TNT and the NBA blew a once-in-a-generation sports moment

TNT and the NBA blew a once-in-a-generation sports moment

I love women's sports. My favorite sport on earth is women's pro soccer, both domestic and international. I also wake up at 5am many winter mornings to watch live bike racing streaming from Europe, all so I can see how the pro women fields are doing. As a kid growing up outside of LA, I probably watched most every LA Lakers game from 1980 to 1990 on TV, but I got back into watching the NBA about ten years ago when Steph Curry hit the scene and made the game exciting again.

Steph is amazing at 3-pointers, a shot that was only added to the NBA in 1979. If you don't follow basketball, you probably can't appreciate the amount of skill and luck required to loft a one-pound ball from 22 feet back into a small hoop. Lay-ups under the rim are tough enough for most people, and the average person probably can't hit half of their free throw attempts, but sinking a 3-pointer is more akin to hitting a home run in baseball. It's a once-in-a-blue-moon type of thing for most folks, and even in the NBA, most professional players have a pretty low rate of success shooting them.

What's so great about three pointers?

What's unique about Stephen Curry is he practiced the rarely used 3-pointer more than anyone else when he was growing up, and he's so good at them today that his lifetime average of shooting 3-pointers in games while under pressure from random spots on the court is about 43%. Steph frequently has a good run in a game where he might sink 8 or 9 out of 10 attempts, enough to completely skew the game's score in his team's favor.

For comparison, consider that all-time NBA greats like Shaquille O'Neal and Kareem Abdul Jabbar each only ever sunk ONE 3-pointer successfully in a game during their entire Hall of Fame winning careers that spanned decades.

Three pointers require luck and skill and tons and tons of practice because if you're even just a hair of a degree off in your shot, there's no way it's going in 30 feet away from your rainbow-shaped throw. Three pointers also level the playing field somewhat because it doesn't matter how tall you are to shoot one. If you've been around a high school gym in the last ten years you've probably seen one or two random varsity kids casually sink a dozen 3-pointers in a row during practice—ever since Steph hit the NBA, 3-pointers have become a whole thing across the sport.

Who is Sabrina Ionescu?

All you need to know about Sabrina Ionescu is that she’s an incredible player who started gaining national attention back in her early teens. She's been great at 3-pointers for a while, which helped her set scoring records from high school through college to eventually the WNBA where she’s the youngest player to ever hit a triple-double in the league.

Last Summer at the WNBA’s own All-Star game, she made national headlines when she scored 37 points (out of a possible 40) in the three point contest, missing just 2 shots, sinking 20 out of 22 shots. In other words, in the big contest from 7 different spots on the court, she hit 91% of her long shots. During Steph Curry's best ever 3-point competition performance where he scored 31 points, he successfully hit 65% of his shots.

After last year's performance, Sabrina joked on twitter that they should have a friendly contest between each other and the Steph vs. Sabrina one-off event was quickly slated for the 2024 NBA All-Star weekend.

So what happened at the NBA All-Star weekend this year?

I don't follow basketball on a weekly basis these days, but I make an effort to watch the NBA All-Star weekend every year because it's so light and fun. Their big game is a blast to watch because they don't play much defense so you get absurdly high scores like 180 to 160. And because no one cares or remembers if the East or West win each year (just getting nominated to be on the team is the big prize), the actual game is often more about doing trick shots and showing off for your peers on the court.

The Slam Dunk contest is always a highlight and this year's event (like last year's) was dominated by Mac McClung, a guy who doesn't even play on an NBA team (he's in the G-league, NBA's lower-tier development league). He got invited in 2022 not only because he's 6' 2" but with a vertical leap beyond most everyone else, but he has impressed the entire world on Instagram for years with his insane dunks.

After years of the dunk contest growing stale with the same 360s and jumping over motorcycles and cars, McClung injected a bunch of energy and creativity to it by introducing impossible-looking stunts. For instance, at this year's event, he jumped over Shaq before dunking just like another competitor, Jaime Jaquez Jr. did. But Mac soared over Shaq's head by several inches when Jaquez barely cleared Shaq despite being four inches taller than Mac. Simply put, Mac makes the slam dunk contest look more like one of those stunt trampoline halftime demos, and I'm glad the NBA bent their rules to include him each year even though he doesn't play in the big leagues.

The 3-point contest has seen a similar resurgence since Stephen Curry burst onto the scene in 2014, and he's dominated it for years. After winning it twice, a couple seasons ago he stopped competing entirely (to maybe give other players a winning chance?). You should know that each year the winners get scores usually between 25-30 during the competition to try and sink 22 shots within 70 seconds.

The big showdown

In the weeks leading up to the event, Stephen and Sabrina were doing lots of press, and Stephen was incredibly supportive of Sabrina's skills. Shooting 3-pointers is sort of a great equalizer in that it doesn't matter if you're short, or tall, or heavy, or light, you just have to put in enough practice to hone the skill, and anyone can excel at it.

I saw Las Vegas odds were heavily in Stephen Curry's favor for this competition, but I love an underdog and really wanted to see an upset. Sabrina's already set the all-time record for any three-point contest, and on a level playing field, I thought she had a serious chance at beating Steph.

Thankfully, TNT and ESPN and the NBA didn't hype this as any sort of "battle of the sexes" and instead made the focus on both of their high-level talents culminating in a fun demonstration event.

You can watch the actual event above on YouTube, but I want to point out two big things after watching it last night, sitting on the edge of my seat:

  1. Stephen Curry got to shoot second. This is a big advantage, because it lets you know how many shots you have to make to win. I'm surprised they didn't either do a coin toss to determine who goes first, or give Sabrina the slight advantage of going second to try and "catch" Steph. Curry going second was an automatic advantage.
  2. In the end, Steph shot 29 points and Sabrina got 26 points. Sabrina's score was enough to qualify for the finals of the NBA full 3-point contest that took place earlier, and her score was identical to the NBA's 3-point winner, Damian Lillard.

It was a fun event, they were both supportive of one another, and in the end Steph won by a single shot. Another big wow moment for me was when I realized that despite the WNBA's three-point line being about a foot and a half shorter, Sabrina threw each ball from the NBA line to almost win.

Let's break that down a bit: can you imagine practicing a skill for many years, and then in a big nationwide competition you have to shoot a couple feet further than you're used to? And you still almost win the whole thing by a single shot? Sabrina's performance was a huge accomplishment, it was a super exciting one-off event, and it was something that TNT and the NBA could have played up for future rematches.

And yet, while I was watching, I remember the announcers sounding incredibly dismissive, as they made it clear they thought Steph would win before it started, got happy at the result, and downplayed Sabrina's very close performance to the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history.

It was even stranger that the NBA All-Star announcers had a woman on their team at the start of the evening, but she wasn't part of calling this landmark event. I mostly tuned out what the male announcers were saying during the event, but I'm glad The Athletic stepped up to skewer the insane crap Kenny Smith was saying during the competition, because I do remember getting really annoyed at the announcer who wouldn't shut up about women's golf after it was over.

Kenny Smith’s Sabrina Ionescu comments spoiled an otherwise great 3-point contest moment
When Sabrina Ionescu went shot for shot with the king, the commentary should have reflected that. Instead, Kenny Smith missed the moment.

What’s at stake for women’s sports?

Society is going through a bit of a reckoning around gender in all facets of our lives, including sports (as we should). There are several sports where women are beating top men in things like endurance running and cycling. There are also competitions we follow that don't necessarily have to organize around gender, like the best actors in films or TV. Maybe in a few years we'll revisit the need to give out separate awards across gender binaries when the differences are so arbitrary.

Women's sports are underfunded, undervalued, and generally have inferior training facilities and resources. Just before covid, I remember reading about salary caps in US pro soccer, with the women's league having salary limits that were 1/5th as high as what the men's league paid their top players.

Even so, women's sports are having a moment right now. Caitlin Clark is one of the most popular college basketball players of all time, and women's college basketball attendance is approaching the men's college games. My favorite league, the NWSL is kicking off next month at an opening game that takes place in the first women's pro sports stadium ever built in the world, period. Last year's NWSL women's pro soccer final was also the first primetime network TV event for a women's pro sport. You read that right, 2023 was the first time in TV history that a pro women's sport was shown on one of the big networks in prime time... isn't that bonkers?

What could have been

Thankfully, most sports news outlets didn't play this event up like the Bobby vs. Billie tennis match was handled in the 1970s. I knew Sabrina would do well in this competition, but I never thought it'd be so close. And it could have been one of those rare events where people talk about watching it and remember it decades later, when the best woman shooter came within a single shot of the greatest of all time 3-point shooter, with a performance that would have tied the NBA 3-point contest for the ultimate win.

Instead, TNT put a couple of dudes who thought the whole thing was a dumb exhibition and treated the performance as such. It was a once-in-a-generation moment, completely wasted. As a fan who waited weeks for this event, I enjoyed the competition and ultimately loved seeing it end so closely.

I hope for next year they let Sabrina enter the main NBA 3-point competition, just as they let Mac McClung into the NBA dunk contest even though he's not currently on an NBA team. And I hope to god they put some actual fans of WNBA basketball in the booth to call it next year, so fans watching know how incredible the performances at the event are.