The WNBA is a young league, but it is by no means limited in its scope of icons. In fact, it is frustratingly difficult to put together a list of the greatest to ever do it because there are so many caveats.
For instance, Cheryl Miller could have gone down as the greatest woman player of all time, but she never had a chance to play professionally—she retired at 24 due to devastating knee injuries that would have been navigable today. There is also the matter of accounting for an ever-evolving league: play in 2020 is much different than it was in 2000, as all-around athleticism and skill are at an all-time high in a league that hoards talent.
This list, though, pays tribute to trailblazing legends, some of whom haven’t even retired yet. Greatness is changing, but we must always pay respect to our WNBA icons. In no particular order, these are the ten greatest players in WNBA history.
Inaugural WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. Record-holding ball burglar. Shooter of the most iconic shot in New York basketball history. Teresa Weatherspoon was a one in a million player and, undoubtedly, the greatest to ever do it in a Liberty uniform.
Her will to win was her secret weapon. Nobody wanted it more than Spoon. In one sequence, she could defend the hell out of the opposition’s best player, shake the ball loose, run the break, and make a game-winning play. She did the dirty work and the glitzy stuff too, but her defensive plays were as electrifying as any buzzer-beater. T-Spoon on a home court like Madison Square Garden was a match made in basketball heaven.
T-Spoon led the Libs to four WNBA Finals appearances between 1997 and 2002—New York hasn’t sniffed one of these trips since. And while T-Spoon’s Libs were thwarted by the dynastic Houston Comets three times and Lisa Leslie’s Sparks on their fourth try, there is no way to write off what Teresa Weatherspoon did for the Liberty and for the league at large. After seven seasons with the Libs and a brief campaign with the Sparks, T-Spoon retired at 38, leaving behind a Hall of Fame career.
It would be another fifteen years—a decade overdue—before her Naismith enshrinement, but Teresa Weatherspoon was finally inducted in 2019 by former rivals and forever friends Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson. Don’t worry, though—Spoon’s still salty about those three ‘ships she gifted that trio.
Since retiring, Louisiana Tech alum Weatherspoon has been beckoned back to the bayou. Since 2019, she has been a part of the New Orleans Pelicans coaching staff as a development coach for two-way players; prior, she was head coach of the Lady Techsters from 2009 to 2014 and led her alma mater two NCAA tournament appearances. In between, Spoon was the Liberty’s Director of Player and Franchise Development.
Possibly the most underrated player on this list, picked No. 2 by the Sacramento Monarchs in 1999, Yolanda Griffith was named league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Newcomer of the Year as a 29-year-old rookie. By that time, the eventual seven-time All-Star had played two years in the American Basketball League and four years in Germany and was thrilled to come home to finally play in a longstanding U.S. women’s professional league.
Huge smile, bigger heart, you couldn’t help but love Yo—until you had to defend her in the post. The tenacious offensive rebounder averaged a double-double in her first three seasons, and Dawn Staley has dubbed her the “loose ball queen.” She never took a play off. Leading a Sacramento superteam that included Kara Lawson, Ticha Penicheiro, and Rebekkah Brunson, Griffith won her coveted WNBA title in 2005 and was rewarded with a Finals MVP for her dominant underdog performance.
All at once, a superstar and a supermom, Yo’s daughter Candace was there to celebrate every one of her mom’s highlights. Yo regards her two Olympic gold medals as her greatest career accomplishment, but her 2005 WNBA championship was a different type of gratifying: “I’m no longer a Karl Malone or John Stockton!”
Yo played until she literally couldn’t; she tore her Achilles in 2009 while playing for Indiana, and decided at 39 to wrap up her historic playing career. From there, Coach Griffith made stops at Dartmouth, Lafayette College, and Albany before settling down at Boston College as an assistant to Joanna Bernabei-MacNamee.
Only player in WNBA history to rack up a playoff triple-double. “The female Michael Jordan,” according to Nancy Lieberman. First woman to sign a major basketball shoe deal. Oh, and started her WNBA career just six weeks after giving birth.
In January 1997, Texas native and Texas Tech alum Sheryl Swoopes was assigned to her brand-new hometown professional women’s basketball team: the Houston Comets. The 1993 Naismith College Player of the Year burst onto the mainstream scene as a member of the 1996 U.S. Women’s Basketball team that won gold in Atlanta. By that point, she had already teamed up with Nike to birth the Air Swoopes, the first (and, to date, only) signature women’s basketball shoe. To put it sweetly, Swoopes was primed for professional stardom. She was baptized into a dynasty.
Pairing iconic Trojans Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson was one thing, but adding Sheryl Swoopes to the mix? The rest of the league may as well have chosen load management into the next century. Literally. The Comets dynasty is akin to the contemporary Golden State empire—the most well-put-together team of all time, even if it was an accident. At any given moment, Swoopes, eventual three-time MVP and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, could be the best or third-best player on the team. Taking into account Coop’s positional dominance and Tina’s versatility, Sheryl’s defensive package was just another head on the multi-cranial monster.
Sheryl Swoopes made huge waves in 2005 when she came out as gay at age 34. She was no doubt the highest-profile athlete to have made such a groundbreaking announcement at that point in time and, tired of the pretense and “miserable” closeting, Swoopes was only the second active WNBA player to come out as gay. Her impact is enduring; today, a substantial percentage of active and former WNBA players openly identify as gay, lesbian, or queer. This gradual comfort in identity was made possible by courageous trailblazers like Swoopes.
Superstars seldom dim with age in the WNBA, and Cynthia Cooper is the first and finest example. The USC legend won two MVPs and four consecutive Finals MVPs from age 34 to 37 as a member of the Houston Comets, whom she led to an .803 regular season winning percentage through the WNBA’s infancy.
Signed by Houston at age 37, it’s equally bizarre and hilarious to consider how the WNBA Board of Governors let her end up on a team with Swoopes and Thompson. While she wasn’t the face of the great Trojan teams of the ‘80s (someone with the surname Miller got a lot of the attention), Cooper was no second banana. Alongside Cheryl the GOAT and the McGee twins, Coop brought historic success to USC and helped to put women’s NCAA basketball on the map. With no American professional women’s league to turn to after her amateur eligibility ran out, Cooper started her overseas hustle.
In reflecting on the accidental construction of the Comets regime, former WNBA President Val Ackerman kept it real: “None of us realized just how good Cynthia Cooper was.” Of course, Coop was earning her keep in Spain and Italy in the ‘90s B.T. (Before Twitter), and apparently no one in power was keeping tabs on her—even though she was averaging 36.7 points per game in 1987 and otherwise leading her Italian league in scoring year after year.
In addition to her seven individual MVP accolades, Cynthia Cooper led the WNBA in scoring from 1997 to 1999. She retired after winning her fourth title, but returned to the Comets in 2003 and became the first 40-year-old to play in a WNBA game.
Playing alongside Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes as a 22-year-old rookie is not, at face value, conducive to making a name for yourself. But for Tina Thompson, the first ever No. 1 overall pick in WNBA history, it was actually the greatest situation imaginable for a rookie.
Don’t let the iconic red lipstick distract you—Tina was always dressed to kill. Was there ever a smoother, more instinctive power forward? Tina’s toughness and versatility were just too much to handle; she’d wreck defenders on the block and shoot the arena lights out on back to back possessions. And with Coop and Swoopes on the other end of the plays she could make? Forget about it.
The four-time champ, nine-time All-Star, and two-time gold medalist played for the Comets until they prematurely folded in 2008. Afterwards, Thompson played for the Sparks and the Storm. She was elite until the final buzzer, having averaged 17.7 points in her final season at age 38. Upon retirement in 2013, Thompson was the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and third all-time rebounder. Today, Thompson runs the show for Virginia women’s basketball; she has previously coached as an associate with the Lady Longhorns in Austin.
True blue WNBA heads know who the greatest Seattle basketball player of all time is. It’s not Bird, and it’s certainly not Payton. It’s four-time Olympic medalist Lauren Jackson.
The unicorn of her time, Jackson was a running, jumping contradiction; she’d pound you in the paint and devastate you from beyond the arc. Her combination of height, athleticism, and skill was simply unprecedented. With the Seattle Storm, Jackson was a seven-time All-Star, three-time WNBA MVP, and two-time league champion in 2004 and 2010. By the age of 21, LJ was by far the most famous and accomplished Australian basketball player of all time.
The sharp-tongued Opal was, at her peak, the world’s greatest—no gender disclaimer needed. Jackson was also probably the most overworked and underpaid professional athlete of the early aughts, playing year-round intercontinental stints. Her relentlessness was ultimately her undoing, as her body began to break down before the world was ready to bid her farewell.
Jackson unwittingly closed out her WNBA career in 2012. Debilitating injuries prevented a return to the Storm, but back home in Australia, Jackson made women’s sports history upon accepting a landmark contract. In exchange for a return to the Canberra Capitals, sponsors offered Jackson $1 million AUD over a three-season period.
Jackson quietly retired in 2016 and has since enjoyed motherhood and her pursuit of higher education. She continues to be outspoken about the jarring gendered horrors of global sport.
The face of the league. No kid growing up in the 2000s didn’t know Lisa Leslie.
One of the WNBA’s founding mothers, Lisa was assigned to the Los Angeles Sparks in 1997 on the heels of her memorable performance in the 1996 Olympics. It was natural and obvious for the former USC standout to be the Sparks’ inaugural player and face of the franchise; much of the league’s early player distribution was methodical, and when it came to Leslie, Swoopes, and Rebecca Lobo of the Liberty, Val Ackerman and David Stern were betting on their superstars’ ability to maintain a market-based following.
Not to mention, Lisa was made for Hollywood. The gentle giant was everywhere in the late ‘90s, making guest appearances on Moesha, Martin, and Sister, Sister among others to promote the WNBA. Leslie helped to solidify the Sparks brand alongside the Lakers, and let her game do the rest of the talking.
Three-time MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Finals MVP, eight-time All-Star, four-time gold medalist—the accolades are numerous, but Lisa’s legend is so much more. In particular, the 2002 season was the campaign of a lifetime for Leslie: she eclipsed 3,000 total career points, led the Sparks to their second straight title, and made history as the first woman to ever dunk in a WNBA game.
Lisa retired in 2009 after passing the torch to Sparks newcomer Candace Parker. At that point, she had played two full seasons after becoming a mother and was still dominating, and posted the best field goal percentage of her career in her final season. She joined the Sparks’ ownership group two years later. Most recently, she has found success in the BIG3, where she earned Coach of the Year honors in 2019.
Simultaneously the most lovable and tenacious basketball player to ever represent the state of Indiana, Tamika Catchings is an all-time, all-around great. Catch played for the Indiana Fever from 2002 until retirement in 2016, and brought them their first and only championship in 2012.
From her rookie season, Tamika imposed her will in every game, quarterly, in every statistical category. It was in her DNA: in 1997, she became the first player in recorded basketball history to record a quintuple-double! Upon retirement, Tamika was the WNBA’s second all-time leading scorer and rebounder and leader in steals made. By an astronomical amount, she is the WNBA’s all-time leader in win shares. Under Tamika’s leadership, the Fever made twelve straight postseason appearances, including eight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.
She’s an NCAA champion, a Rookie of the Year, a five-time Defensive Player of the Year, an MVP, a four-time Olympic gold medalist. And if we’re ranking greatest people of all time, it’s a sweep for Tamika. Her huge heart and lovable persona made her one of the most difficult superstars to root against—she is humble and endearing to no end. She founded Catch the Stars in 2004, a foundation that employs basketball, fitness, and literacy as a platform for immeasurable good. Tamika has changed countless lives.
Today, Tamika is Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager for the Fever. In April 2020, it was announced that she will be inducted to the Naismith Hall of Fame.
One of the greatest champions of all time, and she’s not done. We hope.
Do people understand that Maya Moore had a 125-3 record in high school in addition to three championships?! Two NCAA championships and two Euroleague championships?! Four WNBA championships and four gold medals?! Her individual awards and honors are so numerous, it would take 3,000 more words to just make a dent in her résumé. That Maya is so often left out of the conversation of greatest of all time is criminal.
When Maya walked away from the WNBA in 2019, it was startling, but not entirely surprising to those paying attention. Astute fans could see she just did not look comfortable or at ease in 2018. Playing at the highest level, year-round, in the prime of your life takes its toll—Maya no doubt needed rest. Over eight WNBA seasons, she only ever missed one game.
Her announcement that she would shift energy from sport to criminal justice brought national attention to the story of Jonathan Irons. Irons, a family friend, was wrongfully convicted on charges of burglary and assault in spite of a brazen lack of evidence. Maya’s dedication to Jonathan never wavered and her status helped focus millions of eyes on the case. Finally, in March of this year, the conviction was overturned and in July, Irons was freed.
That particular case may be closed, but WNBA fans may have to wait a year or two to win Maya back. She’s taking well-deserved time off to celebrate Jonathan’s long-awaited release—and her subsequent marriage to him! In the meantime, we can look forward to the Robin Roberts-produced documentary on the past few years of Maya’s life, her faith-based mission, and her commitments to love and justice.
We’ve known for quite some time that Diana is the G.O.A.T., but she wouldn’t let us forget even if we wanted to. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer is still breaking records at 38. It’s already been three years since Taurasi eclipsed Tina Thompson on the all-time leaderboard and, despite missing most of the 2019 season, DT has added more than 1,000 to her total.
Three NCAA titles, four Olympic gold medals, three WNBA titles. Not to mention, six Euroleague titles and a slew of other overseas championships. She’s an MVP and a two-time Finals MVP, and before the age of 30 was already voted one of the 15 greatest WNBA players ever.
To date, Taurasi is 14-1 in postseason elimination games, a stat that the Washington Mystics most recently fell on the wayside of. She’s a professional scorer, a dynamite trash-talker, and an undeniable historic champion. Let us pray for a few more years in the tank.