Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Monarchs join party for Women in Sports festivities

Yolanda Griffith embraces teammate Kara Lawson as they celebrate their WNBA championship following their clinching victory over the visiting Connecticut Sun on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005.
Yolanda Griffith embraces teammate Kara Lawson as they celebrate their WNBA championship following their clinching victory over the visiting Connecticut Sun on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005. lsterling@sacbee.com

While the Kings limp through the opening weeks of 2015-16, their final season inside the soon-to-be archived Sleep Train Arena, the trip down memory lane continues.

Everyone has a personal favorite. Opening night against the Los Angeles Clippers in the temporary facility in 1985. Mike Bibby’s side jumper against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5. The sobfest finale in 2011 that gave NBA owners pause about relocating the franchise. The Oct. 28 regular-season opener against the Clippers, suggesting it was time to start prepping for the move into Golden 1 Center.

But there is no forgetting the Monarchs.

Never, ever, ever, ever.

The thing I learned from the Monarchs is how competitive women are.

Jerry Reynolds, former Monarchs general manager

The Kings are holding events, including a girls basketball camp Sunday at St. Francis High School, centered around Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman, who will become the first two NBA female assistants on opposing benches when Hammon’s San Antonio Spurs visit Monday. But the welcome mat has widened. Sports luminaries Debbie Meyer, Paige VanZant, Mo’ne Davis and Jen Welter will be recognized during the Women in Sports halftime ceremonies, and deservedly so.

But about those memories? My favorite Sacramento basketball moment? One of my all-time favorite teams? That’s too easy. That’s like saying basketball is a simple game. The 2005 WNBA champion Monarchs will be here Monday night, too, for a reunion only a few weeks late.

Ten years ago – Sept. 20 to be exact – the Monarchs edged the Connecticut Sun to claim their first title. That was the first time Jerry Reynolds walked around the arena with tears in his eyes, the first time purple confetti doused the near-sellout crowd, the only time one of the area’s pro basketball teams lifted a trophy at midcourt and led a parade down J Street.

“Passing and sharing the ball and playing sound defense,” recalled coach John Whisenant, who will be part of the festivities. “Basketball is not a complicated game. But it’s hard to get everyone playing the same way, and that group of women were very willing to do that, was very unselfish.

“We had a few power struggles,” he said with a laugh, “but I wish we still had the Monarchs and I still coached the team.”

The 2005 grand finale polished the crown, and appropriately featured contributions from all familiar figures. Kara Lawson and Nicole Powell converted crucial jumpers. DeMya Walker tormented the post defenders with her wicked step-throughs and up-and-under moves. Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, Rebekkah Brunson and Chelsea Newton scrapped for loose balls and long rebounds.

And then there were two. Ticha Penicheiro and Yolanda Griffith, who around Sacramento are still referred to affectionately as Ticha and Yo. And this was their night.

With the Monarchs shaky and trailing by six points at halftime, Penicheiro, the flashy point guard from Portugal, the woman who shed 30 pounds and gained the flexibility of a yoga master, who delivered textbook no-look passes and developed into an exceptional defender, changed the tempo with two quick steals.

Griffith took it from there, rebounding, protecting the rim, clogging the lane, running the floor, yelling at her teammates, yelling at her coach, yelling at herself. She was relentless, ferocious, intimidating. Yo could school DeMarcus Cousins in the art of the scowl. Put Yo in a cage with a bear, it was said only half-jokingly, then put your money on Yo; she finds a way to win.

“The thing I learned from the Monarchs is how competitive women are,” said Reynolds, the general manager who assembled most of the championship roster. “They just wanted to be coached, taught. They just wanted to win. It starts obviously with Yolanda being a player and Ticha being a great leader. Once we started to win, it took awhile to become a champion. But John made the difference. He brought a defensive mentality that we didn’t have.”

Drama? Theatrics? Testy player-coach exchanges? Plenty of that, too. Griffith and Whiz were Bill and Hillary, yet they overcame their differences and made the marriage work.

The joy of that night we won was beautiful. The fans, the city, everyone came together.

Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, member of the Monarchs’ 2005 WNBA title team

The relationship between the Monarchs and the Kings’ ownership was less enduring. The Maloofs disbanded their WNBA franchise abruptly in December 2009 because of the family’s ongoing financial troubles. The move, of course, hinted at more to come. After failed attempts to relocate the Kings to Anaheim and Seattle, the Maloofs succumbed to league pressure and sold to current principal owner Vivek Ranadive, who has expressed interest – but no commitment – in pursuing a WNBA franchise.

“Let’s just get into the new arena, and then we’ll look at that,” Ranadive said recently.

The recent dustup in league headquarters isn’t exactly encouraging for any WNBA city. Shortly before league president Laurel Richie resigned last week, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver praised the expanded television coverage and increase in corporate sponsorships, but expressed disappointment in flattened attendance and the fact that, as the 20th season approaches, only half the teams turn a profit.

Lieberman, the television analyst for the Monarchs’ title clincher, believes women – and not just famous Women In Sports – need to make a stronger commitment to supporting WNBA franchises. “We have to find out what brings people in,” she said. “It can’t just be men, women or families. I still say women play the game, but are not fans of the game. Men play, they retire, they become fans. Women need to buy tickets.”

That’s a story for another day and, at least until the Golden 1 Center is ready to secure additional tenants, for another city. All of which leaves Sacramento and the Monarchs with only their memories.

“The Maloofs were one of the best owners, but I feel like they took something away from us,” said Maiga-Ba, now a local real estate agent. “The joy of that night we won was beautiful. The fans, the city, everyone came together. We need our Monarchs back.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, avoisin@sacbee.com, @ailene_voisin

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