YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Class of Titans

Led by Beard and Taurasi, talented group of juniors has WNBA officials excited about the league's future

March 19, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

Alana Beard and Diana Taurasi are, by most accounts, the top players in college women's basketball. More importantly, experts say, they personify the next step in the evolution of the women's game.

"I compare it to when Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird came into the NBA," said Kelly Krauskopf, chief operating officer of the WNBA's Indiana Fever. "That's a hard legacy, but it's the only one we know.

"When you talk of changing the face of our league, they are the players who can potentially do it."

Duke's Beard, who averages 21.8 points and was the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, and Connecticut's Taurasi, who averages 16.3 points and was the Big East Conference player of the year, are quick, strong, smart and skilled at ballhandling, passing and shooting.

Just as significant, they are charismatic personalities who helped generate unprecedented interest in women's basketball last month when they faced each other in a regular-season game.

Played at Duke before a standing room-only crowd and a national television audience on ESPN2, the game drew viewers from 1.226 million households, making it the most watched regular-season women's game on ESPN and ESPN2 in 20 years.

"It was a big story and it created interest in fans who may not have been interested to start with," ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said.

The Great Wait

The anticipated arrival of players who might propel the WNBA into new markets and more homes has league officials salivating.

There's just one problem: Beard and Taurasi -- and most of the college game's other top players -- are juniors, still more than a year away from joining the league, which is at a critical juncture in its development.

Underwritten by the NBA in its previous six seasons, the WNBA will operate with independently owned franchises for the first time. And those owners have yet to agree with the players on a labor contract.

In order to solidify its place on the national sports map, the WNBA needs to have the top college stars matriculate directly into its ranks. But many are lured to overseas leagues by lucrative contract offers.

The absence of big-money contracts -- many WNBA players make less than $50,000 a season -- is among the reasons neither Taurasi nor Beard say they are tempted to make themselves eligible for the WNBA draft before finishing their senior seasons.

"There is more emphasis on women getting their degrees, because you don't have the luxury of money in the pros," Taurasi said. "The money is not to a point where it can take care of you the next 25 years."

Added Beard: "Right now, with my degree from Duke, I can make more money [working] than by playing in the league."

Class of the Classes

The Class of 2004 is deep, and good players come from every corner of the nation.

Taurasi attended high school in Chino but now, like Beard, she plays in the East. In the West, Stanford's Nicole Powell, at 6 feet 2, can play any of the five positions and last year was the first player -- male or female -- to lead the Pacific 10 Conference in rebounding and assists.

"Versatility is where we stand apart," Taurasi said. "Me, Alana and Nicole are a little out of mold. We're all big, can play, and we have fun."

Between are such gems as Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde, a 6-4 post player who is the Big 12 Conference player of the year; Penn State's Kelly Mazzante, a 6-0 guard who reached 2,000 points faster than any other Big Ten woman player (88 games); Purdue's Shereka Wright, a 5-10 forward who averaged 19.4 points and 6.2 rebounds despite playing part of the season with a broken bone in her left hand; and Texas' Stacy Stephens, a 6-1 forward who is among the strongest inside players in the nation.

And then there are such lesser-known talents as Harvard's Hana Peljto, a 6-2 forward who was the Ivy League's top scorer; Houston's Chandi Jones, a 5-10 guard who averaged 27.5 points; and Cincinnati's Valerie King, who has led the Bearcats in scoring the last three seasons.

"It's an incredible crop of players who can immediately start in the [WNBA]," said Johnny Buss, president of the Sparks.

Said Texas Coach Jody Conradt: "We've always had standout players, but not in the numbers we have now. There is so much versatility emerging; you can't just pigeonhole people as a post player or a perimeter player. They can do everything on the court, and that is changing our game."

Closing the Gender Gap

Taurasi and Beard both lived up to billing in their January showdown, won by Connecticut, 77-65.

Despite a sore left ankle, Taurasi swished a couple of three-point baskets and, on a fastbreak, zipped -- from half court -- a no-look chest pass to Jessica Moore for an easy layup.

Los Angeles Times Articles