For the first time, the 7-year-old WNBA pops the top on a new season tonight with two games but without the Utah Starzz as a member of the Western Conference. Or any conference.

The franchise formerly known as the Starzz is now the San Antonio Silver Stars. It transferred there in December when the NBA Spurs pressured the league to give them a winner and the league pressured Utah owner Larry H. Miller to give up the club, which he said lost him more than a million dollars a year.

The Silver Stars, still coached by Candi Harvey and Salt Lake City resident Tammi Reiss — but without Utah native power forward Natalie Williams, who was traded to Indiana — make their debut in the SBC Center on Saturday night at 6:30 MDT hosting Seattle.

Eight players from last year's Starzz roster, who went to the WNBA Western Conference Finals before losing to eventual league champion Los Angeles, remain on the Silver Stars: Jennifer Azzi, Danielle Crockrom, Margo Dydek, Marie Ferdinand, Adrienne Goodson, Amy Herrig, Latonya Johnson and Semeka Randall. LaNeisha Caufield and Elisa Aguilar were waived earlier this week.

The WNBA is different in several ways from the one in which the Utah Starzz played. Ownership of all clubs has been transferred from the league to entities in individual cities, mostly NBA teams. Independent ownership is now allowed, and teams don't have to be in NBA cities anymore. The Connecticut Sun roster contains three ex-Starzz: Debbie Black, Wendy Palmer and Jessie Hicks.

The league has also down-sized by two teams, with Miami and Portland having folded. That's how Connecticut got Black, in a dispersal draft. The Silver Stars got Portland center Sylvia Crawley in a somewhat similar way; she went to Indiana in the dispersal draft, and the Fever traded her and a draft pick to San Antonio for Williams.

Another change in the WNBA is that there's a new collective bargaining agreement, completed just a month ago, and now individual teams own player contracts rather than the league itself.

While San Antonio pressured the league to give it a strong team, the Silver Stars are still considered by league-watchers to be a team that will finish low in the West, partly because Cynthia Cooper has come out of retirement and coaching to play again for the four-time league-champion Houston Comets.

The WNBA Web site's own assessment by Ann Meyers picks San Antonio to finish sixth in the seven-team West, even though the Utah Starzz had their best-ever season in their last year in Salt Lake. They went 20-12 and took third in the West in the regular season, then defeated Houston in the first round of playoffs. Nancy Lieberman of ESPN.com picks the Silver Stars to place fourth in the West.

"It's always been that way," shrugs Harvey. "No one has ever talked about the Utah Starzz, or now the San Antonio Silver Stars, until we get into the playoffs or if we go on an eight-game win streak or until we make it to the Western Conference Finals. I guess we've always been kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the West and I guess it will continue to be."

Harvey, however, said she likes being the underdog.

Harvey and the former Starzz seem pleased with their new city. They drew 9,094 to watch them play Los Angeles in their only home exhibition game last week. "As most of you know that have been to a game in Utah, that was probably a record-breaking crowd during the regular season," said Harvey in a teleconference call Tuesday. "So our players were just thrilled. They were thrilled with the environment, with the atmosphere. Everything that has been done here has been done in a first-class manner."

Players often complained that Starzz management treated them in a second-class manner, making them share cars instead of each getting their own car, though league rules stipulated that a car should be available for every two players, and saying Miller paid little attention to them.

Goodson is happy to be recognized and encouraged by the general public wherever she goes in San Antonio. "We expected (support), but I don't think we expected it at this level," Goodson told the San Antonio Express News. "Everywhere I go it seems like people are asking me if I play for the Silver Stars. They want to know my name, my number, and they tell me they plan to come out to watch us. It's just a fever here."

Still, said Harvey, "We're so appreciative of everything that has happened in Utah. It provided a home for us, and change is sometimes scary, but this is a necessary change from both sides." The downsizing of the league and the move of two franchises, Harvey said, is good. "I can't speak for the Connecticut move, but I do know that without a shadow of a doubt, that this was the right move for our league and for our team to put this team in San Antonio."

And at least San Antonio management paid homage to Utah in renaming the team Silver Stars. Utah fans had petitioned the new front office to keep some part of their name, and it did.


E-mail: lham@desnews.com