When Mark Cuban said last week that he would consider taking Baylor star Brittney Griner in the June draft, the rumbling you heard was from a grave in Bridgeport, Conn., where P.T. Barnum – who died in 1891 – was laughing in the hereafter.
The man who invented the three-ring circus would applaud Cuban’s sense of theater. Barnum would have also gotten a kick out of the reaction from nearby coach Geno Auriemma of the University of Connecticut, who said, “I think it would be a sham.”
Of Auriemma, Barnum would have undoubtedly pointed out: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
What Auriemma and others who took Cuban too literally missed was that Cuban never said Griner was going to play in the NBA. He never even said she would play in the summer league. What he said is he would consider drafting her and if she was the best player available when the Mavericks were on the clock for their second-round pick, he would take her.
One thing is certain – when the Mavericks draft in the second round, Brittney Griner will not be the best player available. But Cuban may still draft her because he’s looked at his second-round picks in recent years and there hasn’t been a Manu Ginobili among them. Since drafting the heavy-footed Nick Fazekas in the 2007 second round (they also drafted Renaldas Seibutis and Milovan Rakovic the same year – give me Brittney!), the Mavericks have used second-round picks to draft Shan Foster, Ahmad Nivins, Solomon Alabi, Targuy Ngombo and Darius Johnson-Odom.
NBA teams drafting women players is nothing new. It’s rare, but not new. In 1969, the Golden State Warriors drafted Denise Long, an Iowa high school player who had averaged 62.8 points a game her senior year. Long was a 13th round selection but later the pick was voided because the league said it was a publicity stunt.
In 1977, Lucy Harris of Delta State was selected by the New Orleans Jazz in the seventh round (137th overall), but she showed no interest in playing. Still, with the Long pick voided, Harris became the first female to be drafted officially.
So Cuban’s idea in 2013 is 44 years after the Warriors’ idea to draft Long and 36 years after Harris was drafted.
During the week, there was a lot of discussion on whether a woman could play in the NBA and some actually took it seriously. I don’t know for sure, but I think that such people might also have a serious debate on whether a man can get pregnant.
It has nothing to do with skill. There are women who could engage NBA players in a game of H-O-R-S-E and win. And how many women can beat Dwight Howard in a free throw shooting contest? Many.
But fulltime professional basketball is a game of strength and NBA players are world-class athletes in supreme shape. Women simply aren’t as strong and it is unlikely that they will be anytime soon. Nancy Lieberman, one of the great female players in basketball history, said it best, telling USA Today: “There’s not a man who would sell his soul and let her come down and dunk on him. They are going to knock her on her ass.”
But that doesn’t mean Griner can’t be drafted, although if it does happen, it will be nothing more than a line on her résumé. She is going to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA, where she won’t make NBA money but certainly will be making a nice living for a person in her first year out of college. Griner almost certainly will sign a lucrative contract to play in Europe, where the money for women players is substantially more than it is in the U.S.
There are sports where women can compete with men. The most obvious is motor sports, where Danica Patrick – although not a dominant driver by any means – has had a measure of success, even winning an open wheel race in Japan and also becoming the first woman to win the pole position in qualifying for a Sprint Cup race.
Women can compete and win in bowling. There has been a woman who played goalie in a minor league hockey game and kicked for a college football team. Annika Sorenstam competed in a PGA golf event and although she missed the cut and finished 96th out of 111 players, she did, in fact, beat 14 men.
There might be a woman sometime in the future who could be to basketball what Eddie Gaedel was to Major League Baseball in 1951. Gaedel was 3-foot-7 and infamously hired by Bill Veeck – who was a Mark Cuban-like promoter long before Mark Cuban – to bat in a St. Louis Browns-Detroit Tigers game. Gaedel was walked on four pitches, then replaced at first by a pinch-runner. He retired after the game.
Some team could park a great female shooter at the 3-point line and try and set her up with open shots. A player with great shooting skills could have a better chance of playing than a low-post player like Griner. But then, of course, there is that nasty part of the game called defense. And that would not be pretty.
It does seem that despite all intentions, I have found myself writing seriously about this silly issue that Cuban mischievously created – even if it was very brief. Got suckered in, I guess.
If Barnum were alive, he’d recognize what Cuban did last week was promote his team, promote the NBA and, of course, promote himself. Nothing wrong with that. That’s what promoters do. And when suckers like Auriemma take the bait, promoters like Cuban think of it as a job well done.
CHECK OUT JAN HUBBARD’S ARCHIVE FROM SHERIDAN HOOPS.COM. GREAT STUFF ON THE NBA THEN AND NOW.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.