Nineteen years ago, Lisa Leslie made history at the Staples Center in Los Angeles when she became the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game. It was a moment. Back then, we weren’t used to seeing stuff like that.
Earlier this week, Brittney Griner threw down a one-handed dunk against the New York Liberty. The Phoenix Mercury’s bench celebrated, but it wasn’t the lead story on ESPN. A woman dunking a ball doesn’t stop the sports world in its tracks as it did almost two decades ago. Mercury fans are more concerned with the ankle injury Griner suffered during the game than those two points she scored in the first quarter.
“It’s too soon now, and fingers crossed that she will be okay,” head coach Sandy Brondello said. “She’s a resilient little thing and [we] hope to have a good result.”
See, no mention of the dunk — progress.
According to a list put together by QueenBallers.Club, there have been nearly 30 dunks in the history of the WNBA — including All-Star games. Griner leads the list with 17, as Leslie, Michelle Snow, Candance Parker, Sylvia Fowles, Jonquel Jones, and Liz Cambage have all completed the feat that used to be thought impossible (imagine that).
To understand why it’s great that Griner’s dunk is being viewed as the norm and not the exception, you have to realize that the dunk is the most exciting play in basketball. The emphatic impact of those two points can swing a game’s momentum or change a person’s career — depending on if they did the dunking or were the one that got dunked on.
Dunking’s roots can be traced back to 1936 when Joe Fortenberry became the first documented player to dunk in an organized game. And while Fortenberry deserves respect, let’s not act like there probably wasn’t someone else of a different hue that did it way before him on the blacktop or in a rundown gym somewhere.
From the 1967-68 season through 1975-76, dunking was illegal in college basketball. Illegal! As the game was being integrated, it was thought to be an “unfair advantage” to certain players. And in the pros, it was the flashy and funky ABA that first featured the dunk contest, as the NBA was the bland and vanilla league back then.
In the same way that the game, players, and dunking have evolved, the women who can do it have, too. Back in 2004, Parker made history when she became the first girl to win the McDonald’s All-American Dunk Contest.
“That would be my dream,” she said at the time. “For 10 years from now: for three or four girls entering the dunk contest, and it’s not a big deal.”
Fifteen years later, Fran Belibi joined Parker with a trophy of her own by winning the 2019 contest.
After Lisa Leslie made history against the Miami Sol, she said, “I thought today would be a great time to try. There has been a lot of talk and pressure around it. I finally had the opportunity.”
The only pressure that Brittney Griner felt on Wednesday night was from trying to win a game, and not from trying to prove that her sport belonged. And if that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.
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