- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lisa Leslie remembers her surprise at the big arenas and luxurious locker rooms. Penny Toler and Teresa Weatherspoon recall the excitement of finally getting to play before family and friends. For everyone involved in the WNBA’s first game in 1997, there was also plenty of nervousness to go around.

With the New York Liberty facing the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday night, the matchup falls on the anniversary of the game the teams played to begin the league’s inaugural season. Now in its 15th year, the WNBA has outlasted an early rival, endured a struggling economy and overcome naysayers perennially predicting its doom.

“It’s a good sound to hear _ 15 years _ because when we first started not too many believed it would remain,” said Weatherspoon, who teamed with Rebecca Lobo to lead the Liberty to a 67-57 win over Leslie, Toler and the Sparks in that first game. “Only we did as the athletes. And to hear 15 years is amazing.”

Leslie wasn’t expecting much when she was one of the first players _ along with Sheryl Swoopes and Lobo _ to sign with the new league.

“I had no idea we would have the opportunities to play in such first-class arenas,” said Leslie, a three-time MVP and nine-time All-Star who retired after the 2009 season. “I really thought it would be a summer league where we’d probably wear reversible jerseys and play in much smaller gyms.”

To her surprise, her Sparks played at The Forum, then the home of the Lakers. The Lakers moved to Staples Center two years later and the Sparks joined them there in 2001, winning titles in their first two seasons in the building.

“I really thought the WNBA would be nothing more than a summer league,” she said. “So I was totally not prepared for the first-class treatment, the opportunity to play on such a grand stage as The Forum, to share the same locker rooms as Magic (Johnson) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Coop (Michael Cooper) and those guys poured champagne on each other, and I saw that on television.”

For players like Toler and Weatherspoon, who had spent years in leagues overseas, there was a lot of excitement over the opportunity to play at home.

“Being able to finally play in front of family and friends in America,” Weatherspoon said. “I didn’t sleep very well the night before … really excited to get on that floor.”

All the players remember the fanfare surrounding the start of the league, the media coverage and support from fans as they arrived to The Forum the day of the game, and the celebrities in attendance.

“It was lights, camera, action,” Leslie said. “It really felt like Hollywood.”

Before the game, there was a ceremonial tipoff. Val Ackerman, then the league president, came out to center court and tossed the ball up for Leslie and the Liberty’s Kym Hampton. Photographers and video cameras there to record the moment.

“Kym Hampton and I were even being competitive about that jump, wanting to be the one to get the ball,” Leslie said before adding with a laugh, “but, of course, I got it.”

Hampton recalled it a little differently.

“I thought we were just posing for pictures going up,” she said “But I got the real tip and we won the game.”

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