BY KRISTA RAMSEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The gift shop at Gund Arena is swarming. There are plenty of men, women and boys, but the place is absolutely crawling with girls.
WNBA action: Detroit's Rhonda Blades grabs a loose ball from teammate Cindy Brown and LA's Lisa Leslie.
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Girls carrying jerseys that say "Blodgett" and "Braxton."
Girls buying T-shirts with tags reading, 'This garment tailored specifically for women."
Girls palming orange-and-white-striped WNBA basketballs.
My husband and I are in Cleveland to take our daughter to see the Rockers, a professional women's basketball team.
It's an opportunity I would like to have had in Cincinnati, I decide as we file into the sleek modern building with 10,000 other fans.
I am here despite having been warned about this WNBA stuff by several male friends.
Good luck, they tell me. See if you can stay awake.
They are quick to reassure me they support professional basketball for women. It's just that this doesn't look much like professional to them, and maybe not even basketball.
It could, they say, make for a long drive home.
Just the game
At the Gund, I try hard to see the evening through men's eyes. The women aren't all that physically imposing, except for the Utah Starzz' 7-foot-2-inch center. Both teams have a small entourage. There is little pomp, no dunks during warm-ups and -- unlike the NBA -- nobody treating the players like gods. Or even goddesses.
But as the lights go down for introductions, I feel a special thrill when they announce the names, and the spotlight falls on women. It occurs to me that this is the first professional women's sporting event I've ever attended. Beside me, my daughter is smiling in the shadows.
Cleveland's Isabelle Fijalkowski shoots over Sacramento's Linda Burgess and Latasha Byears.
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I forget about the male point of view, and start watching through my own. Granted, there are moments when things seem out of control, amateurish. The guy behind me chastises a string of "stupid passes." But there are also three-pointers, hustle, good floor movement and something I haven't seen for a while at a pro game: an evening of team play, modest egos and sterling sportsmanship.
And swarms of girls with big smiles and shrill whistles and women's names on their backs instead of men's.
Right to play
Suddenly I don't care what anybody else thinks of the WNBA. It is what it is, what it has to be right now. A start.
Before the game I talk to Sharon Conaway, a white-haired, season-ticket-holding grandmother from Avon, Ohio. "I played basketball back in 1954, when it was dribble twice and pass," she says. Girls were restricted to half-court games because nobody thought them strong enough for full-court, full-go play.
"That's what they thought," she says with a smile, "but they were wrong."
Since then it has been 44 years of continued struggle for female athletes -- to be "allowed" to play, to have the money for equipment, to have access to gyms, tracks, camps and good coaches. And probably, most of all, to fight off the notion that they aren't as good as men, so they should just give up and go home.
Or at least not expect anybody to pay to watch them play.
It makes me want to pour some money in the WNBA's pocket. Ringing cash registers will make women's sports legitimate. I chastise myself for not supporting professional female sports before. Then I realize that, in Cincinnati, there are now no regular professional women's events to be seen.
So I start to think about where my sports dollars go in Cincinnati. I think about the stadium ballot issue that I, like many other Cincinnati women, supported.
And I realize, with a sick feeling, that our money will pay for facilities in which not a single female professional athlete will play.
Unless she's carrying pompons or yelling, "Beer, here!" I think about it all the way home to Cincinnati.
Suddenly the road to the Gund doesn't seem long at all.
Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.