WNBA athletes: sport and character role models

About 12 hours after the Connecticut Sun notched an important win over the Dallas Wings Sunday, Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike was filming her teammates at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, for Instagram.

Shekinna Stricklen, who had tied the WNBA record for three-point shots in a game with eight, was asleep at the takeoff gate, sitting straight up in a chair.

“The vet, who shot eight three’s, is out!” Ogwumike marveled, with the clock on her screen reading 5:49 a.m. and her camera panning to the rest of the seating area.

Her other teammates lay across chairs or sprawled on the floor, clothing over their faces to keep out the light as they tried to get in a few more winks before boarding the plane for Connecticut.

It is a story that has been told on player and team Instagram videos all summer long.

WNBA teams have been zig-zagging around the country in a more erratic fashion – and at a quicker pace – than they have in previous years, due to the condensation of the schedule to accommodate the FIBA World Championships in September. It has made for some unusual hopscotching.

Traditionally, each team has had one particularly lengthy road trip on an opposite coast before returning for a long home stand. This season it has been common for teams to travel to two or three cities in various locations, return home for one match up and then hit the road again for another 2-3 games.

The Seattle Storm had most of their games at home for the first half of the season, and have only three home match ups remaining. Conversely, the Sun have spent most of their year on the road and finish with a lion’s share of home appearances.

Teams have also been playing up to five games in a week, which allows little rest, and even less practice time.

Indiana Fever players study film at the airport, in preparation for their next game. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.
Indiana Fever players study film at the airport, in preparation for their next game. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.

“We can say it’s fatigue, but the whole league is built this way this season,” Dallas coach Fred Williams said. “Everyone is feeling it. You can’t use fatigue as an excuse. You’ve got to be ready, and you’ve got to be hungry every game.”

With places 2-9 separated by less than a game and a half, the level of play league-wide is higher than it has ever been. And judging from travel chronicles posted on social media, the level of player resilience might be at an all-time high, as well.

The Atlanta Dream posted a “road diaries” video to their Instagram account last week, which showed bits and pieces of their travel day to Connecticut to play the Sun. Athletes can be seen boarding their commercial plane and showing enthusiasm at a team announcement.

Dream players, who are known for their sense of humor, were featured in another airport video earlier in the month dancing to a Drake song. Athletes from other teams have similarly shown their comedic side this summer, whether it is in a restaurant, at a pool party, on a shopping trip, or some other road adventure that seems to be part utility and part time-killing.

What the videos have shown is that the women of the WNBA are a special group.

The majority don’t make enough money in the league to live on for an entire year, so they must travel overseas, far from their homes and loved ones, to play and earn sufficient wages. Most don’t get enough rest – mentally or physically – and time away from the sport to completely refresh, so some flirt with burnout. Several athletes must balance childcare and mother responsibilities with playing duties.

When players arrive home from overseas, it is usually to report straight to WNBA training camp, where they find themselves playing a preseason game within a week and opening a season two weeks later, without sufficient time to mesh with teammates.

They perform their best every game, whether the crowd is big or small, and regardless of the varying tenors of officiating crews. Athletes spend more time in airports, security check lines and on buses than most others would have the patience to deal with.

Yet, with every reason in the world to complain or have a poor attitude, players are generally very optimistic. They support and mentor one another. And they appreciate that, despite the burdens, it is a privilege to play in the most elite professional basketball league in the world.

“Meditate on gratitude,” Atlanta rookie Monique Billings tweeted yesterday, though she and her team were on board an airplane to Los Angeles nine hours after they had beaten the No. 1 Seattle Storm.

Gratitude, indeed.

We are fortunate to have 144 athletes who are such impressive role models, with regard to how to look at and live life.

Inspirational seems a bit of an understatement.