Just as we prepare to tip off …

  just_outdoor_toys_basketball_rim_red It appears “yes, you should tweet” won the poll. So I will Twitter. Look for MechelleV if you are interested in following that. Rebecca Lobo is Twittering … she is very funny, and of course she brings the insight of having won a national championship and a gold medal. 

  Meanwhile, my street cred is not quite in a league with Rebecca’s. However, I did win first place in extemporaneous speaking at the Eastern Missouri Conference speech meet in 1983. At least I think I did. The memory fades on even some of your grandest accomplishments, you know?

 Those of us who did extemp were really just poorly dressed geeks who read Newsweek, and thus believed we knew something about the world. I can only guess what the judges really thought about whatever loads of malarky we were regularly dumping on them.

  We would have like a half-hour or 45 minutes to practice our speeches, and  we could write little “cues” on an index card to remind us what we wanted to say. You were totally not supposed to write the whole speech on the index card. But I found if you wrote in tiny-enough letters, you really could fit it all on there. Then, often as not, you couldn’t actually read it back again. So that approach had its flaws.

  Generally, I would practice in the bathroom before giving my speech, pacing back and forth and generally avoiding looking in the mirror, for fear of really being made aware – too late – that whatever hideous velour top I had on didn’t quite match my corduroy high-waters. (Bright green and cranberry don’t go together?)

  I’m eternally glad no video exists of any part of my speech-team career … but I did see on Rebecca’s Twitter that video was discovered of Georgeann Wells’ 1984 in-game dunk.

  Which brings me to “the dunk.” (I really didn’t plan on getting to this topic via speech-team memories, but sometimes these blogs just have a mind of their own.) 

  I was having dinner tonight with my friend Annie and two people who I didn’t know, who probably now think I’m at least mildly insane. Annie and I are really good pals, but she isn’t all that into women’s basketball. Which is fine; I have friends who are totally into it, some who watch occasionally and some who really have no idea what I do for a living. 

  Annie is a true athlete, still loves to play sports whenever possible, but women’s hoops kind of lacks something to her that makes it less appealing. And that thing is the dunk. 

  So we’ve had this discussion before. She thinks women’s basketball would be better served to lower the rim 6 inches (at least) to make the dunk more accessible to women. That it would make the game more exciting and bring in more fans. I say that the same people who don’t watch now still wouldn’t watch. They would just say, “What a bunch of crap! They lowered the rims!”

  We’ve gone back and fourth on this a few times. She points out that the ball is bit smaller for women, and now the 3-point line is different, so why would it be a big deal to lower the rims? I say I wish the ball had stayed the same size. And I wish that they would just move the 3-point line for the women to the same spot as the men have changed it to this season (the women seem to shoot from behind that line anyway much of the time). 

   And I always say let evolution take its course, and more and more women will dunk on the hoop the way it is. The dunk will always mean something in the women’s game; it will always be special. I never have watched a game and thought, “If only the rims were lower.” Never. But am I wrong? The height was placed at 10 feet, but is that really “sacred?” Am I thinking about this the wrong way? 

  While I’m not against the dunk in any way, it is interesting that when you think of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history on the men’s side, very few dunks come to mind. There seems to be near-universal agreement that the “greatest” shot is Christian Laettner’s 17-footer that won the 1992 regional final for Duke. 

  Then you think of Keith Smart’s jumper in 1987 or Michael Jordan’s in 1982 or Mario Chalmers’ 3-pointer last year. Or maybe Tyus Edney’s run through the Missouri defense for a layup in 1995. Yes, one of the greatest NCAA tournament shots was Lorenzo Charles dunking after a Dereck Whittenberg airball to clinch N.C. State’s 1983 title. But, again, dunks have not tended to be the most memorable shots of any NCAA tournament.

  All that said, I get why the dunk is a big deal. I understand why it’s cool. I just don’t know that more dunking – especially with the rims lowered (and I don’t even know how much more that would produce, because hand size has something to do with dunking, too)- would somehow make women’s hoops more popular.

  Among certain sections of the population, there is absolutely nothing the women’s game can ever do to win over those fans. I couldn’t care less about ever trying to draw in people like the pathetic jerks who don’t have enough going on in their lives and so have to troll their way around the Internet all day dumping on what they don’t like. 

  Nor am I talking about some of my colleagues in the media who go to their one women’s game every decade or so and write those breathtakingly original, “Here’s what’s wrong with women’s basketball” columns. Lowering the rims and moving the tournament to some other time than March usually figure into those paint-by-numbers masterpieces.

  But people like my friend Annie are not “hostile” to women’s sports at all, nor are they mailing in a lazy column.

 She points out that volleyball has a higher net for men than women. Men have the 110 meter high hurdles, women have the 100 meter hurdles, and they aren’t as high. You could find other differences like that throughout sports that make the concession to the average height of a male being greater than that of the average female.

 So she says, “Why is it a big deal? I think I would watch it more and find it more exciting if they dunked more.” 

 This tends to push my buttons – as it did tonight, hence the other guests probably thinking I’m a little nuts – because I believe people say this but it wouldn’t really change their viewing habits about women’s hoops. She swears it would, and says other people she knows agree.

 She also thinks maybe players in the women’s game would like it. I’ve never had a player tell me she wished the rims were lower. But I’ve never made it a point to ask, either.

 Ultimately, I know why this got me so angry, and it’s because I have  a decreasing level of tolerance for defending the women’s game, even to the well-meaning person.

 I want to say, “It’s a great sport populated by some of the best kids you’ll ever meet. It’s fun and exciting and full of drama. The people who play it really go to class and get degrees. And, frankly, if you don’t watch much or any women’s basketball, you really don’t know how good it is or isn’t. But … all that said, I don’t CARE if you don’t watch. I don’t want to waste my time or your time trying to convince you. Just ignore it and watch something else.”

 This is the time of year that a lot of this stuff will come up. Should we lower the rims? Should the tournament move to another month? How do you improve attendance? Is the predetermined-sites system really the best we can do? Is the game growing as much as we want? Why have UConn and Tennessee been so dominant? How do you get more women fans? How do you get more male fans? 

On and on and on … with the undercurrent always being about what’s wrong with women’s basketball.

 And the truth is, I get so FREAKING tired of that. I just want to enjoy everything that’s right about it. I want to point out that when men’s college basketball was “growing up” it wasn’t constantly compared to something else and judged as lacking. That UConn and Tennessee have been to the women’s game what UCLA once was to the men’s game. That the women’s college game has been around, realistically, only since the 1970s. 

And, again, if you don’t want to watch the women, that’s your choice. Don’t watch.

 Still, I wrote this whole long post. And I know that it’s always going to be my lot in life to say, “I’m sick of talking about this stuff!” and then still talk about it all the time. Because, deep down, I do want the sport to appeal to anyone who’s open-minded enough to give it a try. I do want it to maximize its great potential. 

So if you are coming to this blog, I can be pretty sure you are already a fan of the game or are at least interested in it. And you may have many thoughts – some more eloquent than mine – on all these things. Share them if you’d like. 

 By the way, Annie and I are still good friends … and she would still beat me at HORSE no matter what height the rims were.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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14 Responses to Just as we prepare to tip off …

  1. eliskim says:

    I love women’s ball. I’m sad and worried to see rows of empty seats in a lot of televised games.

    I’d like to know what the players think about lowering the rim. I myself will argue for it, because I think it would mean more scores and more dunks, and thus more interest in the sport.

    But first, I would never advocate for something that would hurt the sport. I think a lower rim doesn’t hurt the sport. It isn’t a diss against women’s abilities; it’s a reflection of player height differences. I’d never stand to hear someone say there’s a gender difference in athleticism, toughness, smartness, creativity, or heart. But women ARE shorter than men, on average (by 5.5″ in the US, says Wikipedia), at the tallest, at the shortest, and throughout the distribution–in basketball and in the rest of life. A lower rim doesn’t reflect deficiency in any regard; it reflects a difference in player height, and a shift in the game to make dunking and scoring easier. If you’re waiting for women to evolve to be bigger in comparison to men, it may never happen (by what evolutionary pressure would women grow taller, faster than men?), and even if it could happen, it would take millennia. All across the world, women are shorter than men. Let the game’s rules reflect that.

    I want to see the WNBA not die, and continue to grow. I want to see the WNBA’s visibility help women’s basketball grow at amateur levels, and to help other women’s sports grow.

    I think we can defend a lower rim against ridicule. And then the rim question boils down to this: would more dunks and more baskets lead to more ticket and ad sales? My hunch is yes. More dunks and scoring opportunities will electrify a few more moments in the short run, and in the long run, might elevate people’s respect for women’s athleticism, by giving spectators more chances to see elite players’ astounding offensive (and responding defensive) moves.

    But if we’re going to ask how to grow the WNBA’s following, there’s a lot besides the rim we can adjust. The UConn-Tennessee rivalry, for all its nastiness, generates huge fandom in both states. Connecticut Sun games sell out in a 10k seat arena, and I think UConn (and smart franchise management) should be credited for a lot of this fan support. I know a couple guys who watch ONLY women’s basketball, because they obsess over this rivalry and then follow the players to the WNBA. Candice Wiggins electrified my interest in watching the sport, by appearing to be a terrific leader and teammate. Is there room to grow fandom for NCAA women’s and WNBA, through better publicity of players’ stories and personalities, and through more dramatic team rivalries?

  2. giraffespots says:

    OMG! I HATE velour!!

  3. Sherri says:

    We live in the age of the Internet, not the age of four channels on the TV that you have to walk across the room to change. Does it matter anymore whether other people like what you do? Mass market broadcast forms of media have been rapidly declining in mind share, as a zillion cable channels and streaming over the internet and blogs and twitter and etc and etc make it possible for niche interests to be served without having to go mainstream. Women’s basketball doesn’t have to fight for “shelf space” with men’s basketball anymore; I don’t have to convert anyone to women’s basketball in order for me to see it these days.

    As for the dunk, watching this year’s men’s tournament, it seems to me that the long three generates more excitement than the dunk these days. I don’t watch much NBA basketball, so maybe the dunk is still a big part of that game, but at the men’s college level, I don’t see as many dunks as I did 10-15 years ago.

  4. Rich says:

    South Dakota State beat Centenary last December with a men’s ball (doubleheader game, bad refs, etc.) Needless to say the field goal percentage wasn’t all that hot. It was, however, Aaron Johnston’s 200th win.

    When I go to SDSU doubleheaders with friends who aren’t big WBB fans, I simply tell them ‘it’s not men’s basketball.’

    You can’t judge women’s basketball by comparing it to men’s basketball. It’s absurd. It’s a different sport. There are different things to appreciate.

    If someone is incapable of appreciating women’s basketball for what it is, then there’s not much to be done for them.

    It’s always going to be -women’s- basketball. There’s always going to be a difference in height and physicality at the highest levels of play, and if someone can’t get past that, well, heck, they’re probably not much of a -basketball- fan to begin with.

  5. Angela says:

    Leave the rims alone. I think lowering them would make dunking more commonplace, which is not what I want, even as a Tennessee fan, where dunks have been around for going on 8 or so years now. The thing about watching a dunk in a women’s game is that it is rare. Ultimately, it’s only worth 2 points, just like any other basket.

    I will say, however, that I disagree on greatness being more than Candace Parker’s dunking. Everytime I watched her dunk, I couldn’t help but think of the Candace Parker who spent her freshman year rehabbing after an injury that very well could have ended her career (and likely would have, just a few years ago). For everyone, greatness is something different. While I don’t think her dunks are the greatest aspect of women’s basketball, I do think they represent greatness–the greatness of overcoming stumbling blocks on the court, and in life.

  6. BP says:

    I wrote about this on my blog yesterday. Here are the relevant bits:

    The men’s tournament started on Thursday, and the women’s tournament starts tomorrow. ESPN is covering the women, so we’ll get to see a lot more of the games than we used to, with the whip around coverage and the multiple channels. The women’s basketball isn’t taking any of the men’s off of the air (they’re on CBS), but that doesn’t stop commenters on just about every online article from writing that NO ONE CARES ABOUT WOMEN’S BASKETBALL and YOU SHOULD SHUT UP ABOUT WOMEN’S BASKETBALL and WOMEN’S BASKETBALL SUCKS and THEY’RE ALL LESBIANS and other erudite, enlightening and informed opinions. I’m used to that. Some men think women shouldn’t play basketball, especially women whom they secretly know could kick their asses at it. There are Neanderthals in every walk of life. Ignoring them now.

    And then I clicked over to Deadspin, which I find entertaining sometimes. They have a segment every Friday or so called “Waxing Off”, which is their clever title for the female-writer ghetto they’ve corralled and squashed into a once-a-week post. The women who write for it seem quite knowledgeable about various sports and are sometimes very funny. But today they wrote their article about the women’s ncaa’s, and I didn’t think it was funny at all.

    The article is called: Women’s basketball, and why some actual women don’t seem to like it.

    (Meaning every single one of the writers of the post.)

    Oh, goody. Here’s the gist: Let’s talk about what the women look like, what the uniforms look like, what the cheerleaders are like, and whether or not any of them are sexy. Let’s discuss Candace Parker’s breasts! Let’s ponder whether or not it would be less boring if the outfits were more revealing! Let’s discuss how women can’t be good athletes because they’re not competing against men!

    Let’s not, y’know, talk about whether or not they’re any good at basketball.

    SERIOUSLY?!?!? You don’t have to do the Neanderthals’ work for them, ladies! It’s like they’re hating on the women so they can be “one of the boys.”

    So I’ll root for the Aggie women and I’ll root for the Aggie men, and I’ll know that both teams are full of kickass athletes who can play a helluva game of basketball. And I’ll acknowledge that things are a lot more equitable than they used to be.

    And I shall remain ticked off.

    End quote.

    In other words, I’m right there with ya on being tired of having to make the argument.

  7. potomac79 says:

    Mechelle, I’m there with you. I’ve been boosting women’s basketball since…well, since Brenda Frese was in elementary school. (When Maryland’s women’s basketball booster club was formed, I was the first student representative on the officers list.) Like you, I’ve heard it all: no dunking, too slow, not as athletic, blah-blah-blah.

    And yet I still try? Of course I do. The game is, and always has been, worth it. If not for people like us, who forebear and continue to tilt at windmills, the game wouldn’t be what it is now. If we look back to the 1982-83 season, one headline was “NCAA average women’s basketball attendance increases from 356/game to 376/game”. I dare say that it’s a wee bit higher now.

    Whenever the “helpful” suggestions are floated, I can’t help but shake my head and smile. Lowering the rim? No. What really needs to be done is upsizing all of the men’s game: court and rims, to bring it proportionally back to where it used to be. The ball? I’m still not a fan of the small ball, but it’s now the global standard so that’s not going to change. Ironically, the smaller size actually makes the ball more lively when it hits the rim, so making a basket is a little bit more difficult simply due to physics.

    Then there is dunking. It’s not that the women’s game doesn’t have dunking (Snow, Parker, Fowles, Griner, and more), it’s just not the key to the women’s game. While dunks might define the men’s game, it’s 3-pointers that take up that torch in the women’s game for crowd wow-factor. The major difference is that you don’t tend to get the same sort of alpha-chest-beating intimidation that you do with a monster dunk.

    Neither way is inherently better. Appreciation comes when you realize that that the rim-bending tomahawk slam, in the end, is only worth two points (if it goes in). It’s all a matter of style.

    Still, slowly, attitudes are changing. You look at the crowds and you see more and more young male faces. They’ve grown up with the WNBA a reality and with USA Basketball’s Gold medals mostly coming from the distaff side. These are males who’ve also lived in a world where women’s sports have made inroads in the media. I’m sitting here with any number of NCAA women’s games available to me at this moment via the ESPN networks. This season, I was able to watch almost every game of my alma mater, including many national games despite living nowhere near their market. The world has changed a lot since I was shooting film and trying to convince editors to give more than 1- or 2-column inches to women’s sports in the Sports section of the newspaper.

    We may be victims of our own impatience. It takes time. You win hearts and minds via the young, not so much from the older. The young fathers who were taken as boys to watch WNBA, WUSA, and WNT soccer games are now those male faces populating college arenas and will be bringing their own children very soon. Then that generation will continue the trend. It takes time.

    The NBA was a marginal league competing for crumbs against the NFL and MLB for many, many years. It took a sustained quantum leap for basketball to become what it is now: Magic, Bird, Jordan. Women’s basketball is possibly entering a similar era: Taurasi, Parker, Fowles and more are women’s basketball’s new quantum leap. Is it the one that pushes it into general acceptance? Maybe. Maybe not. Without boosters of the game, how will the curious know that they are there?

    All this season I’ve been reading more and more staunch they-play-like-girls reporters coming over to the other side. Why? For exactly the reason they’ve been hearing from us for a long time: the women play a more disciplined but no less intense game.

    You love this game. If only for that reason alone, you will keep fighting the battles. You might not win today’s battle, but you know that to those who are willing to give the game a try in the future, the seeds that have been sown now might just germinate. Things change. Men who would never give women’s basketball a look have been taking their daughters to games (as fans/players) and are now becoming fans themselves.

    Patience and gentle persistence can accomplish great things. Just look at the Colorado River’s remarkable legacy: the Grand Canyon. You don’t think the rushing waters didn’t feel frustrated by walls of unyielding rock? Eventually though, the water won its share of battles. Not all of them, but enough. Enough so that when people stand at the rim they remark on what the water was able to do and not so much about the rock that still endures (though it has its fans as well).

    We boosters of women’s basketball are still carving our way through the sports landscape. Our path is our path. Even though we might tire from time-to-time, we must persist. I have no doubt that your voice will endure. Your words carry with them conviction and intelligence and humor. That is exactly the steady waters that are needed.

    And I have a tendency to get wordy, which is diverting my attention from some very entertaining basketball. I suppose I should get back to that. I’m looking forward to see what your take is on this first weekend of the tournament.

  8. mhueter says:

    Mechelle! This post is awesome. A real thought starter.

    I agree – leave the rims where they are. Lowering them would just lead to more criticism.

    However, I have to say, in terms of the future, there is a certain level of responsibility that female athletes have to take (no matter what the level) in order to make female sports (like basketball) popular.

    If you played, and it made a difference in your life, you should support the sport and the opportunities it brings by being a fan, giving a ball to a young girl, signing her up for a team, showing her the few sites that exist like womentalksports.com and ESPN women’s basketball blog, and filling the seats of local stadiums.

    In my opinion, women fulfilling that responsibility is necessary for the success of womens sports in the next 50 years. It’s not due to an issue with the rim height.

    In my opinion, until we get there, we will continue to struggle. But keep writing, because posts like these that spur comments like those above are the ones that start conversations that actually make a difference in people’s lives.

    Oh, and welcome to Twitter. It’s about time…

  9. Helen says:

    while I too get tired of “explaining” why I love this game, I do find that when I do that “out of the spin zone” — as in at work, during thanksgiving, shooting the Sh*t about sports with the doorman at my office building — I can win over hearts and minds. Kinda.

    It’s why I’m obsessed with women’s bball history — and why it’s so wonderful when you, MV, root your stories in the past accomplishments/challenges of our game — because the story is the hook. Yes, it’s about the quality on the court, but the story of women’s basketball, the battles, the injustices, the victories… that’s some great stuff.

    As for the rules — we history buffs know that the 94′ court is a relatively new phenomena, as is the backboard and the name on the jersey. This is a game — as are all games — that evolves. Both on the court and in the rule book. But, it Evolves, not DEvolves. Keep the rims the same height.

    And I might review the stats on the “small ball” — since there’s no real conclusive evidence to support its beneficial impact.

    And if the boys REALLy were interested in improving the quality of their game, how ’bout they do what I’ve been advocating for the past 5 years. Increase the size of the court/height of the basket by the % increase of the size of the players over the last 25years. The boys’ court is so crowded and the rim height is … well, it’s a joke compared to their “reach.”

  10. Scamp says:

    “When Mr. Stubbins brot [sic] up the peach baskets to the gym I secured them on the inside of the railing of the gallery. This was about 10 feet from the floor, one at each end of the gymnasium. …” So said Dr. Naismith, the inventor of this wonderful game.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Naismith

    I think the men’s game would benefit from higher rims. Just think how much taller guys are today than a century ago. Ten feet isn’t enough challenge anymore for men.

    ********************************************

    In all the kerfuffle while we wait for our tournament to begin, there’s a big question we might ponder: Who is the NCAA women’s D-1 tournament “for”?

    Here’s one part of it:

    Is it “for” ESPN? The subregional sites are set in advance for television. If that means empty seats and long journeys for teams and fans, perhaps the first rounds should go untelevised, like in the old days, with games at higher seeds.

  11. Hi_schl_coach says:

    AMEN! Well Said! Don’t like it – Tune your small mind into something else and let us enjoy!

  12. Ethan says:

    “Ultimately, I know why this got me so angry, and it’s because I have a decreasing level of tolerance for defending the women’s game, even to the well-meaning person.”

    Hear hear.

    I read a comment somewhere once from a man who found greater value in watching WNBA games because he learned solid fundamentals, which he could apply at the local rec center that doesn’t allow dunking (neither does mine). I found myself setting up for 3-pointers thinking about Rafaella Masciadri (sp?) or Kelly Mazzante. Dunking is photogenic (hence the appeal, I think), but I’m sick of watching men’s games where if they don’t do the Shaq thing and hang around under the basket looking for the easy dunk, perimeter shooting is, put mildly, wanting. Of course, there’s also the argument that Steve Nash must be an awful player because he doesn’t dunk. Blah blah blah.

    Switching sports (but staying on topic), I’m heading off to see the home opener for FC Dallas (MLS soccer), wearing my FCD fan jersey with Hope Solo’s last name and number on the back. This is a reference to an argument I raised on the fan forum about a year ago when I said if I was in charge of picking teams, and my options were the current goalie and Hope Solo, I’d pick Solo. This has nothing to do with gender. I argued that stat for stat (plus the intangibles) she was better in goal than he was. I’m sure you know how that went. “But she plays against *women*! That doesn’t count!” I’m sure Marta and company love being told they don’t count.

    And that’s the thing about soccer that I with basketball would adopt: Soccer is soccer is soccer. They don’t change *any* aspect of the game because women are playing. Same ball, same net, same field, everything. I understand that the WNBA is more in alignment with international basketball rules (sans the ball size, I think), but I’d like to see them go that extra distance to standardize the ball size and 3-point line. I don’t think Shameka Christon needs the charity.

    Excellent post, again. Enjoy the tourney!

  13. Bball Girl says:

    Bring back the bigger ball, move out the 3 pt line and leave the rims WHERE they are. Every year I suffer listening to my male cousins talk about how WBB is not “real” basketball because they can’t dunk, because they play too much on the ground, etc. etc. Oh, yeah – there are also the comments after a men’s UNM game about how the Lobos played like “girls” – I always point out that if they had played like girls, they would NOT have lost :) I’ve also told them that if any of them had daughters that played sports – their attitude would be quite different. I have an array of planned comeback for their digs and many of them at least shut them up for a few minutes.

    I agree completely with you about the dunk – if it happens, it happens. I don’t really care. I like both men’s and women’s basketball. I appreciate the differences and enjoy them.

    Sometimes what is comes down to are guys who don’t like the idea that a women could be stronger. I still remember in KC at the women’s final 4 watching Sylvia Crawley and Shannon Johnson take on 2 college age guys who played pretty good ball. While the guys were as big or bigger than Sylvia and stronger – they were not as smart and Sylvia and Pewee. Sylvia stuffed them and Pewee stole the ball and scored – it was no contest.

  14. stat_girl says:

    The women’s game does not need a lower rim, a different three-point line, or smaller ball. The next thing people will say is that the women’s court should be smaller. This line of argumentation is the same line that was used to justify not allowing women to play in the first place, and then justifying it in places like Iowa using different rules (you can play only half the court, take three dribbles, and that’s it — no more).

    It’s fine if women dunk. It’s also fine with me if they don’t dunk. It’s not fine with me if the women’s game gets judged using the current norms used to judge “great” from the men’s game — norms that I think are out of whack to begin with. There is not much that I admire about the men’s game any more, including the exhorbitant salaries they earn at the pro level.

    There is a lot to admire about the women’s game. Most recently, I admired the way that the Baylor Lady Bears have rallied around Morghan Medlock following her tragic loss of her mother, how her coach has been such a source of strength for her, and how Morghan herself was so instrumental in her team’s success at the Big 12 tournament. And I would not know any of this if you hadn’t brought it all to a forum like ESPN.com where those who love the women’s game go to read the best stories about the most important aspects of the game. If you want to know what “great” looks like, think about that story. It’s a lot more substantice and enduring kind of greatness that will stick with you a lot longer than the memory of Candace Parker’s last dunk.