Basketball

Will Sacramento see a Monarchs return?

Their purple reign ended way too soon.

Ten years ago this week, the Sacramento Monarchs ruled women’s basketball. Led by Finals MVP Yolanda Griffith, the spunky overachievers won the 2005 WNBA title, the only professional basketball championship in Sacramento history. They did it with class, style and gritty determination, endearing them to fans and their loving community.

Then, they were gone, disbanded unceremoniously in December 2009 without notice to fans or players. They left only memories such as that title-clinching 62-59 victory over the Connecticut Sun. Witnessed by more than 15,000 fans at then-Arco Arena, that come-from-behind effort embodied the Monarchs’ gutsy 32-10 championship season, capped by a 7-1 playoff run. Purple confetti filled downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza after the championship parade.

“That’s what was so bad; we didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye,” said former Monarchs point guard Ticha Penicheiro, the league’s all-time assists leader. “There was no closure.”

Now, with the construction of a gleaming new downtown arena for the Kings, a return of the WNBA seems possible, too.

“I’m a huge women’s basketball fan,” new Kings owner Vivek Ranadive told The Sacramento Bee shortly after he and his partners bought their NBA franchise in 2013.

Support is still there, said former coach and general manager John Whisenant. “I keep hearing from die-hard fans. They want their Monarchs back.”

Founded in 1996 by its big brother the NBA, the women’s league has seen a lot of transformation over 19 seasons. Out of 18 total franchises, six folded and three teams relocated. Originally in Detroit, the Tulsa Shock is about to move again, this time to Dallas. Only four teams remain from the WNBA’s original eight: the Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and San Antonio (formerly Utah) Stars.

After expanding to 16 teams early in its history, the league contracted to its current 12. Half the clubs are owned outside the NBA, which originally controlled all teams. More important, about half of them are profitable. When the Monarchs folded, most WNBA teams lost $1 million to $2 million a year.

“There’s no single ownership model that works; multiple models work,” said WNBA president Laurel Richie. “There are some benefits from NBA affiliation; the teams share the same arena. They have a strong built-in fan base and relationship with their community. But what we’ve truly learned is each market is different.”

The value of a WNBA franchise goes far beyond the bottom line, say some league observers. According to research by Texas A&M University’s School of Education and Human Development, the women’s league earns “social and cultural capital” in its communities that makes it a good long-term investment, particularly for marketing sports to a female audience.

“The WNBA is the longest-running women’s professional league for good reason,” said Matthew Walker, chairman of the school’s sport management department. “As businesses, sports teams are bottom-line-driven entities, but these teams give back so much to their communities. They serve as role models to young girls. They provide professional opportunities for female athletes. They bring the sport of basketball to more people and are strongly linked to their communities. When you look at these teams from that perspective, they take on a whole different light.”

Lack of money led to the Monarchs’ demise. The cash-strapped Maloof brothers dumped the team, an original WNBA franchise, while desperately trying to hold on to the Kings.

“The ‘W’ had a great run in Sacramento,” Richie said. “The people of Sacramento have great, great memories of their Monarchs. Sacramento still has impassioned fans. (The Monarchs) were one of our original franchises. They had a championship team.”

Now, prospects for a possible Monarchs’ rebirth appear hopeful.

“I know Vivek believes in the power of women’s sports,” Richie said.

A few informal meetings were held with longtime Monarchs backers last year, but once the downtown arena deal was approved, Monarchs talks were put on the back burner.

The league has only three teams west of Texas, making California an under-represented market.

“We’ve had expressions of interest (for new teams) across the country,” said Richie, while agreeing that Northern California is an appealing market.

Timing might also be right for the once-embattled WNBA.

“We will be forming an expansion committee (out of its board of governors) to work with the league to put together a strategy and long-term approach to begin thinking about expansion,” Richie said. “We have no time frame. We want to do it right.”

Adding to its financial good health, the WNBA has a TV deal with ESPN through 2025 and a collective bargaining agreement with its players through 2021. Attendance, which averages just above 7,500 a game, and TV ratings are both up.

“Next year, we’re not only celebrating our 20th season, but we’re setting the groundwork for the next 20 years,” Richie said.

On Monday, the WNBA starts its postseason with two former Sacramento stars back with a chance to win another championship: guard Kara Lawson, with the Washington Mystics, and forward Rebekkah Brunson, a Minnesota Lynx stalwart. After the Monarchs’ demise, Brunson won two more titles with Minnesota.

“We’re still very good friends,” said Penicheiro, now a sports agent based in Maryland. “It’s easy with social media; you always know where they are.”

Other members of the Monarchs’ 2005 championship team have become coaches. Griffith is an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Massachusetts. Forward Nicole Powell has a similar position at the University of Oregon. In addition to coaching clinics, forward DeMya Walker-Wheatfall is an assistant girls’ high school basketball coach in Houston.

“Nicole called me up; she wanted some tips on ‘white line defense,’” said Whisenant, known as a coach for his defense-first strategy. “She knew it as a player, but now she has to coach it.”

Whisenant sees a reminder of his championship team every day. A photo of the post-title visit to the White House graces his office wall in Albuquerque, N.M., his hometown. His Monarchs had a rare combination of height and grace, plus the speed and tenacity that sparked explosive scoring runs.

“I see their smiling faces, all my players,” Whisenant said. “We still stay in touch. They’re like my daughters.”

In addition to winning a title, Whisenant was the last Monarchs coach. After the 2006 season and a second trip to the WNBA Finals, Whisenant cut back his duties to general manager. But he returned to the bench midseason in 2009.

“I was trying to save the team,” he recalled. “I knew what the Maloofs were thinking, and I wanted to show them the team could succeed (financially). We tried, but it wasn’t enough.”

Once considered for the Kings’ head coaching position, Whisenant went on to coach the New York Liberty through two tumultuous seasons in 2011 and 2012. He left New York and the WNBA after his wife, Joyce, was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer.

Now 70, Whisenant has had his own health issues. He’s recovering from a stroke.

“It’s been a tough year but a good year,” he added. “Joyce is doing well, I’m doing well. We keep watching WNBA games; Joyce won’t let me stop. She’s still a big fan.”

Whisenant said he remains hopeful about the Monarchs’ future.

“I always felt like Sacramento could support a team and make it profitable,” he said. “We weren’t profitable at the time, but we were close enough to get there.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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