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WNBA: Great Basketball, Yes, But Marketable?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Back in the 1980s, a former Journal colleague was assigned to interview a young woman who was exceptionally good in her chosen sport.

“So, (woman’s name),” he began, “do women make good athletes?”

The rest of the interview didn’t go well.

Saturday, some three decades later, the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA came to Albuquerque to play a preseason game at the Pit. The Sparks, led by Candace Parker’s dominant first quarter and by DeLisha Milton-Jones’ 14 points, won 83-72.

Three players had 12 points apiece points to lead the Mercury.

The time has long passed, of course, for there to be any debate — if there ever was — about whether women make good athletes. Some of the nation’s and world’s best were on display Saturday.

There’s still a question, though, as to how deeply a women’s team sport can penetrate the U.S. sports market.

Saturday, an enthusiastic crowd of 4,253 braved stifling temperatures in the Pit to see the Mercury and the Sparks. The L.A. roster featured a player with a LeBron James-like skill set in Parker; the Mercury has a Steve Nash counterpart in former Connecticut star Diana Taurasi.

Oops. Mercury coach Corey Gaines had Taurasi, uninjured but in the midst of two-a-day practices, sit this one out. But Sparks point guard and WNBA veteran Ticha Penicheiro — think Jason Kidd — has long been one of the most gifted passers in the game.

Now, do we really need the comparisons with stars from men’s game? The talent, skills and all-around athleticism witnessed at the Pit Saturday suggests otherwise.

Parker was dazzling in the first quarter.

At the 8:37 mark, she picked a Mercury’s pocket and flipped a behind-the-back pass to teammate Kristi Toliver for a layup.

At 4:51, she used her 6-foot-4 frame to toss in a soft, left-handed jump hook off the glass.

Unless confronted by a sagging zone defense or the Green Bay Packers, Parker is as close to unstoppable as any basketball player you could wish to see.

She finished the first quarter with six points, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal. She and Milton-Jones (six first-quarter points) also came close to finishing the Mercury, which trailed 26-13 after one period.

Phoenix, led by former LSU All-American Marie Ferdinand-Harris, outscored the Sparks by two points in the second quarter but never made the game close.

As cold as the Mercury was in the first half (9-of-27 from the floor), it was that hot and then some in the Pit.

“That was the hottest gym I’ve ever been in,” said Gaines.

Aside from the heat and the altitude, Parker said afterward, her first visit to the Pit was enjoyable.

“I think (the fans) really welcomed us very well,” she said. “I think they were excited to see us, and we were excited to play in front of them.”

Some fans were observed fanning themselves, but not with game programs; there were none. For Beverly Trevor, that was one more reason hers was not a good first visit to the Pit.

“I’ve heard this is the Land of Enchantment, but now I have a different opinion,” said Trevor, a Florida resident who stopped in Albuquerque on her way home from Las Vegas, Nev., for the sole purpose of watching Saturday’s game. “Very disappointing.”

No one could have been disappointed with the caliber of basketball they saw.

None other than John Wooden used to say he enjoyed watching women’s basketball more than men’s because it was a more pure form of the game — less physical but more fundamental.

The women’s pro game is more physical than ever, but still rooted in those fundamentals. It’s terrific basketball, period.

Saturday’s was a nice crowd, and the WNBA couldn’t have been disappointed. Yet, the vast number of empty seats in the Pit on Saturday suggests that, despite the popularity of UNM women’s basketball here, there’s still a reluctance here as elsewhere to embrace women’s team sports.

Most top-tier WNBA players make most of their money overseas, where corporate sponsors make the system flow.

Clearly, the WNBA is embracing the idea. The Sparks wear not “Los Angeles” or “Sparks” on the front of their jerseys, but “Farmers.” For the Mercury, it’s “LifeLock.”

The third quarter ended with the Sparks still up by 11. In the fourth quarter, a nifty pass from Jantel Lavender to Ebony Hoffman put the Sparks up by 18. With Parker on the bench, The Mercury cut its deficit to four, 76-72, on a 3-pointer by Ketia Swanier. But the Sparks responded with a short jumper by Australian import Jenna O’Hea and four free throws by Hoffman.

This just in: the Mercury has a player named Brittany Spears.

Can the WNBA ever become as popular as her namesake?