From the Comets' dynasty to GOATs in the making, the WNBA is here to stay

The WNBA is counting it.

All the draft picks, the players, the championships, the dynasties. The lasting impact on generations of children. The humble beginnings out of the 1996 Olympics at home in Atlanta. To the 2020 Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for this summer, a record seventh straight gold on the line.

Fitting how it all started then, and it brought us here.

As the WNBA tips off its 25th season, the longest of any professional women’s league in the U.S., we celebrate what it has been, what it is and what it will be.

These rookies taking the court this season, and even the Sabrina Ionescus and A’ja Wilsons, they have never known a world without professional basketball here at home. They grew up dreaming of being a pro and knew they could.

Cynthia Cooper raises her arms with the championship trophy in one hand as she celebrates the Comets' fourth straight title.
Cynthia Cooper and the Houston Comets won the WNBA's first four championships from 1997 to 2000, marking the league's first dynasty. (Ronald Martinez/Allsport) (Ronald Martinez via Getty Images)

It wasn’t always that way. The older generation fought and played for it. Sue Bird was entering her senior year of high school when the WNBA officially tipped on June 21, 1997. Cynthia Cooper was a decade into an overseas career.

But when she suited up professionally in the U.S., she helped set the league’s tone. Cooper is the only player to win four WNBA Finals MVP awards. She set out with All-Stars Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson to make the Houston Comets the first dynasty. The Detroit Shock became the first expansion team to win a title, bringing home three in six years in the late 2000s.

From there, Lisa Leslie won all three MVP awards — Regular season, All-Star, Finals. It was the Los Angeles Sparks’ turn to take control.

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi began their decades-long careers winning titles in the 2000s. The Minnesota Lynx took their time atop the dynasty throne. They won four titles in seven years from 2011-17.

In 1999, the first collective bargaining agreement came. Two decades later, its new iteration has opened up more money, accommodations and opportunity. It’s a model to follow for women’s sports around the world.

Lisa Leslie smiles and claps her hands in celebration.
Lisa Leslie was the first to dunk in the WNBA, but she also achieved many career milestones, including finishin her career with 6,263 points, among the league's top 10. (AP Photo/Branimir Kvartuc) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Then, there are the countless “firsts” and records.

First WNBA dunk, Lisa Leslie.

First of nine triple-doubles, ever: Sheryl Swoopes.

First and only in the playoffs: Swoopes, again.

First 40-15-5 game, Candace Parker.

Most points, Liz Cambage (53 points).

Most average assists per game: Courtney Vandersloot (10).

And Erica Wheeler, the first undrafted player to earn All-Star MVP.

Their impact is not on the court alone. The world saw what a collective group of women, mostly Black women, can accomplish when they helped flip the U.S. Senate. They stepped into politics and changed the narrative. They fought for what they believed to be right. And they won.

But their activism was clear long before that. Before Maya Moore cleared a path by opting out for social justice pursuits. Before her Lynx team wore "Change Starts with Us" shirts in 2016.

For these women, it’s always been political. They’ve always juggled both.

Season after season, these athletes show out. And 25 years in, they’ve shown they’re here to stay, to “stick to sports” between the buzzers and to make change outside of it.

The Washington Mystics' Natasha Cloud is joined by the Washington Wizards' John Wall and Bradley Beal for a Black Lives Matter march down the streets of D.C. to the MLK Memorial. They are holding a black sign that says
The Washington Mystics' Natasha Cloud is joined by the Washington Wizards' John Wall and Bradley Beal for a Black Lives Matter march down the streets of D.C. to the MLK Memorial on June 19, 2020. (mpi34/MediaPunch/IPX) (mpi34/MediaPunch/MediaPunch/IPx)

Now, what comes next?

The next generation has already given hints. Breanna Stewart has won two WNBA championships, two Finals MVPs and one WNBA MVP award within four seasons. The making of a GOAT is right in front of us. A’ja Wilson won her MVP in season 3. She led the Las Vegas Aces their first WNBA Finals appearance last season.

Arike Ogunbowale is one of the best scorers in the game. Sabrina Ionescu, the collegiate triple-double queen, could become the first to notch two in the W.

There’s much-needed expansion on the table as the league continues its success. Future stars weren’t born yet when the Comets won their titles, but they’ll push the game forward. Every draft class is proof the W is thriving.

Count all 25 years. You can denote it as part of a bigger picture now. Quarter-century. It means the WNBA is here to stay. And to grow for the next quarter-century.

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