Atlanta's new WNBA team optimistic

ATLANTA - Ivory Latta gazed at the crowd during an exhibition game at Philips Arena, hoping the turnout of almost 8,000 was a sign of things to come for the Atlanta Dream.

'Wow,' the point guard said to herself, 'hopefully we can get this on the regular.'

Just off a surprising playoff run by the city's NBA team, is Atlanta ready to embrace another pro basketball team? Atlanta's new WNBA franchise tips off next weekend, having learned one big lesson from the Hawks taking the heavily favored Boston Celtics to seven games in the opening round of the postseason.

'You win, they'll come,' general manager and coach Marynell Meadors said.

New owner J. Ronald Terwilliger is counting on it. The chairman and CEO of a national real estate company bought an expansion team with the hopes of making the playoffs by its fourth season.

Until then, he wants to prove the Dream is capable of filling seats and sticking around.

Since the league was founded in 1997, four teams - Charlotte, Cleveland, Miami and Portland - have folded and two others moved to new cities.

Even though the WNBA is still trying to gain acceptance, Dream president Bill Bolan is confident women's basketball can thrive in Atlanta, a city that rarely produced sellout crowds for the Hawks during the regular season.

'Atlanta has been the No. 1 rated market for ESPN/ABC television ratings for the WNBA in the past five or six years - even without a team,' he said. 'Looking at all the SEC women's teams and locally, there's plenty of women's basketball around. But we still need to earn their loyalty.'

In addition to winning, Bolan is counting on everything from musical shows at halftime to outreach programs in the community to bolster the fan base. The team already relied on a public poll to help decide the squad's nickname.

'This team will have passion,' said Bolan, who claims that about 2,400 season tickets have already been sold. 'I think we're in a good situation with coach Meadors having a lot of experience.'

The 64-year-old Meadors, one of the league's eight original coaches, has worked with three other WNBA teams as a coach, general manager and scout after 30 years as a college coach. Though younger fans might have trouble relating to a coach who describes herself a 'hillbilly at heart,' she believes the youth of the team should balance it out.

Most of the roster is filled with role players and rookies. It showed in the Dream's first preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks, when Atlanta fell behind by more than 20 points before rallying in the fourth quarter to lose by six.

'In the first two quarters, we were scared to death,' Meadors said. 'But I can understand why because they were all role players last year and now they're in the starting role. It was a big jump for them.'

One of those moving up to starter is Latta, a backup for the Detroit Shock last season. The former North Carolina star helped that school make two straight Final Fours appearances while posting a 121-17 record during her four-year college career.

Latta will team in the backcourt with Castro Marques, who averaged 12.8 points and 2.8 assists for the Seattle Storm last year.

'Smart, knows when to shoot and when to kick it out to the right person,' Meadors said of Marques. 'She does it with no expression, playing good defense. She and Ivory will complement each other well, even though they have different personalities. She has the stoned-face look, while Ivory is fiery with the big eyes.'

Meadors is also impressed with a couple of rookies: first-round draft pick Tamera Young from James Madison, who scored 15 points in the preseason opener, and former Georgia Tech standout Chioma Nnmaka. With the roster needing to be trimmed to 13 players before the first of the real games, the rookies are making things tough on Meadors.

Atlanta has players in the frontcourt who are versatile enough to create matchup problems with their size, including 6-foot-8 center Katie Feenstra and Ann Strother, a 6-3 forward.

While there's still plenty of work to do, Bolan believes the pieces are coming together to build a successful women's team.

'The people in this town respond to passion,' he said. 'You saw the Hawks players have that in their playoff games. It feeds off each other. I think the neat thing about us is that the fans will see it all the time.'

SideBar: Dream at Sun

When: Saturday, 4 p.m.

Where: Uncasville, Conn.