Some players have traveled a long way to make it in women’s professional basketball, and then there’s Venus Lacy. Venus, whose name gives her long, strange trip a certain irony, has orbited the earth.
A decade ago, she represented an unstoppable force on one of the dominant teams in women’s college basketball, Louisiana Tech. She became used to enthusiastic crowds and national titles. And though the universe of women’s hoops was considerably smaller in the late ’80s, Venus was a star.
Then she disappeared from the horizon. With no women’s professional league in the United States, Venus Lacy began a basketball odyssey that took her from her native Chattanooga to Japan, Italy, and Greece.
She enjoyed her stint in Japan, where her 6’4” frame made her an even more imposing presence. She relished the competitive physical play during her three years in the Italian league. She remembers Greece fondly, in spite of her team’s effort to arrange a marriage for her to a Greek national. (“I sure didn’t want to do that!” she laughs.)
Calculate the sum of all those experiences, however, and it doesn’t match the satisfaction that Lacy’s professional career in the United States has brought hereven though she has played only two seasons in the ABL and her new team, the expansion Nashville Noise, hasn’t even tipped off its inaugural season.
“It was fun playing [abroad], but it’s nothing like being at home,” Lacy beams after a practice session at the Noise training camp last week in the Aquinas College gym. “I’m doing what I love, plus I get paid for it. I’m just so happy I’m getting this opportunity.”
Michelle Marciniak and Saudia Round-tree are just slightly younger than Lacy, but they belong to an entirely different basketball generation. By the time they arrived as elite playersat Tennessee and Georgia respectively, in the nation’s elite conferencewomen’s roundball had arrived too. On the court and off, the game had accelerated, drawing sellout crowds to its Final Four, providing regular TV exposure to the top teams, and racing up and down the floor with fast, aggressive play.
As a darting waterbug of a point guard at Georgiaand perhaps the fastest player in women’s college basketballRound-tree epitomized the new generation of wo-men. Women who played the game more like their male counterparts. Women who slashed through the lane, or took jump shots off the dribble, instead of working the ball into the post or waiting for a wide-open set shot.
So much has basketball’s gender gap narrowed in the past decade that Roundtree was even invited to try out for a men’s professional team.
She declined the opportunity, preferring the women’s game. But it’s not as if she believes that women still must prove their ability. (You wouldn’t either if you saw Roundtree’s workout regimen, which, after practice, includes sprint after sprint after sprint.) “We don’t have to sell the women’s game anymore,” she says. “We just need to continue what we’ve been doing.”
For Marciniak, playing in a fledgling professional league might be considered almost anticlimactic (which in itself could be a statement of how far the game has come).
After all, even before she graduated from college, she had already been part of a basketball dynasty, the Lady Vols. She had already held the most frighteningly difficult position in either the men’s or women’s game: floor leader for Pat Summitt. And she had grown accustomed to playing for crowds three to four times as large as those at ABL games.
Making the adjustment hasn’t always been easy. For one thing, Marciniak says, the Lady Vols were “like a family. Nobody cares for you like that in the pros. It’s individual. You have to fend for yourself.”
The toughest adjustment, she says, has been to resist the almost inevitable impulse to judge her ABL coaches by the impossible “this-isn’t-how-Pat-would-have-done-it” standard.
“It’s an unfair comparison,” Marciniak says. “There will never be another coach like her. I just want to be fair and give other coaches the respect they demand.”
Though she demurs over comparisons between her own intensity and Summitt’s (“On a scale of 1 to 10, Pat’s maybe an 11”), Marciniak nonetheless betrays some of her former mentor’s steely competitiveness. “I will not play for another losing team,” she says, looking back on her first two professional seasons.
She’s also looking ahead, not only to playing with a Noise team she thinks will be very good, but also to taking women’s basketball to the next level. “We’re gonna get the little girls and families [as fans],” she says. “I think we’re trying now to get the men who are football fans.”
No one on Nashville’s team, though, surpasses Venus Lacy when it comes to missionary zealbecause no one else has traveled so far with the game.
“We shouldn’t say, ‘We deserve [our own U.S. league]’though we do,” Lacy says. “I don’t want to take it for granted. I want to make sure it stays here. I don’t want one day to wake up and hear it folded. I want to see it grow and be able to look back and say I was glad I was one of the ones who helped get it started.
“I’m just so happy,”Lacy says. “I look back and I still can’t believe it after traveling all those miles and all those hours. I never thought I’d live to see this day.”
How It Looks From The La-Z-Boy
Ravens 20, Oilers 17
Georgia 24, Tennessee 20
Vanderbilt 20, Western Michigan 14
Arkansas 35, Memphis 10
Mississippi State 16, Auburn 13
Alabama 27, Mississippi 17
Florida 28, LSU 20
Kentucky 41, South Carolina 20
Notre Dame 27, Arizona State 16
Florida State 24, Miami 13
Arizona 28, UCLA 27
Padres over Braves (in 7)
Yankees over Indians (in 6)