“You’re in Trump country, huh?” asked Basketball Hall of Famer Alex English with a mix of disgust and concern that only the 45th President can illicit. I had just told English over the phone that I was in rural North Carolina, which is indeed Trump country. He relaxed when I explained that I was visiting my future in-laws and that my future in-laws did not fall into the region’s stereotype in that regard.
English is certainly not one to tip-toe around tough topics. Since retiring from the NBA as an 8-time All Star in 1991, he has stood up for his legacy with the Denver Nuggets and for players as a crucial member of the NBA Players Association. He has now turned his attention to fighting for WNBA equality as a member of the WNBA PA Board of Advocates.
“I want to see them get the respect they deserve,” explained English, the NBA’s leading scorer for the 1980s. “I know that there’s always gonna be those naysayers that say ‘well you know, they don’t make the kind of money in advertising and TV rights as the NBA Guys do.’ Yeah, but that took decades of the NBA to get to that level and the WNBA has done a great job with the PA of building that same type of support.”
English has watched the WNBA since its inception in 1997. He saw the league stabilize as it outlasted the American Basketball League and gained talent. He also has a front row seat (literally) to one of the best basketball programs in the country as a University of South Carolina alumni and occasional SEC Network commentator. English has gravitated towards the women’s game more in recent years because of how pure the basketball is.
“The purity of the game and the quality of the game is what drew me to [the WNBA]. In some instances, their game is even more pure to me than what you see from the men,” said the 8-time NBA All-Star. “[WNBA players] have picked up on the technical part of the game that the NBA used to have. And, now as the game has progressed, you see a lot of guys that aren’t as true to form or true to techniques as the women are.”
As a mid-range maestro in the 1980s, English had to develop many of the same skills that WNBA players need in order to go around opponents, rather than over them. He loves seeing women exhibit “the fundamentals [required]to be exceptional” because that’s what he had to do.
English points to Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw as players he thought were “bad” (in the good way). While he would love to compare himself to either Catchings or Maya Moore, he explained that they were more “Michael Jordan-types” and pointed out two players from his alma mater, where he often works with future WNBA players, that remind him of him.
“A’ja Wilson plays the inside game like I played and has the mid range game that I had. So, I would say her and then Kiki [Herbert-Harrigan] has got a lot of little things that I had,” said English.
The Kiki comparison seems particularly apt, given her high release point and inside-out game. For as much love as he has for the WNBA, he also realizes that the league has a long way to go. English agreed that the WNBA is now at the stage of development that the NBA was in the 1970s, as it struggled to break through and beat out a competitor in the ABA.
The WNBA is, likely, on stronger footing than the 1970s NBA was with its new collective bargaining agreement (at least pre-COVID). But still, the W needs more attention to the great product that it has. That’s where English comes in.
“With the new [CBA], you know, I think we’re headed in the right direction. But my advocacy is to make people realize that this is very good basketball and a quality product,” said English. “When you have a platform, you have a responsibility to make it better for the next person that comes along.”
Recently, English’s advocacy has come into the public eye on twitter. He has criticized Atlanta Dream Owner and US Senator Kelly Loeffler for her comments on the Black Lives Matter protest, which gave him “Donald Sterling vibes.” English has also been vocal about the pay gap and renaming the Strom Thurmond Center on USC’s campus.
He told me that he is proud of and encouraged by athletes using their platforms for social justice. “It’s such a different athlete today. You know, they realize their power, they realize that they have a platform,” he said.
Yet, English is like all of us in that he is concerned about the conditions for players in the 2020 bubble season. NBA and WNBA players will likely get to Florida this week to begin their seasons in Bradenton and Orlando, respectively.
“I know they’re going to make it as safe as possible. I mean, that’s, that’s just the NBA way. But still, you got to realize that this is a very risky endeavor that we’re getting ready to get involved in right now with this bubble,” cautioned English.
The NBA’s plan for both player safety and mental health has been well-documented. Their players will be staying in top-notch facilities at Disney World, have their own rooms, and have access to many amenities including personalized menus from a Disney culinary staff.
The WNBA’s plan is largely unknown, but we do know that it will be very different from the NBA’s. Players will earn their full salaries and some will be able to bring family or caretakers with them. But, they will also have to share rooms, travel off-site for games, and have only some meals provided. English believes the inequality in player experience is simply illogical.
“You’re asking the same thing from [WNBA players as you are from NBA players]: to risk their lives to give you a product that’s going to be that you sell on TV and radio and merchandise,” said English. “You are asking the same thing from the two then why not treat them the same?”
While he acknowledges the disparity in revenue, English believes that the NBA and the NBA PA need to stand up to ensure equality for the WNBA. He believes that the WNBA “is at that level now where it should be equal.”
For the record, English is picking the Las Vegas Aces to win the 2020 WNBA championship. That is hardly surprising given his love of mid-range creators and A’ja Wilson, who wore #22 at South Carolina like he did. But what Alex English is really rooting for is respect and equality for the WNBA.