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The Road to 1,000: Every Debut in WNBA History
Looking back at the WNBA's history through players and their debuts
On June 21, 1997, 10 players walked onto the court at the Great Western Forum at about 1 p.m. local time. When Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks won the jump ball against the New York Liberty’sKym Hampton in front of a national audience on NBC, those 10 players were part of a monumental moment in the history of the WNBA.
When that ball was tipped, Leslie, Hampton, and eight other players -- Daedra Charles, Tamecka Dixon, Vickie Johnson, Rebecca Lobo, Penny Toler, Teresa Weatherspoon, Jamila Wideman, and Sophia Witherspoon -- became the first 10 players to ever play in a WNBA game. Women’s basketball fans know this story.
Fast-forward 8,733 days to May 19, 2021. With 2:14 to play in the 1st quarter of a game between Indiana and Connecticut, another monumental moment in the history of the WNBA took place, but those in attendance or watching at home had no idea there was anything significant about it at the time.
Teaira McCowan headed to the Fever bench, and Bernadett Határ, a rookie from Hungary, checked into the game to replace her. Without even knowing it, Határ had just become the 1,000th player in the WNBA’s 25-year history.
Inspired by the cataloging of MLB debuts done by Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman (@CespedesBBQ) as the MLB approached its 20,000th player earlier this year, we decided to set out and explore the same in the WNBA. Also, shout out to @over_short on Twitter for making note of Határ being the 1,000th player in league history.
With the goal of cataloging a number and debut date for every player in WNBA history, we set some ground rules for the research. First, debut games are determined by the date of the game, no matter if it was a regular-season or playoff game. Second, we had to devise our method of breaking ties for players who debuted on the same day.
To do this, the first tie-breaker was the start time of the game, eastern time, regardless of if they were in two separate games with the same start time. The second tiebreaker was to split up players by starters vs. reserves since the starters obviously stepped foot on the court first.
Lastly, for any round numbers (i.e. 100, 200 … 1,000), we did our best to track down substitution logs to see when players subbed in compared to the game clock. This was followed even if the two players were in different games that were potentially ahead or behind schedule since it was the most consistent way we could apply the rule for older games.
We did not get this granular for every tie, and even some milestone ties were unable to be broken due to limited play-by-play data prior to the 2002 season. This tiebreak was used only to declare a player as the ‘Xth’ player ever, but we kept their pre-tiebreak player number for consistency when complete play-by-play data wasn’t available. There were also some unbreakable ties when the tie was between starters, so those players will also share the honor of that milestone.
With the ground rules established, let’s dig into the numbers. We have created an interactive tool to use as a companion to this article. The tool lets you search by team and player to get more details on every debut in league history, as well as trends over time.
Here are some high-level findings we were able to glean from this data before we dive into the nitty-gritty.
First of all, we can see that the rate of debuts has slowed down considerably since the first couple of years of frequent debuts. This makes sense, because obviously in the early years of the league it was far more unlikely for any given player to have played in the league before. In fact, 58 players debuted on June 21, 1997, alone. That is more than any year since 2000, in just a single day.
Over the past decade, the number of player debuts has settled into the range of anywhere from 25 to 40 debuts per season, with the last large spike coming in 2008 when the Atlanta Dream joined the league as an expansion franchise.
Looking at this data in full, we can also pinpoint where certain players made their debuts and how far the league has come since. Sue Bird, for example, is player No. 388. That means that more than 61% of all 1,004 WNBA players (as of this writing) have debuted after Bird debuted on May 30, 2002.
No. 1 - As mentioned at the beginning, there is a 10-way tie between the starting lineups for the WNBA’s inaugural game between New York and Los Angeles. If we really wanted to break this tie, we could probably lean towards Lisa Leslie for making the first play in WNBA history when she won the opening tip.
No. 100 - After a bit of a logjam in 1997 since every player who played was making a WNBA debut at some point, the opening day of the 1998 season saw a tie for the 100th player in league history. Seven starters for the first game of the year on June 11, between the Charlotte Sting and the expansion franchise Washington Mystics, all receive a player number of 98, and because they were all starters we won’t break that tie.
No. 200 - Due to a lack of complete play-by-play data for this game, we are unable to say for sure which of these three players checked into the game in which order, but whichever player entered the June 12, 1999, game between Houston and Washington last would be Player No. 200: Jennifer Rizzotti, Jennifer Whittle, or Kara Wolters. The answer is out there somewhere, but we couldn’t nail it down. Feel free to contact us if you find a complete play-by-play.
No. 250 - We have another true tie here between a trio of Minnesota Lynx starters and a Cleveland Rockers starter from a May 31 game in 2000. Minnesota’s Marla Brumfield, Keitha Dickerson, and Betty Lennox, plus Cleveland’s Vicki Hall all took the floor as starters in their debut, all tying at 248.
No. 300 - This is our last unbreakable tie, with four players from three teams all making their debuts at some point on June 5, 2000, but all of them were reserves in 8 p.m. ET games without adequate play-by-play to know who truly was the 300th player. Until we find better data, this will remain a four-way tie at 298 between Anna DeForge and Joy Holmes-Harris of Detroit, Beverly Williams of Indiana, and Jamie Cassidy of Miami.
No. 600 - Yet another Fever player (Khadijah Whittington) makes an appearance in a tie for 600, but this tie was able to be broken, leaving Crystal Langhorne as the official 600th player in WNBA history thanks to her debut as a reserve on May 17, 2008. Langhorne went 3-for-3 from the field in her debut, beginning a long career that spanned 13 seasons.
No. 700 - San Antonio’s Porsha Phillips comes out of a five-way tie at 696 as the last player to check into the June 4, 2011 game between San Antonio and Tulsa. Liz Cambage debuted in the same game as a starter.
No. 800 - The Point Gawd, Chelsea Gray, checks in as the 800th player in league history on June 5, 2015. Gray wins the tiebreak that also included Elizabeth Williams, Kayla Thornton, and Natasha Cloud.
No. 1,000 - Three years to the day from Mitchell’s debut, Hungarian rookie Bernadett Határ came off the bench for Indiana on the road against Connecticut, about two minutes after Chicago’sNatasha Mack entered the game in Atlanta. By a margin of just under two minutes of game-time, Mack comes in at No. 999 while Határ becomes player No. 1,000 in WNBA history.