Book Review: Game On!: How Women’s Basketball Took Seattle by Storm

“Every time I take that route to the training facility for practice or to the KeyArena for Sonics or Storm basketball games,” writes Jayda Evans in the introduction to her book Game On: How Women’s Basketball Took Seattle by Storm, “I have this feeling that I need to make sure it’s still there. That’s the problem with women’s sports. At any moment, for whatever reason, it can disappear.” With the news this July that an Oklahoma City consortium had purchased the Seattle franchises, those sentiments took on a particular poignancy. So it was with honest interest that I took up Evans’ tale of the rise of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm from a bottom-dwelling expansion team to 2004 WNBA Champions. Full of inside information, history and stories, it was challenging not to get frustrated with the book’s overall focus and structure. Organized a bit like a post-game conversation between people with lots of interesting information, the narrative jumps back and forth and sideways across subjects, lessening the overall cohesiveness and emotional impact of the story. That being said, if you pay attention, you’ll walk away better informed and with some women’s basketball gems. Evans takes time to lay out the long, and evolving, history of Seattle and its relationship to women’s sports in general, and women’s basketball in particular. It was wonderful, for example, to get some background on Joyce Walker, one of so many women who paved the way for those who followed, and yet seem to be lost to history. Better known to moviegoers as the coach of the “other” team in the documentary Heart of the Game, Walker, was a playground legend in the Seattle area and went on to become a star at Louisiana State in the late 70’s. She went abroad to play professionally (like so many did – and still do), battled through substance abuse, and now has returned to be a successful and inspiring coach at her alma mater, Garfield High. The founding and brief (1996-98) history of the American Basketball League is contrasted with that of the WNBA. Evans highlights the emotional scars caused by the loss of the ABL’s Seattle Reign, neatly laying the groundwork for the challenges the Storm’s first year coach and general manager Lin Dunn battled to “sell” the team to gun-shy Washington residents. It’s a great back-story, especially for Storm loyalists, and underscores the leap-of-faith demanded of fans, players and staff needed to create and sustain a women’s professional league. But there are times when Evans can’t seem to decide if she’s tracing the growth of the Seattle Storm, the WNBA as a whole or, even, women’s sports in general. For instance, a section on the WNBA’s first president Val Ackerman is interesting, but seems out of place. It’s as if Evans felt that, the interview done, it had to be included. Equally awkward is the chapter “The L-word.” Drawing heavily from Pat Griffin’s seminal book on homophobia in sports, Strong Women, Deep Closets, Evans doesn’t really cover any new ground on the subject. Granted, she documents the role of lesbian fans and the fact that three players (and a general manager) are out, but when addressing the conflicting signals on the WNBA’s alleged homophobia, she falls into personal assumptions and comparisons with other (male) pro-leagues. It’s still true that it’s nig on impossible to discuss women’s sports without addressing the issue of homophobia, and clearly (and rightly) she feels passionately about the subject, but in the end by lifting her focus nationally as opposed to locally, it takes away from what was supposed to be the heart of her book: Seattle and the Storm. More on point are a chapter devoted to the supremely talented – and still untamed – Australian-born center Lauren Jackson and another to the mercurial guard Betty Lennox. Current head coach Anne Donovan is given her fair due, as is the impact of (then) owner Howard Shultz of Starbucks fame. Storm fans what want to relive their championship season can in the almost game-by-game recap of the final chapter. Clearly Evans, who has covered the Storm for the Seattle Times since the team’s inception, is both a reporter and fan. As such, her book has a feeling of being rushed — of wanting to capture the exhilaration of a championship team and its passionate fan-base and share it with fellow-devotees (and if possible, the unconvinced). This wish to preserve and persevere is heightened, as Evans’ introduction pointed out, by the reality that even as the league celebrates its tenth year, it could all vanish. The ongoing struggle and uncertain future is echoed by Karen Bryant, Chief Financial Officer of the Storm, in the book’s final chapter:

There’s still a ways to go. The fact that the WNBA is this lone beacon out there in terms of women’s pro teams, that is not a good sign. We’re doing what we can. But it’s lonely. It’s great to see the continued advancement, whether it’s prize money or promotional opportunities, for women tennis and golf players. But it’s too bad there aren’t more opportunities for team sports. It makes the role, the position of the WNBA, so much more important. We need to continue to strive to be successful and grow so we can pave the way.

Game On is Evans’ effort to both chronicle and educate fans on the growth and power of women’s basketball. Fans of the game will be well served by taking notice.

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