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WNBA All-Star Game

ED GORDON, host:

Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird may not be household names everywhere, but in Connecticut they're as familiar as Kobe and Shaq. Taurasi and Bird are among the pro basketball standouts competing this weekend in the WNBA All-Star Game. From member station WSHU, Tandaleya Wilder reports.

TANDALEYA WILDER reporting:

Thousands cheer on the home team, the Connecticut Sun, as they take on the Minnesota Lynx.

(Soundbite of cheering at game)

WILDER: On this evening, Judy Volchek(ph), a grandmother and season ticket holder, is psyched about her team's win. She's a diehard fan, and it shows.

Ms. JUDY VOLCHEK (WNBA Fan): I have a two-tone wig, a gold and a red one, colors of the sun, and earrings, basketball socks, tattoo, upside-down so people ask me questions about it.

WILDER: Volchek and 93 other fans will return to this arena this weekend to watch the best players in the league compete in the WNBA All-Star Game. Thinking about attending? Too late. Tickets are already sold out. The game will be televised nationally on ABC. Sun's coach Mike Thibault will lead the East all-stars. Anne Donovan, who led the Seattle Storm to its first WNBA championship last year, will guide the West squad. This will be the sixth all-star event for the women. Despite a strong fan base in Connecticut, this game isn't as popular nationally as the NBA all-star version. There's no slam-dunk contest. The top stars make just a portion of what the NBA players get. And Connecticut's hotels aren't overbooked with celebrities wanting to see and be seen. WNBA President Donna Orender calls her league's all-star weekend...

Ms. DONNA ORENDER (President, WNBA): ...more family-friendly. It's, you know, very accessible. I'm not saying that the--you know, the NBA all-star game is not accessible at all, but I'm just saying that this is a lot more family-focused.

WILDER: Connecticut Sun general manager Chris Sienko expects to see Girl Scout troops, high school athletes and their parents and even young guys flocking to the all-star weekend.

Mr. CHRIS SIENKO (General Manager, Connecticut Sun): We're going to have an open practice on Friday, so fans can come in for free. There's going to be a skills competition, as well.

WILDER: And on Saturday, fans can participate in the WNBA Summer Jam, a party on the roof of the arena. There'll be entertainment, interactive games and players signing autographs. Connecticut beat out several other locations to host the game.

Ms. ORENDER: If you had to list the top three states in the country that would support women's basketball, let's see, I would think of Connecticut, wouldn't you?

WILDER: WNBA President Donna Orender says people in Connecticut support women's hoops like nobody else. The University of Connecticut's Huskie maniacs are absolute fanatics. UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma.

Mr. GENO AURIEMMA (UConn Women's Coach): I do know that in our state the borders are only two hours away in any direction. There's three and a half million people. And we have a passion that's unlike anyplace else in America when it comes to basketball, and especially women's basketball.

WILDER: If only all the WNBA games were as well attended as UConn's. Many of the league's franchise teams around the country struggle to fill seats. The league hopes its expansion to Chicago next year will help turn its fortunes around. Fairfield University women's basketball coach Dianne Nolan says the WNBA has to work harder than the men's pro league to raise its profile.

Ms. DIANNE NOLAN (Women's Basketball Coach, Fairfield University): There probably are not enough stars and name recognition on enough teams to attract the normal women's basketball fan who is a fan of the collegiate game.

WILDER: Attracting star power has never been an issue for Connecticut. That's one reason the league awarded the state a WNBA team, the Connecticut Sun. It's owned and operated by the Mohegan Native American tribe. The Sun made history two years ago by becoming the first WNBA team in New England and the first that is not owned by an NBA team or located in an NBA market.

Sun Arena is built on the Mohegan reservation, which also houses a hotel and casino. Selecting a gaming venue for the team's home playing court was controversial. Tribal officials contend visitors can enter and exit the arena without ever setting foot on a gaming floor. The facility draws basketball fans from throughout New England. The all-star game will be a homecoming for former college players and their fans. WNBA President Donna Orender.

Ms. ORENDER: Of course, you got Diana Taurasi in her first all-star game ever, probably one of the greatest players ever to play the game, coming out of UConn. Her back court mate, Sue Bird, who, you know, won a world championship last year in Seattle, will be back with her second broken nose, unfortunately. And you have Nykesha Sales, who I think's played in every all-star game.

WILDER: But will the lady all-stars ever garner the clout of their NBA brethren? All-star guard-forward Nykesha Sales thinks so.

Ms. NYKESHA SALES (WNBA Player): Right now we're building up to it. Hey, we're a young league and eventually we'll get there. But I think it's just as much fun as the men's all-star.

WILDER: Between now and Saturday, league President Donna Orender is crossing her fingers.

Ms. ORENDER: That the game showcases the great talent that we have and the competition is so exciting that, you know, it creates additional buzz and excitement in the marketplace for the second half of the season.

(Soundbite of crowd at a basketball game)

WILDER: Connecticut is already on board with women's basketball. Now how about the rest of the nation?

For NPR News, I'm Tandaleya Wilder in Fairfield, Connecticut.

(Soundbite of crowd at a basketball game)

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, yeah, to the hoop.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Basketball, we love that basketball.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) We're playing basketball.

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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