The WNBA creates history with every move it makes.
This year, in the 25th season, they introduced a new in-season competition, grew viewership, teased expansion and successfully brought fans back into arenas.
Looking to the future, it’s never forgotten that it’s all possible thanks to the women who took the first steps a quarter century prior, paving the pathway for the current generation to step onto the court easily.
The WNBA honoured 25 of the all-time greats from the league, including 10 current players and 15 retirees, but the impact of the 25 go beyond just building the foundation, and many players who have achieved their professional basketball dreams were impacted most by the pioneers of the WNBA.
DiJonai Carrington, a rookie on the Connecticut Sun, is experiencing one of the best current runs in the league this season with her red-hot team. The team is close to securing a double-bye in the playoffs, and Carrington is playing with some of the league’s best in Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner.
But for Carrington, her love of the game started at home in California, where the Los Angeles Sparks were founded as one of the inaugural teams in the 1997 season, allowing players like Lisa Leslie to etch their name into history.
“It’s really special, there’s always pioneers of everything and to be a part of this season and just this league is special,” said Carrington prior to the Sun game against the Los Angeles Sparks.
“I remember growing up in California, being here in L.A. now, I remember coming to Sparks games every year, so seeing those women on the list and now being able to play here on this court that I’ve always grown up coming to watch games at, it’s super special and I’m blessed to be a part of this.”
The reach of women in the WNBA reaches far past just playing as many former players are still involved in the league at a management level to shape current players. Tamika Catchings is the general manager of the Indiana Fever after playing her entire 14-year career for the team, and Renee Montgomery is in a similar position with the Atlanta Dream moving from a player to an ownership role.
For others, the reach meant how they impacted players from their hometowns to be able to make it to the WNBA as well. For Portugal, Ticha Penicheiro made history as the first Portuguese-born player in the WNBA who became a role model to younger athletes in her home country.
Though Australia has their domestic league, the WNBL, players like Lauren Jackson entered the league in 2001 to prove that any Aussie could make it overseas with the best of the best, and to this day still sits in the top 10 of all-time points scorers.
“For me, the players I played with and the Australian stuff you watched as a kid, they sort of paved the way because they set the standard, I think that’s a big part, they set a standard of this is where the league is and this is where I want it to go,” said New York Liberty forward Bec Allen.
“I think that’s a big thing that us now coming through the league and all that stuff is that we need to keep to that sort of level and grow the game, I think that’s something I really take from the players before us.”
Trail blazers like Becky Hammon inspire on and off the court – the former WNBA All-Star not only paved the way for undrafted players to continue to work for a spot in the league, but also has allowed women to find a seat at the table in the NBA.
Hammon, an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs, made history as the first female acting head coach in NBA history in December of 2020. Now, current WNBA players like Kristi Toliver of the Los Angeles Sparks are finding their way to NBA sidelines, with Toliver joining the Dallas Mavericks staff in the off-season after already appearing on the bench for the Washington Wizards.
Many of the WNBA greats are luckily still present in the league – 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson recalls her first time suiting up against her childhood idol Elena Delle Donne, and 2020 first-overall pick Charli Collier looks up to Candace Parker even when she’s on the other side of the court.
Yet it’s names like Sheryl Swoopes, Swin Cash, Tina Thompson, and Cappie Pondexter that stand out, those who will be forever GOAT-ed in WNBA starting fives, some of the best to ever play and make the statement that women’s basketball was going nowhere.
The impact that former players had on the league that translates to the growth and success now isn’t just from their stat lines, but their faith in something unknown, their continuous efforts to give back to the league. They have faith that the work put in by each subsequent class of talents will speak for themselves and is why growth is imminent in the WNBA for another 25 years to come.