This week marks the 26th anniversary of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), America’s first all-women’s basketball league.
Created by the National Basketball Association (NBA) Board of Governors on April 24, 1996 as a counterpart to the NBA, women’s basketball officially pulled up to the court to declare “We Got Next” as they entered a traditionally male-dominated arena.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics, that WNBA Dream Team made waves, taking home the gold medal for Team USA and putting women’s basketball on the map. Launching its first season on June 21, 1997, the inaugural league featured eight teams, including the Houston Comets, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, Cleveland Rockers, Utah Starzz, Charlotte Sting and Sacramento Monarchs.
Today, the legacy of the WNBA is undeniable, with many pioneering players of the game still making an impact today outside the league. The sportsmanship, athleticism and grace of these women has opened the door for other female players to see themselves on the court and follow in their footsteps to play the game they love. In honor of the league’s anniversary, we pay homage to the trailblazing women who made their mark in the paint.
Cynthia Cooper’s (now known as Cynthia Cooper-Dyke) remarkable career began at the University of Southern California, leading her team to back-to-back national championships. Joining the league in 1997 after playing overseas, Cooper earned two most valuable player honors, led the Houston Comets to four consecutive championships and was named finals MVP each time. As a four-time All-WNBA First Team performer, Cooper led the league in scoring three times.
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As a member of the Houston Comets’ inaugural team, Sheryl Swoopes dominated the sport, winning three WNBA Most Valuable Player awards and four championship titles from 1997 to 2000. In 2000, Swoopes scored a career-high 20.7 points per game and won the league’s MVP and defensive player of the year awards. She’s been decorated with three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA’s Olympic women’s basketball squad and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
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Teresa Edwards is one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, with a total of four gold medals to her name. After her overseas career, she joined the Atlanta Glory averaging 20 points and 6 assists per game. In 2000, Edwards won her final gold medal, becoming the first American to make five Olympic Games appearances.
Lisa Leslie joined the Los Angeles Sparks in 1997, in what some might consider to be perfect timing. With four gold Olympic medals, two champion titles and being an eight-time all-star, Leslie cemented her legacy in the league when she became the first player to dunk in a WNBA game back in 2002. The three-time league MVP and Hall of Famer retired with the title of the all-time leading rebounder in WNBA history.
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The career resume of Dawn Staley runs long, with an impact that is still felt and seen today. As one of the star players of the WNBA during her time with the Charlotte Sting and Houston Comets, the three-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time WNBA All-Star took her expertise of the sport to coaching, doing so at the University of South Carolina. After taking home the national championship title in 2022, Staley became the first Black coach, male or female, to win two Division I basketball titles.
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As the first-round pick in the first-ever WNBA Draft, Tina Thompson’s impact on the sport was immediately felt. Being one of the star players of the dynasty Houston Comets team, she was a leading force to the team’s four consecutive championships from 1997 to 2000. She’s a nine-time all-star, all-star MVP recipient, two-time Olympic gold medalist and was the second leading scorer during the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Thompson went on to become the head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers women’s basketball team from 2018-2022.