Twenty years ago, the soon-to-be first-ever WNBA draft pick ever wasn’t even sure she wanted to play professional basketball. Tina Thompson had just wrapped a stellar collegiate career at Southern California. The American Basketball League (ABL) and newly formed WNBA both wanted her, but she was considering law school. That’s right: The player who would eventually become the league’s all-time leading scorer almost traded in the WNBA for a JD.
This Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the WNBA draft, which will be held in a fancy new building in Manhattan for the first time. The presumptive top picks will be there with their families, along with jersey-wearing fans and ESPN television cameras. For many of the players, being drafted is the realization of a lifelong dream. Throughout its 20 years, the draft’s location has changed often, but the spirit has remained the same.
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Val Ackerman remembers stepping out from behind the curtain on April 28, 1997, the first time the draft was held. As the WNBA’s first president, Ackerman, who was with the league until February 2005 and is now the Big East conference commissioner, was previously part of eight NBA drafts. She’d been on stage, but out of view, as commissioner David Stern announced the picks.
Now it was her turn.
“I had it in my mind to do it the way David did,” Ackerman told Excelle Sports. “Clear, deep voice, not stumbling over names. There were some nerves about screwing something up.”
Standing at the podium of the league’s first draft in Secaucus, N.J., Ackerman nailed it: “With the first pick of the 1997 WNBA draft, the Houston Comets select Tina Thompson from the University of Southern California.”
Thompson smiled and briefly put her face in her hands, feigning surprise: She knew she was going to Houston. Her contract had been negotiated prior to her flying from California that morning. She walked on stage, shook the commissioner’s hand and held up a jersey. In other words, the WNBA followed the same sequence of events that every other league draft does.
With the first draft, Ackerman says she wanted the WNBA to reach the same level as the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB.
“Those drafts were high-end, professional, on TV,” she said. “They were experiences of a lifetime for those athletes … Our aspiration was to show we could do it the way the NBA could to dignify our league and our players.”
Some WNBA fans might struggle to conjure up images of Ackerman and Thompson, instead picturing Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie holding the signature orange and oatmeal basketballs as the league’s earliest representatives. But this iconic trio was not part of the inaugural draft. Instead, they were among the 16 players allotted to the league’s original eight teams three months earlier. That was followed by a draft of players who had played professionally overseas.
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) April 1, 2017
Subsequent changes to the draft also took place after the ABL folded in 1998 (after just two seasons) and when WNBA teams have been added or contracted over the years. Traditionally, the league has looked to the NBA’s tried-and-true methods of dealing with player dispersal, as far as when to assign players to terms versus holding a draft and figuring out the draft order. In 2003, the WNBA draft shifted from four rounds to three. Since 2011, though, as the league and its franchises have become more stabilized, the draft has remained consistent in its procedures.
Just as other professional sports leagues do, the WNBA canvasses teams pre-draft to get a sense of which college players they find most appealing. The top 10 to 15 players are then invited to attend and given a handful of guest tickets for friends and family.
From 1997 to 2005, the draft was held in Secaucus. For the next three years, it took place in the same city as the NCAA women’s Final Four: Boston, Cleveland and Tampa, Fla. For the last eight years, the location has bounced back to Jersey, taken place on the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn. and held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. This year, it comes to Samsung 837, a high-tech event space in New York City.
Prospects are flown in a day or two before the draft for an orientation, including meetings on what to expect on draft night and beyond. In the league’s early days, orientation also meant media training for players and what Ackerman calls “etiquette sessions”—teaching them how to act appropriately in room full of sponsors and which fork to use at a business dinner. As college basketball has grown in popularity, players come in more polished, especially for TV cameras.
Many elements of the draft have remain unchanged since its early days. The event still occurs less than two weeks after the end of the NCAA tournament, leading to a “frantic turnaround for players,” says Ackerman. But with the WNBA season tipping off in early May, there’s no way around that.
In past years, the tight turnaround has been more hectic for some players than others. Take, for example, Bria Hartley, who won the national championship with Connecticut on April 8, 2014. Six days later, while preparing for graduation, she was drafted No. 7 overall by Seattle. To add to her whirlwind experience, she was immediately traded to Washington (she now plays for New York).
“It was exciting because it was a day I looked forward to for a long time,” Hartley told Excelle. “To hear my name called was a dream come true.”
— Seattle Storm (@seattlestorm) April 6, 2017
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Similar to Hartley—and most players who aren’t chosen first overall—Carla McGhee had no idea where she’d be drafted in 1999. A member of the 1996 Olympic “Dream Team,” McGhee had sat out what would be the final season in the ABL in 1998 because she was pregnant. Her agent told her there was a chance that she could go in the first round to Houston or maybe later to New York. But she wasn’t even sure she wanted to play in the WNBA, which may have affected her draft stock.
McGhee awaited a phone call from her agent regarding her new team. It came during the fourth and final round: She’d been taken by Orlando.
Ackerman has fond memories of McGhee’s draft year, or 1999, when the University of Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw was chosen first despite a number of available veterans who entered the draft from the ABL. “I recall thinking there was something remarkable about that and what it said about the aspirations people had for her,” Ackerman said.
Yet the draft has always been remarkable, especially for those able to experience it in person. For example, Ackerman, at 5-foot-10, is hardly short, but she says she identified with how the NBA’s Stern must have felt all those years when she shook hands with 7-foot-2 Margo Dydek, the top pick out of Poland in the 1998 draft. “I remember craning my neck to look up to her,” Ackerman said.
For Ackerman, the 2004 draft also stands out, or when Diana Taurasi, the No. 1 pick that year, won an NCAA title, Olympic gold medal and WNBA Rookie of the Year in a span of just four months.
Over the years, the hoopla surrounding the draft has increased. Fans were permitted to attend several years ago. There are now mock drafts and TV analysts, in real time, grading picks and predicting who will be chosen next.
Sports league drafts are formulaic, however: In other words, the premise is simple enough that it could be done via conference call and announced through a press release. But in the 1980s, after the NFL and NBA televised their drafts, broadcast companies realized that drafts make for compelling television, as viewers are able to see first-hand, in a form of unscripted reality TV, how young people’s dreams can come true. And viewers also like drafts because they can project great things for their favorite players. These reasons combined are why drafts get higher ratings than many regular-season games.
On Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Kelsey Plum, Brionna Jones, Alaina Coates and 33 others will become the newest members of the WNBA. It was fair for Thompson, the first-ever draft pick, to question whether the league was worth her time. Tomorrow’s draftees, whose earliest basketball memories include WNBA games, have no such doubts.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn