The Sky looks brighter this season. Chicago’s franchise in the WNBA converted last year’s inaugural 5-29 record into three top-20 college draft picks, and it’s hired a coach who’s clearly more engaged than the old one. The combination of new talent and new tactics has turned the Sky into a bona fide basketball team.

An expansion club is never an easy sell, not even with sports a lot more established and popular than women’s basketball, but this year’s Sky is playing involving games in front of small but loud and devoted crowds. They’re still a young team trying to learn how to win at the professional level, but in a single season they’ve reached the point the Bulls were at a couple of years ago–talented but raw. This Sky is those Bulls minus the decades of history and six championships.

I missed the Sky’s home opener. They lost that one after losing their first road game, picking up where they left off last year, and I can’t say I was all that eager to renew the acquaintance. But the Sky won their third game of the season in Minnesota, and when the team returned to the UIC Pavilion I was on hand. Within the first few minutes of play they’d won me over.

Candice Dupree, the team’s top draft pick last season, remains its best player. She looked more polished than ever–comfortable on the perimeter and in the post, shooting and passing–and the players around her seemed much improved. Scrappy Armintie Price of Mississippi, the team’s top draft pick this spring (and third overall), moved in at guard alongside veteran point guard Dominique Canty, a free agent from Chicago (Whitney Young High) who was signed during the off-season. Brooke Wyckoff, a holdover from last year, complemented Dupree at forward, and free agent Kayte Christensen started at center. Seven-foot-two Connecticut Sun center Margo Dydek had a foot on her, but Christensen held her ground on defense and offensively she went right at her bigger, slower opponent (or, a couple times, backed up to hit sweet set shots). Dupree was freeing the guards–who included five-foot-five Stephanie Raymond from Northern Illinois, the 20th draft pick, who comes off the bench–with high pick and rolls, either to get them a shot or to get herself open for a return pass, and she had 15 points and four assists at the half. Playing a stern yet flexible zone defense, the Sky opened a 17-point lead early in the second half.

These Sky players looked talented, capable, and organized–in marked contrast with last season’s team–and the credit almost certainly is due to new coach and general manager Bo Overton, who replaced Dave Cowens. For all his credentials–he’s a hall of famer ranked as one of the top 50 players in NBA history–Cowens was a little like manager Jimmy Dugan, the dipsomaniacal Tom Hanks character in A League of Their Own who was modeled on baseball great Jimmie Foxx. Tolerant of the Sky’s play to a fault, Cowens never seemed to expect more from his team than he got or even to take the job very seriously. I’ve been told he barely glanced at the scouting reports on Sky opponents. This season he returned to the NBA as an assistant with the Detroit Pistons.

Overton came in from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where last December he resigned as women’s basketball coach midseason to join the Sky. It’s commonly said that girls and women play a “purer” game of basketball in that they rely more on fundamentals and teamwork, and although I usually find this an unsatisfying trade-off for the athleticism and aerial game of boys and men, the Sky’s play was lovely to watch. Overton had his team moving without the ball, passing inside, and hitting open shots.

But when the Sun turned up the defensive pressure midway through the third quarter, the Sky suddenly looked like the team that had won only five times last year. Overton gave Dupree, Wyckoff, and Christensen a rest and then sent them back into the game as a unit, and the Sky managed to carry a 74-69 lead into the final period. But the offense screeched, the defense cracked, and the Sky gave up the lead. The odd thing was that the more dire the game got, the louder the crowd cheered. Helped along by a drum line that thumped away from the seats, the 2,634 fans sounded as noisy as a full house at the United Center, almost ten times as many spectators. Fans also poured onto the floor to do the “Cha-Cha Slide” and offer the grateful Sky an extended time-out late in the fourth quarter. They staggered into overtime, but experience told and the Sun won 102-97.

The game was probably lost off the court. Before it began the Sky accidentally gave the referees a roster of active players that didn’t include center Chasity Melvin, a recent acquisition, so Melvin couldn’t play. Overton took the blame, and his mistake almost certainly cost the Sky a victory–Melvin’s interior presence would have helped against the Sun’s forward Asjha Jones, who ran roughshod down the stretch and finished with 31 points. Yet the clear improvement of the Sky was reason enough for both the players and the fans to feel hopeful. Dupree scored 31 points, recording a career and franchise high for the second straight game.

The Sky rebounded to win Friday in Washington, and last Sunday, back at the Pavilion, scored the first 13 points of the game against the winless Minnesota Lynx. Everyone was involved, particularly Price, who was quick on the dribble and headed straight for the hoop whenever and wherever she got the ball. Overton put his three top rookies on the floor at once–center Carla Thomas, the tenth choice out of Vanderbilt, joining Price, Raymond, Dupree, and veteran guard Jia Perkins–and this lineup ran the lead to 20-4. Later free-agent rookie Claire Coggins hit a three-pointer to put the Sky up 51-36, and they led 42-28 at the half.

The second half was a slog, with every possession a struggle and the Sky relying on one-on-one play from Canty and Dupree. The Lynx kept coming, closing to four points in the game’s final minute. But the crowd–heavy with shrieking kids thanks to a family-friendly 5 PM start–kept shouting, the drum brigade kept pounding, about half the 3,477 in attendance hit the floor, and the Sky held on to win 78-72. Dupree and Canty finished with 20 and 16 points. Melvin played over half the game and had 12. This first home win of the season evened the Sky’s record at 3-3, and I’ll admit I felt every bit as involved watching this team come of age as I have watching the Bulls.

Overton attributed the difference between Thursday and Sunday to urgency, experience, and confidence. “The players who were here last year, I think they’ve got an idea that we can win some games,” he said. That alone is a refreshing change from last season.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Candice Dupree photo by NBAE photos.