By LELAND STEIN III
AUBURN HILLS - I've always enjoyed and appreciated women's basketball. The WNBA finals at The Palace, which was won by the Detroit Shock 83-78 against two-time defending champion Los Angeles Sparks, reaffirmed my belief that the ladies have game.
Collective energy, team first mentality and unabated enthusiasm are all traits exhibited by the wondrous Lady Shock during their improbable championship run.
What a Cinderella story for Detroit's finest ladies!
Detroit's number one ladies went from the outhouse to the penthouse . . . from the worst record in the league (9-25) in 2002 to the best record in the league (25-9) in 2003.
When has Detroit - or any - sports enthusiast seen a real fairy tale come to life?
Well, it happened at The Palace before the largest gathering at any WNBA Finals in the seven-year history of the league. The 22,076, not only broke the Final attendance record, it was the highest attended game in league history, too.
All were giddy in the afterglow of the championship celebration, especially the WNBA Commissioner, Val Ackerman.
"This was an excellent game and exciting series," said Ackerman standing in the tunnel soaking in the moment. "This was a wonderful event that matched two evenly matched teams. In the end, it was a great basketball story for Detroit. Michigan should be proud of this team and what it accomplished this year."
When the final horn sounded and the clock read zero, all seemed to wake up from a dream. Just two minutes earlier, the Sparks had taken a 73-70 lead and had the ball. At that moment I, like the multitudes in attendance, wondered out loud if the Shock had let the game slip away. After all, another basket by the Sparks probably would have sealed the deal.
But fate was kind to championship starved Detroiter's.
Following the lead of their coach, former Pistons' 'Bad Boy', Bill Laimbeer, the ladies dug down deep and found an inner strength that carried them past the talented Sparks.
There is nothing like that championship feeling!
The Palace was rocking all game. The crowd got so loud I could not hear myself think as We are the Champions blared across the loud speakers, streamers flowed from the rafters and fireworks ignited.
I got so many hugs; I thought I had played in the game.
The beauty of sports and that championship feeling is that all seem to forget the nastiness of the world and revel in the moment. Race, size, and monetary status all seemed to fly out the window as people took great pleasure and delight in the Shock's victory.
Detroit's victory broke the West's stranglehold in the WNBA championship. Until Detroit's Cinderella victory, there had never been an Eastern Conference winner. Only Houston (the first four) and Los Angeles (the last two) had been champions.
The odds were against Detroit winning, but Laimbeer said he never doubted his team even after they lost game one in Los Angeles.
"I expected to win," said Laimbeer, his clothes soaking wet after the ladies had given him a champagne bath. "The satisfaction of the moment is seeing the way the ladies represented Michigan. Look at the crowd and the way people were responding to this team, it was great. My hat goes off to the effort they extended."
For Laimbeer, this was his third professional basketball championship; he won two as a Piston's player (1989 and '90).
The Shock players were extremely happy at their good fortune, but they echoed Laimbeer's retort concerning their expectation for victory.
"We were loose and tried to treat the game as if it were a regular season contest," said Shock guard Deanna Nolan, who has the sweetest jumper in the league and used it to sink a three that gave the Shock a 75-73 lead with 53 seconds left in the game. She closed out the game knocking down four free throws in the final 32 seconds.
"Deanna's been clutch for us all year," said Final's MVP Ruth Riley, who played the game of her life, scoring a career high 27 points. "We seem to be able to come up with whatever is needed to win a game. Today it was my turn to step up."
Riley's ascension in the biggest game of the year was timely indeed. She had been having trouble handling All-Star Sparks center Lisa Leslie in the first two games.
"People had been talking bad about Ruth," said Shock team leader Swin Cash, "but my girl Ruth showed everybody that she can play. I'm not surprised she did what she did. We knew she was going to get some open looks and she made them pay."
Concurred Sparks coach Michael Cooper: "Riley's play surely helped the Shock win, but it was their overall hunger for the title that got them over the top. Detroit made it happen when they needed it most. I thought we were in control at the end, but we came up a little short."
In retrospect, its poetic that no Shock player made All-WNBA first team. Cash, Nolan and rookie Cheryl Ford did, however, make All-WNBA second team.
The Shock proved again that a team approach and a collective effort is what wins titles.
With the Shock winning the WNBA title and the Detroit Demolition earning the National Women's Football Association title, it's safe to say Detroit's ladies rule.
Leland Stein can be reached at
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