Jumping over her opponent, JuJu Watkins into the lane and sent a graceful runner soaring into the basket. Upon hearing the whistle, Watkins proceeded to the line in pursuit of a and-1. The in-house Trojans hype man, DJ Malski, had his voice heard over the Galen Center loudspeaker.

“Yeahhhhhhh, Ju,” Malski yelled out as Watkins missed her free throw.

Ju, the audience echoed in unison.

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Being the clear favorite for national freshman of the year, it’s easy to see why Watkins causes such a stir. The 6-foot-2 rookie hailing from Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood possesses an uncommon blend of talent, power, and body control, as well as an incredibly smooth jump shot and the composure of an experienced player.

As the nation’s second-leading scorer this season, Watkins is poised to take center stage and represent women’s basketball, especially with Caitlin Clark expected to be selected first overall in the 2024 WNBA draft. She’ll have company in the second front-runner for freshman of the year, Hannah Hidalgo of Notre Dame.

The fact that both of these athletes are Black is obvious to everyone of the game’s power brokers. It is important that the characters of the future resemble those of the past in a game created by Black women.

Three renowned white players—Clark, Paige Bueckers, who graduated in 2020 from Oregon—have received a disproportionate amount of media and marketing attention in recent years due to the meteoric rise in popularity of women’s basketball.

Even though the WNBA is 70% Black, the game still hasn’t given due credit to the Black players who pioneered women’s hoops and continue to do so at the professional level. At times, their very existence has been erased from history entirely; for example, the NCAA does not acknowledge the Division-I scoring record held by former Kansas star Lynette Woodard.
According to Southern California head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, “I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault or been anyone’s intention” (USA TODAY Sports). “However, Black female superstars in our society have not received nearly enough commercial endorsements, end of story.”

The spotlight is mostly on white women players despite the rising popularity of women’s basketball.
The issue of position is relevant to some extent. Athletes who can create shots with the ball in their hands are known as playmakers, and casual fans love them. Great footwork isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success on highlight reels, even for paint guys. Take power forward A’ja Wilson, for example. Despite having an award resume longer than a Walgreens receipt, Wilson lacks Clark’s star power.

“People gravitate to shot creators and craftiness,” says Watkins, who is among the top playmakers in women’s basketball at any level. However, she and others are aware that there is more at stake than simply the score.

A major gripe, according to WNBA players, is how much easier it is to get into college basketball than the professional level. Bueckers and UConn are regulars on Fox, as are Iowa and Clark. There were a lot of primetime ESPN matchups featuring Inoescu and the Ducks. In March of last year, ABC became the first non-cable network to air the NCAA women’s championship, and this year will be no different.

It would be great if the WNBA had a stronger media rights contract, Las Vegas star Kelsey Plum said at a USA Basketball training camp last month, adding that “my mom doesn’t have to jump through 10 hoops to watch our games” on some strange streaming platform.

However, it is not all it covers.

“With the light I have now as a white woman who leads a Black-led sport… I want to shed a light on Black women,” Bueckers said at the 2021 ESPYs, thus acknowledging the fact that she is a white woman leading a Black-led sport. The media fails to give them the attention they truly merit. They’ve made incalculable contributions to the game, the neighborhood, and the world at large.

In 2022, Plum stated to ESPN.com that she was undeniably elevated early in her career by the league due to her perceived “straight and white” identity. “Sometimes a Black woman doesn’t check off those boxes,” Wilson added, implying that the league may be promoting only what it deems marketable. The injustice is felt daily by WNBA players.

That story may be changed with the help of players like Watkins and Hidalgo.

According to Niele Ivey, a former player and current head coach at Notre Dame, “In the history of this game, some of the most legendary players and coaches have been Black women — Cheryl Miller, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn (Staley).” Ivey played for the Irish from 1997 to 2001. Basketball has been left to the world by countless remarkable Black women who have left their mark on women’s basketball. As a woman of color, I feel an overwhelming sense of joy to see Hannah included in that discussion at this early stage.

Ivey thinks Hidalgo and Watkins are “must-see TV” because of the confidence they bring to the field. Ivey claimed that even those who aren’t interested in basketball can find something to their liking. Thanks to NIL, collegiate players may now establish their own identities and fan bases. Hidalgo is very outspoken about her beliefs, and Watkins is dedicated to making a difference in her Los Angeles neighborhood; Ivey believes that these extracurricular activities will help the athletes get more fans.

Their performance on the court, though, will set the tone.

Clark and LSU All-American Angel Reese are partially responsible for that, according to Ivey. Last year, when LSU defeated Iowa for the title, there was a lot of trash talking between the two teams. Despite Clark having uttered numerous derogatory remarks during the tournament, the Black Reese was branded as lacking class for glaring at her. Later, Reese addressed the naysayers by saying, “This is for the girls that look like me.” It was in part due to the celebrities’ displays of emotion that they garnered notice.

Afterwards, their game came next, according to Ivey. They were elite, and their games proved it. Hannah and JuJu, the game’s future stars, play with the kind of fearlessness that will be necessary to keep women’s basketball in the limelight, and that was a huge boost to the sport.

Black women finally got the respect and acknowledgment they deserved.
ever though Watkins was so dominant in college, she rarely ever turned on the TV to watch the game. Watkins refers to Candace Parker, a two-time WNBA MVP and someone she calls “my GOAT,” as her favorite professional basketball player, and her career, to be precise.

Before joining the Las Vegas Aces, Parker spent her first thirteen years as a professional player with the Los Angeles Sparks. Wearing Parker’s jersey, Watkins attended as many young basketball games as her parents would let her go. After each game, she would embrace Parker and give her high fives. She finds it hard to believe that Watkins is now being compared to Parker, who guided Tennessee to two championships during its final years as a powerhouse. The fact that her play has made her friends with Parker, or at least amicable toward him, is staggering.

“Oh, is it okay if I call us friends?” Watkins inquired. “I don’t understand. Being buddies with the GOAT isn’t something I get to say very often. But I’m known to her!

This is a rare occasion for the first-year student to behave appropriately for her age. On the court, Watkins exudes calm composure, always reading her team’s needs and executing the perfect play—sometimes without showing any emotion all.

Defeating one of the best strategists in the game, Watkins scored 51 points against Stanford earlier in the season. The Trojans haven’t been in the Final Four since Cheryl Miller’s 1986 senior season, when she won her third player of the year award, and she has nearly single-handedly gotten them there.

Gottlieb, who calls Watkins “your favorite player’s favorite player,” is cognizant of the fact that her star is influencing not only the game but also the audience’s interest in watching it.

Little girls in the stands at USC games often sport a “JuJu bun” style of hairstyle. Watkins was greeted by a group of teenage males singing her name as she went out of the locker room on her trip to Arizona.

“The thing about Ju is that she’s a basketball genius who is aware of her broader reach. She’s an exceptional talent,” Gottlieb remarked. “She is well-aware of her cross-cultural appeal.”

Few people came to see USC for a long time. That has been changed by Watkins. For the first time since 2007, USC sold out a game, and the average attendance nearly tripled this season. Gottlieb said that the variety of the audience now represents Los Angeles well.

Numerous spectators don the number twelve, which Watkins characterized as “very trippy” (in a positive sense).

The sight of the little lads wearing her shirt was “crazy,” she exclaimed. It disproves every sexist argument and assumption about our game. A barrier is broken when a boy can admire a girl’s game without trying to diminish it or compare her to a man; all that is required is admiration for her game. That’s the way we improve the world.

Too many people before Watkins didn’t have the chance, so she’s willing to carry that burden, even though she’s just 18 years old.

That “Black women have paved the way in this game” was Watkins’s statement. A great number of them have opened doors for us today. The time has come for Black women to finally be acknowledged for their contributions to this sport.

That acknowledgement and admiration will most certainly be apparent very soon, given the manner in which Watkins and Hidalgo perform.

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