You can’t UConn me

Why, Christine Brennan asks in her “USA Today” column, isn’t the Connecticut women’s basketball team getting major media play for being about ready to tie and then pass the UCLA men’s streak of 88 consecutive victories, which came to an end in 1974 after a nearly three-year run?

Christine, got a few minutes?

uconn womenFirst of all, it’s women’s basketball. And whether you like it or not, women’s college basketball just isn’t a very big deal in this country. Consumers don’t much buy it. So even if UConn goes on to win 188 straight games, it’s not going to be a major story. That’s just the way it is.

Am I being sexist? No, and don’t you dare tell me I am. I am 100 percent for women receiving the same opportunities as men in every walk of life, including sports. That said, it’s not my responsibility to follow women’s sports. It’s up to the sport to capture me, and college women’s basketball just doesn’t.

When Lynette Woodard played at Kansas in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I followed women’s college basketball fairly closely. When Jackie Stiles played at Missouri State in the late 1990s, I was a fan. They are two Kansans and two pioneers in women’s basketball.

But the trail they blazed turned cold. And while UConn’s accomplishment is an incredible one, it hasn’t captured our imagination the way the UCLA men’s streak did.

That streak lived through players like Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes and Marques Johnson. John Wooden, the greatest coach ever, was on the bench. UCLA’s dynasty went far beyond winning 88 straight games; the Bruins were in the midst of an incredible national championship run.

Competition for attention was almost non-existent. Basketball season meant a lot of UCLA and not much of anyone else. The Bruins ruled the hoops world in those pre-ESPN days, when a televised game was an event. And almost all of the events involved UCLA.

The UConn women are, without a doubt, the most successful women’s basketball program of the past 10 years. Their coach, Geno Auriemma, has a record of 739-122 in 26 seasons.

I like to think of myself as an avid sports fan, but I’m going to admit something here: I don’t know much about the UConn women. I can name a few of their players and I could pick Auriemma out of a crowd. But I haven’t zoned in and I don’t know anyone who has.

Is that an indictment on women’s sports? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s an indictment on anyone or anything. I think it’s just a matter of the marketplace dictating interest.

It says something that UConn’s game against Ohio State on Sunday, in which the Huskies could tie UCLA’s streak with a victory, is being televised on ESPNU. Clearly, the TV honchos aren’t lathered up about this particularly streak. And how many people are going to watch a women’s basketball game that competes with the NFL?

Brennan is an outstanding columnist, but I don’t understand her fight in this instance. Her major point seems to be that the mainstream media is ignoring this story when, if it involved a men’s team, it would be the biggest story in the country.

She’s right, of course. If Duke and Mike Krzyzewski and Duke were about to tie and break UCLA’s record, the ESPN folks would be falling all over themselves getting the story on the air. There would be endless analysis and countless interviews with Bruins players from that era, asking them how they feel about their streak being threatened.

Nobody is calling up Walton or another UCLA player to ask them what they think about the UConn streak. That’s because they’re two completely different things. The UCLA streak is the UCLA streak, one of the most amazing accomplishments in sports history. The UConn streak doesn’t rise to that level. Not because it’s not impressive, but because women’s basketball doesn’t compare to the men’s sport.

Another factor is the one-sided nature of the UConn streak. The Huskies eked out a one-point victory over Baylor on Nov. 16 to run their winning streak to 80 games. Guess how many other single-digit wins UConn has had during its streak? One, a six-point victory over Stanford in last season’s national championship game.

The average margin of victory during UConn’s streak is 33.1 points. Even if you did tune in to watch a game, you’d be tuning out before the first half of the first half, in most cases. The Huskies have won almost as many games by 40 or more points (26) as they have by 25 or fewer (29).

My impression of women’s basketball is that it suffers greatly from competitive imbalance. Again, I don’t pay enough attention to know that for sure.

As for UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, the Bruins won their games by an average of 22.9 points. The majority of those wins were of the blowout variety, but did have 16 single-digit wins before finally falling to Notre Dame, 71-70, on Jan. 19, 1974.

I remember where I was when the streak ended and, of course, I was watching.

I won’t be watching UConn play on Sunday no matter how guilty Christine Brennan attempts to make me feel. I’m just not that interested. And that’s my right as an American.

A sports writer’s memory

Speaking of Jackie Stiles, I went to Claflin to interview her for a story in about 1997 or so (gosh, I’m going completely off of dull memory here) and hung out with her during some of her workouts. I covered one of her games in the 1A state tournament along about then, when Claflin lost to Little River in the state championship game. Then I covered probably six or seven of her games when she played at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State).

Perhaps I’m writing about this to convince people that I really have nothing against women’s basketball. But whatever the motive, watching Stiles play was always a major treat.

She was such a competitor and she brought so much talent to the floor. It’s not a surprise to me, given the way she played, that injuries eventually cut short her career in the WNBA.

Before Stiles, Woodard caught my attention during her high school career at Wichita North. She was the first truly great women’s high school player in Kansas and I believe she’s still the best ever.

I was pretty full of myself in those days and decided that I would beat her in a game of one-on-one in 1977, when Woodard was a senior at North. Wasn’t no girl gonna beat me. I think, in fact, those were my exact words.

I should have known better.

When I was worked at the “Derby Daily Reporter” in my pre-Eagle years, I challenged a girls tennis player, Julie Woodman, to a match. Now I had never played much tennis, but I figured I could beat her. How hard could it be?

I’m not sure I returned one of her serves. My most vivid memory of that match is of Julie laughing hysterically.

Basketball, though, was another matter. I could play basketball. In my mind, Lynette Woodard was in trouble.

No, not really.

She beat me, 30-16. She ran circles around me. When it was over, I shook Lynette’s hand and started searching for oxygen. She was the best player I’d ever played against, man or woman.