Even if Bears fever has set in, the defending NHL champion Blackhawks opening their preseason slate is providing fond memories of their Stanley Cup run and the Bulls starting training camp, there's only one team in Chicago that's truly playing high-stakes games right now: The Chicago Sky.
The WNBA often gets the short end of the stick, not just here, but in almost all of the league's 12 cities, where other sports, even on the college level, get top billing. As someone who frequents more AAU tournaments, pro-am summer leagues and women's college basketball games than WNBA games over the years, this writer understands your reluctance.
But being a true fan of the game, after hearing about the Sky's success, I was compelled to catch a game in person before the grind of the Bulls' season begins and taking a trip out to Allstate Arena last week couldn't have worked out better. Rookie forward Elena Delle Donne hit a buzzer-beating game-winner to give the Sky a two-point win over the Phoenix Mercury (although the visitors were without Diana Taurasi due to a suspension, which was a disappointment) and while the stands weren't exactly packed, the excitement factor was there.
Delle Donne, who was recently named the WNBA's Rookie of the Year, is a player I've been familiar with ever since her high school days in Delaware, when I was living in nearby Philadelphia. At 6-foot-5, with a perimeter game and deep range, she's basically the WNBA's version of NBA superstar Dirk Nowitzki.
"There were five seconds left. We were actually trying to get 'Piph' [Sky guard Epiphany Prince, who grew up in Brooklyn with Bulls big man Taj Gibson] coming off of a flare screen and we just weren't really able to get in it. The time was ticking down and I realized that I had to get a shot up, so I was able to get the spin move and get an opening there," she said afterward. "It's a great feeling and to be able to celebrate with the teammates I love is even better. It was a really fun game and you love to celebrate with your family, basically."
Humble, polite, articulate and with the looks to make her the WNBA's poster child for years to come, Delle Donne has not only helped the Sky make their debut postseason appearance, but earned the respect of her peers.
"If you look at any point during the game, whether she's made five in a row or missed five in a row, she's cool as a cucumber. The demeanor's there. She gets in that zone. Every now and again, you might see her get a little bit frustrated," Sky head coach Pokey Chatman said. "She knows she's 6-5 and she always manages to get squared up. Whether she's going right, left or fading away, she gets her shoulders squared to the basket and she has a phenomenal touch."
Sky veteran center Sylvia Fowles added: "For her to have that confidence, and be able to take those reads and go to the basket, I don't question it. She had a very good look and I'm just happy she got it off at the right time."
Even opponents have given Delle Donne her due.
"She's extremely composed, which is rare for rookies," said Mercury forward Candice Dupree, a former Temple University star. "I think any other rookie in this league in her situation probably would have panicked when they had the ball at the last second, but she's a very good player."
The fact that the shot beat Phoenix, which features No. 1 overall draft pick and fellow rookie Brittney Griner was just a coincidence, but while the 6-foot-8 Griner-best known for regularly dunking as a college star at Baylor-has had flashes of brilliance, Delle Donne has eclipsed both her and ex-Notre Dame star point guard Skylar Diggins (Chicago passed on the semi-local standout, who now plays for the Tulsa Shock), both of whom entered the league with more fanfare. It would be unfair to compare it to a Kevin Durant-Greg Oden situation, though Delle Donne's immediate impact makes it hard to resist.
But as much attention as Delle Donne receives, the Sky isn't a one-woman gang. Fellow All-Star Fowles is perhaps the most imposing interior force in the league as a rebounder, shot-blocking presence and finisher around the rim, while the aforementioned Prince is a streaky scorer, capable of going on game-changing individual spurts. The offseason addition of veteran wing Swin Cash has given the Sky championship experience and ateady, scrappy floor general Courtney Vandersloot runs the show.
With a 24-10 record, the best in the Eastern Conference, the Sky have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs against the fourth-seeded Indiana Fever. However, not only is Indiana the defending WNBA champion, but the Fever, led by reigning league MVP Tamika Catchings, is the team that has given the Sky the most problems all season.
"I think the focus is there because it's new, because it's exciting. They're learning," Chatman explained. "Many of them haven't been there and done that. Only Swin Cash, in that regard, so that gives us an opportunity to have their ear and their full focus."
They'll get a chance to extend their banner season beginning Friday night, in Game 1 of the best-of-three opening-round series. If you're fiending for actual basketball games that matter (the NBA preseason doesn't count and is still a couple weeks away), tuning in to a game or even making the trip to Rosemont isn't a bad way to get prepared for the NBA season.