By the WNBA start, it wasn’t the first or only professional women’s basketball league in America. But now more than two decades later, it is the premier women’s hoops league in the world and has been finding tons of traction the last few years in particular, massively gaining in popularity and seemingly growing exponentially with every passing season.
So that raises the question: when did the WNBA start?
When Did the WNBA Start?
On April 24, 1996, the NBA Board of Governors gave the go-ahead on the idea of a sister league to the NBA – a Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA). The goal was the WNBA to start play in the summer of 1997, and that goal was accomplished.
June 1997 saw the WNBA start its inaugural season with just eight teams in the league. The Eastern Conference had the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets and New York Liberty, and the Western Conference included the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz.
On Jan. 16, 1997, each team was assigned two players, then an Elite Draft compromising of already-professional players was held on Feb. 27 to place two more hoopers on each squad to bring rosters to four. From there, a four-round draft of recent college stars and their similarly-aged overseas counterparts in the inaugural WNBA Draft took place April 28. The Comets selected USC’s Tina Thompson with the first-ever pick in a WNBA Draft, and her Trojan teammate Pamela McGee went to the Monarchs with the No. 2 pick.
On May 21, the teams’ uniforms were released, showing the world what the look of the league would be.
The first games were played on June 21, 1997. The opening tip happened between the Liberty and Sparks in front of 14,284 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California, with Los Angeles guard Penny Toler converting the first bucket. The game ended in a 67-57 win for the home Sparks. The rest of the first day featured the Comets at the Rockers (76-56, Comets) and the Monarchs at the Starzz (73-61, Monarchs).
1997 WNBA Season
After a 28-game regular season, the Comets finished atop the Eastern Conference and entire WNBA with an 18-10 record. Behind them were the Liberty – the Eastern Conference runners-up – at 17-11 and the Western Conference champion Mercury at 16-12. The fourth and final playoff spot went to the Sting, which tied with the Rockets at 15-13 but won the tiebreaker to take the No. 4 seed in the postseason.
An all-single elimination playoffs saw Houston take out Charlotte, 70-54, as Cynthia Cooper scored 31 points and Janeth Arcain finished with a double-double on 15 points and 10 rebounds on Aug. 28, 1997. On the same day, New York handled Phoenix, 59-41, behind 16 points and 14 boards via Kym Hampton and a stellar defensive performance than held the Mercury to a 22.4 percent mark from the field and 1-of-11 shooting night from deep.
Two days later, the Comets and Liberty met in Houston for the first-ever WNBA championship. The home Comets took care of business, 65-51, with Cooper and Thompson combining for 43 points on a collective 13-of-23 shooting from the floor. It couldn’t have been known at the time, but it was the start of what would become the league’s first dynasty and the most dominant stretch any WNBA team has ever enjoyed, all under the guise of head coach Van Chancellor.
Cooper was named the league MVP after leading the league in scoring with 22.0 points per contest. Sacramento’s Ruthie Bolton (18.3 ppg), Utah’s Wendy Palmer (15.8 ppg), Phoenix’s Jennifer Gillom (15.7 ppg) and Charlotte’s Andrea Stinson (15.7 ppg) followed Cooper on the league’s scoring list. New York’s Teresa Weatherspoon lead the WNBA in assists at 6.2 per outing, and LA’s Lisa Leslie was the top rebounder, averaging 9.5 boards per game.