First came Baby Huey, as the Australians call 6-foot-8 Haixia Zheng. Now, it's Large Marge (7-2 Malgorzata Dydek), the Mujanovator (6-8 Razija Mujanovic) and the StepLadder (6-8 Maria Stepanova).
The WNBA literally is growing before our eyes.Utah Starzz coach Denise Taylor said she will not be surprised if Dydek throws down the first dunk in U.S. women's pro basketball history during her debut Tuesday in an exhibition game against the Mercury at America West Arena.
Reportedly the third-tallest woman in the world, Dydek dunked in mid-April at the WNBA pre-draft combine, where she was discovered to be 6 inches taller than listed on scouting reports. Utah snapped her up as the league's No. 1 draft pick April 29, and Dydek dunks occasionally during training camp at the urging of her teammates.
"I like to do it," said the Polish Dydek (pronounced Deedik), who speaks serviceable English and four other languages and goes by Margo. "Everybody is excited, even in practice. I prefer when men do it. (Michael) Jordan jumps and is strong. A woman . . . I don't know."
Only one dunk was attempted last season: a miss by 6-5 Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks in the nationally televised league opener against New York.
During halftime of the second American Basketball League All-Star Game, 6-5 Sylvia Crawley of the Colorado Xplosion completed a dunk blindfolded to win $5,000 in the first slam contest for women. The ABL, whose tallest player is 6-7 Kara Wolters, also is without a dunk during competition.
"I'd much rather have her score and block some shots," Taylor said. "Dunking is not a demand we're going to put on her or anything we're focusing on. But I ain't going to lie about it. When it happens, we'll probably have to take a timeout (to regroup) instead of trying to act cool about it."
Dydek arrived in Salt Lake City on May 13 to a media reception that overshadowed even the steam-rolling Jazz, which was off that day.
There has been little time so far to tour the Wasatch Front or consider her national endorsement options. The Starzz were a WNBA-worst 7-21 and, even with Dydek, have mammoth strides to make in a Western Conference that now includes defending league champion Houston.
"This is her first experience (in the United States), and we don't want to overwhelm her with distractions," her agent, Trisonya Abraham, said. "If she takes care of basketball, the rest will come."
Abraham is urging shoe companies and others taking a wait-and-see attitude to go "Big" (another of Dydek's nicknames) now. "Next year, you won't be able to touch her," she said. "She's literally a walking billboard."
Dydek, 24, brings more to the table than her older sister, 6-6 Katarzyna, did to the ABL Xplosion (.8 ppg, .6 rpg) in 1996-97. She averaged 6.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks at the pre-draft camp, ran well for her size and showed decent shooting range.
Her six years of European pro experience includes the past two seasons with Pool Getafe of Spain, which played for the EuroLeague championship in early April. Dydek averaged 11 points and 6.2 rebounds this season and led the EuroLeague in field goal percentage and blocks.
"She has great court awareness, understands the game and is fundamentally sound," Taylor said. "She came out a little tentative, but every day she's getting more comfortable and relaxed."
Dydek speaks of the responsibility that goes with being the first of 40 draft picks, ahead of collegiate All-Americans Ticha Penichero, Mur-riel Page, Allison Feaster, Tracy Reid and Alicia Thompson.
"People in the States don't know me and wonder why I'm the first pick," she said. "I have to do best to show it's not just I'm tall, I can play good basketball."
Zheng is the sturdiest of the trees at 254 pounds: 31 more than Dydek, 34 over Mujanovic and a whopping 46 over Stepanova.
Stepanova and 6-5 Marlies Askamp are at the World Championship tournament through next Sunday, so Phoenix must face Utah on Tuesday and in Salt Lake City on Saturday with relative pea-shooters: Jennifer Gillom and Pau-line Jordan, both 6-3.
Gillom, All-WNBA second-team center, played against Dydek during the 1996-97 European season. Jordan often has crossed paths with Dydek during her eight overseas seasons.
"It's going to be curious to see what American coaches bring out of her because the European coaches basically use the tall woman like a bean pole," Jordan said. "Most of us have had an easy time going around her and her not knowing how to maneuver her feet."
But Jordan saw a game between Dydek and Mujanovic, of Bosnia, (Detroit Shock) in which "Mega" (yet another nickname) more than held her own. "With the right coach and the right system, she could be a real big threat," Jordan said.
Gillom, a quality three-point shooter, said the conventional strategy against Dydek is to make her defend the perimeter and leave her behind in transition.
But Dydek now has quality help in 6-2 Wendy Palmer, All-WNBA second-team forward; 6-2 second-round draft pick Olympia Scott of Stanford; and after the World Championships, 6-5 wing Elena Baranova.
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