Sports

They grow up so fast: Sky no pushover 10 years in

Michael Alter founded the Sky because "it was just too important for Chicago not to be part of [the WNBA]."

Michael Alter had a "Field of Dreams" moment about a decade ago.

The suburban Wilmette native was invited to an event by law school classmate Adam Silver—yes, the current NBA commissioner—involving WNBA players, and he was hooked almost immediately.

"I felt that as someone who has had the good fortune of growing up here my whole life, was here my whole life [and built a] very successful business here, I felt that this was something too important, that Chicago should be part of it," Alter said. "That these women are incredible role models is what this league stands for in terms of empowering not just young girls but young boys too, and to see women in a different light—it was just too important for Chicago not to be part of this thing."

Shortly thereafter, Alter began investigating the details of owning a WNBA team. On Feb. 8, 2005, Chicago was awarded a franchise. And on Wednesday, the Sky kick off their season-long 10th anniversary celebration, beginning with an expo geared toward young girls.

From the time Chicago was awarded the franchise until the Sky's first game in May 2006, the Sky's staff of fewer than 20 people breathed life into the team.

"We can't even really put it into words what it was like to be there from day one and be able to put your ideas forward and brainstorm those things, actually take part in those things, and then come May 23 [2006] to see those things take the court," said Vice President of Operations Michelle Henstock, who started with the Sky as an intern. "… Behind the scenes was not glamorous at all, but I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Making things even more difficult was the fact that most WNBA teams had an advantage the Sky did not: Chicago's franchise is not owned by its city's NBA team.

"Michael and I have joked many times that if we knew then what we know now, we wouldn't have enough guts to do it," said Margaret Stender, who served as the Sky's first president and CEO. "We knew why were doing it, we knew it was important and we knew we wanted to do it desperately, but all the things that are involved with putting it together, I don't think we had a full appreciation for that. …

"We didn't have a place to play, we didn't have a team name, we had no players, we had no coach, we had no fans, obviously, we had no employees. It was literally a blank piece of paper. Thankfully we had a lot of help."

Pitching in were some of the WNBA's biggest names, including Lisa Leslie, one of the biggest stars in women's basketball history. In one instance her presence alone helped boost the Sky's profile, as did her temporary resemblance to a "Sesame Street" character.

"So Lisa is 6-5, from Southern California, came to Chicago in the dead of winter, in January with three coats," said Stender, now the team's chairman and a longtime minority owner. "And one of them was a giant yellow windbreaker that would fit over the other two coats that she was wearing because it was so cold. Michael and I took Lisa to lunch and we were walking through the financial business district … she looked like Big Bird. … [Alter and I are] not small people, but we're not [6-5]. And walking around with Lisa in this giant yellow coat, with two coats underneath, it was hilarious.

"And you know what, two people came up to us on the street and said, 'Is that Lisa Leslie'? And I said, 'Are you kidding me? How can you recognize her?' They're like, 'Oh, we know.' And one gentleman gave me his business card right there on the street."

Once the Sky finally took the court, success did not come easy. The team finished 5-29 in its inaugural season, went through several head coaches and did not post a winning record until 2013, when it reached also the playoffs for the first time.

Since then the arrow has been pointing up—way up—thanks in part to Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne. With those two stars leading the way, the Sky advanced to the WNBA Finals in 2014.

"I think we've had a couple of players that have been dramatic turning points," Stender said. "I think Sylvia Fowles was one of those players in the early days, and I think that Syl has meant the world to this franchise. … And then to couple Sylvia with Elena, there's just no 4-5 combination in the league that really is as strong."

Off the court, the team has nearly doubled its average attendance, jumping from 3,392 per game in 2006 to 6,695 in 2014. And Alter is optimistic that figure will reach 15,000 when the Sky turn 20 years old.

"From a business perspective if we continue with the trends that we have, I think that we will be more of a household name [in the next decade]," Henstock said. "They'll see the logo and there will be recognition. I think the building is going to continue to be filled up."

The Sky also will continue to measure its success in ways that have no monetary value, though sometimes they go hand in hand.

"Just having women play a sport in public and that people are willing to buy tickets to watch them, I can't even begin to tell you what impact that has on young girls," said Stender, who played basketball at the University of Richmond before Title IX became law. "That whole environment says equality, says confidence, says 'you matter,' and says 'if you want to do it, do it.' That's a very, very powerful message. It transcends sport."

Chris Sosa is RedEye's sports editor. @redeyesportschi

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