Can a Woman Play in the NBA?
Last week, David Stern told an interviewer that he thought a woman would play in the NBA in the next 10 years. If anyone would know, it would be Stern. He is the commissioner of the NBA, and the league he runs also owns the WNBA. So let us give this thought some consideration. First the question needs to be broken down into two parts: Can a woman play in the NBA, and can a woman compete at the most elite levels of the NBA? To get at these two questions, I want to start with an analogy to the integration of baseball in the 1940’s.
Two types of black baseball players came into the major leagues in the late 1940’s, and those same two types have existed across races ever since. Some players are great, i.e. Jackie Robinson, and others are mediocre, i.e. Hank Thompson. Both players were important integrators, but they were not equally important ballplayers. Those who kept the game segregated, like Judge Landis, were concerned that no black players could enter the game at all. Why was it so important to make sure a backup catcher that played 20 games a year was white? Because any crack at all in the edifice of the lily-white major leagues would open up the possibility of Josh Gibson coming in and winning an MVP or Satchel Paige dominating white hitters. The wall of segregation had to remain whole, or it would collapse. The same analogy fits the all-male NBA. To explain how, let us start with an example.
Steve Novak is the 12th man on the roster of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers have played 20 games this season, and Novak has only participated in 15. He averages 6.0 minutes per game, averaging 1.7 points per game. Those numbers are in line with his first two seasons in the NBA, though down from last year. Novak essentially is a designated three-point shooter. He comes in late in quarters to take last second three-point shots. He plays no defense, does not pass, does not rebound, and rarely even dribbles. Instead, Novak catches the ball just outside the three-point line and attempts to throw it accurately at the rim. Other players like him exist on almost all NBA rosters. Why must Novak be male? Surely a whole host of women playing in the WNBA could just as accurately take the occasional three pointer without making any other contribution to the team. NBA rosters are not full of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant. They instead pair a few superstars with a host of roleplayers. It is tough to imagine an argument grounded in anything other than pure sexism that can explain why all roleplayers must be male.
The second question is tougher. Can a woman compete at an elite level? For starters, remember that this question excludes the vast majority of male NBA players as well. Players like James and Bryant are better than anyone else, male or female. Saying a woman would not be quite as good as Lebron James is not an attack, just as saying Jackie Robinson was not as good as Ted Williams is no mark against Robinson. But can a woman compete at least at the tier slightly below the top players, with the occasional woman being the best player in the game from time to time? Here is where Stern’s 10 years begins to matter. Diana Taurasi is the reigning WNBA MVP. She is arguably the best female player in the world right now. I don’t think she could make a successful transition, and the reason has to do with conditioning. I don’t mean conditioning as in her ability not to wear out during a game; I mean the conditioning placed on her by the culture in which she has grown up. Taurasi is now 27 years old, very close to the peak of her athletic talents. She has been trained, however, to play with a smaller basketball against only female competition for her entire life. This would make it hard for her to transition to the NBA. Changing basketball size would surely effect her shot mechanics and her dribble. By the time she adjusted her frame of mind away from 20 previous years of playing, her prime would likely be past. (I speak here as someone who never played competitive basketball past 7th Grade. It is possible I am overestimating how difficult these changes might be. If that is the case, then Taurasi could be a top player in a matter of months.) If I am correct about Taurasi, the same point probably applies to nearly everyone in the WNBA, eliminating the best players in the world from consideration. So why does 10 years matter?
To bring women to the NBA, I think that some 15-year-old girl needs to decide today she wants to be the first woman in the NBA. She has to catch some breaks. She needs to attend a high school that lets her play on the boys’ basketball team, because most schools devote more money, and thus get better facilities, coaches, etc., for their boys’ team. From there, this talented young woman should look for a Division I college that will allow her to play on their men’s team. She would likely be scorned by the top programs, but maybe a lower tier school would be willing to take a chance. Next, she would have to find the right GM. Remember that Jackie Robinson’s immense talent would have been ignored without Branch Rickey. It would have been stifled if Landis was still commissioner. Stern is not Landis and is willing to be Happy Chandler, but who will be Rickey? As the above linked article notes, at least Kiki Vandeweghe of the Nets and Donnie Walsh of the Knicks would consider the possibility. Sadly, in this scenario Diana Taurasi is likely to become Josh Gibson. Gibson was possibly the greatest player the Negro Leagues ever produced. He was too old to be a real prospect by the time Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers. He had a heart attack and died before Robinson played his first game. Some astounding talents could be left behind because they did not catch the breaks.
Can a woman play in the NBA? I think the answer is yes. A host of women could play right now if NBA teams would look at women as possible roleplayers. Some of those women would almost certainly blossom into stars if they were ever given the chance. I think it more likely, though, that some woman will have to come in Jackie Robinson-style and blow open the door by showcasing her superior talent on the world’s largest basketball stage. Will this happen soon? I don’t know. It is tough to be as optimistic as Stern.