A League of Their Own 

The WNBA pays St. Louis a brief, tantalizing visit

Women's professional basketball is coming to town, though not to stay. Stars of the WNBA, many of them sporting gold medals that they picked up in Sydney, will compete on Oct. 25 at the Savvis Center as part of a four-city exhibition tour, but fans of women's basketball who follow the WNBA by way of its national broadcasts on NBC, ESPN and Lifetime should not get their hopes up that St. Louis is being scouted to host an expansion franchise. We would have to acquire an NBA team first. "Each of our teams is owned by an NBA team," explains league president Val Ackerman, "and uses an NBA team's front office for its operations. They share a lot of the same staff and facilities. We are able to benefit from a lot of relationships that way. It's been an effective model."

Despite the NBA connection, when it comes to playing basketball, these women are, in every sense, in a league all their own. Much of the league's star power will be suited up at the Savvis Center. This year's MVP, Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets (the first WNBA player to be commemorated with a shoe, the Air Swoopes), will be in the West squad's front court, gliding down the lane like a sleek, dark horse. She will have to get past the league's premier defensive stopper, Washington Mystics guard Nikki McCray. Any temptation the East might feel to double-team the mercurial Swoopes will be tempered by the presence on the West squad of Lisa Leslie. The 6-foot-5 center for the Los Angeles Sparks, Leslie led the women's Olympic team in scoring in both Sydney and Atlanta. That's her in the Nike commercial, by the way, the smoldering North African-style beauty in an evening gown, slow-dancing in squeaky red high tops.

For all its individual star power, the WNBA is also marked by the intense teamwork on display in the Olympics. In the final game against Australia, the U.S.'s individual statistics were about as even as they could be, reflecting a team dynamic of selflessness and cooperation. The same spirit will be on display at the Savvis Center. Many of the athletes will arrive fresh from competing together in Sydney, and the loose atmosphere of an exhibition game will encourage them to take chances, risk passes and share the sugar at the basket.

If you nab a ticket, you will join the 2.5 million people who, according to Ackerman, watched an WNBA game live this year, the highest number in the four years of the league's existence. Hang around afterward, and you will most likely meet some of the most accessible and gracious professional athletes who have ever knotted a lace on a sneaker. But fall in love with this league at your own risk, because you are doomed to a mere long-distance relationship, pursued through the lonely media of television and the Internet (www.wnba.com). Your girlfriends won't be allowed to come here to stay -- not so long as they are required to have an NBA chaperone.

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