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The Portland Fire had just clanked to a WNBA exhibition loss against the Seattle Storm last Tuesday night. Two couples slumped in Tri-Met seats, waiting to be bused across the Steel Bridge to westside MAX stops, fell into pessimistic post-game analysis.
"What's up with Number 10?" demanded a black woman, her arm draped around her female companion. "Is she supposed to be able to shoot?"
"Jackie Stiles," replied a man sitting next to his wife on the opposite side of the bus. "She was the all-time leading scorer in college. She's adjusting."
"Jesus," spat the initial complainant's girlfriend. "She's finally getting paid, so she forgets how to play?"
The man laughed. "Hey, give her a chance to learn where the basket is." The shuttle, full to the brim with honor for diversity, hit the road.
The Fire's last pre-season Rose Garden appearance demonstrated a few things. Stiles has to ratchet up her game to make an impact against taller, meaner pros. Tamicha Jackson, a new Fire guard, has a layup as buttery as a five-dollar crumpet. Seattle's top draft choice, Aussie stilt Lauren Jackson, will give this league fits.
Finally, a glance around at fans scattered across the Garden's lower tiers seemed to indicate that the Fire, a second-year team still building its identity, has connected with Portland's most passionate women's hoops fans.
Many of whom happen to be lesbians.
The WNBA has never had to worry whether to rely on lesbians to kick down cash. As with the American Basketball League, the now-defunct women's league that included the much-loved Portland Power, the demographic "that dare not speak its name" has been there for the NBA's foray into the women's game.
To its credit, the WNBA has come a long way toward acknowledging this bastion of hardcore support. Though it has not yet had its Martina Moment, the league includes same-sex domestic partners in its benefits package, and the Fire advertises in Just Out. Not as bold as the L.A. Sparks, who recently staged a promo session for 1,000 lesbian fans at a West Hollywood bar, but a start.
"Our games are open to everyone," says Sandi Bittler, the Fire's VP of business operations. "We've aimed to get a very diverse fanbase, and though we're still building it, I think we've been pretty successful."
All this stands in stark contrast to the cowardly ostrich acts performed by women's pro golf and tennis circuits, which haven't exactly killed themselves trying to acknowledge lesbian fans and players. (And let's not even talk about men's pro sports, where the closet remains fastened shut with nine-penny nails.) Still, some critics say the WNBA has yet to find the end of the rainbow.
Last year, the Sacramento Monarchs had an ugly misunderstanding with some fans when arena staff refused to acknowledge the Davis Dykes along with other group-ticket buyers receiving scoreboard shout-outs. Security goons have confiscated lesbo-centric signs at New York Liberty games. One Liberty fan told a reporter that "there's a big lesbian elephant in the Garden" every time the club plays.
"There are a whole lot of us in the seats," says Sylvia Cagle, a Monarchs fan who runs an excellent WNBA fan website called The 3 Pointer. "If the Rancho Cordova Lions Club or the River City Quilters can be acknowledged, why not the lesbian community?"
If the utter normalcy of Tuesday's atmosphere prevails, this issue may prove to be a non-issue in Portland. Troops of little kids cheered next to hand-holding girl-couples. In the front row, two men sat with their arms around each other. A young woman a few seats over kissed her companion on the cheek. If anyone noticed, no one seemed to care.
Hard to picture any of this happening at a Blazer game. The WNBA is a slickly marketed corporate product, but compared to the glutted guignol the men's game has become, this is sports with a human face. Tuesday's crowd, in addition to tolerance, exhibited quirkiness, spontaneity and enthusiasm too often missing from NBA crowds. Gay, straight or otherwise, these people cared.
"These are just a bunch of people getting together to watch a basketball game," says the Fire's Bittler. "This year, there's been so much confusion about what happened to the Blazers, we're having sort of a positive backlash. People are saying, 'Here's something new and fresh.'" Speaking of Basketball...
It is a little unfortunate for the WNBA that the "lesbian thing" has attracted more notice from my brothers and sisters in the Sporting Press than most anything the league's players have done on the court. (Jokes about nude emperors and glass houses might be appropriate here.) The Fire and the Storm did manage to hoop up last Tuesday, even as certain local columnists stewed over socio-cultural issues in section 117.It's a mistake to set too much store by exhibition games; history is littered with the smoldering carcasses of teams that put together impressive preseason records only to go full-tilt Chernobyl come crunch time. Far as I could tell, though, the Fire have some promise in their second year. Tully Bevilaqua, Portland's fireball from Australia, is a highly entertaining player to watch, with her relentless Tasmanian Devil-esque scrapping. Vanessa Nygaard, an imposing Nordic type, is also a formidable baller. Collectively, the Fire had the grit to fight back after spotting the Storm a steep lead early in the first half, when Portland simply couldn't find its shot. I wouldn't worry too much about the eventual overtime meltdown. Coach Linda Hargrove didn't even have ace scorer Sophia Witherspoon on the floor for much of the extra period.As an entertainment deal, the WNBA is pretty sweet. Ten bucks put me behind the basket, about 30 rows up, in territory I'd never be able to afford for a Blazers game. Those trogs who fear that women's sports won't provide the same vicious thrills as men's might have found Tuesday's spectacle of flying elbows, lowered shoulders and low-post combat enlightening. Unfortunately, the Fire game featured the same goofy sideshows-the hippity-hop race! Mascot sumo!-that provide time-out giggles for the punters from McMinnville at Blazers contests. On the other hand, the Fire fans were considerably more lively that the stupefied minions who sit on their hands during Blazers games, waiting for the electronic scoreboard to spell out "D-FENSE!" for their edification.
Taken to the Woodshed
The British soccer mag When Saturday Comes bills itself as "the half-decent football magazine." You could say that the Portland Timbers put together a "half-decent" football match last Wednesday, when they beat the El Paso Patriots 2-1 in front of a solid midweek crowd of about 3,800 at PGE Park. Portland came out hot in the first half, sticking in two quick goals and looking, briefly, like they were about to embark on a gratifying rout. In the second half, however, El Paso strung together some good attacking spells. After the Timbers lost Matt Chulis to a red card, they pretty much had to white-knuckle it to the final whistle.I spent most of the second half in section 107, bastion of the Timbers' independent fan club Cascade Rangers and a ragtag assortment of soccer hardcores. These guys (they are mostly guys) have coalesced quickly and now have a few identifiable chants and songs at their disposal. High marks go to the sing-song "There's no pity in the Rose City!" Not so high marks for the "Baseball sucks!/ Baseball sucks!" chant when Beavers scores were announced. Baseball does not suck, but the weird reverse snobbery common to American soccer fans ("We love soccer, therefore must hate everything else") does, in fact, suck completely. Other Than That, Well Done
The Timbers themselves continue to tinker with their roster. Last week, they inked college blue-chipper and Trinidad youth international Darin Lewis and touted Yale 'keeper Dan Moss, fourth-best portero in Bulldogs history. Lewis should be a particularly exciting addition. As a forward/midfielder for the University of Connecticut, he was named MVP of the 2000 NCAA College Cup. Along with defender Brent Sancho, he'll give the Timbers a double-shot of Trinidadian mojo, with T&T players up front and in back.To make room for the new guys, the Timbers jettisoned three players, including PDX futbol fixture Rob Baarts.Lewis and Moss join up just before the most punishing two weeks of the Timbers' short history. Last Saturday, the Greens battled A-League Western Conference leaders San Diego Flash FC down in the SD, winning 4-3. San Diego, a team that nearly went tango-uranium just before the season, visits PGE Saturday. Just two days later, the Timbers take to the NexTurf again for their first match against a Major League Soccer side, an exhibition "challenge match" against the San Jose Earthquakes. The e-Quakes (very 21st century, no?) have suffered through two nicknames (they were originally the Clash), a troupe of coaches and five ineffectual seasons in MLS. This year, however, they've added stalwart U.S. national team defender Jeff Agoos and Landon Donovan, a hot-shooting 19-year-old spice boy who is allegedly "the future of American soccer." Earthquakes goalie Joe Cannon has built himself a nice little brick wall in front of the San Jose net this season. Should be killa. Less fashionable but highly important games against the Minnesota Thunder (June 6), U.S. Open Cup rivals the Utah Blitzz (June 9) and the Vancouver Whitecaps (June 13).
Portland Fire vs. Minnesota Lynx
Rose Garden Arena
1401 N Wheeler Ave.,
7 pm Thursday,
The Sparks' marketing efforts received national attention after Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers, who is about as smart as that brick wall over there, made some Cro-Mag cracks about them. Simers was soundly flogged by many of his colleagues around the country.
The Monarchs' ownership apologized to the Davis Dykes. According to Cagle, the team plans a "Gay Night" this year. The Seattle Storm designated one game last year as Gay Pride Night.