A few years ago, professional women's basketball routinely was played in front of a few scattered fans and thousands of empty seats.
The sport has come a long way fast. On Thursday night, the WNBA's Washington Mystics not only expect to draw a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 for their season opener against the Charlotte Sting they'll be disappointed if they don't.
"Our hearts will be going 'thump, thump,' " said center Shalonda Enis, who thought 3,000 was a good turnout when she was playing the last 2 1/2 years for the ABL's Seattle Reign.
It's easy to say the throngs are coming out to see No. 1 overall draft pick Chamique Holdsclaw make the most anticipated pro debut in women's basketball history, but the Mystics would probably have filled the MCI Center even if they didn't have the so-called female Michael Jordan.
Last year, despite a 3-27 record, the team averaged 15,910 fans and had two sellouts of 20,674 the largest crowds ever to watch a women's pro basketball game in the United States. The WNBA, only three years old, is healthy enough to make plans for four expansion teams next season.
For coach Nancy Darsch, it's the arrival of the big time happening before her eyes.
"I think the potential was there," Darsch said. "We've seen it in the college game at many different programs around the country. We saw in Atlanta in 1996 at the Olympics.
"But I think there certainly still was some question as to 'Who's going to come to the MCI Center in July? Who's going to go to Madison Square Garden in July?' The fans have certainly answered that with an exclamation point."
Guard Rhonda Blades, who has played with Detroit and New York in the WNBA, realizes she arrived at just the right time. Although released by the Mystics on Wednesday, Blades should have no shortage of opportunities to extend her career.
"It don't really consider myself a pioneer, but in this league I've been there since the beginning," Blades said. "It's wonderful not only for women's basketball, but for women's sports and women in general.
"It's become the thing to do. You've got people like Chamique that come out and put their stamp on women's basketball. She appeals to a different crowd than even Rebecca Lobo did."
Considering the hype surrounding her, Holdsclaw has kept an even keel during the Mystics camp. The two-time player of the year from Tennessee realizes her game may be notch above the rest, but she's also tried to play expectations.
Asked to say something about herself at the Mystics luncheon on Tuesday, Holdsclaw stood and said: "I'm from Tennessee. I'm a rookie."
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