The WNBA's unstoppable journey: From hoop dreams to shattering glass ceilings

It was 1985 when 27-year-old Nancy Lieberman, already a veteran basketball star and Olympic champion, was summoned to New York to meet with then-NBA commissioner David Stern. A former lawyer, Stern took over as leader of the upstart basketball league in 1984 and would become, in time, the longest-serving commissioner in league history.

Lieberman had already established a reputation for herself after becoming the youngest basketball player in Olympic history to medal, at 17. That was in 1976, at the Montreal Summer Games, in the inaugural women’s Olympic basketball competition. In the years that followed, she took advantage of every opportunity to play professional basketball, even suiting up for the Los Angeles Lakers in their Summer Pro League at the behest of Dr. Jerry Buss – remaining undaunted when longtime Lakers trainer Jack Curran told her to change in the men’s locker room and handed her a gym bag containing a jock strap.

Holding up the strap, she shouted, “Hey Jack, this thing’s too small. You’re going to have to find something bigger.”

That fiery attitude translated to the court and soon she succeeded in winning over Lakers head coach Pat Riley, who admitted she had a certain unflappable quality about her. The way she tells it: “Nowadays Pat Riley says: ‘(The male athletes) were bigger, stronger, more athletic. And you acted like you were the best player there. You just took it and came at them,'” Lieberman said.

For Lieberman, there was no other option. “What was I supposed to do?” she asked.

Her competitive spirit and athletic excellence soon earned her the nickname “Lady Magic” and a circle of friends and mentors that included Muhammad Ali, who also won an Olympic medal as a teenager.

Given that context, it wasn’t unusual that Stern sought out Lieberman for a meeting. But what he was about to tell her was definitely unheard of.

After the two walked into Stern’s office, he quietly closed the door.

“Why are you closing the door?” Lieberman asked.

“If they hear me, they’ll fire me,” Stern said.

Lieberman’s curiosity was piqued. “Really?” she asked.

Stern then dropped the bombshell he called her there to discuss: “Nancy, before I’m done with the NBA, there will be a ‘W.'”

“A ‘W’? What do you mean?” Lieberman asked.

“There will be a WNBA,” Stern said, taking time to emphasize the first letter. “And my only hope is that you’ll still be around to play in it,” he added.

Young and healthy, Lieberman hadn’t given a thought to retiring from basketball. But progress is slow, it takes an excruciatingly long time, and it wasn’t until 11 years after Stern and Lieberman talked that the NBA board of governors approved the concept of a women’s league, and another year until the WNBA tipped off on June 21, 1997. Lieberman, 39 years old by then, was selected by the Phoenix Mercury in the elite draft (held prior to the initial regular college draft as a way for teams to access top talent who’d already played professionally).

The morning of her first WNBA game, Lieberman received a call at home, where she was spending time with her then-husband and son before the historic contest. It was Stern. His voice was trembling.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” he said. “I didn’t know that you would still be here.”

The inaugural tipoff marked the culmination of years of hard work, yet it was only the beginning of a new journey. “What the WNBA did is it gave us something to want to fight for, to advocate for,” Lieberman said.

Since its inception, that fight has included dual goals of enhancing the product for fans while also improving the athletes’ experience. But it hasn’t always been a steady 45-degree angle of improvement. It’s been a journey marked by as many victories as challenges.

Todd Warshaw / Hulton Archive / Getty

Lieberman played only one year in the WNBA before retiring to become the general manager and head coach of the league’s Detroit Shock in 1998. In that role, she participated in the WNBA’s first collective bargaining agreement.

“It was important to make sure the players had rights, and it was important to make sure that players knew what it took to run a league, so there could be some balance and understanding between the two.”

That tension is something the league still grapples with today. But in 1998, Lieberman had a very succinct way of summarizing the balancing act. She remembers an athlete who continuously advocated for salary increases during Lieberman’s stint as general manager.

Lieberman invited her for lunch, asking her to bring a legal pad and pen.

During lunch, Lieberman dictated while the athlete wrote.

“Erasers, staplers, staples, chairs, electricity, business cards, and tea,” Lieberman said.

“What is all this?” the athlete asked.

“‘These are things I spend money on to run a business,'” Lieberman recalls saying. “I wanted her to learn that this wasn’t a girl’s club. This was a real business.”

Two-plus decades of growth

While the league walked the tightrope of sustainability and athlete needs, it began to do something else: develop fans. And after 26 years, the WNBA’s standout rivalries, historic moments, and superstars have captured the attention of a growing number of supporters. The 2022 regular season was the league’s most-watched in 14 years, and the league also saw historic levels of social media engagement, with 186 million video views and a 99% year-over-year increase in web traffic.

One of its modern-day superstars is two-time league MVP Candace Parker, who played a career-defining 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks, leading them to two Finals appearances and one WNBA Championship during a heated rivalry with the Minnesota Lynx that delivered all the dramatic notes fans tune in for.

Parker fondly remembers teammate Nneka Ogwumike’s fadeaway buzzer-beater that upset the defending-champion Lynx in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, one of the most iconic WNBA highlights online today: