The nervous energy is palpable in Section 121 and throughout the arena where the first game of the WNBA playoffs is underway. The game is close. Eyes fixed on the court, the ticket holders talk to themselves, to each other — a way for the tension to seep out.
Sitting together and providing running commentary are basketball friends, a group of people who bonded over their love of the game, the WNBA and especially the Chicago Sky. Therese Flowers, 50, and her sister Shelly Murray, 54, natives of Belize, sit next to Chicagoans Dan Cohen and Julie Kosowski and one of their daughters.
They support the hottest team in Chicago over the last few years, a team that brings more to the table than a high winning percentage. Rows C and D of Section 121, and all of the small conclaves in rows all over the Wintrust Arena, make a case that the Sky have earned, and deserve, broader attention from Chicago’s sports watching public.
“We have the championship,” said 17-year season ticket holder and Sky elder Doris “Mama J” Jackson. “We are it right now.”
The Cubs sold off most of their fans’ favorite players, the talented White Sox have frustrated backers with fumbling play, the Bears are great for tailgating but not so much for playoff runs, and the Bulls are just beginning to show signs of life. But in the newish Wintrust Arena where the Chicago Sky play professional women’s basketball, getting there is a breeze, good seats can be had for under $50 and the team is not just the city’s only champs — the players, team and league are downright inspiring to their supporters.
During timeouts, amid the cacophony, Kosowski and Cohen explain their devotion. They pass the conversation back and forth like two all-star point guards:
She: “We wanted to expose our daughters to women’s sports.”
He: “The players are generous with their time.”
She: “They built relationships with the kids, relationships with other fans. We are really proud of the WNBA, their political involvement, their Black Lives Matter involvement. It’s been an easy thing to engage our daughters.”
He: “It’s an amazing diverse crowd. It’s an incredible capture of what Chicago is.”
Expanding the appeal
When the “W,” as those in the know call it, launched in 1996, the core of the league’s fan base was middle-aged white lesbians who were following women’s college hoops. A lot has happened in the WNBA and American culture since then, including a movement toward far greater acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people. Lorri Gyenes — known on Twitter as “Sky Mayor Redhead Lorri” — has watched it unfold and has lived it.
Gyenes and her partner of 30 years, Judy, tied the knot not long after civil unions were legalized in Illinois in June 2011.
The days when WNBA players were encouraged to keep their sexual orientation and preferences in the closet, and to wear makeup and dresses to appear straight and acceptable are over, she said. Many players — including veteran superstars Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne and Sky star Candace Parker — have come out publicly in recent years, gotten married or engaged, and sustained their popularity.
Gyenes goes so far back with the Sky that her friends used something called a “message board” to make plans for potluck tailgate parties in the UIC parking lot for 50 people. “You’re like the mayor” of Skytown, friends told her. It’s a role that brought her out of a shell.
“When I’m in Skytown, I’m not an introvert, I’m confident, I’m at home. It’s more than just a basketball game to me; it’s the sense of family and community. It has given me so much,” she said.
She pointed one row down in Section 109 to her friend Mary Ellen, whose wedding she attended. The smaller scale of women’s sports suits her well. As a season ticket holder, Gyenes has gone to parties with the players and coaches, and even knows the national TV announcers.
“You feel you’re part of something,” she said.
“I’ve always wanted to support women, especially women in sports. Now we invest in women.” Nodding her head to the scene unfolding around her on the court just a few rows away, she said: “This is what I’ve always dreamed to happen.”
The attendance puzzle
Matters on the court aren’t going so well on this night. In the third quarter, the Sky struggle to stake their claim to “Recrown Skytown” as the signs around the arena demand. They’re now trailing the New York Liberty by just four points.
The Sky’s acrobatic all-star, Kahleah Copper, drives hard to the rim. This time, New York’s Stefanie Dolson, stuffs her shot. Copper clatters to the floor, holding her ankle. No foul. Everyone takes off in the other direction and Dolson — who played for the Sky last year – scores. The Sky calls a timeout, and Copper limps to the bench.
Six minutes of frenetic play ensue, with unease rising in the seats. Finally, with literally one second left in the quarter, Belgian Emma Meesseman hits a basket for the Sky, giving them a one point lead.
Section 121 loses it. Cheering blends with ear-splitting music.
Gyenes’s dream is being fulfilled by young people like Grace Huffman-Gottschling, a 24-year-old sports-obsessed woman from Chicago who hadn’t been to a single Sky game until last year.
What interests Huffman-Gottschling, who is queer, is the physicality of the women’s game now. She’s also intrigued by the stories of players like Allie Quigley, a native of Joliet who attended DePaul University, who then married teammate Courtney Vandersloot. She also finds the league’s political and social activism on issues like abortion rights, racial justice and police brutality compelling. Huffman-Gottschling went to almost every playoff game last year and now has season tickets with her mom.
“It’s been a match made in heaven. I just fell in love with it.”
Of course, not every sports junkie is a political junkie, and some have simple tastes, like less expensive tickets and CTA Green Line access. As fans arrived this week for the first playoff game, many said they are delighted the team is back in Chicago after a long stint in suburban Rosemont.
The Sky has also a lively social media presence, with photos of players arriving in their “drips,” or stylish attire, and plenty of game highlights. Forward Azurá Stevens cultivates a loyal following on Twitter and Instagram with her TikTok dance moves and words of inspiration; she is one of the players talking about the Sky’s mental health awareness initiative, called “The Net.”
All of this has helped attendance grow, but slowly. This first round game drew 7,500, surpassing a 2019 first round game that drew 6,000 (2020 was not played in front of fans, and some restrictions were in place during part of 2021). Last year, the Sky sold out the arena’s 10,000 seats for the first time ever at the last two games of the championship series. Average attendance this year was 7,000, just slightly above that of 2019.
Fans who are like family
Of course, the die-hards in Section 121 can’t understand why every game doesn’t sell out. The reality is that women’s sports still struggle for full acceptance by casual fans — but you wouldn’t know that tonight. Section 121 is tense, alternating between raucous, unrestrained cheering and stunned silence. Even with eyes closed, it’s easy to tell what’s happening on the court. Most can’t believe what they’re seeing right now.
In the final quarter, with three minutes left in the game, the Sky’s six-point lead is suddenly shrinking. Shelly and Therese, along with everyone else, pinball between joy and fear.
“Here we go, I feel it,” one says.
A guard for New York, the Frenchwoman Marine Johannès, who’s been slinging passes around all night, dribbles left and out of nowhere flings the ball over her head with both hands. Before anyone can ask what the hell she is doing, the ball lands in the hands of a streaking teammate, and is deposited in the basket. The crowd gasps.
The Sky miss a shot, and New York makes one. Then again. Loud murmuring continues.
“It’s too much over here,” the other laments.
In three minutes, it’s all over. Johannès’s highlight reel pass pierces the Sky and deflates the arena like a dart. The Sky never scores again.
As the dejected crowd sees the final seconds slip away, it’s time for goodbyes, post-game regrets and complaints, and we’ll-get-them-next-games. Mama J — or “Gorgeous,” she says you can call her — dispenses hugs in her drips: a white cap, necklace and orange WNBA hoodie.
“I’m a basketball junkie,” she said.
Mama J heads to the exit but she’ll see Julie and Dan’s family, Therese and Shelly, her friends on the Sky staff, and maybe even a few new faces who want to see what all the shouting is about here on Saturday for Game 2.
Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer based in Oak Park.