WNBA deserves more props

Delle Donne, Bird playing hurt in must-win playoff games provided Willis Reed-like moments

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I played basketball for my high school and small college teams.

I avoided injuries until near the end of my freshman year at Richland College, whose men’s hoops program has won the NJCAA Division III championship three times. In a practice, I twisted my knee, hearing a loud pop that usually signified a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament. My game was never the same again.

In the late 1970s, options for knee injuries in Texas were limited, to say the least. Many surgeons were still doing open knee surgeries, with intensive recovery times that could take months. Injured ACLs back then were “often missed diagnostically, treated relatively poorly, or not treated at all,” said Russell F. Warren, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “Physicians didn’t know enough about the ligament. In fact, there was an ongoing debate in the field as to whether the ACL played a significant role in the knee and whether to fix it at all.”

For a year, my doctor recommended to avoid surgery, which I agreed with. I wanted to play, somehow work a scholarship to a four-year college, and try to sign on with a pro team in Europe. I knew the NBA was more than a long shot for me, but playing in Europe — which one Richland teammate named Ollie Hoops did — would have been a blast.

So I rehabbed the knee as best I could, doing a lot of leg lifts to strengthen the muscles around the knee. I played on hope, wanting to wake up one day and find the knee magically good as new. It felt fine for much of my sophomore season, then it would swell up after some games late in the season. Our team back then could not compete for national titles, but we wanted to win the regional one. Several teammates were sidelined by injuries and legal problems, and at times, we were down to seven or eight players. I soldiered on, not wanting to further sap the team’s hopes by opting for surgery earlier. By season’s end, I knew surgery loomed. But we won that regional title.

By then, arthroscopic knee surgeries were being done, even in Texas. The rehab process only took a month or so. But I decided to forget the hoops dream, with its risks of further injuries that could make my retirement years a nightmare, and focus on journalism. It was a smart decision; my knee does not bother me to this day, as I near retirement.

That personal journey makes me further respect athletes who play through pain in big games to inspire their teams to greater heights. There are many examples, such as:

  • Willis Reed. In Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Reed inspired the New York Knicks to a title by playing on a severely torn leg muscle against the Los Angeles Lakers. He only scored four points, but teammates credited the lift he gave them in playing at all.
  • Kerri Strug. In the 1996 Olympics, the gymnast clinched a Gold Medal in All-Around for the US women’s team by landing a vault on a badly injured ankle.
  • Emmitt Smith. In a big 1994 late-season game against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys running back suffered a separated shoulder in the first half. He continued to play, rushing for 59 yards in the second half in the overtime win. As a result, the Cowboys obtained a first-round bye and went on to win the Super Bowl.
  • Kirk Gibson. In Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, the Dodgers outfielder limped to the plate on two injured legs in the ninth inning with the Oakland A’s ahead by a run. Gibson blasted a two-run home run, hobbling around the bases, and the Dodgers later won the Series.
  • Steve Yzerman. The Detroit Red Wings center played the entire 2002 Stanley Cup Finals with a torn knee, helping his team to another championship.
  • Michael Jordan. In Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan scored 38 points despite a 102-degree temperature in leading the Chicago Bulls to victory over the Utah Jazz. The Bulls would soon win another championship. Another impressive flu performance occurred in the 2011 NBA Finals when Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to a big Game 4 victory over the Miami Heat despite a 102-degree temperature. The Mavs would win their first and only title a few days later.

Fast forward to last Tuesday night. The Women’s National Basketball Association hosted two winner-take-all Game 5’s in the respective conference finals. In one, Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird led a comeback victory over the Phoenix Mercury with 22 points, including 14 in the final quarter, despite wearing a see-through mask due to a broken nose sustained in Game 4.

[Kevin Shay photo]

In the other, Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne played on practically one leg, getting 14 points and a team-high 11 rebounds in the win over the Atlanta Dream. While three teammates outscored her, the 6–5 star’s presence was a key factor in the Mystics making the WNBA Finals for the first time in their 21-year history.

In Game 2, Delle Donne suffered a horrendous knee injury that many feared was an ACL tear. It turned out to be a bone bruise for now, but when you consider that Washington Nationals star outfielder Bryce Harper sat out 42 games last year for a similar injury, Delle Donne returning after just one game out is simply amazing. Without her in Game 3, the Dream won to go up 2–1 in the series. But Delle Donne returned in Game 4 to spark a Mystics win with 15 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Then came the similar contribution in Game 5.

Of the two injuries, Delle Donne’s is the more serious. Bird, who is not related to Hall of Fame hoopster Larry Bird, has played with a similar mask four times before due to other broken nose incidents. Delle Donne admitted she has to guard against her knee swelling, saying it would be “dangerous to play” if it swelled too much.

But that risk was worth it for her and the Mystics to make the WNBA Finals for the first time. The Storm had the better regular season record and is favored to win in the Finals, so a loss there would not diminish the Mystics’ achievements. Though of course, they would prefer to win it all.

Delle Donne’s situation is quite a contrast to how the Nats refused to allow ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg to perform in the 2012 playoffs because he merely might have gotten hurt. That year, the Nats shocked MLB by posting the best regular-season record and were lined up against teams they had beaten for their first real shot at a World Series run since moving to D.C. from Montreal in 2005. Strasburg was the best starting pitcher on the team, though he had tired some in his last outings.

And that was when general manager Mike Rizzo held fast to a pledge to Strasburg’s agent to limit his total innings to 160 during his first full year after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Scott Boras claimed that was under medical advice, but Lewis Yocum, the doctor who performed elbow surgery on Strasburg, said he was never consulted. Rizzo all-but guaranteed the Nats would make future deep playoff runs and needed to save Strasburg for those, but as former players like Chipper Jones and Rob Dibble said, that could not be taken for granted.

“What bothers me is the rest of the guys on that team, busting their butts day in and day out,” Dibble said. “Guys playing hurt, some of them probably holding off surgery because they’re trying to win a championship. You don’t get second chances, in life or in sports. This arrogance of Mike Rizzo — oh, we’re gonna have this long run — just fries me.”

Columnist Bruce Jenkins pointed out how teams like the San Francisco Giants would not have won three World Series using Rizzo’s “logic” since Brian Wilson and others pitched through injuries. “The whole thing is an absurdity,” said Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow. “Here you’ve got a great season in progress…and all of a sudden, you create a negative. As a general manager, your job is to eliminate excuses for failure. [Rizzo] has created one.”

Manager Davey Johnson wrote in his 2018 book, My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond, that he argued with Rizzo over the shutdown decision, then agreed to publicly support the move at the time. The Nats would have “gone to the World Series [in 2012] with Strasburg in the rotation during the playoffs,” Johnson wrote. “I had taken care of pitchers my whole life. This was the best time of Strasburg’s career and he should be pitching.”

So journeyman Edwin Jackson, who had been an All-Star in 2009 but was not on the level of Strasburg in 2012, became the team’s fourth pitcher against the Cardinals in the NLDS. Jackson bombed Game 3, which Washington lost by 8–0, then also gave up a run in relief in Game 5 when the team faced a shortage of arms. The Nats ended up blowing a 6–0 lead that game to get knocked out of the playoffs.

Strasburg would continue to get hurt and the Nats continue to lose first-round playoff series, though the ace had a dominant Game 4 against the Cubs in 2017. Then came the total disaster that was 2018 when the team, again picked by some to win the World Series, couldn’t even make the playoffs in MLB’s second weakest division. Strasburg again was hurt for much of 2018, proving that Dibble and others were right, that deep future playoff runs are not guaranteed.

I don’t blame Strasburg for the situation as much as Rizzo, Boras, and Nats owner Ted Lerner. But Strasburg could have lobbied harder to pitch in the 2012 playoffs after some rest. Matt Harvey did in 2015 when Boras was trying to limit his innings in a similar situation, and the Mets reached the World Series that year. Harvey has had pitching troubles that some blamed on too many innings in 2015, not lasting beyond 132 innings in a season since then, but he also has an NL pennant. Strasburg has pitched more than 175 innings three seasons since 2012, but he also hasn’t played in a league finals.

As a fan, would you rather be following the Mets or Nats right now? It’s not a good choice, but I’d have to say the Mets, as much as that pains me. NL pennants top division titles.

As the Mystics prepare for the WNBA Finals, some say that game is too boring to follow. Some men even say they can’t watch it because the women pros play with a ball that is one inch in circumference smaller than the one used in the NBA. I guess an inch matters more to some men than others.

When I was sports editor of my college newspapers at Richland and the University of North Texas, I was a bit of a male chauvinist. But even then, I tried to cover women sports with as much passion as men’s, because that is the fair thing to do. You can’t directly compare women’s sports to men’s.

And when a player like Delle Donne reaches her own Willis Reed-like moment, we should acknowledge and applaud the achievement. In my mind, Delle Donne and the Mystics are hungrier for a title than Rizzo and the Nats. It’s one of those interesting aspects of life to see how it plays out.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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