Les Go, Mercury

It's not hard to see why basketball has caught on the way it has. Unlike baseball, it's fast-paced and easy to follow, even if you don't understand all the rules. Unlike football, it's as much about personal charisma as athletic prowess--the personalities of Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman are allowed to shine unencumbered by protective headgear. The cult of the personality merged with breathtaking displays of speed and timing rather than brute force make basketball, along with boxing, a spectacle with one foot in the world of sport and the other in show business.

So it was inevitable that the Women's National Basketball Association would arise. This is a sport, unlike others, for which women are as well-equipped as men. And, in show biz, if there's an audience, then money will make it happen.

And there's an audience for the Phoenix Mercury. It's only the team's first season, but, at 6 p.m. on a Friday, 15,648 people have turned out to watch it take on the L.A. Sparks. It doesn't seem to matter that the Mercury's about to be beaten for the second time in the space of a week--the carnival atmosphere at America West Arena will remain constant throughout.

But carnivals don't make it so obvious that they want your money. Mercury fans, however, feel the hands in their pockets before they're even inside the arena. It seems as though every inch of ground within a mile radius is owned by someone who wants to charge you $3, $5 or $7 to park on it. Ticket prices for the game run from $8 for the seats highest up and farthest away to $75 courtside. This is pretty reasonable--even the peons at the back have a good view of the action. But, outside in the food court, a small snack--a hot dog and a soda--will cost you nearly $6. As well as the food stalls, there are stalls selling Mercury memorabilia. The event's main imperative is to make sure you leave with less money than you arrived with.

Of course, it would be naive to expect anything else--the people in charge of professional sport are not known for taking vows of poverty--but it's still depressing when you come face to face with such crass cynicism.

As the game starts, they play some cheesy electronic music which, appropriately, sounds like an advertising jingle. At the first time-out, the announcer lays it on the line. His manner is that of a TV game-show host. "Now, fans, direct your attention to the screens for--McDonald's Mercury Moments!"

The pace of the advertising is as relentless as that of the game. Dillard's touts gift certificates. The Arizona Republic has a paper-pitching contest--contestants throw copies of the newspaper and try to hit a mat with the paper's name on it. (I'm not making this up.)

Patrons of NBA games also are exposed to extensive marketing. But tonight it feels different, worse, tackier. It's the atmosphere that does it.

There's a peculiar innocence about Mercury fans. They don't seem to mind when their team loses an exciting, see-sawing game. The booing and jeering are good-natured. This wouldn't seem so shocking--only a little unusual--but for the fact that they're also the most enthusiastic, partisan fans I've ever seen at a sports event.

When the referee makes a bad call in favor of the Sparks, the Mercury fans go tribal, jumping up and down as they express their disapproval in a Phil Spectorish wall of sound. But, when the theme from The Addams Family is played, the usual clapping along to it is so frenzied that it creates a breeze strong enough to ruffle the hair. When a generic rock tune is played, the spectators stand up and dance, applauding so hard that the music is drowned out. The vibe is somewhere between a rock festival and a religious revival.

It's not that the game itself differs greatly from a men's game. The Mercury is a good team. It's unlucky to lose. The Sparks are a good team, too, and they're lucky to win. It could easily have gone either way.

While the Mercury's ability as a team is unquestionable, its impressiveness is as a unit. It doesn't have any one player who shows the gifts of a Jordan or Rodman. And there seems, at first glance, to be another difference.

Male basketball teams don't have players--they have stars. Jordan, Rodman and (to a slightly lesser degree) Charles Barkley are marketed on the strength of their images. And, as with nearly everything in advertising, their images are based on traditional archetypes of male sexuality--Jordan with his cool intensity, Rodman with his flamboyant thuggishness. These men are compelling to watch on the court as much for who they are as for what they're doing.

And the same goes for the members of the Phoenix Mercury. It just takes a while to realize it. And you realize it not by watching the team, but by watching the fans.

The Mercury players, like almost all female athletes, seem curiously sexless while they perform. They have blunt, boyish features and strong, but unaesthetic, bodies. Their moves are efficient but inelegant. Like their male counterparts, a significant part of their appeal is sex appeal. But the appeal is not to heterosexual men.

Check out the fans and it becomes clear that a Mercury game is the sports world's equivalent of a k.d. lang concert. Not that everyone present is a lesbian--there may not be 15,648 lesbians in the county. But the lesbians are here.

And the lesbians here tonight seem to have more cash to spend than the breeders. The people in the cheap seats look pretty straight--hicks in cowboy apparel, vatos in baggy pants, teenage couples in jeans and tee shirts, older couples with little kids. Some of them smell so strongly of cigarettes that they might set off a smoke alarm.

Farther down, in the middle-range seats, the demographic changes. Mostly women, and mostly in groups. Short hair, no makeup. They're the ones who behave with the abandon of acolytes at a voodoo ritual.

The packaging of the show--and it is a show--is subtle, probably so as not to offend homophobes. But when you examine it, it's obviously high camp. During a time-out, a bunch of dancers come on--women dressed in men's black suits, the quintessential motif of European gay cabaret.

It's such a party atmosphere that even straight males get caught up in it. When the game is over, many of the women make their way to a nearby bar and grill, where Mercury players are known to hang out. For a few hours, the place becomes a lesbian bar.

Not all Mercury fans are hard-core basketball fans. For many it's about community rather than competition. To be a hip and happening lesbian in Phoenix these days, you have to be a season-ticket holder. Tonight was one woman's first time at a basketball game of any kind. "I'll be at every one from now on," she bubbles. Does she like basketball as much as that? "No, just the Mercury. It's great to have so many lesbians together, and to be so visible."

Another regular attender is a basketball fan, but she echoes the sentiments about community. "Yes, it's very social. I run into lots of lesbians I know. I got very emotional at my first game. . . . Finally, women have a chance. It's way overdue. And the crowd is more charged than the crowds at men's games--maybe because it's new."

But it takes more than novelty to nearly fill an arena. A couple of hours before the game, the only tickets left on sale were for the cheapest seats. If the WNBA can make this much of an impact during its infancy, its future seems pretty much assured. And if the Mercury players decide to cultivate a more feminine image, they could always ask Dennis Rodman for advice on hairstyling.

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Barry Graham