USA vs. WNBA: 2004 All-Star Game

Since this year’s WNBA season is interrupted by the Olympics, the traditional East/West All-Star game was replaced with one that featured the US National Olympic team against a team of WNBA All-Stars. But what do you get when a basketball game featuring the best of WNBA versus the very best of the United States takes place at Radio City Music Hall, complete with a Rockettes half-time show?

An event with a charming split personality.

Consider the venue. Displaced from Madison Square Garden, “the world’s most famous arena” by preparations for the Republican National convention, Radio City Music Hall, one of the world’s most glamorous theater spaces, hosted the event. Billed as “The Game at Radio City Music Hall,” fans arriving at for the game were greeted by the incongruous sight of a large, inflated WNBA ball perched atop the classic chrome lettered marquee.

Entering the Hall, fans encountered a beautiful art deco lobby subtly lit, full of vendors selling WNBA memorabilia, drinks and pretzels. At the end of a long sweep of plush theater seats, the court lay atop the stage with huge cut outs of WNBA balls framing a scoreboard serving as a backdrop. Fans struggled with the incongruity of cheering while at the theater, and even some of the players laughingly wondered if the scoreboard was real or just another oversized prop.

As for the game itself, would it be a fan-pleasing event full of razzle-dazzle and the occasional laugh or would the imminent Olympics shift the game into a more serious matter with a focus on the WNBA All-Star’s pride and National team’s preparation.

“It’s a double-edge sword — we want to win, but we also don’t want to make our own team look bad,” said Connecticut Sun McWilliams-Franklin. “We’re playing the dream team, so what else could the All-Stars want? That’s awesome for us.”

“You can sort of tell by the situation that the team we’re playing against is really going to play hard,” added Connecticut teammate Nykesha Sales. “That changes our mind-set a little bit. This is one of their practices to prepare them, so you know they’re going to take it very seriously.”

Van Chancellor, the first man to coach the US National team, reflected that in his pre-game comments. “This ain’t an All-Star Game where I’m going to have everybody feeling good, play everybody, worry who all these fans want me to play. I’m going to play like I’m preparing to win a gold medal on August 28.”

His counterpart, Detroit coach Bill Lambieer seemed to understand the dual role of his WNBA All-Star Team. “We’re up against a very talented ball club, obviously. I’m going to throw stuff at them defensively that they’ll probably see over in Athens. That’s the best way to beat a team like the U.S., to keep them confused. We’re going to give them a handful.”

While it was not the prettiest of games, the Senior National Team ground out a 74-58 victory over the WNBA All-Stars. A significant size advantage inside and terrific team defense helped the Olympic team dominate, but one can attribute the All-Stars’ miserable shooting to the use of the bigger and heavier international ball, a decision some didn’t know about until the day before the game.

“They got us on the big ball,” said New York’s Becky Hammon. “We go in and shoot for 20 minutes the day before the game and don’t have a shoot around today, you’re not going to shoot that ball well. I personally missed some lay-ups,” she added with a wry grin, “but I’ll attribute that to the break – taking an early vacation.”

While National team members Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever), Yolanda Griffith (Sacramento Monarchs) and Lisa Leslie (Los Angeles Sparks) each notched double-doubles, overall the team shot only 37.5 percent from the field while committing 28 turnovers, 18 in the second half.

“We’re a better basketball team than we were tonight,” said coach Chancellor. “Our starters are equal-opportunity people. There wasn’t a pass they didn’t want to turn over.”

“We have some work,” acknowledged Griffith, whose 11 points and 15 rebounds earned her MVP honors. “We over passed a little bit and we should have taken some open shots that we didn’t. Playing like we played tonight won’t win a gold medal. We don’t have to be perfect the first game, but we have to be perfect in order to get the gold medal.”

Like the 1996 team that helped launch the WNBA, this team understands there’s more than a gold medal at stake. “We have a chance to boost the WNBA, to boost the whole women’s game,” said Sue Bird, a guard on the Olympic team. “The Olympics is just a huge stage for us. We’ve got a chance [to] get a lot of attention because we win gold medals and, honestly, we’re just good.”

Which is something the WNBA plans to capitalize on. When the teams resume to play in September, the league will use Olympic highlights to market its games. “We’ll take advantage of what we think will be a great performance with a lot of emotion and so on,” WNBA President Val Ackerman said, acknowledging that several international players who play in the WNBA are also in the medal hunt. “I know our teams are very focused on what we’re calling “welcome back” games. They’re planning to make a big deal, particularly for those teams that have an Olympian.”

In the end, the Game at Radio City, seemed a fitting send off. “It’s pretty historic,” said former Olympian Nancy Lieberman. “Every little moment like this is another piece of history for us, building our legacy, our brand – who we are, what we stand for. To be able to play this game here, in a national setting was phenomenal.”

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