They’re not women’s sports. They’re sports sports.

Terrible fan, right here. Guilty. So guilty.

I’ve lived in Seattle since the summer of 2000, which means I can legitimately take all the credit for the Mariners and Sonics reaching the playoffs in the same year Huskies football won the Pac-10. Be a long time until that trifecta repeats. You’re welcome.

Terrible fan, though: took me until June 30, 2019 to attend a Storm game in person. They lost, of course, their first home defeat of the year, of course, and this time I take all the blame, of course. It was a 69-67 defeat that could’ve gone the other way if the fourth quarter free throws had bounced a little more nicely. Or if I’d picked another game to crash. All the blame.

Point is, the importance of late free throw shooting is not lost on an educated basketball fan. Probably not lost on a novice, either. Having watched sports for, oh, I dunno, my entire life — the entire life of an old, so a #long #time — I have seen a close hoop game or two. I’ve seen nailbiters decided on the smallest of things (a no-call), the mediumest of things (a dumb foul), the almost biggest of things (the free throw shooting in question), and the biggest biggest things (epic shots, destined to be remembered forever).

Basketball is basketball. No matter who’s playing it. Men, women, zombie vampire dolphins, sentient robots in the year 2201, or Zeus’ own illegitimate son, the demigod we mortals call LeBron James. The game is the game, anywhere, anytime, by anyone. (Others have made the exact same point before, and with more eloquence. It bears repeating.) The long-distance shooting, the art of a good entry pass, the tenacity it takes to fight for that tenth rebound — if you love basketball, you’ll love people playing it, if they know what they’re doing.

The Storm, missing their three best players, knew what they were doing. They played help defense. They set assertive screens on the proper border of legality. They didn’t take a lot of ill-advised shots. They shot threes instead of long twos. They adjusted their tactics, doubling in the post late in the game as they tried to coerce the evil Mercury into relying on their third and fourth offensive options.

Seattle played sound, compelling basketball, full of passion and intelligence. The fact that most of it took place below the rim is something that would have bothered a younger, more superficial version of myself. Because I would have been comparing their individual skills to college and pro men. And I would have missed a great game.

Don’t make the same mistake as me. Watching women play a sport you’ve seen stronger and faster men — I mean, they are stronger and faster — play for years or decades is not about drawing a comparison. It’s about watching something you already love, in a different setting. Say you like horror movies. Would you watch the best slasher film and then mark it down mentally because it wasn’t a psychological thriller? Would you watch John Carpenter and be disappointed he didn’t make the movie exactly like Wes Craven? You might! But then you’d be like young me, applying standards to a movie that had already decided ahead of time it was gonna be something else.

Sport is sport. Women’s sports are not women’s sports. They’re sports. Just sports. If you love the game, you’ll still love the game when the plot details are a little different, when the storytelling employs a new voice. It’s a no-lose situation, unless you start imagining what level of male competition would play their females counterparts more evenly. It just is Not. About. That. Yet for years, that was the framing one would hear in the public sphere — it’s the framing I grew up with, and it’s the first place my mind went in my 20s, when I was a child, first becoming acquainted with non-Olympic women’s teams.

* * * *

Going on across the Atlantic, while the Storm tread water — they’re somehow fourth in the Western Conference without Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Jordin Canada for a while and now Jewell Loyd — is the preeminent soccer event of the year.

Oh, there will be a few Champions League games, or even Super Cup games that will seem bigger at kickoff, along with the occasional Premier League or La Liga derby. Many other matches here and there will elicit more passionate responses, draw more eyeballs, garner more media attention, while featuring players who get paid a hell of a lot more than Megan Rapinoe. That’s gonna happen.

But a single club’s victory in an annual tournament is not a World Cup. Sunday’s upcoming final, pitting the United States against the Netherlands, will be for national glory, for a few years of bragging rights, for a whole country’s hopes, for a trophy that proclaims you to be the best anywhere at your chosen vocation. It’s for everything, on a planetary scale. Only everything.

What it’s not for, is inter-gender dominance. How could it be? The USWNT would play the part of Thailand in a 13-0 drubbing at the hands of any major men’s national team. Whether the women are slower and/or less technically proficient is irrelevant. There is no reason to dispute the gap in skill. But there is also no reason to argue about it, or use the athletic gap to tune out. Because just as hoop is hoop, futbol is futbol. Loving soccer is about appreciating the teamwork, the vision, the brilliant finishing, the did-that-just-happen saves (KEEPERS: ALWAYS UNDERRATED), the show(wo)manship, the tension, while fans and players seek the thrill of shared victory in a moment destined to be remembered a long while.

I mean. It was still 2-1 when Alyssa Naeher did this to a shot headed for the upper corner:

naeher bp 74.jpg

If you love soccer, there’s no way you could come away from USA vs. England, the World Cup semifinal from this past Tuesday, with anything less than satisfaction. Not just because of a big win, but because of big plays, and a frenetic tempo that would have shamed an Indy 500 pace car. All the things you like about soccer populated the match:

  • Brilliant passing
  • Epic saves
  • Controversial calls
  • Second-tier players stepping up
  • Drama
  • Passion
  • and countless “did she just do that? did that just happen?” moments.

It doesn’t hurt that the women are winning, and winning with style. Alex Morgan drinking to shared success >>>>>>>>. Rapinoe posing with more flair than Jennifer Aniston could fit on two Chotchkies uniforms. Julie Ertz bodying out an unfortunate opponent before threading a pass on the counter-attack. It’s all there for the enjoyment. And it seems to be… catching on?

At least the rest of the country isn’t full of terrible fans. Go Storm. Go USWNT. Go get that hardware. Again.