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Shavonte Zellous doesn’t have to look far to find reminders of her age on the basketball court. All she needs to do is talk to her Washington Mystics teammates. “Every time … I ask a rookie how old they are, and they say like 22 and 23, I’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh. I feel so old,’” Zellous, 34, says with a laugh. It’s a thought that crosses her mind whenever she realizes that some of her teammates are younger than the WNBA.
This year, the WNBA celebrates its 25th anniversary, and events highlighting the milestones of the league and its evolution will take place over the course of the season. Zellous, an 11-year guard and 2012 WNBA champion with the Indiana Fever, signed with the Mystics this offseason. She recalls a time when the WNBA did not exist and the challenges, both financial and in terms of public support, the league has faced during her time as a professional basketball player.
The NBA Board of Governors approved the concept of the WNBA on April 24, 1996, and eight teams played in its inaugural season a year later. The Mystics, who will play their season opener against the Chicago Sky on May 15, launched as an expansion franchise in 1998.
As a standout youth track and field athlete in Orlando, Zellous didn’t dream of becoming a professional basketball player. She wanted to compete for Team USA in the Olympics. It wasn’t until high school in the early 2000s that Zellous decided to focus on basketball at the encouragement of her coaches. It helped that by the time she transitioned from track to basketball in the 10th grade, she had professional basketball stars she could look up to.
Zellous remembers attending Orlando Miracle games and “being the biggest cheerleader” while watching players such as Nykesha Sales, Carla McGhee, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. (The Miracle relocated in 2003 and became the Connecticut Sun.) Sales was “hands down” Zellous’ favorite player to watch while in high school, and just having the opportunity to attend professional women’s basketball games excited Zellous and her friends.
The now-defunct Detroit Shock drafted Zellous 11th overall in the 2009 WNBA Draft and she would go on to play with Sales for the Turkish team Beşiktaş J.K. The Shock eventually moved to Dallas and became the Dallas Wings.
“It was very inspiring, because growing up, you always have goals and dreams to become something,” Zellous says. “It just made me work harder and push myself for my craft, like if these girls can do it and I can compete at the highest level, I mean, I can do it. So I think I took it serious because it was finally something that we can look forward to … It just made me try to reach the goal [of what] ultimately I wanted to do and that was to be in the WNBA.”
Guard Natasha Cloud, who the Mystics drafted in 2015, recognizes that the older generation didn’t have the same role models that she and Zellous did. “When you talk to the OGs of our league, they didn’t necessarily have a league to watch and to aspire to be,” she says. “But I had the pleasure and the privilege of having that. So I have women that I’m standing on their shoulders. Because they were here, I’m here. I don’t take that for granted. I understand that there is a next generation of women that are looking at me and I will be that next stepping stone for them.”
The number of teams in the league peaked between 2000 and 2002, when 16 teams competed; it has consisted of 12 teams since the 2010 season. Since the inaugural 1997 season, six WNBA franchises have folded, and that does not include the teams that have gone to another city. The league suffered from record low ratings and a drop in television viewership during its 20th anniversary season. But things appear to be turning around. This month, the WNBA, which hired Cathy Engelbert as its new commissioner in 2019, signed a multiyear deal with Google to be the league’s presenting partner for the playoffs, and 25 WNBA games will be televised on ABC and ESPN this season.
Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault has led a WNBA team for nearly two decades: He was head coach of the Connecticut Sun from 2003 to 2012 and has coached the Mystics since 2013. He guided Washington to its first WNBA championship title in 2019 and has seen support for the league fluctuate.
“Early in the history of the WNBA you had a team like Washington, who won all these attendance banners. They had all these big crowds, but they weren’t treated like a business,” he says. “There were discounted tickets, there were freebies, and teams continued to lose money. I think owners have understood that there’s a value to these teams, that you don’t want to keep losing money. And so you’re doing a better job now both at the league level and at the team level of getting true sponsorship and TV deals … Between the [WNBA] League Pass and CBS Sports Network and local TV and ESPN, you can watch every game. And that wasn’t true at all of the league when I first came in.”
Zellous points to the new collective bargaining agreement, which kicked in last season and runs through 2027, as a sign of the league’s evolution. This CBA allows WNBA players to receive a sizable jump in compensation and provides maternity leave and family planning benefits.
“Our motto for the Mystics is, ‘We shall not be denied,’” Cloud says. “I feel like that’s what we’ve done since I’ve been here in the league. We will not be denied. We’re going to continue to push this needle forward, whether it is making our pay more equitable, our league more equitable, our sponsorships, endorsements, our viewership, all of that. I mean, look at the contract we just got for TV games. That’s betting on women.”
The support the league has shown to players off the court is equally (or even more) important to them. In 2016, the New York Times described WNBA players wearing warmup shirts showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement as a “rare public stance.” The league did not approve, and fined the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, and Phoenix Mercury and their players for violating its uniform policy. It ultimately rescinded the fines.
But in recent years, WNBA players have become increasingly more comfortable speaking out against police brutality, anti-Black racism, and other social justice causes. The Mystics, with support of the WNBA, played an influential role last year with their protests while playing in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, and also with their voting rights efforts.
In the WNBA’s press release celebrating its 25th anniversary, the league boasted about being “at the forefront of advancement, inclusion, and social change for 25 years.” That may not have always been the case, but players like Zellous take pride in what the league has become.
“I don’t think 10 years ago people would have stood out and spoke out about certain things,” she says. “The biggest thing now is nobody is fearful for anything. Everybody is speaking their mind … Back then you really couldn’t say what you feel. It was always, you gotta kind of mumble, you gotta kind of watch what you say. But now it’s like, we don’t care. We’re going to use our platform. We’re going to use our voices.”