When I came through the Pavilion doors last Friday for the American Basketball League Condors’ inaugural game, there was a small combo by the concessions playing simpy Kenny G-style jazz.
“If this is women’s basketball,” I thought, “then take me back to bush-league soccer. I’ll snap my fingers to Johnny Hallyday before I sit through this.”
Inside the arena proper, however, the atmosphere was quite different. Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” was throbbing on the public-address system, and the seats were filling with gum-popping teenage girls–many of them dressed in their high school or junior high basketball jerseys. The Condors are an expansion team in the women’s ABL, but general manager Allison Hodges, wife of former Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges, has been able to fill the team with homegrown talent, and pockets of fans devoted to one player or another were everywhere. My nine-year-old daughter and I were seated in the upper deck, behind and to the side of the Condors’ bench, and to our right was a row of girls yelling, “E.C.!” for E.C. Hill, the Whitney Young product and former Northern Illinois star. The shout proved infectious, and before long my daughter was yelling for “E.C.,” and for several other players besides. It was a full-scale sisterhood love fest larger than anything Oprah Winfrey has ever organized, and even that simpy jazz combo came around in the end. By halftime I heard them thumping away at one of Stevie Wonder’s funkier numbers.
I had expected the Condors’ first game to be an event, and it was. After monitoring ticket availability throughout the week to make sure we could just walk up and get in, I was spooked into driving down earlier in the day to get tickets by a Sun-Times report that the game was close to being sold-out. This may have been Condors management gamesmanship that backfired. Our $10 tickets were excellent, in the third row of the upper deck. (I can say from years of watching the boys’ Public League championships that there are no bad seats at the Pavilion–not for basketball, anyway. The last row of the upper deck is closer to the floor than most seats in the United Center.) And though TV declared the game a sellout just as we were leaving the house at 6 PM, there was plenty of room to stretch out when the game began. The Pavilion seats 7,800 for basketball with its east side curtained off, and the official attendance was 7,060 (I think the first announced figure of 6,050 was closer to the truth). But it was a lively, avid crowd, and just about all the Pavilion concession stands could handle (the lines were long even without beer sales–one of the hardships of a game in a college facility).
I was expecting not just expansion basketball but November expansion basketball, and the only thing uglier than November basketball is October hockey. It was the Condors’ first game, and their opponent, the Nashville Noise, may well turn out to be one of the poorer teams in the ABL. (The Condors would lose the next night to the Rage in Philadelphia by a score of 73-56, dampening the opening-night optimism.) In short, I wasn’t prepared for how involving the game, and especially the players, would be. The Condors mopped the floor with the Noise, winning 84-67; they were more fluid on offense, while playing a fundamentally sound woman-to-woman defense. The chauvinist in me was tempted to give much of the credit to head coach Jim Cleamons, Phil Jackson’s old Bulls assistant back in town after a short and disastrous tenure (little of it his fault) as coach of the Dallas Mavericks. Ferocious defense was always a hallmark of the Bulls, and Cleamons has brought that emphasis to the Condors; there were even a few glimpses of the triangle offense at the other end of the floor.
Yet Cleamons’s contributions aside, these women can play, and it took them very little time to establish their skill and character. The starting lineup was anchored by center Yolanda Griffith, a Carver grad who returns to Chicago already considered one of the ABL’s top players. She has a build reminiscent of Will Perdue, tall with thin shoulders, but she proved to be much more agile and adept than Perdue in the lane, finishing with 26 points and eight rebounds in a mere 22 minutes. (The ABL plays four ten-minute quarters, and most of the Chicago starters sat out the final frame.) Even more captivating were the two starting guards: the popular Hill, wearing Michael Jordan’s number 23, but with a modified mid-60s Flo Ballard mop instead of a shaved head; and point guard Deanna Tate, with a bleached-blond Dennis Rodman hairstyle and a wiry little frame under her stylishly oversize uniform that gave her a dervish quality as she rushed around the court. Tate was feisty, slapping away a defender’s hands and later drawing an offensive foul on a fast break, bouncing up off the floor to thrash a fist through the air. She was spelled off the bench by Dana Wilkerson, a flashy passer smooth as a tall glass of Nestle’s Quik. (Wilkerson’s the team’s most conventional beauty, her black hair pulled back in a low ponytail; it was no accident that she made the cover of the Sun-Times sports section the next day.) Moments after coming into the game, Wilkerson made a long pass on the run through traffic to key a fast break; she later drove the lane, dishing the ball with a flourish to forward Cathy Boswell for a lay-in.
Boswell and Adrienne Goodson were relatively slow to establish their credentials at forward–Goodson, in fact, muffed a breakaway layup early –but the more I watched them the more I liked them. They played with a veteran’s proficiency, displaying a versatile shooting range that extended to the three-point line and solid, harassing defense, and finished with 16 points for Goodson and 14 for Boswell. When I looked down at the program and saw both were in their 30s–Boswell, in fact, is a Joliet West grad who played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team–my eyes widened. With the ABL only in its third season, and the rival summer Women’s National Basketball Association having just completed its second, how did these women remain such polished players over the years? And people make a big deal about Michael Jordan returning to form after 18 months playing baseball.
The Condors took advantage of some home cooking by the referees to take a 5-0 lead, and the Noise were never really in the game after that. The Condors dictated the tempo and led 26-16 at the end of the first quarter. Right behind us sat another dutiful father, this one with three kids all under seven, and he took pains to explain to them that Goodson would have made that layup if she had just used the backboard. He cheered the team’s more exciting plays. “See,” he said, “you didn’t think you were going to have fun, did you!” All kids had been given red-and-white pom-poms on entry, and the game took place in an unending rustle of excitement.
The Condors put the game away in the second quarter, scoring the first 14 points to open a 40-16 lead. The Chicago defense was good, but the Noise players just couldn’t put the ball in the hoop–from either the field or the free throw line. The Condors led 44-22 at halftime and responded to a Nashville rally to keep the lead at 20 and beyond in the third quarter. Hill drove the lane, protecting the ball under her right arm, and tossed it up underhanded, with the backspin of a 16-inch softball pitch, for a lay-in and a foul that she converted for a 58-37 lead. Boswell followed moments later with another nice three-point play to make it 61-37.
Through the blowout the Condors remained the main attraction, even with the usual high jinks during breaks in play. Like the Bulls, the Condors resort to a “Dizzy Bat Spin” contest, and even at a women’s game there was no escaping the Village People’s “YMCA.” The typically sexist Flight Patrol cheerleading squad consisted of eight women in tight pants and halter tops and five men in T-shirts and sweatpants–though one of the men did try to spice things up by unsnapping one side of his sweats to bare a little thigh. Connie the Condor, the team’s official mascot, was introduced with emphasis on her sexiness, and she even had a little lipstick on the tip of her beak (though keeping in mind that she’s a bird of prey, I suppose that could be blood). But the Condors also unveiled a pleasant slow groove of a theme song at halftime (“Chicago, are you ready? / The Condors, they have landed”) and a funky “Jiggy Break” at the end of the third quarter that beat the Bulls’ scoreboard snack race by a long stretch. They also received some support from Bulls players Ron Harper (dressed up in coveralls to toss up the ceremonial first ball) and Bill Wennington, coach Tex Winter (ever a basketball gentleman), and former Chicago high school star Juwan Howard. All were there to offer their endorsement during the NBA lockout, but by the end of the game the Condors had shown that they didn’t need anyone’s endorsement. Most combative of all was forward Tausha Mills. She almost got into a fight pulling down a rebound in the first half, and coming down with one in the second half swung her elbows left and right and knocked Nashville point guard Saudia Roundtree to the floor. When Mills offered to help her up, Roundtree rolled away and got up screaming at her. Take that!
The fourth quarter gave Cleamons a chance to empty his bench. Tate came off the floor only to have Griffith grab her around her fuzzy blond hair and hug her. In came hometown heroes Joanne McCarthy and Ashley Berggren, both to hoots from their friends and families. McCarthy, a south-sider and sister of TV star Jennie McCarthy, was greeted with a sign reading, “Way to go, Jo Jo!” Berggren, a Barrington native and former University of Illinois star now in her rookie season, was cheered by an entire section of fans, many in their Illini Orange Crush sweatshirts. Nashville went to a full-court press and narrowed the gap, but Wilkerson had success breaking it and the game was never in doubt. Berggren found McCarthy open for a three-pointer toward the end, and as her friends and family cheered she backpedaled down the court flashing that totally natural and unenhanced McCarthy family attribute–a dynamite smile. She made a behind-the-back pass out of a double-team minutes later, and the ball fanned around the court and wound up in Berggren’s hands for a layup and her first points. Through many of these moments, Griffith, Goodson, and Tate kept rising off the Condors bench to hoot and wave their towels, looking very much like Jordan, Harper, and Scottie Pippen celebrating their way through garbage time.
So who misses the NBA? Not us Condors fans–not yet, anyway.