebecca Lobo and those people. The game is getting better."

You'll have to take her word for it. You couldn't tell by the UConn-St. John's game at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs yesterday. This one was over soon after the opening tip. UConn coach Geno Auriemma did not fall asleep on the bench. Give him that. He is used to these dull, lifeless exercises that only underline the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

The Huskies were in a position to select the final score. They decided on 85-41. That is good for them, not so good for the game. A hint of competition is essential to fanning interest level. A little suspense wouldn't hurt, either.

But this is where the women's game is now. It is waiting for the little girls in the stands to blossom into players one day.

Until then, you have too many games like 85-41 and too many college teams that barely seem to know what a basketball is.

You have a game that tells you the earth is flat and the sun rises from the west. You have a game that requires you to avert your eyes.

It hardly matters that the game is played below the rim. That's not the point. That's beside the point.

Good basketball is the point, and unfortunately, there's an absence of it in the women's game.

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