Legends Cheryl Miller, Nancy Lieberman, and Ann Meyers Drysdale Reflect on the Inaugural Year of the WNBA and the Launch of the Phoenix Mercury in 1997

The Las Vegas Aces emerged victorious in the 2023 WNBA finals held in October, resulting in the most-watched finals in the league in two decades. Statista reported a substantial increase of 36% in television viewership, averaging 728,000 viewers over the course of four games.

Former Phoenix coach Cheryl Miller reminisced about the colossal significance of the first game in 1997, attributing the popularity to the ’96 Olympic team’s victory. “Women’s basketball was coming off a high because of the ’96 Olympic team, and they killed everyone,” she stated. “I didn’t know how big it was gonna be.”

During Phoenix’s celebrated matchup against the Charlotte Sting, the electrifying energy filled the America West Arena, now known as the Footprint Center, as over 16,000 eager fans packed the premises. The Mercury’s team at the time was led by players such as Nancy Lieberman alongside color analyst Ann Meyers Drysdale, both pre-dating the inception of the WNBA.

Reflecting on the league’s early years, Phoenix’s All-Star center Brittany Griner expressed her appreciation for the predecessors’ efforts. “Nancy, Cheryl, Annie, all the greats that came before me, without them there would be no league right now, honestly,” she remarked.

The Mercury was an influential founding team in the WNBA, capturing the attention of the audience alongside other iconic teams including the New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks, and now-defunct Houston Comets. The dynamic presence of prominent athletes like Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, and Sheryl Swoopes further magnified the league’s popularity during the “We Got Next” ad campaign in 1996.

Miller and Lieberman were vanguards of women’s basketball advocating change in the 1980s, while Meyers Drysdale and Lieberman had an active role in shaping the sport during the previous decade. The team’s legacy continued to inspire the next generation, earning respect and admiration from contemporary WNBA stars.

The enduring contributions of these legends were commemorated at the Jerry Colangelo Hall of Fame Golf Classic, exemplifying the profound impact left by these iconic athletes. Former teammates Nancy Lieberman and Meyers Drysdale were honored alongside other legendary figures as inductees into the 2023 Hall of Fame class.

Amidst their storied careers, Lieberman and Meyers Drysdale helped lay the foundation for modern women’s basketball by setting milestones such as Meyers Drysdale being the first female to sign an NBA deal, and Lieberman’s groundbreaking introduction in the male-dominated Los Angeles Lakers team in 1981.

In the evolving landscape of women’s basketball, the significant influence of these pioneering athletes continues to illuminate the path for burgeoning talents. Miller and Lieberman’s unwavering dedication to women’s basketball led the way, shaping the sport and cultivating a space for future stars like Diana Taurasi and Sabrina Ionescu to thrive.


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