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You’ve come along way, baby!

Apr 6, 2004 6:57 AM

Where did they find these people?

Where did they learn their skills?

And where was I while women’s basketball emerged from the shadows into a full-blown major league sport?

When I played, the girls were intramural, relegated to the little gym with dim lights and no people.

Watching them in New Orleans, awed by their skills and poise and shooting and defense, was exciting. The women playing there, all of them in the women’s Final Four, were magnificent.

With ESPN’s distant upper balcony shots, if it were not for the pony tails swinging back and forth when they drove upcourt, one could easily have thought it was a men’s game.

A highlight, of course, was Sunday night’s David and Goliath contest between Minnesota and Connecticut.

A few years ago there was an advertising slogan in New York that said, "You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Rosen’s rye bread." It was as good a line as any copywriter came up with in the decade of the 90s.

I thought of it as I watched little Lindsey Whalen and big Janet McCarville battle gallantly against the superb lady Huskies of Connecticut. You didn’t have to be from Minnesota to enjoy every minute of their fight to the finish. Neither team could hit the side of a barn in four of the last five minutes of the game, but the rest was a performance of sheer beauty, and Diana Tourasi showed why many think she is the best woman basketball player in the game today.

Her complete confidence and unselfish passing game and perspective of the court are inspiring, and coach Geno Auriemma, who has taken Connecticut to the Final Four eight times, will need all his magical skills to replace her next year.

If the experts are right, Diana will be forgotten quickly as 17-year-old Candace Parker develops her skills under coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee. Parker, out of Naperville Central high school west of Chicago, is 6-3 and growing, and the best dunker in women’s basketball. Her high school coach, Andy Nussbaum, thinks she has a chance to be "the greatest female player on the planet," and Pat Summitt believes she may become the best all-around player in the game.

Last week I wrote that coach Eddie Sutton of Oklahoma State scared me with his scowl and fierce countenance.

Pat Summitt scares me in a different way.

I have seen women who never smile, and they are scary, but those who register almost permanent displeasure, as Summitt does, are downright intimidating.

She prowls the sideline, shaking her head in disgust at her players’ mistakes, and registering no visible enjoyment or pleasure at their successes. Well, that’s not quite right. She did allow herself a wild downward arm-swing at the conversion of a Louisiana State mistake into victory in the final seconds of the Tennessee — LSU Sunday night semi-final, but that is about as far as she goes in showing pleasure. I have nothing against Pat, not knowing her, but I prefer women who register pleasure in no uncertain terms.

Going back to Auriemma, he is a cool cat, and watching his handsome visage among all those young girls makes me wonder not only how he instills such skills in a group of women year after year, but how many of his players fall hopelessly in love with him during their years at Connecticut.

It is because of coaches like Auriemma and Summitt, who have recruited the best women basketball players from around this country year after year, and turned them into championship units season after season, that women’s basketball has arrived.

The popularity is well deserved. College and pro sports are admired for the skill of the athletes, which at the pro level is so overwhelming that it is easy to overlook miraculous plays, unbelievable shots, and great runs and catches and defensive plays. They make it look so easy.

So do beautifully coached teams like Tennessee and Connecticut. These ladies are the best there are, and they have earned the attention they now are deservedly commanding.