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Men may be reluctant to view WNBA

If the league is prepared to live as a modest enterprise, a kind of vacationrelief for basketball junkies, then it might be exactly what women's sportsin this country need.Despite what those very funny ESPN commercials wouldhave us believe, sensitive men are in short supply. Always have been; alwayswill be.

That is reason No. — why the people behind the WNBA had better be tellingthe truth about being in business for the long haul. Because if they'replanning on selling women's basketball to men, it's going to be a very longhaul.

The WNBA tips off Saturday with eight teams playing a 28-game schedule.It ends with a four-team, single-elimination playoff in August. In between,the league will get an unprecedented amount of attention. Thanks to themarketing muscle of its big brother and owner-operator, the NBA, there willbe three nationally televised games a week, signature sneaker wars (Nike'sAir Swoopes vs. Reebok's The Lobo) and whateverother promotional tie-ins major sponsors like Sears and GM come up with.

The WNBA people are smart enough to set the bar low. Projected attendancethis season is 4,000 a game. But if the measure of its success ever becomesbig crowds and bigger bucks, then the WNBA's slogan ­ We got next!­ will be little more than an ironic postscript

for the fifth failed attempt to launch a women's pro basketball leaguesince the mid-1970s. Nobody needs that. But unless women turn out in numbers,that is what they will get.

The truth is that men won't support the league anytime soon. The ESPNads feature a group of women's basketball groupies, but most women willtell you, there aren't enough of the beefy boys, meatymen and stud muffins to go around. Maybe not even enoughto meet the league's modest attendance and television ratings targets.

If, on the other hand, the league is prepared to live as a modest enterprise­ a place to aspire to, a showplace for the best talent the gender canmuster, a source of cheap programming, a kind of vacation relief for basketballjunkies ­ then it might be exactly what women's sports in this countryneed.

Think about it. The best thing about men's pro sports isn't the relativehandfuls of unhappy millionaires who play the games or own them. It's thedramatic moments they produce ­ those mind's-eye souvenirs that millionsof boys used to carry out to asphalt squares, green diamonds and frozenponds and try to reproduce.

How powerful those tableaus can be. Barely two weeks ago, Utah's JohnStockton fired a pass almost the length of the court to Karl Malone to winGame 4 of the NBA Finals. A few days later, Michael Jordan climbed out ofa sick bed and played one of the most inspirational games in a career filledwith them.

Every day since, in suburban park-district gyms and on inner-city playgrounds,kids chucked long passes at teammates breaking away, hissing Stocktonto Malone under their breath. Or they drove the lane and took offon wobbly legs, tongue stuck out, the ball held at full extension, screamingJordan!

What's changed is that more and more, some of those kids are girls. Thirtyyears ago, — in 27 girls played high school sports. Today, that number is1 in 3. Girls are already enjoying the benefits of playing: getting intoshape and staying fit, dealing with the evil twins competition and cooperation,learning how best to deploy them and when.

What a stable women's pro sports league in this country would do is providea place for the very best to continue that education. For the rest, it mightliven up a slow game or enliven the occasional daydream, much as it hasfor boys throughout this century. If the reality is that women are paidless, that they have to hustle and market and entertain more for the samedollar, that's a lesson that applies to the rest of the world, too.

Change has to begin somewhere. A league of their own is not a bad placefor women to begin.

Jim Litke is a columnist for The Associated Press.