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The WNBA playoffs are set to begin with 8 teams vying for the title

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The women's pro basketball playoffs begin with eight teams seeking a title. The favorites include the Chicago Sky. They're trying to become the first back-to-back champions in 20 years. And some notable players are both playing and absent from the postseason. So let's talk it all through with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hey, can we take stock of the WNBA? We just mentioned the first back-to-back champions in 20 years, which is just to note that this league has been around for a while. Are they getting to be a big cultural force?

GOLDMAN: I think they are. You know, questions are less about will they survive and more about how fast the league can grow by attracting more fans, more viewers, more sponsors. You know, one interesting step forward during these playoffs - in the finals, the league will pay for the two teams to fly charter. WNBA players have long complained about flying commercially. They deal with delays and cancellations and cramped seating, like all of us, and it's tough on them physically. They've also said flying charter would be a true sign that they are professionals and being treated that way. Now, some owners have been willing to pay for it. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said it would cost way too much money and jeopardize the financial health of the league. But baby steps, Steve. All the finalists will fly charter this time.

INSKEEP: The finalists - so before that, they'll be going commercial. They're going commercial to this opening round.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Which games and which teams stand out to you?

GOLDMAN: The Seattle Storm against the Washington Mystics is going to get a lot of attention. They're both recent WNBA champs. Seattle won in 2018 and 2020. The Mystics were wedged in between in 2019. They finished with identical records this regular season, so it should be close. And a lot of great recognizable players for Washington - forward Elena Delle Donne and her matchup against Seattle's Breanna Stewart - both former league MVPs. And Stewart is this year's AP Player of the Year. All eyes, of course, on Sue Bird, Seattle's elder stateswoman point guard, who's retiring at the end of the season, whenever that is for Seattle.

INSKEEP: And just the fact she's been around so long is another sign of the endurance of this league.

GOLDMAN: It is - 19 seasons for Sue Bird. She will retire as the career leader in assists. She's a passing wizard, one of those players teammates love to play with. And she's also credited with helping spur the growth of women's sport in Seattle and even nationwide. In a recent press conference, she talked about the significance of her generation of players back when the WNBA's future was more tenuous. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUE BIRD: The WNBA has turned a corner recently, right in the last couple years, in terms of popularity, people talking about us, marketing opportunities. And that wasn't always the case. But the one thing we could always count on was the product on the floor was going to be amazing. And I personally feel, and I'm sure I have bias, but I personally feel that that generation - we kept the league afloat.

INSKEEP: So fans get to see Sue Bird one more time. Who do they not get to see?

GOLDMAN: They don't get to see the great center Sylvia Fowles, who, like Bird, is retiring - Fowles after 15 seasons. But her Minnesota team failed to make the playoffs. She finishes as the WNBA's all-time rebound leader and an eight-time All-Star. The Phoenix Mercury - they are in the playoffs against the No. 1 seed, Las Vegas Aces - dealing with huge losses. Another legendary guard, Diana Taurasi, sat out the end of the regular season with injury. She's questionable for the playoffs. And, of course, center Brittney Griner remains in Russian custody, where she's been since February. With all that, Steve, it's amazing the Mercury got to the playoffs. But it's expected to be a quick run for them against a very good Las Vegas team.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue following that story of Griner. Tom, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH, THE ILLSTRUMENTALIST'S "NOCTURNAL JAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.