By Al Mattei


The Washington Mystics came into the 2001 season with all the makings of a winning tradition after making the WNBA playoffs for the first time the previous season.

There were six Olympic-caliber players, a new coach, and high expecations.

And then, bang, the Mystics lost 20 games like it did in its first two seasons of the league.

Plenty of blame was heaped around. Poor shooting, the inability of Australian head coach Tom Maher to get his players to buy into his up-tempo style of play, and poor drafting had been bandied around as reasons.

But what was surprisingly out of the converation amongst the Monday morning quarterbacks of the WNBA is a topic which has been taboo amongst women's sports enthusiasts: player weights.

It is rare, save for discussions about anorexia and bulimia, for the weight of a female athlete to be an issue. For years, women have been kept out of sports where weight is an issue: football, where offensive linemen are measured in mass; and boxing and wrestling, where participants are paired off in weight classes.

There is also the Western notion that is impolite to inquire about a woman's weight.

However, leading into the Mystics training camp of 2001, Maher let it be known that at least three players had shed roughly 20 pounds each, the better to withstand 32 games of the high-pressure, fast-break basketball that his Australian national teams used to medal in the Olympics.

But statistics show that the Mystics paid for their weight loss with poor performance in a place where weight is a consideration: under the boards. In the 2001 season, the Mystics lost 11 of their first 12 games in which their top rebounder failed to break double digits in boards.

"Frankly, we don't have a rebounding perimeter player other than Chamique Holdsclaw," Maher says. "Other than that, Tonya Washington has the potential, but she doesn't block out well, so her opponent can get the ball."

The Mystics, in 2001, were repeatedly hammered on the boards. Larger foes would be able to score off misses pretty much at will.

"If you play against players who are 6-5 or 6-6 and you are 6-1 or 6-2, you better rebound," Maher says. "It's a conditioning thing to get them to get the rebound."

Washington's gifted group of scorers shot blanks more than they would have liked; twice in the season, the Mystics failed to break the 40-point barrier -- mainly because of the lack of a rebounder to give the shooters a second bite at the cherry.

One player with the strength, height, and mass to make a difference had been Tausha Mills, but she had yet to be able to trade some of that rebounding power into aerobic capacity.

"She's gone from two minutes at a time and total exhaustion to 14 to 16 minutes a game," Maher says. "Her defense and her discipline have improved."

While it might be argued that a few extra "rebound" pounds might have made a difference in the 2001 season, the issue of player weight still remains one sportswriters seem to avoid.

Universities rarely give weights for their female athletes, and only one major sports outlet -- The Star-Ledger of Newark -- regularly publishes the weights of female athletes.

Heavyweight and lightweight classes in women's rowing have been obscured, so as to not make weight an issue on the international scene.

But in the 2004 Olympics, women's boxing and women's freestyle wrestling debut. The athletes will be weighed.

Perhaps then, weight will become less of an issue in the world of women's sports.