Let's Get It On


When the NBA puts a stinker out there, at least there's always the chance of a blink-of-the-eye comeback, or at least some notable highlights. Sadly, when the WNBA's product is bad, it's just bad. Like college, but minus the screaming throngs who seem intent on erasing exactly this discussion. As long as everyone's looking intense.

Such was the case with last night's Liberty-Fever match-up, which was abysmal. The Liberty's first principle is Cappie Pondexter (pictured above), as deadly a guard as you'll find at any level, and Leon Smith's high school girlfriend. Putting her and Diana Taurasi on the same Phoenix Mercury team didn't just win titles two of the last three seasons. It made for a team so exultant that, yes, you got that familiar ol' REVOLUTION feeling in your blood. Then, because of money, a desire to get her own spotlight, and a lifelong interest in fashion, Pondexter headed to the New York Liberty.

Pondexter has gotten even more economical -- more Deron-esque, maybe -- this season, and spearheaded a massive improvement on the part of the Liberty. But if her shot's not falling, a Liberty game drags. Except unlike Kobe or LeBron, she can't make up a double-digit deficit in under a minute. That's one noticeable difference that remains; the WNBA is fast, but that's not the same as NBA-explosive. Yesterday, the Fever made sure Cappie got stuck. The Fever are led by Tamika Catchings, an impossibly strong, agile 1-2-3 who just won the league's Defensive Player of the Year for the fourth time. I like their flighty young PG Briann January, but the team wins when it follows Catchings's example.

Fever won, Pondexter was foiled even if her line says otherwise.

What I was most struck by, though, was the announcing crew's completely chipper explanation of Cappie's move. She wants to get into fashion. She wants to be #1. Forget, for a second, that we've spent all summer bashing LeBron for not wanting to be THE MAN -- if any NBA player expressed these sentiments (say, play for the Knicks to work on his rappin'), he would be crushed for them. Media would bring it up as a way of questioning his worth as a human being. Does this mean that the WNBA is kinder, softer and more understanding? Are women different from men? What do you think? Can the league simply not afford to not put a brave face on whatever its best players decide to do? Does it even pay enough to wield moral authority?

I hope that got you thinking, since what I really want to talk about is Cappie's hair. This is her during last year's playoffs:


Here's her babysitter-ish profile from this season, which is, admittedly, a return to the way she looked during most of her time in the pros:

Liberty vs Sun, MSG, 1.8.10 082

I am more than willing to roll over and play dead if this turns into a discussion of black women's hair. But -- correct me if you think otherwise -- the spiky Cappie, however recent a development this was, seemed far more appropriate for a scoring machine who might well be the WNBA's most ruthless one-on-one player ever. Now, she's a nice, cute lady. This relates back to my discussion of Lauren Jackson's appearance -- performance art on the court, sex symbol off of it. Cappie dropped her edgy look -- one that, it should be said, was certainly stylish in its own way -- in favor of something more traditionally feminine. Good for her, I guess, except she doesn't seems like the same player to me.

I know, she's actually a better player. But from a style and presentation standpoint, it would be like if Allen Iverson cut of his braids ten years earlier. Because he wanted to be a guest on Good Morning America. Throw in a trade away from Philly, and into the waiting arms of some place that doesn't routinely audition for the title of most gully city in America, and you've got something like Cappie Pondexter's transformation.

Cappie Pondexter was never a threat to destroy America, so the cultural politics here aren't quite the same. But maybe this gives us a new perspective on Iverson's infamous look. As an athlete -- and yes, the WNBA does always come back to basketball -- Pondexter was far more striking, and apt, with last season's look. A brash scorer should look like a space-aged street urchin, not the girl next door. Am I equating being a bad-ass with a lack of femininity? Quite possibly. Did Cynthia Cooper never happen? Regardless, Cappie had her finest season, and got her widest exposure, with a certain image taking hold. I get it, she's pretty now, and I have no right to see her any different on the court -- especially when I know this is part of a larger life-goal. But just as most reasonable people prefer to remember Dr. J with his afro, or still see Brandon Jennings as "the kid with the high-top fade", Pondexter shouldn't underestimate what her on-court look means for her game.

Perhaps Cappie could take a cue from Lauren Jackson, who has insisted on a separation between church and state almost to the point of absurdity. At the same time, though, it's perfectly reasonable to think that an WNBA player could be at once stylish and intimidating. And, perhaps, more likely to click with the world of fashion.


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At 8/30/2010 2:15 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

True, Cappie was as flat as her do last night, but Essence Carson almost made up for her with creative one-on-one work. The real problem was in the post, where Taj McWilliams-Franklin (concussed and vomiting at the end of the last game) and Plenette Pierson (five fouls in seven minutes) couldn't finish.

But, yeah, I did like Cappie's space-age street urchin look. Still, this year, in addition to increased efficiency, I think her big improvement has been her defense. So maybe she should have gone for a more tough-girl, T-Spoon look.

Thanks for ignoring (or at least dismaying) the knee-jerks, and posting about the WNBA.

At 8/30/2010 3:47 PM, Blogger Ben Heldt said...

i've really enjoyed these last two pieces about the wnba. the league seems just as ripe a jump off for discussion of gender politics/feminism as the nba is for race. the comparison of cappie's hair and iverson's is interesting, because the obvious difference there is that everyone wanted to be just like iverson and thought his braids were the shit. no one would give some male kid shit about wearing braids because AI had them, but little girls i'm sure would have a much more difficult sell trying to convince their parents or whoever that they wanted to get their hair cut in non-traditional/"unfeminine" ways. it boils down to something like our male athletes are worshipped whereas our female athletes are tolerated. i wouldn't presume to know what cappie pondexter thinks about all this, but we live in a society that has expectations for women and living outside of those is probably very hard. talking about this, or about lauren jackson, is messy because it plugs in to discussion of gender roles and socialization of men vs. women and the misogyny that lurks just under the surface of conversations about the wnba.

is there anyone writing about the wnba consistently with these things in mind? i'd be really interested in reading something intelligent about it. and i hope you keep writing stuff on the wnba, shoals.

At 8/30/2010 3:50 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

You should be reading Swish Appeal.

At 8/30/2010 6:20 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Pondexter won't get crushed for her extracurricular activities like an NBA player would because she's not making as much money. She has to have a post-basketball plan, because she's not going to be set for life when she finishes playing.

As for the speed of the game, the stats suggest that the Pace Factor in the WNBA is nearly identical to that in the NBA. The Liberty, however, are one of the slowest moving teams in the league.

At 8/30/2010 7:47 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

"What I was most struck by, though, was the announcing crew's completely chipper explanation of Cappie's move. She wants to get into fashion. "

Isn't this exactly the same reason given by the Rangers' Sean Avery for wanting to play in New York?

At 8/30/2010 8:15 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Just wanted to throw in that I'm also really enjoying the WNBA posts, and the fact that it is a minefield seems to bring out the sense of adventure that brought me to FD in the first place.

(wv: napernli - yowsa!)

At 8/30/2010 9:38 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Here's my edit to clarify my point:

"That's one noticeable difference that remains; the WNBA is fast, but that's not the same as NBA-explosive."

At 8/30/2010 9:51 PM, Blogger kp said...

I think Pondexter also benefits from the fact that her trade created additional competition, rather than producing a super-team. It's made the league more interesting this year.

- Kevin Pelton

At 8/31/2010 1:51 PM, Blogger M3000 said...

When I see the pictures of her now, I see something that’s more practical. It’s easier for her to manage her current style after she’s played in a game and has to speak to media or go somewhere afterwards.

Most people probably equate intimidating women athletes with short haircuts, no makeup and scowls across there faces. However, a woman with a ponytail and lip gloss on could defend the paint and drop a post move on an opponent just as well.

Woman athletes are constantly judged on their looks and much more than their male counterparts. They have to have muscles, but not overly defined muscles. They have to be mean, but not look scary. It’s a very fine line that the world wants them to balance.

I think you’re asking her to look stylish and to look intimidating (traits that seem to not go together) instead of looking stylish and being intimidating as you say she is an excellent player. Is there a woman that fits that mold? Maybe Serena Williams?

Lauren Jackson may have an on and off the court look. However, 99% of the time you’re looking at Cappie Pondexter or any woman athlete on the court. This is where you make your assessment of her skills, personality and looks. Do you not think Pretty Girls Can Make Baskets?

At 8/31/2010 1:53 PM, Blogger Kareem Elzein said...

Reading way too much into it. Everyone has a gendered mask, generated in reaction or relation to prevailing ideas of style. I just hope that if I become famous and on television with some regularity, my decision to harvest my beard or move from a no.5 to a no.3 will not be met by esoteric discussions of my sell out nature.

The woman had a haircut for two years. Now she has a new style. The new style just so happened to correspond with other major renovations happening in her life. If there was ever a time to interpret a new hairdo as a soul reflection, a period of personal upheaval is probably not that time. I realize that this is all pretty vague, since none of us really have insider information on what motivated her decisions...

Most women I know in their twenties and early thirties change their hairstyle regularly and wear makeup daily (even without the pressures of tv broadcasting). That doesn't prevent them from being innovative thinkers, good business women, or competitive (even vicious) athletes. I don't agree with this idea that identity should reflect style of play, or vice versa. The fact that there is a desire for Cappie to be bad-ass, in play, as well as in appearance, despite the fact that she is evolving as a person in this world, shows some lack of respect for her as a person. If we are unable to have a "girl next door" look balling one-on-one, isn't that our problem? Sure she's an entertainer, a performer-athlete, but do we need to micro-manage aspects of her life (such as personal appearance) in order for her to remain "real" to us?

At 8/31/2010 1:57 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

All that assumes that last year's haircut wouldn't translate into polite society. You're right, I am perhaps placing most of the emphasis on what it would mean in-game. The strange part about all this, though, is that I seriously doubt fashion people would frown upon her more eccentric look.

The question isn't whether or not Cappie should look more masculine or something, but whether she's getting caught up in traditional beauty standards when was actually in the ideal position to have it both ways. Last summer's look made a statement on and off the court.

At 8/31/2010 2:01 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

That last one was @M3000. Now, @KE: It's not a question of "real", it's a question of what kind of decision she has made and why. You're laying out the reasons for. That's the same argument I was confused by when I wrote this.

Remember, she went there, and then came back. It's that move that's worth examining.

At 8/31/2010 3:04 PM, Blogger Kareem Elzein said...

Women who wear the hijab have their hair hidden from most of the world. That doesn't stop them from altering their hairstyle for themselves, or maybe for a husband or loved one. Either way, the reason is theirs to know, others completely oblivious to that fashion choice. I find it interesting that our ability to see Cappie's hair, on TV no less, convinces us that she might be changing her hairstyle to appease our expectations!

personal anecdote alert: I had short hair in middle school. I grew an outrageous (Jew or Arab? Semite?) fro during high school. Chopped the whole thing the first day of summer after twelfth grade, and I haven't experimented since. I came back to the buzzer, and let me tell you, there wasn't anything there worth examining. With the fro, I felt goofy and like I was "putting on" a look, for others, for myself, I don't know; the reasons weren't exactly clear to me. A buzz was more natural, me, comfortable, and allowed me to transition easily into balding young-but-aging male.

My feeling is that the narrative reads far too much into one stylistic choice, leading us head first into gender-politics without adequate grounds for the interpretation. I realize that she made a decision, but "the why" we are reconstructing from a very thin historical record. In this case, I think that your agenda as a writer is as pertinent (or more) than her agendas in style. I'm not trying to dis you for writing this piece. On the contrary, I really respect your work. I just don't get the same mosaic from the information provided. Then again, I've only seen her a couple times, and only on the Liberty. You are probably more invested in her narrative arc than me, and maybe that gives you more authority to get it before I do. Is there anywhere to watch old WNBA games online? I'm down for the assignment.


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