The Chicago Sky don’t just go through their pregame special handshake ritual. They make it an event.
Veteran forward Stefanie Dolson’s run out to end woman Kahleah Copper finishes with a mutual finger point. Allie Quigley’s handshake is even more elaborate: she and Copper swish an imaginary bucket together towards the rest of the team. The last to be introduced, point guard Courtney Vandersloot, goes high up with the handshake and then dishes a ghost assist to Diamond DeShields, after which the entire team jumps to do a group shoulder bump, yelling, “Aye!.”
Sky players had similar pre-match-up greetings last season, but there is much more vigor this year because so much has changed. They have a new coach, new systems, new players – and consequently, more promise. They are re-energized and optimistic, despite their current losing streak.
“He always tells us we need to bring the energy, but he brings it all the time,” Dolson said of first-year coach James Wade. “It’s contagious, (and) we all play with energy and that passion that he coaches us with. Its something we were missing a lot that last couple of years, and it’s been a nice change. And I think we’ve all bought in and we’ve been having fun playing with each other.”
That spirit and chemistry on court has showed itself more and more – especially when Chicago ignited for a four-game winning streak in mid-June. But after losing to first-place Washington, the Sky hit the road and dropped three more games.
Wade, who was a WNBA assistant coach for seven years – including for the 2017 WNBA Championship Minnesota Lynx – before taking the Sky job, is not deterred.
“We’ll fix it but it’s hard to fix it on the road with no practice time,” he said. “Everybody has that issue, so it’s not just us. We’ll watch video…..and keep chipping away. It’s really simple.”
From the top
The Sky hired Wade last November, and though he was new to the franchise, he was not new to some of its players. As an assistant coach for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, where Vandersloot plays each year, the two already knew one another. As soon as he got the Chicago job, Wade began working.
“My first job was to secure the free agents we had,” he said. “Even though I couldn’t talk to anyone until the free agency period started, the best thing I could do since I was coaching Sloot in Russia was to demonstrate my work ethic to her and try to build a relationship off the court, outside the WNBA.”
“We work well together, and she recognized that, and we knew we were going to core her. When we did, she was happy to be back.”
Acquiring forward Jantel Lavender in free agency solidified the team’s veteran lineup, which also includes Quigley and Dolson. Wade said the Sky has a good mixture of ages, personalities and skill sets.
“We have a strong core of veteran leadership, and then you have players like (forward) Cheyenne Parker, who is our emotional leader, and (guard) Jamierra Faulkner, who is our heart,” Wade said. “Those are the two that kind of settle us and motivate us.”
“We have a group of players who have diverse skills at a high level, but we also have a group of players who compliment each other well.”
It helps to have a coach who knows how to put talent together and make it work. Wade gives inspired halftime and post-game speeches, and players have said he knows when to try and motivate them, and when to get after them. They have bought in to his vision.
“There hasn’t been a day when we haven’t experienced some level of growth,” DeShields said. “The evolution of our team, from the first day James got here until now, has been exponential. I just don’t see anything but good things happening from this point forward. We’ve had some highs and lows, but I feel positive about everything we’re doing. He’s a great coach.”
Faulker said Wade is a player’s coach.
“We love James,” she said. “He’s been through a lot and knows how to win championships, so we buy in – he’s a smart man.”
Wade said he tries to take a balanced approach.
“I’m an X’s and 0’s guy, but I’m a life guy, too,” he said. “I don’t think I can do one without the other. I guess I have a feeling for what the team needs, and I try to do the best I can. Sometimes you don’t get it right.”
In a July 3 game last year, Faulkner tore her ACL for the second time in 16 months, upsetting players on both teams. She also tore her meniscus, so her return to action has been slower this time around. But Faulkner has traveled with the team and last week rejoined warmups. Wade said she could play as early as next week.
“I’m super excited about that – it’s been a long journey,” she said. “I started warming up with the team because I’m close to being able to play.”
Faulkner said she had two more procedures done on her knee after the first one to make sure it was healing correctly. That took a toll on her.
“The mental state because of the two scopes, it took me into a little state of depression for a while,” she said. “But I have (support from) my family, my partner and my teammates. I let them know everything that was going on. As far as the rehab, I knew what to do, but I was in a state of depression.”
It has meant a lot to her to be a squad leader despite her injury.
“I feel like I’m a part of this team, even though I’m not on the court yet,” Faulkner said. “They ask me for advice, and I’m here to make everybody laugh and bring that energy. Whatever I need to do, I’m going to do it. We have a great chemistry.”
Dolson relishes Faulkner’s return.
“I think we’ve all been rooting for her, and we’re excited to have her back,” Dolson said. “I know she’s excited to be back. She might have some struggles, but we’re all behind her.”
Also close to return is rookie Katie Lou Samuelson, who has been out for a month with a broken bone in her hand. Wade said he is “ecstatic” to have her back.
Everyone on the team has a role. For fifth-year veteran Parker, that means coming off the bench to score 9 points and grab 4.4 rebounds per game, which puts her in the top five in both categories.
“I just want her to be comfortable and be herself,” Wade said. “Even though she comes off the bench, we need her to be aggressive when she comes in. We play her like she’s a starter. She’s one of our main pieces, and she knows I have her back.”
In the case of DeShields, who was in rookie of the year talks last season, that means stepping into a veteran’s role at a younger age.
“They’ve started treating me like (a vet),” she said of her teammates and coaches. “It’s amazing the respect you get in the league if you just keep playing hard and playing well.”
DeShields, who leads the team in scoring with 14.5 per game, in addition to grabbing 5.7 rebounds, said she learned how better to take care of her body in the offseason. That has carried over to the court.
“I’m seeing the floor better and really trying to step into that leadership role that’s being asked of me,” she said. “I’ve always been able to score, so I’m just expanding that.”
Copper is the team’s elected hype woman – a role she takes seriously. She said she works with each starter to come up with a unique handshake, and then tries to bring then out of their shells, if necessary.
“Allie and Sloot are more into themselves – they’re kind of shy,” Copper said. “But I think the handshakes give them a kind of ‘oomph,’ and it gets them going. I like to bring that out of them.”
Copper said special handshakes unite the team.
“Everyone enjoys that part,” she said. “It gets us going.”
Once as high as third place, Chicago is now in eighth place as they take on the eleventh-place Dallas Wings at home today. Wade knows what they have to do to win.
“One of our issues is how careless we are with the ball,” he said. “Another thing is we have to (get) second-chance points. And we have to trust in each other on the offensive end…..and get our assists.”
Today’s game tips off at 5 p.m. CT.