WNBA in good hands with youth


PHOENIX -- Shoni Schimmel was the WNBA All-Star Game MVP, and afterward she wanted everybody to be a part of the celebration. She posed for photos with her grandmother, great-grandmother, siblings, parents, nieces, nephews, cousins, fans.

Oh, and one prominent "foe."

"Brittney, come here! My mom wants to take a picture with you!" Schimmel said to Phoenix's Brittney Griner, who, of course, obliged.

Griner's West Conference All-Stars lost a highly entertaining 125-124 overtime game to Schimmel's East squad Saturday at US Airways Center. But in reality, nobody lost.

This was a big win for the WNBA, the Mercury organization, women's basketball, the fans, and the players. In particular, it was a "take a bow" afternoon for the younger generation, such as Atlanta guard Schimmel, the rookie out of Louisville who scored a game-high 29 points and also had eight assists. And Tulsa guard Skylar Diggins, the second-year pro out of Notre Dame who led the West All-Stars with 27 points, plus had seven assists.

And also Griner, whose Mercury currently own the WNBA's best record at 18-3 and who had 17 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots Saturday to the delight of the 14,685 who watched the highest-scoring All-Star Game in the league's history.

Nothing can stay vibrant without an infusion of the "new" at regular intervals. The WNBA, a league in its 18th season, is still developing its niche in the sports world. Part of the growth comes from enticing fans who perhaps needed someone special to pique their interest.

Someone who makes them curious, or makes them intrigued, or makes them proud. Or all of those things. Just getting that first investment -- "OK, I'll watch this to see how she does" -- can lead to a longtime commitment.

With the younger WNBA All-Stars that were here -- and including Chicago's Elena Delle Donne, who was voted a starter but is dealing with a recurrence of Lyme Disease and didn't play -- the league has very talented players who brought a certain amount of personal popularity with them when they turned professional.

Schimmel, along with her sister and former Louisville teammate, Jude, has been an inspiration to Native Americans all over the country. Wherever Shoni is playing, there are always those who come to watch because of the powerful loyalty and pride she inspires in them. She makes their spirits soar, and she can feel their hopes riding along with her.

"In Indian country, she is changing lives," her mother, Ceci, said in the swirl of ecstatic family members surrounding Shoni after the game. "They look up to her. We've gotten letters from girls who say they are inspired to do things because of her."

Schimmel is just the third player in league history to be voted an All-Star starter despite not regularly starting games for the Atlanta Dream. She's a rookie who is still learning what's needed on the defensive end for a veteran team with standouts such as Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza, who were both All-Stars.

But in the All-Star Game, where defense doesn't usually make an appearance until late in the fourth quarter, offense is the show. And that is Shimmel's place to shine.

"It's the same old Shoni, just a different stage," said Jude Schimmel, who will be a senior for Louisville this season. "She's been playing like this since she was 4 years old. To see her do it on a stage like this, it's crazy, and I'm so happy for her. And I'm thrilled that so much of my family was here to see it."

All told, 17 members of the Schimmel sisters' family made it to Phoenix for the game. But even the Mercury fans, who were rooting for the West to win, couldn't help but roar with appreciation for Schimmel.

They did the same for another young player who probably would have been the game's MVP if the West had pulled out the victory: Diggins. In her second season in the WNBA, she is making a case for the league's most improved player award.

One of the most exciting sequences of the entire game was when Seattle veteran Sue Bird ran over toward the scorers' table chasing a loose ball. She was able to flick it back over her shoulder to Diggins, who raced in for the layup to tie the score at 112-112 with 26 seconds left in regulation. That ended up sending the game to overtime.

All-Star Games can be forgettable, but this one had some vignettes that will linger in the memory. That play was definitely one of them. Bird, the consummate pro who has won so many championships and gold medals, getting the assist to Diggins, whose pro career is just beginning.

Bird's legendary UConn career and her first WNBA title at Seattle came before things like Twitter and Instagram existed. Her personal "branding" back then didn't have the boost of social media, but it's something that she appreciates can be used to market younger players such as Diggins.

"With each crop of newbies that we get to the WNBA, if they already bring a fan base with them, it really helps," Bird said. "As older players start to retire ... everyone talks about passing the torch. And you want people who can run with it. Clearly, this league is in good hands right now in terms of that."

Two of the biggest "good hands" in that regard belong to Griner, the gregarious 6-foot-8 center who won an NCAA title with Baylor. She is so good-natured and happily goofy to go along with her obviously improved skills as a second-year pro. Griner dunked Saturday, blocked some shots and played the "foil" for a couple of Schimmel show-time baskets. She even briefly danced with performers during a timeout.

"That's what it's all about -- putting on a show for our crowd," Griner said.

Griner has that life-of-the-party side to her, but she also has spoken a lot about wanting to be a prominent voice against bullying. She is openly gay and has written a book about the difficulties she faced growing up as someone who seemed so "different" from others around her. In Griner, a lot of fans see some of their own struggles. They gain strength from her success, along with feeling her joy.

Saturday was about the here and now, but also the future. Like Bird said, the WNBA has to feel pretty good about both. Thanks to the likes of Schimmel, Diggins and Griner, it was easy to feel that way.