Good for Basketball

Steph Curry & Sabrina Ionescu competing in an NBA Competition. Photo from SportingNews.

The Battle of the Sexes is over. That is, we have reached the point where women and men might compete against each other and both be taken seriously. Where a woman might break a man’s record, a man might beat a woman only by the skin of his teeth, where everyone might watch the contest and come away thinking–that was fun! that was competitive! That was No Joke.

Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu went head to head in a 3 point basketball contest last night as part of the NBA All-Star weekend. Steph won. Steph “edged” Sabrina, as some headlines carefully point out. But NBA fans were “in awe” of both shooters, which is where this ought to be.

Sabrina imitated Steph after beating his record.

Who Are These People?

In case you don’t follow basketball, let me fill in a few of the blanks. Steph Curry is the greatest shooter in basketball history–at least according to Golden State Warriors announcers and fans like me. Steph already passed the NBA all-time 3-point leader (Ray Allen) years ago. He’s 25% ahead of that record. And he’s still playing.

Even more importantly, he elevated the three point shot from an obscure, basketball curiosity to a way to win championships. Before Steph, a few people were good at 3-point shooting, but not the teams and not the winning teams. Steph showed how good shooting from beyond the arc, by multiple team members, led by one extraordinary one, could beat everybody. The Warriors did it four times.

Every team now has at least one good 3-point shooter, and it has changed the game. Not just because it’s a different way to get points, but because if someone can shoot from far away, the defense has to guard away from the basket more. So now, when people talk about “game changers,” even in business or science, they use Steph Curry as a metaphor.

Sabrina Ionescu may just become another metaphor over time. Ionescu also comes from the Bay Area, so she idolized Curry growing up (i.e. just ten years ago). She played playground basketball with boys and older girls and had to strategize because, as she said, “I had to find ways to get the ball because they would never pass to me….if I could rebound, I could get the ball myself.” In middle school, they didn’t have enough girls to field a team, but would not let her play on the boys team. She recruited enough girls to make a team.

Ionescu in the WNBA 2023 contest, photo from OregonLive.

By the time she was recruited for college, she had been High School Player of the Year. She put the Oregon Ducks women’s basketball team on the map, and by the time she was finished, was named one of the four greatest University of Oregon athletes of all time, next to better known names like Phil Nike. Her first year in the WNBA was cut short by a major injury, but in her second, she recorded the first triple-double in WNBA history (that means she had three statistics in double figures, like points, rebounds, and assists).

So we come to the All-Star Game which, all fans know, is just playing around. The game itself has no defense, so it’s never actually a good game (East beats West 165-152, etc). What’s become more interesting are the exhibition contests, first the dunk contest and, more recently, the 3-point contest. It’s for bragging rights, but in this sport and this era, that is a very big deal.

In 2023, during the WNBA All-Star Game, Sabrina Ionescu smashed Steph Curry’s 3-point contest record of 37 points. Translated that means she hit 25 out of 27 shots in under a minute with a lot of people watching. She threw down right then and there and challenged Steph to a one-on-one contest. He accepted.

Steph seeing Sabrina beat his record, graphic from

This could have been a Battle-of-the-Sexes disaster. That’s happened before. There was a time, my little chickadees, when the prevailing view was that any man could beat any woman in any sporting event at any time. Many people remember the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match. They don’t remember the stakes.

Who Were Billie and Bobby?

People are often surprised to learn that in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match, Riggs was 59 years old. He was forty years past his prime, and that prime–in 1939–had included just a couple of singles’ championships. He had been ranked, but briefly and long before he decided to challenge “any woman player” to play him. He was a hustler and a gambler, and was mainly just out for the publicity. He challenged the #1 women’s player, Margaret Court, to a match and beat her handily, after boasting openly and loudly that any man could beat any woman etc. etc. He boasted for the media attention but beating Court seemed to prove his case. He was “any random man” and she was the best at the time. He’d asked Billie Jean King, but she knew he was a charlatan and had said no. But after Court lost, the respectability of women’s tennis seemed to be on the line.

The match itself, then, was a Joke, and a huge risk for King. She was advocating for higher pay for women’s tennis players. Men in the tournaments were paid 2.5 times what women were paid, and she had just pushed to get equal prize money for the 1973 U.S. Open. Had she lost… hard to say what would have happened to the prize money. The respectability of all women athletes was on the line. If Riggs lost, he could easily point to being 30 years older. And he would receive endorsements, fame, gambling money… all of which did happen. If she lost, she’d set back women for decades.

FILE – In this Sept. 20, 1973, file photo, . Billie Jean King waves to crowds at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/File)

The atmosphere was a circus, and not a particularly pleasant one. She presented Riggs with a pig, playing into his chauvinist pig identity. She rode in carried by several scantily-clad men. He presented her with a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop. To the delight of all feminists of 1973, she proceeded to trounce him, 6-4, 6-3. She proved that women would not always lose to men in everything, everywhere. It was a pretty low bar.

It’s not the last time tennis players battled, either. Martina Navratilova lost to Jimmy Connors in 1992, in a match where he even gave her some advantages; both were past their best playing years. Serena and Venus Williams both tried to play a #200 men’s player when they were rising teenage stars–athletic but inexperienced. Both lost. These fed into a new version of the “battle” idea, that the best women’s players still could not beat a good men’s player. There had never been a contest between a man and a woman when both were in their prime (Curry might be past his prime, but greatest shooter of all time, still…). And the WNBA has worked very hard to fight off the “no one really wants to watch women the same way they watch men” label.

The Stakes, the Contest, the Outcome

This is why the Sabrina-Steph contest was a very big deal, one which Sabrina may or may not have realized. She may not have considered that any woman competing against any man is Every Woman. But the thing is, she was not any average woman and he’s not any average man. She’s only played professionally for a couple years; he has four championships and IS the greatest shooter, blah blah blah. It was not on the playground, but watched by all the pundits of men’s basketball.

Ionescu equalling the men’s total. Still shot from Youtube.

There was a lot of head-patting in the weeks before. At first, much was made out of whether Sabrina would use the WNBA line, which is a bit shorter at the top of the key. She opted to use the NBA line. (She did use the WNBA balls, which are a little smaller.) She is tall for a “girl” at 5’11” and Steph is short for a pro-basketball player at 6’2″, but he is taller. However, this is 3-point shooting, which is about technique as much as height. Several folks, including Steph’s teammates, picked her to win, but with a wink and a nod.

The men’s 3-point contest was held right before this marquee event. The highest score in that contest was 26 points, nowhere near Curry’s 37 point record set, some years ago. It would be natural to make comparisons, but hard to know exactly how those conversations went, when they decided to hold them back-to-back. Damian Lillard of Milwaukee won with 25 points in the final, his second win.

Sabrina stepped up and started splashing. The reports after the fact suggested that some had not seen her execute before.

Sabrina scored 26 points, burying her first set of balls, and equaling the highest score from the men’s round that had just been completed. That will be the story about Ionescu that is remembered.

Steph was Steph, the baby-faced assassin. As one of his big fans, I have seen him with the game on the line make shots that nobody should make. He likes a challenge, and this was a challenge. Riggs didn’t really challenge Billie Jean King; Navratilova didn’t really challenge Jimmy Connors. Ionescu put up a good challenge. Steph scored a whopping 29, and he did a little dance–the way he was always does–after the winning shot.

Curry dancing after winning the contest, photo from Youtube.

Women’s Sports, Women’s Basketball, and Why This Matters

The dance was its own kind of signal. This was not “I beat a girl” or “Any man can beat any girl.” This was “I was challenged, and I took it seriously, and edged out my opponent.”

The announcers called it a good match and also took it seriously, except for one. Kenny Smith immediately suggested that it wasn’t a fair contest, and would only have been fair if she had shot from the WNBA line. In other words, woulda coulda shoulda it was about winning, but women still can’t keep fairly against men. The comment completely undercut the exclamation point that Ionescu had just made. She had competed fairly against a man and had put up men’s numbers, only to be beaten by the person who is already 25% above the record.

The WNBA has worked long and hard to earn any kind of respect. They still don’t get the money, the endorsements, or the media air time that the worst NBA match-ups get. Yet, along with tennis, women’s basketball has made the largest strides of any women’s leagues. Soccer is still trying, even though U.S. women’s soccer is so much better internationally than U.S. men’s soccer. This contest was good for the WNBA and good for women’s sports.

The immediate media reaction was not head patting. It was “What a Show!” and “we should do this again with Steph and Sabrina as a duo taking on all comers…” It was an event that lived up to the hype, one where women didn’t have to be afraid to watch (even though “she” lost). No pigs were exchanged. There was respect between colleagues, before, during, and after the match.

This was good for everybody.

4 Replies to “Good for Basketball”

  1. My wife and I have always followed our favorite ‘state’ NCAAW team very closely, Ohio State, and also the dominate South Carolina. For the past two seasons we’ve also followed Iowa and their superstar Caitlin Clark. Aside from her scoring records, Clark is a well rounded player who records frequent double doubles and is 2nd in NCAA Division 1 basketball in triple doubles – men and women – with 15 through this season with 5 regular season games to go. The man with the most NCAA triple-doubles? Kyle Collingsworth with 12. Who has the most triple doubles in NCAA history, men or women? Sabrina Ionescu. She’s got 26; a collegiate record that will probably never be broken. She’s repeating that consistency and success in the WNBA.

    Sabrina’s not on the top 50 list of WNBA career 3 point shot/made shot leaders and she averages less than 2 made 3 point shots per game where Curry averages nearly 5 made 3 point shots per game. That said, she’s been working hard on the outside shots now that she’s got some great teammates that play hard down low and she won the WNBA All-Star 3-point contest. We should see lots of great things to come for her and maybe a spot on that 3-point career scoring leaders list.

    1. You know your stuff! Sabrina just started. Give her 3 years. I’m interested in Catilin but she seems over hyped. Can they win championships? And has the WNBA arrived?

      Thanks for the comment.

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