It’s easy to ignite discussion in a bar or chat room on who’s the greatest male basketball player of all time. M.J. or Kareem? Wilt or Russell? What about LeBron?
What about the female players?
That might be a more difficult conversation. Not because there aren’t candidates, but because it’s a list that can’t easily be pared.
“It’s just like the NBA or the NFL. You can’t say there’s one player because that’s how good the game is, and that’s how much it’s evolved over the years,” said Kelly Krauskopf, president and general manager of the Indiana Fever. “That’s the way it should be.”
The 18-year-old WNBA will showcase its best in Saturday’s All-Star Game at Phoenix. Fever forward Tamika Catchings was elected a starter for the Eastern Conference, as she has in every year in which there has been the game.
Catchings might not come to mind as the best ever, but she is a “stat-stuffer” along the lines of LeBron James, as Krauskopf put it. While in high school, Catchings had the only verified quintuple-double in basketball history: 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals, 10 blocks in a 1997 game.
“Absolutely, she’s one of the best players to ever play the game,” Krauskopf said. “She does every single thing.”
Moreover, Catchings has won championships at every level: high school, college, WNBA and Olympics.
Following is a list of 10 players, including a case for and against each as being the best ever. Five are in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame: Carol Blazejowski, Cynthia Cooper, Ann Meyers, Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard.
Three players early in their careers weren’t considered for the top 10 but could end up becoming No. 1: Breanna Stewart, 19, University of Connecticut; Maya Moore, 25, Minnesota Lynx, and Candace Parker, 28, Los Angeles Sparks.
Although no formal poll was conducted, the list was assembled with the help of Krauskopf, TV analyst Debbie Antonelli and ESPN.com columnist Mechelle Voepel.
Born: Sept. 29, 1956, Elizabeth, N.J. (age 57).
WNBA team: None.
College: Montclair State, 1974-78.
International medals: World Championships (gold, 1979); Pan American Games (silver, 1979); World University Games (gold, 1979 and ’77).
Career recap: “Blaze” embodied “Showtime” a few years before Magic Johnson. On March 6, 1978, she set a Madison Square Garden record by scoring 52 points in Montclair State’s 102-91 victory over Queens College (before there was a 3-point line). She averaged 38.6 ppg that season and was college Player of the Year, leading Montclair State to the AIAW Final Four.
On the international stage, she led Team USA to a world championship in 1979, ending a 22-year drought. She averaged 18.7 ppg in the tournament. The U.S. boycott deprived Blazejowski of an Olympic stage in 1980. In the 1980-81 season of the Women’s Basketball League, she was MVP and the league’s top scorer (29.6 ppg) for the New Jersey Gems.
“Blaze would be a modern-day (Diana) Taurasi, in terms of being able to shoot from anywhere on the floor,” Krauskopf said.
Case for: There hasn’t been a scorer like her since she retired.
Case against: Quality of opposition was poor, by 21st-century standards.
Born: July 21, 1979, Stratford, N.J. (age 34).
WNBA team: Indiana Fever.
College: Tennessee, 1997-2001.
International medals: Olympics (gold, 2012, ’08, ’04); World Championships (gold, 2010, ’02; bronze, ’06).
Career recap: Catchings is the only player in WNBA history to rank in the all-time top 10 in points (fourth), rebounds (fourth), assists (eighth) and steals (first). She is 11th in blocked shots. She is the only player ever to finish a season in the top 10 of all five categories, and she has done so twice.
She was the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2011 and led the Fever to their only league championship in 2012.
Case for: No one else has ever been as productive in so many ways over so many years.
Case against: As great as she has been, she has been MVP only once.
Born: April 14, 1963, Chicago (age 51).
WNBA team: Houston Comets.
College: Southern California, 1982-86.
International medals: Olympics (gold, 1988; bronze, ’92); World Championships (gold, 1990, ’86); Pan American Games (gold, 1987); Goodwill Games (gold, 1986).
Career recap: Cooper was 34 when the WNBA debuted in 1997, and she proceeded to lead the Comets to the first four league titles and was MVP of all four WNBA Finals. She was MVP in 1997 and ’98.
In one overseas season, she led the Spanish league in scoring (36.7 ppg). She played nearly 10 years in Italy and was that league’s top scorer eight times.
Before that, Cooper helped USC to NCAA championships in 1983 and ’84.
Case for: She dominated early years of WNBA after becoming a star in Europe.
Case against: She was overshadowed at USC by Cheryl Miller.
Born: May 11, 1981, Albury, Australia (age 33).
WNBA team: Seattle Storm.
International medals: Olympics (2012, bronze; ’08, ’04, 2000, silver); World Championships (2006, gold; ’02, bronze).
Career recap: The 6-5 Australian is almost certainly the most well-rounded post player of all time. She is as adept from the 3-point line as she is near the basket.
Jackson has been MVP of the WNBA three times (2003, ’07, ’10) and led Seattle to league championships in 2004 and ’10. She is fourth in league history in points per game (18.9).
Case for: Her inside/outside versatility redefined what it meant to be a female post player.
Case against: Injuries have limited her. She has played 22 games over the past four WNBA seasons.
Born: July 7, 1972, Gardena, Calif. (age 42).
WNBA team: Los Angeles Sparks.
College: Southern California, 1990-94.
International medals: Olympics (gold, 2008, ’04, ’00, 1996); World Championships (gold, 2002, 1998); World University Games (gold, 1991).
Career recap: The 6-5 Leslie was able to dunk a basketball by her sophomore year of high school and once scored 101 points in game. At USC, she was college Player of the Year in ’94.
Besides her four Olympic gold medals, she led the Sparks to WNBA championships in 2001 and ’02. She was MVP three times (2001, ’04, ’06) and is the league’s all-time leader in rebounds. She was a first-team all-league selection a record eight times.
Case for: At her peak, she was the sport’s most dominant player.
Case against: She’s not the all-around player that others are.
Born: March 26, 1955, San Diego (age 59)
WNBA team: None.
College: UCLA, 1975-79.
International medals: Olympics (silver, 1976); World Championship (gold, 1979); Pan American Games (gold, 1975; silver, ’79); World University Games (silver, 1977).
Career recap: In 1979, she made NBA history by signing a $50,000 contract with the Indiana Pacers. Her tryout lasted three days, but it would be wrong to make that her landmark achievement.
She was the first high school player to make a national team, first woman to receive a UCLA basketball scholarship, first four-time All-American and first NCAA Division I player to record a quadruple-double. She was the 1978 college Player of the Year, leading UCLA to an AIAW national championship. She also played in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL) and was co-MVP in 1979-80.
Case for: In her era, she was usually considered No. 1.
Case against: Her career was short and competition inferior.
Born: Jan. 3, 1964, Riverside, Calif. (age 50)
WNBA team: None.
College: Southern California, 1982-86.
International medals: Olympics (gold, 1984); World Championships (gold, 1986; silver, 1983); Goodwill Games (gold, 1986); Pan American Games (gold, 1983).
Career recap: The sister of the Pacers’ Reggie Miller was labeled by Sports Illustrated as the best player in college basketball, male or female. She was a four-time All-American in both high school — she once scored 105 points in a game — and college. Her teams went 132-4 in high school and 112-20 in college. Miller helped USC to NCAA championships in 1983 and ’84. She was a three-time college Player of the Year and had a career scoring average of 23.6.
Knee injuries prevented her from continuing a playing career in the late 1980s, and she became a TV broadcaster and coach.
Case for: She was the premier player of her era.
Case against: Her career was so short that if a grade were awarded, it would be “Incomplete.”
Born: March 25, 1971, Brownfield, Texas (age 41).
WNBA teams: Houston Comets, Seattle Storm, Tulsa Shock.
College: Texas Tech, 1991-93.
International medals: Olympics (gold, 2004, ’00, 1996); World Championships (gold, 2002, 1998; bronze, 2004, 1996); Goodwill Games (gold, 1994).
Career recap: Swoopes is sometimes referred to as the closest to Michael Jordan that the women’s game has produced. She was the first female player to have a Nike shoe named after her: “Air Swoopes.”
She was Jordan-esque in her final college game, scoring 47 points to lead Texas Tech over Ohio State in the 1993 NCAA championship game — a record for men or women in the title game. She averaged 35.4 ppg in the tournament and was college Player of the Year.
Swoopes became the WNBA’s first three-time MVP (2000, ’02, ’05) and first three-time Defensive Player of the Year. She won four league titles as a member of the Comets.
Case for: She has every important individual and team achievement in college, pro and international play.
Case against: She wasn’t the best player on Comets’ championship teams. (That was Cooper.)
Born: June 11, 1982, Glendale, Calif.
WNBA team: Phoenix Mercury.
International medals: Olympics (gold, 2012, ’08, ’04); World Championship (gold, 2010; bronze, ’06).
Career recap: Taurasi, daughter of an Italian father and Argentinian mother, is on track to become the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer by the end of 2015 or early in ’16. She is having one of her best seasons in 2014 and could add a second MVP award to the one she won in ’09.
Taurasi led UConn to three NCAA championships and a four-year record of 139-8. She was twice the college Player of the Year.
She led the Mercury to WNBA titles in 2009 (over the Fever) and ’07. Taurasi has won a record five league scoring titles and equaled Leslie’s record of eight first-team all-league designations. She is third in league history in 3-pointers and sixth in assists.
If she should pick any player in women’s basketball history to build a franchise around, Voepel said in an e-mail, “it may very well be Taurasi.”
Case for: Besides being a scorer, she has been a winner.
Case against: Her scoring benefited from Mercury’s up-tempo system.
Born: Aug. 12, 1959, Wichita, Kan. (age 54).
WNBA team: Cleveland Rockers.
International medals: Olympics (gold, 1984); World Championships (gold, 1990; silver, ’83); Pan American Games (gold, 1983; bronze, ’91); World University Games (gold, 1979).
Career recap: Woodard is one of the most athletic players in history but suffered from lack of exposure. She was a pro in Italy and came out of retirement at age 37 to play two WNBA seasons.
She was a four-time All-American and is the all-time college leader with 3,649 points. Woodard was captain of the gold-medal-winning Olympic team in 1984 and averaged 10.5 points in six games. In 1985, she became the first female member of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Case for: She represented a glimpse of what the women’s game would become.
Case against: Her elite career was also short, and she wasn’t necessarily the top player on national teams.
They’ve got ‘next’
Three players early in their careers could end up being considered the best ever:
• Breanna Stewart, 19, U. of Connecticut
• Maya Moore, 25, Minnesota Lynx
• Candace Parker, 28, Los Angeles Sparks