The stands at sold-out Wintrust Arena were rocking Friday, perhaps more than any gym has rocked for a women’s basketball game in our town.
It was Game 3 of the best-of-five WNBA Finals between the Sky and the Phoenix Mercury, and the teams came in tied at a victory apiece. That was until the Sky demolished the brick-laying Mercury 86-50, the largest margin of victory in the Finals in the WNBA’s 25-year history.
Human good-luck charm Chance the Rapper was there at courtside. So was Bears quarterback Justin Fields, the young man who would be leading his team into battle against the Packers at nearby Soldier Field in about 36 hours. What they saw was a stone-cold rear-end thrashing that was as unexpected as it was severe.
Nasty cynics — let’s call them men — sometimes have described the WNBA as basketball played underwater. And it’s true that the women don’t have the muscular athleticism and high-flying jet propulsion of NBA players, men whose vicious dunks and midair acrobatics are the stuff of slow-motion dreams.
True, WNBA dunks are rare and rather timid when they do happen. Brittney Griner, the Mercury’s 6-9 center, had one in Game 1, but it was more of a dip than a jam.
Still, the women’s game is in many ways purer than the men’s pro game, with the latter’s uncalled travels, blatant carries and sumo-wrestler bashings under the hoop. The women’s fundamental style is certainly far closer to what Dr. James Naismith had in mind when he invented basketball 130 years ago, with its dependence on passing, defense and below-the-rim team effort.
Courtney Vandersloot — the Sky’s 5-8, 137-pound point guard — is the shifty, elusive, slick-passing playmaker who brings to mind a mix of John Stockton, Steve Nash and Nate Archibald. She only shot three times, making two baskets for four points, but her game-high 10 assists were things of beauty. So often did she set up teammates with in-rhythm shots that it seemed to depress the Mercury into near-surrender.
‘‘Tough night at the office,’’ Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.
Mercury stars Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi going a combined 3-for-19 didn’t help matters. And now the Sky has Game 4 on Sunday — starting roughly at halftime of the Packers-Bears game — after which, with another supreme effort, they could start their first WNBA title celebration while cars still are leaving the parking lots at Soldier Field.
‘‘The Sky played great,’’ Fields summed up. ‘‘The energy and the fans were electric.’’
Sky coach James Wade concurred.
‘‘I really feel Chicago,’’ he said.
Sky owner Michael Alter has, like so many WNBA folks from front-office staff to players to trainers, complained for years that the league would explode in popularity if the media just would pay more attention to it. To which those of us in the media always have countered: Bring us a great team, and maybe we’ll cover you more. The chicken or egg conundrum is there.
But it’s certain you can’t force a product down the public’s throat if it doesn’t open wide out of an appetite for that product. It’s a curious and unfortunate fact that the WNBA started in 1997 and basically has seen its attendance decline ever since.
‘‘There’s a lot of people in cities who don’t even know they have a WNBA team in that city,’’ third-year WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, formerly an executive at Deloitte, said recently.
And whose fault is that? Is it possible a lot of people just don’t like the women’s pro game? Don’t love the summertime schedule? Can’t stop comparing the WNBA to men’s hoops?
One interesting stat is that many more viewers watch the women’s NCAA championship than watch the WNBA Finals. Colleges have something pro teams don’t: built-in, passionate, longtime fan bases.
Then, too, there is wide disparity in the existing WNBA fan bases. The Los Angeles Sparks, for example, play in the 19,000-seat Staples Center, where the NBA’s Lakers play, while the Washington Mystics play in the 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena, where the G League’s Capital City Go-Go play.
Right now, however, possibilities swirl in Chicago. One more big game, and the Sky can join the Bears, Bulls, Cubs, White Sox and Blackhawks as champs in this city since 1985.
Then the sky’s the limit.