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Michael Alter, owner of The Chicago Sky, claims that it wasn’t a love of sports that encouraged him to create a women’s basketball team for Chicago. His initial interest in basketball was limited to his youth in Wilmette, playing for the New Trier West team when he was in high school. It was more his surprise that seven years after the creation of the WNBA, Chicago still didn’t have a team of their own. “I knew what an unbelievably strong sports town Chicago is and always has been,” Alter says. “I was a little embarrassed that Chicago wasn’t a part of this league. It seemed like something important. And the more I looked into it, the more I came to appreciate what phenomenal and important role models these women are.”
Role models like Sylvia Fowles, who plays center for the Sky, has two gold medals (one from the Olympics, one from the World Championships), stands at 6' 6", and is one of the few women in the world who plays above the rim. Though Fowles is recognized as one of the best athletes in the field professionally, she and her colleagues are still waiting for a much more gratifying acknowledgment: a sizable audience.
Until now there have been several things standing in their way. The WNBA plays their season in the summer, opposite the NBA’s winter season. It makes sense logistically since most WNBA teams were created as sister-teams to their city’s NBA counterparts, and they play on the same court. Women’s basketball also has a significantly larger audience overseas, so we lose our players to Europe over the winter. But the fact that they play off-season means that most Americans are thinking about baseball by the time they hit the court. The Sky also had to overcome being a completely independent team that had to invent their own infrastructure instead of being able to rely on the resources of the NBA team in town. But with changes in president and head coach for 2011, and finally settling into their new location, the Allstate Arena, The Sky is ready to make a serious drive for the championships from the time they tip off in early June.
Seeing our team win a championship is an obvious priority for the new president of The Sky, Adam Fox, from Glencoe, but an incident at his daughter’s soccer game made him realize why it was really important to raise the profile of women’s sports in our community. “After a game, one of the coaches told my daughter, ‘Wow. You’re a regular little Pelé out there,’” Fox recalls. “The guy’s wife whacked him and said, ‘You couldn’t think of one female soccer player?’ My daughter asked me, ‘Who’s Pelé.’ I said, ‘He’s this guy who…‘ My daughter said, ‘Dad, do I have to be a guy if I want to like soccer, ’cause I don’t want to do that then. I don’t want to be a guy. I don’t want to play.’ That’s when I knew there was more to this than just seeing some great professional basketball. It’s about an overall change in attitude and culture.”
Although that message is a powerful one, once The Sky hits the floor, it’s a little too easy to forget all about messages of empowerment and just get caught up in the action; because when you get right down to it, The Chicago Sky isn’t of women for women, it’s athletes for the glory of Chicago. With Pokey Chatman taking the reins as head coach and general manager this year, many are expecting to see The Sky take off like never before. When Chatman coached at Louisiana State, the team continually appeared in the Final Four, and last year she guided her Russian team to a perfect season in the European basketball league. This is the year we’re going to see The Sky become champions.
“They remind me a lot of the athletes from when I was growing up,” Alter says, recalling what first grabbed his attention about the WNBA. “They make a nice living, but they don’t make a ton of money, so their motivation is not financial. They’re motivated by a love of what they’re doing. Professional athletes today seem to have a different set of priorities. [The Sky players] aren’t like that. They’re a part of our community.”
You don’t go to a Sky game expecting to see an NBA game. Sure, you see fast and furious competition at the highest level between the top athletes in their game, but the energy is different. You feel less a spectator and more a part of something, like you’re getting in on the ground level of something massive. It’s a really fun opportunity to spend a couple of hours rooting for your home team, though for many, it’s a home team they had no idea they had. Once you’ve been, however, it’s something that stays with you; from the energy and the drama of players like Sylvia Fowles to the toothy grin of the team mascot, The Sky Guy, who’s always cheering for our girls, it’s easy to become addicted. This year their profile is going to skyrocket.