Prior to tipoff of today’s WNBA Finals, the league honored the players who were named the top 25 in history. Some spoke to the media before the presentation:
Q. Cynthia, Candace when she arrived in Chicago in different interviews has talked about you being an inspiration to her career. She wanted to play like you. I wonder if you can take a look at her [career] now and what she’s meant to the game.
CYNTHIA COOPER: Candace is just an amazing talent because of her versatility, because of her longevity, and when you look at her game, it’s complete. She can knock down the outside shot to stretch the defense. She plays with her back to the basket. She’s tough. At the same time, she’s smooth.
Then when she’s really added to her game is the ability to make players around her better. When you see her passing ability, whether it be from the fast break or within their half-court offense, she is just an incredible talent.
But the thing that impresses me the most is her motor. She just comes back every single year, and she just brings her “A” game every single year. For that, I definitely hats off and I applaud her.
Q. Lisa, the conversation right now is really about Candace and her greatness and if she’s able to bring a title to Chicago in her first year playing there, what it would mean as just something to check off on her career? Having played with her in the beginning, her debut in the league, in your opinion, what would that mean if she’s able to bring a championship to Chicago?
LISA LESLIE: I think it’s historic really. To most statistically, if you look at it, it’s very difficult to join a new team and win a championship in that year. It almost never happens on NBA or WNBA side. So it would be amazing for her to be able to do that.
But I think it also speaks to her leadership, her understanding of what it takes to win. Candace probably has not played the best in her career this year, but she’s been the best leader I think that she’s ever been. Her ability to communicate and to lead and lead by example and to be able to be open and to teach her teammates, her young teammates with Kahleah Copper, who’s had an outstanding season, I think Candace has been in a role that’s been awesome for her.
We laugh about it because I think I was in that role probably when she and I started playing. As a leader, not being necessarily the best player that you’ve ever been, but that leadership and that vet experience that she has, sometimes we talk about it from the media and just talk about how old a player is, but you don’t recognize experience, you can’t buy that.
What she knows and her ability to win at every level and have championships, that’s what I think is most impressive. She’s come in in a very unselfish way, lent out so much information, and she made everybody around her better. That’s the sign of a great player.
Q. Swin, this league has made great strides, not just an on-court product, but also from a marketing standpoint. Just looking at the league as a whole, is there anything that you would like to see? Like what do you think the next step is for the league in making the next leap?
SWIN CASH: I think we were talking about this earlier amongst ourselves. I think there’s a couple of things we’d like to see happen the next few years. I think the league is in a great place right now as far as visibility. A big shoutout to people who have covered the league even from the beginning and even the new social media people who have come on board and really started elevating our league.
If you look, whether it’s Twitter or Instagram or YouTube or all the different outlets, we’re starting to get more visible. So thank you to the people that are covering.
The second part is the sponsors that are out there, the commitment to this league and understanding the value of the women. I think those dollars need to start coming in more frequently. Tickets, people buying tickets, wanting to come to the game, wanting to stream the game, wanting to support I think is something that needs to be there.
And I think the final thing for me is to bring back a lot of the legends that this league was built on. I think my challenge to all of the teams that are out there is to get more of the legends of our league that have been around to start pouring into the younger players. That’s how we grow the game. That’s how we share the knowledge, the institutional knowledge, about what the WNBA, women’s basketball is truly about.
So I would like to see those things happen personally.
Q. This being the 25th season, we’re doing a lot of rankings. I know this is going to be asking all of you guys to pick your favorite child, but each of you, what do you think was the best of the championship teams you played on? Obviously, Coop, you played on four, back to back to back to back. What one do you think was the best of those. Lisa, same for you.
Swin, I know you had two organizations. Maybe if you pick best of Detroit and whatever you think is the best one. I’d really like to see what you guys think about that.
CYNTHIA COOPER: I would say it’s really difficult to choose just one because each one had their own significance, but if I just had to choose one, I would choose our second championship. We had the highest winning percentage of any professional team, 27-3, and it was also the year that the ABL players, there was an influx of ABL players, and no one believed the Houston Comets could repeat as champions.
So I thought that was a big move for us, it was a big moment for us, and it was very special.
LISA LESLIE: That’s tough. I guess, when you look at championships, I think the first one is always the hardest one to get because it’s your first time getting it, and for us, obviously, being in the same conference with the Comets and losing to them in every Western Conference Final, we got sent home. It was a great learning curve for our team, being one of the younger teams, and just facing them in such greatness.
I just remember feeling like we just need a few more pieces, just a little bit more experience, if you will, to be able to get over that hump, and it was a tough hump. We never got over it, obviously, as long as Coop was there. Thank God she retired.
Winning that first championship was probably my favorite. It was our hardest to get. Yeah, so I probably would say the first one was probably the sweetest.
SWIN CASH: It’s tough. I think I agree with Lisa on the first one, but I do want to speak to something to Seattle, if that’s okay. The first one for me was the toughest because the year before we literally were the worst team in the WNBA, and to make the changes we made in the off-season, to come back, to get that chemistry, to be just young and fearless and not knowing what it was going to take to win was pretty special.
I would watch their championships and think about one day jumping up on top of that scorer’s table and holding up the sign, and to actually be able to do that in front of 21,000 in Detroit, I just think that our team embodied, so that was probably really, really special.
Then that Seattle team, that was just a team, like a run. A lot of people on the team are still my close friends. What we were able to do there, it was just something that — I mean, defensively, how we were, how we played, Lauren [Jackson] going from blonde to red hair, like making moments. Sue, Tanisha Wright. People don’t talk about it a lot of time. We had Svetlana Abrosimova coming off the bench. That was a special team. How we dominated at home, I think we lost a game at home, that was pretty special.
Q. I wanted to come to you, Swin, quickly. There’s a campaign, the WNBA is So Important that, as I understand the story and the origin comes from a conversation that Ari Chambers had with you. I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what you remember of those conversations, and for Lisa and Coop, if you could weigh in on what you think of that slogan, the WNBA is Important to everyone. Thank you.
SWIN CASH: Ari is amazing. I remember her being so young and coming in and wanting to cover the W. You have this beautiful, young, Black woman that is excited about the game. She came to a [social responsibility] event, and I was just talking and trying to empower the kids and really just pouring into her. Every time I would see her, just kind of love up on her and thank her for being young.
At the time, I believe she was just blogging and talking about the W, not necessarily having a job. To see what she’s done now and partnering with Twitter and having this hashtag, WNBA is so important, that’s why we do the things we do. That’s why we pour out and do the [social responsibility] events because you never know who you’re going to touch. That’s how it got started. I’m such a huge fan of hers, and I’m thankful and blessed she’s still covering the W.
LISA LESLIE: Yeah, I had a chance to meet Ari. She’s, one, a WNBA fan but I think a person who just shows the type of passion. The reason why we play, the reason why we stop and sign autographs, the reason why we’re aware of what our platform is is for little girls who look like us also. Ari is that little girl now, even though she’s not so little anymore.
So a beautiful, Black, young woman who covers us with so much excitement and passion, and she makes it fun. She’s really tapped into a market that, as Coop and I didn’t have obviously with social media when we played, and she’s bringing a new light to the WNBA.
So we are thankful for so many of you young, enthusiastic bloggers and people who have participated on social media, and those of you who have Instagram accounts that are just about women’s basketball and young girls playing, where you’ve been able to connect the community, that we’ve always wanted and wished that people could see because we really have done so many great things and we really appreciate you guys supporting us out there. So thank you.
CYNTHIA COOPER: I’ll just quickly say, Ari, when you talk about the different events that you guys met her at, I just believe that, when you have — you give kids fertile ground, that leads to great opportunities, and Ari is an example of that.
THE MODERATOR: We have now been joined by Coach Katie Smith, Ticha Penicheiro, and Nneka Ogwumike.
Q. Nneka, this question is for you: When Candace left L.A., she talked about the desire to bring the Chicago Sky to this exact moment. I wonder from your perspective what kind of emotions you have looking at her, having been able to do that? Obviously, there’s still three wins that need to happen in order for the championship to come to Chicago.
NNEKA OGWUMIKE: I’m proud. I’m very proud of her. It’s been awesome seeing her being, obviously, received at home, and for her to be able to make it through the season. I know for her it’s meaningful that she made it through relatively healthy and for them to be playing their best basketball right now and be in this position, it’s exactly what she wanted to do. Usually when Candace says she’s going to do something, she does everything to make it happen.
I’m very proud of where she’s landed, and I’m excited to be able to watch her today.
Q. One quick follow-up. The team has spoken about how her leadership has carried them through really adverse moments this season. Obviously finishing 16-16 wasn’t the expectation. As her former teammate, what is it about her leadership that allows her to carry teams that way?
NNEKA OGWUMIKE: It’s the passion. It’s the passion behind it. I think all of us can even see when she plays that she’s invested, very much so. She wants to leave it all out on the court.
So I think that her bringing that passion is kind of maybe providing a heartbeat for Chicago that they may not have had before in the way that she brings it. I’m excited to see everyone being able to experience that on that team and in that organization.
Q. Ticha, I’ll start with you. Sloot [Courtney Vandersloot] if anybody can, I guess, critique how great a point guard she is, it would be you. What are some of the thoughts you have about the way her game has grown, the things she’s able to do out there on the court and getting to the Finals again, leading her team to the finals again.
TICHA PENICHEIRO: I was able to be Sloot’s [Courtney’s] teammate in 2012 when I was in Chicago. She was a baby then, right? But everybody could see the potential, even when she was playing in college for Gonzaga.
I’m not surprised the way she makes the teammates better, the way she plays the game, the way she passes, and when she needs to, she can score as well. I’m not surprised we’re talking about Sloot as probably the top five point guards in the history of this league, and I’m extremely proud of her.
I think Candace — and she’s probably the first person that says she’s not the best leader vocally that she can be, but she’s somebody that’s super competitive. She always did it by just practicing hard and playing hard and by example, and now she has Candace take that load a little bit off of her, and she can just be free to play basketball.
Q. Nneka, this is a first full season for Cathy [WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert] outside of the bubble. There were so many things that went on this year too and things that you continue to work on as president of the executive committee. What’s your sort of assessment on how this season went? And what are maybe the biggest one or two things that you’re hoping we’re going to see you next year, if you will?
NNEKA OGWUMIKE: I think this season — it’s funny. I was having this conversation with a few of the league staffers. The season was long. It was long, but in a good way. I think there was a lot going on.
Of course, it started with us trying to figure out what the season would look like coming off of a bubble, and then of course a very active free agency season, and that leading up until just training camp and games. We had our first ever Commissioner’s Cup, which was awesome. The Olympics happened.
Now we’re in The Finals, and I just think that right now we’re at a point — we’re kind of like on the cusp of really revving things up when it comes to league investment. I think Cathy is doing a great job of stirring that pot and really trying to get results because I know Cathy’s all about, obviously, results and getting things done, but through the process, I think she’s also — I know I’ve been able to develop a really great relationship with her and of course with Terri and the executive director and the executive committee. It’s just been great.
I think I look forward to mostly — I will say this. One thing that I think was really successful was the safety of our season in a pandemic. I think that was something we can be very proud of. It was certainly a journey, and it was all hands on deck, whether it was players, coaches, organizations, the league, everything.
So, I know we’re probably — not even probably, we have no choice but to maintain that moving forward. I really look forward to continuing the conversation around traveling for the players, and not just the players, but the teams. That all plays into safety.
Ultimately too with this new CBA, we’re going to see more games in the season, so I look forward as well to having healthy players on healthy teams because we say it every year, but we’re still in this season. It’s just tough playing games with a handful of players. I know the league wants us to be able to be healthy, and the teams certainly do so that we can play the best basketball that we can.
Q. This question actually is for you, Katie. When you think about the way in which your coaching career has developed and opportunities, there have been more and more opportunities for women to be coaching men, and I wonder whether you think about the way in which your career develops differently than you might have three and four and five years ago in part because of that.
KATIE SMITH: Developed, obviously, we come up through our ranks and take things and learn things from people we come in contact with and play with and play under. But you’re right.
When I was in New York with the crossover, obviously Becky [Hammon] was the first, and Jenny Bousek obviously branched off and now these others. So, I do think there’s an avenue for us in the NBA, and it’s being cultivated. Again, it’s a little slow, but it’s happening.
Yeah, I think there is a place for us. I think the relationship that we have with the NBA and the players and coaches, I think it’s starting to get better and better of where we stay connected.
Yeah, I think we continue to work together. Even on the Timberwolves, we have Ashley McGee who’s the video coordinator with the Timberwolves and also with ourselves. So, I just think it’s a slower process, but it’s starting to be looked at in, I guess, the men’s side is starting to really try to add that piece.
But I think we always, whether we had jobs over there or not, we’re always learning and know. Basketball is basketball. It’s not a foreign thing for women or men. Obviously, the men are on our side, and we could be on their side.
Q. If I could follow up, Nneka, with you, what do you think that means for your generation of players as some period of time down the road those opportunities are going to be available for those of you who want to go into coaching?
NNEKA OGWUMIKE: I was actually literally just having this conversation with Swin [Cash]. I think it’s less about whose side you’re on versus what opportunities are available. I think it’s something that’s important for our league as well. As we continue to grow and as the NBA is established, it’s not only basketball leagues that are experiencing women being involved on both sides.
It’s not limited to coaching either. I think what’s important is that, if the opportunity is available, players feel they may be pigeonholed into coaching, not saying that coaching is a bad thing, but sometimes they don’t know what to do and then they fall into it. We want to make sure that the best people are in the best positions.
So as these opportunities arise, you have coaching, you have analytics, you have GMs, you have presidents, you have referees, and it’s important for these players to understand that these opportunities are available and that you have coaches like Katie who can show them the way and help them figure out exactly where their path can find them as they figure out what they want to do post basketball.
I think it’s fantastic that it’s happening in all leagues. And I think something that’s important too is that when these positions open up, especially in coaching, on men’s leagues for women, we’re learning a lot, but I think it’s also imperative for people to understand that they can learn a lot from us as well.
Q. Ticha, you mentioned that you played with Courtney Vandersloot back in 2012. I’m just curious from where she was at back then and where she is now, what’s been the biggest improvement why her game as one of the best facilitators in this game?
TICHA PENICHEIRO: I think consistency. I think it comes with age and experience, and I just feel that every time she gets on the court, she does what she needs to do. She knows her job. She knows what a point guard is supposed to do, and she gets her teammates involved, and she calls their name and number when she’s supposed to, but I think her consistency, how consistent she’s been throughout the whole season.
Q. I wanted to check on in how everything’s going and if you could weigh in on what it’s like to be a new mom. Diana [Taurasi] isn’t a new mom but going through a newborn. Have you texted her and given her any congratulations?
BREANNA STEWART: First off, obviously, certainly happy for D [Diana] and Penny to welcome another healthy baby into the world. Being a new mom, obviously, they’ve done it before with Leo [son], but the beginning is tough but also amazing at the same time. Ruby’s at home waiting for me to come back, so looking forward to going back to her.
But as far as how I’m feeling, pretty good. Rest does wonders. So, to be able to have some time where I’m not rushing into another game or things like that is, I think, really good for my body. Unfortunately, we’re not playing anymore, but it happens.
Q. I wonder if you could weigh in on the frontcourt matchup we’re going to see in the series and your opinion of the battle it’s going to be between these two teams.
BREANNA STEWART: Of the bigs? I think that with these two teams it’s going to be a great series, and it’s going to be really interesting because there are so many pieces where it’s like who’s going to match up with BG [Brittney Griner]? Who’s going to match up with Candace Parker, D, Skylar [Diggins-Smith], the names go on and on, Sloot [Courtney Vandersloot], Allie [Quigley].
So really looking forward to being someone who’s a spectator and watching. I think that both these teams are going to play their best in the biggest moment. I was just talking downstairs, but it’s like this is the moment where home court advantage is like really, really important. So, we’ll see if Chicago can get a win on the road or if Phoenix defends their home court.
Q. Breanna, when you look at the W25, you’re on the list of the W25. Do you kind of get like star struck or in awe of seeing the pioneers of women’s basketball and people to consider you as one of the 25 greatest players to put on a pair of sneakers and a jersey?
BREANNA STEWART: I think that’s the first thing is it’s a huge honor for me to be part of the W25, having been in the league for six years, and especially looking at the former players that are a part of this group, the current players that are a part of this group just makes it even more special. To kind of be in the same company as Lisa [Leslie], Catch [Tamika Catchings], obviously D, Sue [Bird], Katie Smith, Ticha [Penicheiro], like the list goes on and on and on.
I just really appreciate the opportunity to be here and the opportunity to play in the WNBA and help continue to grow the game like the ones before us did.
Q. I just wanted to ask you for somebody that’s been to a WNBA Finals during your short period of time in your WNBA career, what advice do you have for players playing in the WNBA Finals this year for the first time and to actually put in the effort to win a championship?
BREANNA STEWART: Advice for players in their first WNBA Finals is enjoy the moment and make sure you leave everything out on the court. You’ve gotten through the ups and downs, the good and the bad this season, for this moment. It’s something where it’s not one game. So, it needs to be repeated over a series of five or the winner of three.
Enjoy it. When I look back at 2018, especially because we had fans, 2020 in the bubble — and Sue says it all the time, you never know when you’re going to get back. So, don’t overlook or overthink or miss your opportunity.
Q. You were here for Commissioner’s Cup. Your team was playing great right after the Olympics. Now neither of those teams is here in the finals. What does that say about the league, about the parity, and the elite status at the top? One injury, one little thing can sort of shift the power.
BREANNA STEWART: I think that everyone has really realized this, maybe more so this year than any other year, is just how hard it is to play in this league and how many good teams that we have in this league. Like all 12 teams are capable of competing night in and night out.
For us to have a five versus six seed finals for the first time ever, I believe, just shows the versatility of the league, and I think that it’s great for the WNBA. It’s great for women’s basketball.
Really credit to Chicago and Phoenix for getting through single eliminations and then the semifinals and not having much rest and still being here and proving that they are contending for a championship.
Q. You actually just kind of mentioned it real quick, getting through single elimination. Commissioner earlier was talking about looking at the playoff format. From your perspective, what do you think of the playoff format? Do you like it, or would you like to see it retooled?
BREANNA STEWART: I think from the players’ standpoint we all would like the single elimination to be gone. Just because you work all season for an opportunity, and to have one game just kind of makes it over really quickly. Yeah, it’s the format for college, but this isn’t college. This is the WNBA.
Also, I think extending the playoffs and making series out of all the rounds just makes for more viewers, more eyes to watch us and more people to be a part of it.
Q. I’m sure you just have an entire apartment dedicated to trophies and medals at this point, but what is the next thing that you’re looking to accomplish just being it’s incredible to be on the W25, but what’s the next thing that Breanna Stewart can accomplish in basketball at this point?
BREANNA STEWART: I think the next thing that I want to accomplish is continuing to obviously get better individually but getting us back into contention for a championship. I think the way we went out this year wasn’t easy, and not being able to have much of a say in it wasn’t very fun for me or great for me.
In Seattle we have the pieces, and hopefully have another shot at it.
Q. I was wondering if I could ask you something a little bit more big picture. With these deals that college players can sign now, obviously Paige [Bueckers] and Azzi [Fudd] already have agents. What problems do you see that could bring up or do you see that mostly as a positive? I ask that because you have a lot of young people dealing with a completely different situation than you would have. One could assume if this had been there when you were there, you would have been inundated with this.
BREANNA STEWART: I think it’s time for the NIL to be happening and for players to profit off their name, image, and likeness. I also think that it’s going to be a tricky road just for the process of it and everything like that.
I think that guidance is going to be something that’s really important for these players who are making tons and tons of money, but I also think that it’s going to make things even more competitive because you’re going to realize, if you’re not excelling and you’re not doing this and that and the other on the court, you’re not going to get as many deals and opportunities as other players.
So, I think there’s another competitive side to it, and giving people a sense of reality really quickly.
Q. I got two for you: First is how’s your foot feeling? The second one is I’m sure you’ve told Sue how you feel and want her to come back for another year, but how do you approach that? Do you try to every week send her a text and then come back, come back, come back, or do you just do it once and wait? How do you approach that with her?
BREANNA STEWART: My foot is feeling pretty good. I think it’s just something that will take time. To be honest, I haven’t really gotten on the basketball court. Just been making sure that I’ve had enough rest leading up to it.
As far as Sue, I mean, she knows that I would love for her to be back and I would love to play with her again and have another opportunity. I know that she’s got a lot going on, a lot on her mind as far as coming back, not coming back. No, I don’t bug her, but she knows I would prefer her to be back playing because she can. She’s more than capable of being out on the court and competing, no matter how old she is.
Q. First, how is baby Ruby? Second, what do you think the league needs to do better going into next season from a player’s perspective?
BREANNA STEWART: Ruby’s great. She is at home. She’s 2 months. She’s big. She was like 15 pounds the last time we went to the doctor. So, like I’m getting workouts all the time. And I just love to have the opportunity to kind of watch her change day in and day out. It’s something that I’ve really never obviously been a part of before. But motherhood is amazing.
As far as things that we need to continue to improve on in the WNBA, I think just continuing to cater to the players and help us get as much as we can and show our values and appreciate us and continue to get the eyes and the viewers.
I think that this year having the first year where the new CBA was really enforced, because last year we were in the bubble, just shows how exciting things are going to be, and I think that there’s going to be a lot more opportunities for WNBA players. I mean, you see it now, but it’s going to just continue to grow, and for the WNBA to have our back with that is really the main message point.