Despite what many may think, the WNBA has a long history of thrilling, intense rivalries and we take a moment to look back at some of the best.
A rivalry is defined as a competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.
In sports, there are many rivalries. In baseball it was (and still is) the Yankees and the Red Sox. In basketball, it was the Celtics and Lakers, whereas in today’s basketball world, it’s the Warriors and Cavaliers. In tennis, it was Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. In men’s college basketball it’s North Carolina and Duke, where the teams are only eight miles apart in the great Tarheel state. In women’s college basketball, it was UConn vs. Tennessee.
The list goes on and on and the one thing all those sports have in common is rivalry. We live for rivalries in sports as it brings out the passion and intensity in us the like of which we have never seen. It makes us yell and shout at our TV or computer screens, to high-five another fan, and to enjoy your team’s victory or feel solemn in the loss.
Ask the more casual fan, and most people don’t know of any rivalries in the WNBA. Some people assume that the first one began last year with what is now heralded as one of the greatest WNBA Finals ever between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks. But let’s dig a little deeper and talk about the past rivalries of the WNBA and why the league should capitalize on it more.
Houston Comets vs. New York Liberty, 1999 (Houston 2-1)
This wasn’t really a rivalry because Houston dominated the WNBA throughout the first four seasons as unheralded hero Cynthia Cooper took the world and the WNBA by storm. Houston was loaded with Sheryl Swoopes, who was one of the first players in the WNBA, Tina Thompson was the No. 1 pick, and Janet Arcain, the Brazilian star. Back in 1999 the WNBA Finals was a two game series. Houston went up one game in the series and most of the world thought it was over. If you remember the game Thompson just hit a layup to put Houston up by two with 2.4 seconds left on the clock and New York had no timeouts left. Teresa Weatherspoon dribbled to half court and heaved the ball and it went to the crowd’s shock. This is one of the most dramatic finishes in WNBA history … even though the Liberty lost the game this counted as a rivalry as this was the second WNBA Finals that the Comets and Liberty had met in 1997 and 1999.
Los Angeles Sparks vs. Houston Comets, 1999-2002 Western Conference Finals
For the first few WNBA seasons teams in the Western Conference had to go through Houston. Even though Los Angeles had WNBA Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie she was never able to will her team over the talent laden Houston Comets. What made this series so tough is that there were a lot of battles between California high school and USC products Leslie and Thompson who were very physical in the games. Great matchups to watch between those two teams and it was finally great to see Los Angeles come out on top and win the WNBA Championship in 2001.
Detroit Shock vs. Los Angeles Sparks, 2003 (Detroit 2-1)
A tale as old as time … the Bad Girls of Detroit vs. the LA Showtime Sparks with two NBA legends as coaches in Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper. Both coaches hung their precedent on defense and rebounding and that is what we saw throughout the series. L.A. were the defending back-to-back champions after winning against the now defunct Charlotte Sting and the New York Liberty. Detroit had a tumultuous start to the previous season before becoming known as the team to go from worst to first and to finish with a championship a year later.
The rivalry continued to escalate every time these two teams stepped on the court, specifically one regular season game in July 2008. With the game heavily advertised as two former NBA players turned coaches and their respective teams’ tensions were high. The game was very physical with both teams going at it. With 4.5 seconds left on the clock, L.A.’s Marie Ferdinand-Harris was fouled and at the free throw line when the Detroit Shock’s Plenette Pierson delivered a hard box-out on Candace Parker and both players became entangled and fell to the ground.
As Parker tried to stand up you could see Pierson aggressively walked up to Parker, not giving her space to get up which resulted in Parker pulling Pierson down to the floor. Parker and Pierson both tried to throw a punch at one another before Parker was tackled by Deanna Nolan and then the other players and coaches from both teams intervened. Detroit assistant coach Rick Mahorn tried to break up the fight but he ended up knocking Lisa Leslie backwards to the floor as she swung at him. Delisha Milton-Jones retaliated by pushing and punching Mahorn in the back causing Sparks players Shannon Bobbitt and Murriel Page to come off the bench to defend Leslie and push Mahorn. The altercation also resulted in a season-ending ACL injury to Shock player Cheryl Ford who was trying to restrain Pierson but ended up injured in the process. The results of the Malice at the Palace II was 11 suspensions and four ejections and unfortunately the game was not remembered for how competitive it was but the fight that occurred within the game.
Phoenix Mercury vs. Detroit Shock, 2007 (Phoenix 3-2)
Drama … drama … drama. This series showed the two most physical teams in the league going at it. In Game 1 Detroit took the win while Diana Taurasi fouled out but that wasn’t the most memorable thing in the game. In the 4th quarter with a little under two minutes left, Cappie Pointdexter and Deanna Nolan got into a little scuffle which then resulted into double technicals. In Game 3, another physical game in the 4th quarter with under 30 seconds left, Plenette Pierson and Penny Taylor got into a scuffle at half court with another set of technicals issued. In Game 4, a lot of physicality in the game with no calls both ways and more technicals being issued with Taurasi and Pierson exchanging words.
In the end the Phoenix Mercury walked away with the championship becoming the first team to win a title on an opponent’s home floor. This was Phoenix’s first championship but would be remembered as one of the most physical WNBA championships ever.
Minnesota Lynx vs. Phoenix Mercury, 2015 Semifinal (Minnesota 2-0)
In one of the most controversial games remembered, Minnesota’s Maya Moore stole Phoenix’s Noelle Quinn‘s pass with 3 seconds left and Quinn was called for a foul. That sent Moore to the free throw line with 1.5 seconds left to give Minnesota a 72-71 victory over the Mercury and a two-game sweep in the Western Conference finals where they faced the Indiana Fever. Phoenix would have had to foul anyway, but Mercury fans insisted that there was no foul on Moore, which made this a controversial game.
Phoenix Mercury vs. Dallas Wings
These two teams never played in the playoffs against one another but every time they face each other in the regular season, it has a playoff feel to it. In 2016, it was a triple-overtime thriller win for Dallas with 38 points from Phoenix’s Dewanna Bonner and 27 points from Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith. The most recent was held on August 10 where the two teams battled it out in overtime with the game going back and forth and Phoenix winning by one point. Any game these two teams play in feels like a playoff game and it has become an exciting rivalry to watch.
Los Angeles Sparks vs. Minnesota Lynx
Until last year Minnesota really did not have a rivalry or a team they felt was a threat to them until the Los Angeles Sparks. In true WNBA fashion when these two teams meet, it is a battle with the two top offensive and defensive teams in the league. Minnesota feels slighted for the loss in last year’s championship game and L.A. feels slighted that they may have not gotten the respect they deserved after beating a great Minnesota team due to some controversial calls. Either way when these two meet it’s always fireworks no matter which team you’re rooting for.
I did not list all the WNBA rivalries but these are some of the teams who rivalries I remembered the most. I think the WNBA should capitalize on these teams, especially L.A. and Minnesota who have been the top two in the league for a while now yet they have their games scheduled on NBATV or during the work day where most fans like myself cannot see it. I think the Sparks and Lynx need to be on ESPN or network TV because the games are the most exciting to watch. Let’s hope the WNBA will catch on to giving more attention toward rivalries so they generate more traction for the WNBA.