WNBA Players Plan Futures

By Sean Jensen
Updated: April 27, 2005

Tamika Williams

MINNESOTA — Katie Smith is the all-time leading scorer in women’s professional basketball. She is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a two-time champion in the defunct ABL and a four-time WNBA all-star.

If she were a man, Smith would never have to work another day in her life.

But she’s not, and she does.

So the Lynx’s best player contemplates cutting short her career to attend dental school.

“It’s good money, and it’s fun,” Smith said of playing in the WNBA for the Lynx. “But there has to be something else.”

Smith is one of the best players in the WNBA and makes nearly $90,000 for the four-month season. Respectable, for sure, but compare that with what a journeyman makes in the NBA, where the average salary is $3.7 million. A midseason pickup will make about $50,000 on a 10-day contract — roughly the average WNBA salary.

In the WNBA, regardless of how long and well you play, basketball will not pay for your future.

“With us, no matter how hard we work, we’ll still have to have another job,” Lynx forward Tamika Williams said.

The only players immune to what Smith calls the “30-something crisis” are Lisa Leslie and Diana Taurasi, who have numerous endorsement deals. Everyone else must make money elsewhere — many play professionally overseas — and consider careers off the court.

That’s why one of women’s pro basketball’s most accomplished players is considering dentistry, something that could end — or at least interrupt — her basketball career. Completing her degree would take four years, with the possibility of deferring only one year to play basketball.

But Smith wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, and she relishes the flexibility of not being forced to work 9 to 5. Besides, dentistry offers a more secure future than her current profession.

“It’s never going to go away,” Smith said.

Williams aspires to be a college athletics director. She works toward that goal by serving as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Ohio State.

Williams, 25, calls the WNBA season a “release from my real job. (As an) assistant coach at Ohio State, I don’t act my age,” she said. “But when I come back here, I can act my age. So I get the best of both worlds.”

The Lynx started training camp Sunday, but several players are still finishing their basketball seasons abroad. Second-year guard Tasha Butts returned to the University of Tennessee after the 2004 Lynx season to serve as a graduate assistant for legendary coach Pat Summit and work on a master’s degree in recreation and leisure studies.

The Lynx’s NBA counterparts, meanwhile, can relax the entire offseason. That distinction affects the attitudes of the two professional basketball teams that call Target Center home.

The men play 82 games, 48 more than the women, but the only meaningful time during the NBA regular season seems to be the final few minutes. The rest is a super-sized simulation. The games are often slow, insipid.

The did Timberwolves not defy that generalization on many days. What other explanation can one offer for a 2004 Western Conference finalist , with the same players, staggering to the finish this season?

Although attendance dropped, the Wolves still averaged 17,188 fans, more than double the Lynx, whose ticket prices are, on average, $30 less than the Wolves.

The Lynx do not expect a sellout when they open the season May 25 at Target Center, but Williams said she and her teammates cannot afford to have fans question their work ethic.

“I know in the WNBA, we can’t dog it, because this is our livelihood,” she said. “If the fans don’t come, our league is gone. The NBA doesn’t have to worry about that. They would still survive.”

Smith, Butts and Williams do no begrudge their NBA peers, mindful that their big-brother league sells more tickets at higher prices and commands lucrative TV and marketing deals.

But Smith was disappointed when she heard Latrell Sprewell, who made $14.6 million last season, infamously say, “I’ve got a family to feed” to justify his demand for the Wolves to either extend his contract or trade him.

“I just can’t relate,” Smith said. “We live in two different worlds.”

Smith, though, is not sure she wants to live in Sprewell Land.

“We want some of what the men have,” she said, “but we have a better connection with everyone. With the men, they make the money they make, but they lose touch with reality. They can’t live a normal life.”