It’s another Monday evening at Vickie Harris’ house, and all her rowdy friends are coming over tonight. They’ll plop in front of Harris’ big-screen television, plow through a gloriously caloric buffet of barbecued chicken and peach cobbler, drink whatever, and, when the action warrants, yell at a screen that’s bigger than the ones at the Janus. Given the ambience and din inside this Hyattsville rec room, you’d think the Skins were playing.
But the ball that has brought this overwhelmingly female crew together and put it in such a lather ain’t pigskin, it’s the orange and white hide of the WNBA. Tonight, it’s the Cleveland Rockers vs. the Phoenix Mercury on ESPN’s game of the week. The tricked-up ball is a tad jarring, but the WNBA rules aren’t anything a fan of the men’s game hasn’t seen at either the college or pro level. Testy males might complain that a game without dunking just ain’t basketball, but that sort of harping better not come within earshot of anybody at this viewing party. Not unless the harper wants chicken bones and cobbler shoved into his every orifice.
The WNBA has a fair amount of visibility for a start-up league. Three different networksESPN, Lifetime, and NBCnow have weekly broadcasts of the We Got Next league, but even that’s not enough to satisfy this bunch’s jones for distaff hoops. So along with school-night rec-room soirees, they’ll hit the road on most weekends just to catch their WNBA heroines in person. Last week, it was the Charlotte Sting vs. the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden. Next week, it’ll be Phoenix at Charlotte. Before the WNBA’s inaugural season tipped off this summer, they regularly trekked to Richmond to see the Rage of the rival ABL play. Two weeks ago, the Rage relocated to Philadelphia, so there won’t be any road trips down I-95 this fall.
By next year, Harris and her crew may be able to get a live fix without leaving the city, if Abe Pollin’s recent pledge to house a WNBA franchise at the MCI Center for the 1998 season comes off.
But on this night, a televised game will have to do. Beats nothing.
“Alright, Monique!” yells Billie Harris (no kin of the host) from the couch as Monique Ambers, a Phoenix reserve, buries a set shot from about 12 feet out. “There you go, Monique!” echoes Chris Vera from the love seat. Others around the room chime in, referring to Ambers on a first-name basis, just as Skins fans would with Gus or Heath or whoever’s decked out in burgundy and gold.
The difference here is these WNBA fanatics really do know Ambers. Prior to the founding of the WNBA and the ABL, she was on the roster of In Flight, a D.C.-based semipro team that Billie Harris started and still coaches. Almost all the attendees at the Hyattsville viewing party either play or played at one time for In Flight.
What started out as a three-on-three team for playground competitions has evolved into a nationally recognized and respected squad that gets all-expenses-paid invitations to tournaments across the U.S. Because there never was a need for a professional women’s minor league until now, teams on the semipro circuit have taken up that slack for the burgeoning WNBA and ABL. Few semipro rosters have been picked as clean as has In Flight’s: In the WNBA alone, In Flight alumni include Jesse Hicks of the Utah Starzz, Katrina Colleton of the Los Angeles Sparks, Penny Moore of the Charlotte Sting, and Ambers.
“Being a semiprofessional woman player is very prestigious all of a sudden,” says Vera, a former Blair High School All-Met, four-year star at the University of Maryland, and part-time In Flight-er. “Before, being a semipro was something you did to keep your game up. Now it gives you the exposure you need to get these pro leagues to notice you.”
Vera gives Harris most of the credit for building In Flight into such a powerhouse. Now 35 and the mother of two (including a 3-year-old hoops-crazy daughter she named Jordan, as in…well, figure it out), Harris used to have quite a game herself. After starring at perennial powerhouse Elizabeth Seton High School, she led tiny Frostburg State in Frostburg, Md., to an NCAA title. But back in her day, women who wanted to turn pro had no domestic outlet after college, and as much as she loved basketball, Harris didn’t love it enough to move to Europe.
Instead, she stayed in D.C. and played in local amateur leaguesmen’s and women’sand, as she grew too old to pick-and-roll, took up coaching. Along with In Flight, she has already coached in the prestigious all-male Urban Coalition League (against players with names like Webber and Howard) and is now talking with the University of the District of Columbia about that school’s vacant women’s basketball coaching position.
Although Harris was born too soon to take advantage of the pro women’s leagues as a player, the incredible success she’s already had cultivating home-grown talent for the WNBA and ABL has her hoping to land a pro coaching or management job. Rumor has it that Joe McKeon, who runs the very successful women’s basketball program at George Washington University, can have the still-unnamed D.C. team’s head coaching job if he wants it. But if McKeon doesn’t take itand there aren’t any male coaches in the WNBA yetHarris may get a shot.
“Oh, I want them to come knocking on my door. I really do. That would really be something,” she says.
“They’ll come,” chimes in Vickie. “They’ll come knocking for you. If they come to D.C., they’ll have to come knocking for Billie Harris.”
One way or another, Harris promises, she’ll be in the MCI Center when the WNBA team takes up residenceif not on the bench, then in the stands. She waited way too long for women’s pro ball not to support it. Besides, she wants to do everything she can to ensure that her young daughters have opportunities that Mom never did.
When you’re talking to Harris, it’s tough to figure out where the seasoned coach ends and the mom part begins. “Jordan’s already got a handle on her dribble,” Harris says. “She’s going to be a ballplayer. You watch.”
On Sept. 6, Quigley’s at 18th and I Streets NW will host a fund-raising party for In Flight, featuring alumnae who now play in the WNBA and the ABL. Call (301) 808-9697 for more information.