When the athletes of the WNBA went into the Florida playing “bubble” in 2020, to have their season, they were praised as superheroes when they made it work during the COVID pandemic.
Two years later, players and teams find themselves dealing with new and complicated situations, circumstances and events that have put enough stress on them that it is palatable to those of us on the outside. And for being able to persevere through the challenges and keep the shots falling, they deserve a world of credit.
So many issues, so little time
Hanging over the season more than two months before it tipped was the detainment of All-Star center Brittney Griner in Russia, for possessing cannabis oil. The uncertainty in knowing how she was being treated there, if anyone in the U.S. was working toward her release, and when or if she might come home, created an underlying current of tension that has remained ever-present. Athletes also added vigorous advocation for her release to their already-long “to-do” lists.
Then there is the problematic WNBA schedule, which was condensed to play more games in fewer weeks so that the season would wrap up in time for FIBA World Cup competition in mid-September. Regular-season play also began almost four weeks early. Both of these conditions then lead to many more issues.
For one, several athletes were late to camp due to overseas commitments, with a handful missing several of the first few games of the season. When they returned, lineups had to be readjusted, cuts had to be made, and team chemistry reconfigured.
Tighter schedules have also meant a lot less off-days, as rest time has turned into commercial flight travel time. And when games are close together, or opponents far away, travel days can become long and frustrating. This has been further compounded by numerous flight cancellations this summer, as airlines are short-staffed.
Last month the Chicago Sky played a home game on a Friday, and then had to get on a plane for New York to play the following afternoon. Their flight was delayed five hours, which got them to the arena just before game time. This past weekend, after a matchup, the Los Angeles Sparks found themselves at the airport for an East Coast flight that was departing at 9:50 p.m., less than four hours after their game ended.
Unsurprisingly, as a result of all these factors, many players have been tired and fatigued, especially of late. This has undoubtedly contributed to at least some of the injuries we’ve seen this season. Then when an athlete is out – or is out on health and safety protocols in the continuing pandemic – replacement players are signed, and the team chemistry reconstruction begins again.
Much going on both on and off the court
Players have sailed previously-unchartered waters this year, too.
Five athletes have “divorced” their teams. Two coaches were fired after the season began. The number of hard and flagrant fouls committed during play this year is way up. Players have snapped at each other – perhaps most notably, Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, during a game, on the same bench. People who don’t usually speak up, or commit retaliatory fouls, are doing both. Coaches, also, seem to be assessed more technical fouls this year than usual.
We all feel for the athletes of the WNBA.
Many have packed playing schedules year-round, don’t get preferred traveling options like players in other leagues, and they have families to attend to, as well. They endure sexism, racism and microaggressions far more than they should in 2022. And through it all, they are expected to be superwomen, their achievements taken for granted.
Shout out to all the women who have held themselves and their teammates up, who have helped keep things together, and who have pushed to keep the season moving along during this challenging and tough summer. Our all-kudos list, which is in no order whatsoever, highlights some of this year’s all-stars of life.
Appreciation roll call
The Indiana Fever are young, but courageous. Five rookies and their teammates saw their coach fired three weeks into the season. Two weeks ago they became the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention, and to date they’ve lost a tough 15 straight games. Yet, they continue to play hard and give every matchup all that they have.
As a team, they are second in the league in pace of play, and first in offensive rebounds. Rookie NaLyssa Smith has scored in double figures in over 75 percent of their games, and has notched a double-double more than 25 percent of the time. Another rookie, Queen Egbo, has been a solid contributor and is the Fever’s blocks leader and second-leading rebounder after Smith. Unsung veteran guard Kelsey Mitchell put up 18.4 points and dished 4.2 assists per outing before an injury curtailed her season.
It would have been easy to give up in the face of their obstacles. Much respect to Indiana for continuing to push on.
The Los Angeles Sparks have had a similarly rough time this summer, too. Coach Derek Fisher was fired the first week of June, and starter Liz Cambage abruptly left the team last week. LA has also had arguably the roughest schedule of any squad, as they spent more than 90 percent of the first month of the season on the road, and have a tough road trip this week heading into the last bit of the regular season. Athletes have been in and out with injury, and the entire group is visibly tired at times.
Nneka Ogwumike has done an incredible job of remaining poised, both on and off the court, and remaining an effective leader of a team where she has spent her entire 11-year career. Another light has been Brittney Sykes, who has ignited many a run to keep the Sparks competitive. Her points, rebounds, assists and steals stats have helped in every way, and LA would have lost many more games without her there.
With a new coach and a new marquee star in Tina Charles, the Phoenix Mercury got off to a rough start, losing seven games in a row in late May. In the midst of one of those games, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi got into a verbal altercation and were separated by teammates. After Charles left the team in late June, the Mercury pulled together and are making a viable playoff run. Kudos to the veterans for righting the ship, and for adjusting to player injuries. That is not an easy task. A lot of credit goes to the entire team for foraging on without Griner, which has been excruciating. Our hearts go out to them.
After missing last season after back surgery, All-Star center Elena Delle Donne’s playing minutes had to be tightly-managed this year. The Washington Mystics struggled in the beginning because they were two teams: one with EDD and another without her. At first, they lost many of the games that she had to sit out. Then slowly, they began to figure out how to play well either way. Washington clinched a playoff berth this past weekend, and currently sit fourth in the standings.
The Mystics’ medical team deserves high praise for effectively managing EDD’s minutes, which has allowed her to play the entire season and continue to be a lethal force. The athletes have done a remarkable job of learning each other and coming together. Their work is paying off in spades of confidence right now. They are ready for the playoffs.
Shout out to the Las Vegas Aces, who never lose touch with humor, or with having fun. They are funny, have fun with each other, and remind us why our favorite athletes started playing basketball in the first place. The Chicago Sky get props because they’re simply fun to watch. The mix of athleticism, hustle and finesse that they display makes tuning into their games a pleasure. If Las Vegas and Chicago end up in the finals, few will be surprised.
As a whole, all the women of the league are all-stars for the way they support each other. If someone notches an achievement, others support her – and with great enthusiasm – regardless of what team they play for, what college they went to, or any other factor. Athletes just want to see their teammates and friends do well. It is refreshing.
Individually, many athletes have broken records for their franchises this year, or climbed all-time stats lists. But big ups to the three triple-double queens: Candace Parker, Sabrina Ionescu and Alyssa Thomas. All three have racked up triple-dubs twice. Prior to 2022, no WNBA player had notched more than one in a season. It is a phenomenal achievement for three exceptional ball players – each of whom are invaluable to their teams.
Kudos to the all-never-giving-up team, which includes Reshanda Gray, Crystal Dangerfield and Evina Westbrook, for being cut several times before being signed for the rest of the season to their individual teams. Perseverance over discouragement is a super power.
Similarly, it has been great to see the success of Sky rookie Rebekah Gardner this season. Ten years after her playing career ended at UCLA, the 32-year-old has found success with stellar play on one of the best teams in the league. She is the embodiment of the phrase “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” An inspiration to all.
On that list as well are those athletes who stand ready in the wings to fill one or two-week contracts, as needed by teams. Kaela Davis, Kianna Smith and Maya Caldwell are just a few who have been invaluable to teams with their service.
As we grind to the end of a tough WNBA season in a difficult year, we appreciate the athletes of the league for laying their bodies on the line every night, while showing us the best basketball in the world. And we are equally grateful for the spiritual lessons they teach, as well: courage, toughness, perseverance, the willingness to grow and adapt, and how important it is to uplift others – among many things.
To all of the WNBA 144 – and the others waiting in the wings for their “got next”: thank you. Role models like you aren’t easy to come by.