and by Sue Favor
Fun was the word on Friday afternoon in Seattle. And why wouldn’t it be? A festive atmosphere enveloped KeyArena as the WNBA All-Star teams took to the floor for back-to-back open practices ahead of Saturday’s game.
East Team coach Curt Miller put his squad through some drills that featured a lot of shooting, and West Team coach Cheryl Reeve followed suit. Players talked to each other throughout each session, telling jokes and smiling at the crowd. The Lynx’s Maya Moore stood next to a fan area to release a corner shot, and Jonquel Jones of the Sun stopped to dance a few times. Each team ended with a half-court shooting contest, which saw the Sky’s Stefanie Dolson win it for the East and Breanna Stewart of the Storm take it for the West.
Eight of the East players are first-time All-Stars, as are two from the West. Jones, who made the squad in only her second year in the league, said playing with opponents was a mental adjustment for her at first.
“It’s kind of weird to be in this type of environment where you’re talking and communing with people that you go hard against every night,” Jones said. “Every time I feel nervous I see them and realize there’s nothing to be nervous about.”
Another first-timer, Sparks forward Chelsea Gray, saw similar feelings dissolve once the practice begun.
“You’re used to competing with the people that’s on your team now, so I think you just have fun with it, enjoy the moment, play basketball, do whatever you’re capable of doing, but just have fun,” Gray said.
That was the sentiment shared by most everyone in uniform, whether they were making their first All-Star appearance — like Gray, Stewart, and eight members of the East squad — or their tenth, a la Sue Bird.
There can be some nerves in that first appearance, though, as Dallas’s Skylar Diggins-Smith knows well.
“The first time I played in this game, I was a little nervous, because you want to look good amongst your peers, but it’s all about the experience for the fans,” said the guard, making her third appearance.
For others, their first time suiting up for the game is awe-inspiring.
Dream guard Layshia Clarendon said her aunt showed her a picture of herself as a child this past offseason that she’d given her when she was 12 years old. Clarendon had written on the back, “keep this and remember me, because someday I’m going to play in the WNBA.” On the bus to the arena Friday, Clarendon was emotional.
“I used to watch Sue Bird in the summer with my mom, and now I’m playing in the All-Star game against her,” Clarendon said. “I just signed a basketball with my name right next to hers.”
Liberty guard Sugar Rodgers, who has written about growing up in poverty and losing her mother at age 14, said she was grateful to be named an All-Star. But she never anticipated it.
“I just had a conversation with one of my cousins saying, did you ever think this would be my life, after sleeping from couch to couch?” Rodgers said.
Stewart, last year’s number one draft pick, said she is enjoying every moment.
“This is something that you remember,” she said. “You don’t know how many All-Star appearances you ‘re going to have in your career.”
Yet, while the open practices were loose, veterans like Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson promised the game would be all business.
“We’re competitive, that’s why we’re here, so of course we want to win, so you want to approach it like that, you want to approach it like you want to get the win, but you want to enjoy the process as well,” she said.
“I doubt there will be a ton of defense, but I guarantee you, when that fourth quarter hits that these women, that competitive nature is going to come out,” she said.
The game itself is also an opportunity to, obviously, showcase the league’s best. Eight No. 1 overall picks will take the floor on Saturday.
“Look at the players I’m playing with,” Diggins-Smith said. “There’s so much talent. Multiple MVPs, multiple champions. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”
But beyond the name recognition, for Brunson, it’s a chance to put on a display for the diehards.
“I think this is about giving our fans, our committed fans, a show,” said the 13-year forward. “The people who know us, and know us from being on our other teams, and know us from playing with certain people, those fans get to see us all come together and enjoy that.”
The WNBA All-Star game is at 12:30 p.m. Pacific Saturday, on ABC.