The opportunities for female athletes were so minimal back then it was no wonder Lisa Leslie had modest expectations when she first heard about the WNBA. She envisioned a summer league, with games in small gyms and players wearing reversible jerseys.
"When I saw our locker room was the same locker room that Magic and Kareem and James Worthy had once come out of, I was just overwhelmed with the possibilities," she said.
Critics gave the WNBA little chance when it began in 1996, predicting it would join the WBL, the ABL and soccer's WUSA on the trash heap of failed women's leagues. Even the support -- and the deep pockets -- of the NBA wouldn't be enough to make it relevant, they said.
Thirteen years later, Leslie is the league's all-time leading scorer and the last of its founding stars. As she prepares to say goodbye, the WNBA is not only surviving but thriving.
"I don't remember there not being a league," said Candace Parker, who was 10 when the WNBA started and is Leslie's teammate on the Los Angeles Sparks. "And that's a great thing."
"I wasn't quite as sensitive to the gender discrimination until we launched the league and everyone said it was going to fail because it was women. That's ridiculous," NBA Commissioner David Stern said.
As irked as Stern gets now about gender equity -- the ho-hum reaction the U.S. women got for winning their fourth consecutive gold medal in Beijing compared with the adulation showered on the men's team is "enough to make you into a feminist" -- it was economics that drove the creation of the WNBA.
The original franchises were initially affiliated with their local NBA teams, giving owners a new revenue stream and keeping their arenas occupied in the summer. Regional TV networks got additional programming.
The players didn't care what the reasoning was. They just knew they had their own league and it was built for the long haul.
"It's not our fault we're girls," Leslie said. "We just wanted to play, too. "
Like any new venture, there were bound to be growing pains. Five franchises have folded, including the Houston Comets, winners of the first four WNBA titles. Attendance dipped in the early 2000s. Rosters have been trimmed from 13 to 11 this season, a concession to the economic downturn.
"If there was a problem for us, it was that it got very successful very fast in the first year or so, and it was perceived as more successful than it actually was," Stern said. "When it sank back ... the handwringing began, and all of those people who in the first year predicted we'd be gone by the second and in the second year predicted we'd be gone by the third said, 'OK, here it comes.'
"But it's found its spot, it's growing."
Attendance last year rose for the second season in a row and is up nearly 3 percent this year -- impressive numbers during the recession. Merchandise sales are up, and LifeLock is reportedly paying at least $1 million a year for the right to have its name on the Phoenix Mercury's jerseys. The level of play has risen, and Stern said there is interest in expansion teams.
"We have our own position; we have our own fan base," said Teresa Witherspoon, who was a six-time All-Star in Italy." That's the beauty for us -- it's our own."