By J. Coyden Palmer
When the WNBA celebrated their 20th Anniversary earlier this week, they also released a list of the Top 20 players in league history. Chicago was well represented with four local players making the list and two additional players with Chicago ties. Leading the way were Chicago Public League alums Yolanda Griffith (Carver) and Cappie Pondexter (Marshall). They were joined by suburban natives Candace Parker (Naperville Central) and Tamika Catchings (Stevenson.)
Griffith was a force in the WNBA, winning both the league MVP and Defensive Player of the year awards in 1999, her first year. A five-time All-Star, Griffith played her college ball at Florida Atlantic University. She retired as one of the top scorers and rebounders in league history. Griffith also was a member of the Olympic Gold Medal winning teams at the summer games in 2000 and 2004. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Pondexter has been the most successful player to ever come out of Chicago. The current starting guard for the Chicago Sky played her college ball at Rutgers University before going on to win a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury in 2007. Poindexter also is a two-time Olympic Gold Medal winner. She told Crusader she was honored to be included in the Top 20.
“I never imagined coming into the WNBA that I would be a part of history,” said Pondexter after she scored 15 points in a win against San Antonio Tuesday night at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. “It’s overwhelming because I’m included with people who I grew up admiring. So to be among that elite level of women I feel honored and blessed.”
Pondexter said she started dreaming about becoming a professional player when she was 10. Growing up in a rough community like many others, she had a message for the kids in Chicago, especially the girls who have their own athletic dreams.
“You have to put your blood, sweat and tears into your dream,” she said. “It wasn’t many girls playing when I was young and there was no WNBA so I played with the boys and wherever the game took me. I think today kids have more female basketball players to look up to. But you still have to want it for yourself.”
Other players with Chicago connections included Swin Cash, Tina Penicheiro, who both played with the Sky and current, albeit embattled Loyola University women’s Head Coach Sheryl Swoopes. Cash said via her Twitter account that she was “humbled and honored” with the recognition.
“I’m just a skinny kid from McKeesport, PA that was blessed to live out her dream.”
The Top 20 list was part of the 20 year anniversary celebration, which has seen its ups and downs. The first game was played on June, 21 1997 as they were riding the momentum from what many call the “Women’s Dream Team” that won the gold at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. While the league still struggles with attendance, just existing after many thought they would fold has been an accomplishment. There is little doubt the reason the WNBA is still around is because of the talent on the court.
“Dominant; Exciting; Game-changers. That’s what comes to mind with these 20 incredibly talented, skilled and entertaining players,” said Renee Brown, the WNBA’s Chief of Basketball Operations and Player Relations. “There are scorers, playmakers, ball-handlers, rebounders, defensive stoppers, leaders… players who built the league; players who elevated the game to new heights, and players who will carry the torch and inspire the next generation of superstars.”
For current Chicago Sky Head Coach Pokey Chapman, it has been a joy for her to coach with and against some of the Top 20 players. Chapman coached Simone Augustus when she was at LSU and Pondexter, Cash and Ticha Penichero with the Sky. She shared her thoughts about coaching Pondexter and other special players.
“First off it makes me know I’m old, but secondly how incredibly blessed I am,” she said with a laugh. “They’re special because I get to see the behind the scenes work they put in to make them such great players. Cappie is so good because she helps everyone else get better, she can pour her knowledge into other people.
Before their game against San Antonio Tuesday night, the Sky honored Pondexter with a video tribute for the 2007 WNBA Finals MVP. Pondexter received a standing ovation at the beginning of the game to go along with a bouquet of 20 roses.
In other Sky news, the reigning league MVP Elenna Delle Donne will be appearing in next month’s ESPN the Body Issue. The special edition issue is in its 8th season and celebrates the human body. Delle Donne was embarrassed when asked about what it was like posing in the nude but said she was honored.
“We put a lot of work into these bodies so I’m excited to see how the shoot comes out. But I can tell you this modeling was definitely harder than playing ball with all the crazy poses I was in,” she said with a laugh.