Keeping Score

Can a Woman Play In the NBA?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says he might select Baylor's Brittney Griner in the NBA draft. Is he serious?

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Baylor center Brittney Griner

On Tuesday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made waves — shocker, I know — by suggesting that he would be open to selecting 6’8″ Baylor center Britney Griner in the second round of this year’s NBA draft. Or he’d invite Griner, probably the most dominant player in women’s basketball history, to play on Dallas’ summer league team. Said Cuban, via ESPN Dallas/Fort Worth:

“If she is the best on the board, I will take her … I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it already. Would I do it? Right now, I’d lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it. You never know unless you give somebody a chance, and it’s not like the likelihood of any late-50s draft pick has a good chance of making it.”

Cuban admitted that the move would have strong marketing potential. At the very least, it would draw more interest in the NBA summer league. “That’d sell out a few games,” Cuban said.

(MORE: U.S. Women Win Fifth Consecutive Basketball Gold. Will The WNBA Benefit?)

But at least one prominent women’s coach isn’t buying Cuban’s talk. Geno Auriemma, the women’s coach at UConn, and coach of the U.S. national team that won gold in London last summer, had this to say during a teleconference:

“Obviously Mark Cuban is a genius because he’s been able to parlay some great ideas into billion dollar industries and he’s done a great job as owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He’s won an NBA championship and he’s done an awful lot for basketball. His genius would take a huge hit if he drafted Brittney Griner. And if Brittney Griner tries to make it to an NBA team, I think it would be a public relations thing and I think it would be a sham. The fact that a woman could actually play right now in the NBA and compete successfully against the level of play that they have is absolutely ludicrous.”

In an email response to USA Today, Cuban emphasized that Griner would have to excel in pre-draft workouts in order to be drafted.

“I have no problem giving her that opportunity … I hope she gives it a shot. Nothing harms an organization or company more than a closed mind.”

Griner seems to be on board. “@mcuban so when do I show up for tryouts” Griner tweeted.

Even if Cuban’s chatter is something of a publicity stunt … so what? If Cuban is offering Griner at least a chance, and Griner wants to take the opportunity, that would be great for basketball. NBA teams have drafted women players before. In 1969, the San Francisco Warriors selected a high school student, Denise Long, in the 13th round; Long had averaged a cool 69.6 points per game in her senior year. Then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick, since the NBA did not allow high school players to be drafted at the time (he also deemed it a pure publicity stunt). In 1977, the New Orleans Jazz picked Lusia Harris, from Delta State, in the seventh round. But she did not try out; it turned out that Harris was pregnant at the time.

Cuban is unlikely to draft Griner. The NBA draft has only two rounds now. So although late-second round picks are unlikely to make a team, they’re still assets. Cuban knows publicity, and he’s aware that if a player selected after Griner goes on to have a successful NBA career, he’ll get pilloried.

But what’s the harm of inviting Griner to camp as a free agent? That’s also happened before; Ann Myers, of UCLA, participated in a three-day tryout with the Indiana Pacers in 1979.  (She didn’t make it). Or why shouldn’t Griner suit up for a summer league game? There, she’d have a fair shot to prove if she can compete. Everyone would be watching. And if you’re an NBA owner like Cuban, what’s wrong with everyone watching your team?

MORE: Q&A – UConn Women’s Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma