Storm hails WNBA’s first 15 years

(L-R) In 1997, analyst Ann Meyers (back to camera), Sparks star Lisa Leslie, and play-by-play announcer Hannah Storm before the WNBA’s first game.

ESPN’s Hannah Storm called play-by-play for NBC during the first season of the WNBA during the summer of 1997, including the inaugural game on June 21.

The New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks tipped off in the first WNBA game at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles. Sparks guard Penny Toler scored the league’s first basket at 19:01. New York won 67-57.

ESPN2, along with ESPN3.com, will air the renewal of the WNBA’s first rivalry when the New York Liberty visit the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. Terry Gannon and Rebecca Lobo will have the call of the game, with Heather Cox reporting.

ESPN2 has a variety of production plans for the anniversary game including a halftime show with Cox and analysts Doris Burke and Lobo, in addition to Lisa Leslie.

Both Lobo and Leslie played in the inaugural game between Los Angeles and New York in 1997.

The telecast will also feature a visit with Val Ackerman, the first commissioner of the WNBA, live via satellite from New York; an assortment of special messages from various people connected with the WNBA and its history and flashback segments from some of the most memorable moments in league history.

FR: How many years did you call WNBA games for?
Storm: I was part of the NBC production for the first WNBA season.

FR: What was the most memorable part of the inaugural game?
Storm: I remember they sold a lot more tickets than they thought and the interest level was much higher than anyone anticipated, so they had to open extra sections of the Great Western Forum for the opener.

I had never called play-by-play before in my life. I worked with Marv Albert, the great NBA voice of all-time, to have him help me. I remember what a whirlwind summer that was — I just had my first baby a couple months previous and then embarked on this assignment with a brand new league. It was so much responsibility, but an amazing experience.

When the two teams tipped, I remember having this surreal feeling of this is really happening. There were so many people, it had a lot of star power, a lot of build-up and you really understood that it was a seminal event in women’s sports.

FR: Did you have a sense that the game was the start of something big for women and professional sports?
Storm: As I said it was definitely a seminal moment. I had covered a lot of Olympics up until that point, and was always very appreciative of women’s sports and aware of how critical they were. I covered them mostly on an Olympic level and not on a professional level, with the exception of golf and tennis — so it did have a feel that a women’s team sport was coming to the forefront.

It was the start of a professional women’s league that that had the backing and support of the NBA, which has been masterfully marketed and headed by David Stern. I had the same sense when covering the Olympics, the amateur level and even Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. It had that same kind feel — a big time stage. What felt so new and fresh was it was on a professional level and was being played in the Forum, where I had covered so many Laker games. And here are thousands of people coming to watch a women’s game, so it felt different, important and special

FR: Which player stood out the most going in that first game?
Storm: I remember that there was so much hype because it was at the Forum and it was in Lisa Leslie’s backyard. She was really the focus in the early going, despite so many other talented players in the league, because she was local and she had the tantalizing possibility of being able to dunk a basketball.

So part of the storyline going in was seeing a professional women’s basketball game and would there be a dunk in a women’s game. That was the big anticipation.

FR: Do you get to attend any WNBA games as a fan or bring your three daughters?
Storm: I have brought my daughters in the past to WNBA games, in particular the All-Star Game because it works with my schedule.

FR: Do you think the WNBA will continue to grow in popularity, and where will it be 15 years from now?
Storm: It is very difficult to say in the current sports climate. I think it will grow as long as there is a viable business plan, as we’ve have seen in the professional men’s leagues. It is not an easy business — men’s or women’s — in terms of being profitable on a sustainable basis. It is really challenging to keep a league of any kind afloat — to keep the owners, the fans and the players all happy at the same time — but it is really important.

It needs to be a commitment on the part of everybody — the owners who want to perpetuate women’s sports, the fans who are choosing to spend their money to come out and the players who want to have a viable career option in the U.S., so they don’t have to go overseas and can play at home in front of family and friends. I think the NBA has been there and been supportive. Like any professional league right now, they will have to continue to adjust with the times. Everybody is going to have to pull together to make sure that it works.

I think it is critical that it works. It would be a bad thing for women’s professional sports in this country if the league did not survive.

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