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WNBA's draft catches ABL

After months of traveling around the country watching college basketball games, scouting talent and pitching its product, the WNBA holds its draft today at 11 a.m.

Last season the majority of the nation's top women's players committed to play for the ABL.

This year the WNBA has received more commitments from the nation's elite players _ Florida's Murriel Page, Stanford's Olympia Scott, Arizona's Adia Barnes and North Carolina's Tracy Reid, to name a few.

"We've been very fortunate this year," said Renee Brown, WNBA's vice president of player personnel. "Our job is to go out and find the best players we can and try to get them to become a part of this league. And we've done a good job this year."

The ABL, which holds its draft May 5 in San Jose, Calif., recently signed contracts with Louisiana Tech's Alisa Burras, Vanderbilt's Na'Sheema Hillmon and Illinois' Ashley Berggren _ all first-team, all-conference selections.

Such is the nature of women's pro basketball these days. Four years ago, there were none. Today there are two leagues. And the race to sign the best players is becoming more intense.

"Both leagues every year will want to get all of the top players," said Tracey Williams, ABL's vice president for player personnel and basketball operations. "I think we got a lot of great players this year, but we would have liked to get a lot more of the elite players. Last year, we got most of those and this year the other league did, and we commend them for that."

After four years of playing at Florida, Page knew she wanted to pursue a professional career. A center, Page led the nation in rebounding and averaged nearly 21 points. She said she chose the WNBA because the league plays in the summer and she can complete her degree in the fall.

But she admits there was another consideration, one the ABL has to battle every day: recognition and prestige. The WNBA is backed by the NBA. It boasts ESPN commercials that are seen nationwide. It plays on ESPN, whereas the ABL plays on Black Entertainment Television.

"Both leagues are very good, but the WNBA came in very professional and told me what they felt they could do for me," Page said. "They can give me the national exposure that I need to showcase my talent for the people in the United States."

The ABL has built a reputation as having the best players: four-time Olympian Teresa Edwards, Natalie Williams, Dawn Staley, Michelle Marciniak, Kara Wolters and Jennifer Rizzotti.

"I think our players help sell the ABL with the quality of play on the floor," Williams said.

The ABL pitches other perks, including 401K retirement, medical benefits and an exclusive stock-option plan that gives players 10 percent ownership of the league.

As for the recruiting process, both leagues operate basically the same. Unlike in college recruiting, the teams can't directly contact the players during the season. So they rely on packages of information sent to coaches. According to Williams and Brown, some coaches will disseminate information, while others will wait until after the NCAA Tournament.

So often the leagues rely on their players to spread the word, and the exposure in newspapers and on television. DeLisha Milton, an ex-Gator with the ABL's Portland Power, gave the pitch to Page. So, too, did Ruthie Bolton Holifield, who lives in Gainesville and plays in the WNBA.

Because the leagues are still new and drawing more fans is still a priority, getting the premier players with the marquee names is of utmost importance.

But so far, neither league is waging a negative campaign against the other. Page and other college players insist representatives from the leagues never speak ill of each other. And when they give their pitches, there's no specific talk about why one league is better than the other.

Williams said that's because league executives realize bad behavior when trying to get a player to commit is detrimental.

"Of course there is competitiveness when you're trying to recruit and get players, but as long as we keep handling it in a professional manner, things will be fine," Williams said. "We don't say negative things. We don't want to do anything to knock professional women's basketball; we want to enhance it. If we're here going at each other's throats, that's not going to help.

"It's a phenomenal opportunity for them; instead of having one league, they have two. And with two, hopefully we will push each other to do the right thing and have the best product in the world."

WNBA lands Sales, others

NEW YORK _ UConn All-American Nykesha Sales, Old Dominion's Ticha Penicheiro and Stanford's Kristin Folkl signed contracts to play in the WNBA.

The WNBA has signed 44 college seniors to contracts for the 1998 season and the players will be assigned among the 10 teams in today's draft.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

WHAT: WNBA draft.

WHEN: 11 a.m. today.

WHERE: NBA Entertainment Studios, Secaucus, N.J.

DRAFT ORDER: 1. Utah Starzz; 2. Sacramento Monarchs; 3. Washington Mystics (expansion team); 4. Detroit Shock (expansion team); 5. Los Angeles Sparks; 6. Cleveland Rockers; 7. Charlotte Sting; 8. Phoenix Mercury; 9. New York Liberty; 10. Houston Comets.

+ Each team will make selections in each of four rounds.