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The W Is It: The WNBA really made its all-stars fly economy

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The WNBA nearly did all-star weekend right. Then 6’8 Brittney Griner was given a middle seat in coach.

Welcome to The W Is It, a weekly column about all the stuff that freakin’ rules in the WNBA. Have any tips of topics to cover? Find me @mellentuck on Twitter.

When Brittney Griner landed at McCarron International Airport in Las Vegas the Thursday before the WNBA All-Star Game, she was greeted by a limo ready to take her to an upgraded suite at the Delano Hotel. As she walked through the doors of her new room, she witnessed something not seen at any of her previous five all-star appearances: a room with a common room and supersized bathroom.

It’s here where the Phoenix Mercury center changed before going to a luxurious players-only dinner down the Vegas strip at the Bellagio. There were no ball-signings or media appearances to make. Just the best in the world enjoying a night together.

“It was fun,” Griner told SB Nation of the weekend. “Not that the other ones weren’t fun ... the one in Phoenix [in 2014] was fun. But it just felt like a real all-star.”

At least it felt that way once the players arrived. The 22 all-stars still had to fly coach to the event, which meant a middle seat for the 6’8 Griner. She had to pay her own money to upgrade and get the necessary extra leg room.

“If they would’ve listened to [Aces general manager and head coach] Bill Laimbeer on how to get us there, our travel there, to make us really feel like all-stars, then it would’ve been great,” Griner said. “Like first-class seats, or at least exit row.”

Indeed, Las Vegas’ inaugural All-Star Game flashed the grandeur the stars of the league’s biggest celebratory weekend has long craved. At the same time, Griner’s flight difficulties showed the league still has a ways to go to improve the all-star experience for those standouts.

Upon arrival, everything was pristine. The biggest draw of the weekend featured a beach party performance the night before the game, with rapper Snoop Dogg and hip-hop artist Iggy Azalea performing at the Mandalay Bay casino and hotel. (Las Vegas Aces star Liz Cambage was set to open the night as a DJ, but technical difficulties scratched that segment.)

The next day, the WNBA All-Star Game player introductions were done between sets of Cirque Du Soleil stunts. For the first time ever, the game even had a halftime act, with singer Teyana Taylor owning the stage for the duration of the intermission.

Taylor was able to perform because, for the first time since 2006, the Three-Point Shootout and Skills Competition were not only paired together, but given their own night. For the past three years, the Three-Point Shootout was played at halftime of the actual game, and there was no skills contest. Moving the events to Friday night gave the players a second day of spotlight on ESPN and opened the weekend to other events.

Taylor’s performance was a memorable one for the all-stars. In lieu of a halftime speech in the locker room, the players surrounded the stage to enjoy quasi-personal show. First-time all-stars Diamond DeShield of the Chicago Sky and Odyssey Sims of the Minnesota Lynx took the mic to belt out Taylor lyrics in front of the crowd.

Griner also noticed all the other players from around the league in attendance to enjoy the weekend with them. With so much to enjoy around the game, it was hard for them to pass up, even if the alternative was a much-needed vacation. Luminaries included Sky forwards Gabby Williams and Stefanie Dolson, Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, and recent World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe, and NBA all-stars Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul.

“I’d definitely call it my favorite weekend,” Griner said. “They made a lot of improvements. The aura around everything was great. I think it should be there again.”

But there’s still a ways for the league to go, through no fault of its host. One complaint was the All-Star Game’s early tip time at 12:30 p.m. PT the afternoon following the Snoop Dogg and Iggy Azalea concert. “Come on,” Griner said. “We’re all adults here. Maybe push the game back a little later.”

And then, there were the flights. The WNBA All-Star Weekend is funded through a partnership between the league and the host franchise. Usually, the host franchise is responsible for travel arrangements.

Knowing that, Laimbeer, the coach and general manager of the Aces — and himself a 6’11 former NBA player — proposed setting $20,000 of his organization’s share aside to pay for first-class flights for the 22 all-stars. But the league rejected the proposal, forcing Griner and her companions to squeeze into coach seats.

“I made a complaint at the board of governors meeting about that specific issue,” Laimbeer told The Associated Press. “They are our best assets, they are our all-stars; treat them with respect. I apologized to them that I couldn’t get that done.”

Difficult travel accommodations have become a key point of emphasis for the league’s players and coaches. The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which expires Oct. 31, requires all players to fly commercially, which has contributed to frequent in-season delays, cancellations and uncomfortable trips across the country. Last season, 24 hours worth of plane troubles caused Laimbeer’s Aces to forfeit a late-season game with playoff implications. This season, new LA Sparks head coach Derek Fisher posted a picture of his team carrying their own bags through an airport terminal.

“So after a hard fought win on national television [the LA Sparks] are right back to reality that these women are not being treated like the best athletes in the world!!”

Still, the league played police for the WNBA All-Star Weekend in the name of fairness and parity. The fear was Laimbeer’s first-class ticket offer would be seen as a recruiting tactic to lure top players to join Vegas’ superteam in the future. After all, Vegas acquired Cambage, last year’s league-leading scorer, when she requested a trade from the smaller-market Dallas Wings. MGM owns the Aces, and few, if any, other teams can and will match the pockets of the international powerhouse. The league OK’d the upgraded suites, but drew the line at airfare.

The league’s logic mirrors the decision to force Mystics guard Kristi Toliver to get paid a mere $10,000 for what is typically a six-figure role as an NBA assistant coach during the winter. The Wizards and Mystics are both owned by Monumental Sports, so the WNBA wanted to prevent them from using the carrot of a six-figure salary with the same organization to circumvent the salary cap and retain Tolliver as a player.

Yet this anti-tampering fear from the league is wildly misplaced. For one, the WNBA’s current CBA features the core designation, a provision similar to the NFL’s franchise tag that can be used to keep a player for up to four years. This is already one of the most team-friendly perks in all of sports, so what threat would a comped first-class flight really pose to a small-market team?

More fundamentally, the all-stars deserve better. This isn’t the same as NBA teams offering perks outside the CBA to lure free agents like Kawhi Leonard who make tens of millions of dollars per season. These are the WNBA’s most talented athletes, who already play year-round because a maximum salary — a maximum salary — is worth just $117,500. Their bodies are pushed to limit over and over again, and their health should be the primary concern.

Consider that the all-star showcase was already missing six of the league’s biggest stars due to injury. Reigning MVP Breanna Stewart tore her Achilles in the Euroleague title game (Dynamo Kursk), while teammate and legendary point guard Sue Bird has missed the entire season to arthroscopic knee surgery. Former MVPs Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi have only played 10 games combined due to nagging ailments, and thus missed the weekend. A’ja Wilson, the league’s second-most popular player by fan vote, has been in a walking boot due to a high-ankle sprain in late July. Finally, Maya Moore, arguably the league’s most recognizable face, is taking the year off to focus on “family” and “ministry dreams.”

Vegas’ All-Star Weekend set the pace for what the W should bring every year, and players are eager to come back. But it wasn’t perfect just yet.

Now for some fun stuff.

Speaking of ... Candace Parker is BACK!

A hamstring injury has cost Parker all but nine games this season, and she’s looked shaky for most of those. Until this week.

Parker was named Player of the Week after a pair of wins showed her score 16 and then 21 points. She looked like her former all-star self, throwing behind-the-head passes in a win over the Storm. Let’s goooooo!

Courtney Williams is a PROBLEM

The Sun quietly have the WNBA’s best record, despite being forced to trade top big Chimey Ogwumike to the Sparks before the season. Though forward Jonquel Jones takes a lot of the spotlight, Williams is an assassin. In a win over the Liberty, she scored 28 points on 12-of-18 shooting and also added seven rebounds, six assists and THIS BLOCK.

She’s 5’8.

Marina Mabrey is disrespectful as hell for this — LMAO

The LA Sparks guard:

  1. Blocked the hell out of Seattle’s Jewell Loyd
  2. Chucked the ball at her to try and gain possession
  3. Dapped up her teammate Tierra Ruffin-Pratt after doing it

Legend.