The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 22, 2020

Let's not lose sight of the Storm — Cathy Engelbert addresses the media — Must-click women's basketball links

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Let’s not lose sight of the Storm

When we look back at 2020, it’s going to be with a sense of loss. Very little is predictable about the future, but that’s already assured.

Loss in the larger sense — people, lost to a needlessly awful, in both length and intensity, plague that our government hasn’t even begun to fight. But loss, too, in the way most of us define living and memory, in terms of specific milestones, of great, unexpected moments, of traditions. We’ll have so little of that in 2020.

For those of us who love sports, those moments are what a WNBA season, or a MLB game, a magical season or an ethereal rise above from a superstar provides. For months now, we’ve had almost none of it. And what we’re about to get — from a conclusion to the NWSL, the dawn of the WNBA, MLB and other leagues — is different than any of those moments we’ve had before 2020.

There’s no turning and high-fiving anyone outside of your immediate family if you’re a fan (or, at least, there shouldn’t be). There’s not, for me and those in my profession, the chance to see behind the curtain, how the greatest react in the moments following the largest victories, the most difficult defeats. And when it’s over, when we look back, hopefully from a far different, more normal place — it is unlikely we’ll focus on what happened, and far likelier our conversations about 2020 will be about all that didn’t happen.

And that’s a shame, because amid all the postponed memories — this Tanglewood story, in particular, hits close to home for me, my wife and I have taken a picture there every summer since we were married — there’s something everyone’s been waiting for in basketball for the better part of two years.

We get to see the Breanna Stewart-Sue Bird Seattle Storm again this Saturday.

“I think for us, we do finally have what was a championship team back together,” Bird said of what the 2020 season promises, though she stressed this is only on paper. “…We haven’t had any situations where players aren’t able to play… And we added players. So, with that, I think that we’re probably, right out the gate, probably in the top part of the league.”

Breanna Stewart, 25 years old, was the best player in the world back in 2018, before an achilles injury robbed her, and us, of a prime season in her career. I asked Dan Hughes a few weeks ago whether Stewart would be a Hall of Famer if she retired right now, and he said yes, without hesitation. He’s right.

And it’s not just the production, but how she does it. Her game is a precise combination of the inside and perimeter mastery, shooting and rebounding and rim protecting and passing, a physicality and intellectual toughness that’s unmatched. There’s a reason she won four championships at UConn, a reason she and the Storm won it all in her third season. It is her, first and foremost.

As for Sue Bird, she’s nothing less than the most accomplished point guard in the history of the game, yet was somehow able to play at the peak level she’s always displayed in 2018 at age 38, a performance for the ages to defeat Diana Taurasi and the 2018 Mercury, a game that’s lost nothing of her efficiency even as the league around her gets younger and younger. Bird’s win shares per 40 minutes in 2018 ranked fourth in her season marks. In two of the other three seasons above her 2018 level, she also won WNBA titles.

If there’s any justice in the world, we’ll get to enjoy Breanna Stewart for as long as we have had Sue Bird, and that fact would take Stewart’s career out until 2035 at least. But if there hadn’t been a WNBA season in 2020, Bird — and, for that matter Taurasi — said they probably would have retired. We knew, even as that long-time duo battled in 2018, that this could be the last of their great battles. But no one expected the pair to just disappear. If they’d both retired, after Bird missed all of 2019 and Taurasi essentially did as well, think of the loss to basketball.

Instead, we have Bird back, and playing with Stewart — two players charting their own individual courses to Springfield, but who stand a good chance of being forever identified for their work next to one another, especially if the 2020 versions of themselves look like the 2018 vintage. Frighteningly for opponents, Stewart said she’s moving as she did before the injury, but with better balance — it would be extremely Breanna Stewart of her to find a way to improve during an injury that has destroyed other people’s careers.

And Bird can work her way back slowly, supported by plenty of guard depth on the Seattle roster — we could have a whole other conversation about how underrated Sami Whitcomb is, for example.

“It feels like we went from 2018 right to right to 2020, and for Sue and I that’s how it’s gonna feel because we didn’t play in 2019,” Stewart said.

But for the rest of us: let’s not take for granted that here, in the Seattle Storm’s defining duo (all apologies to Lauren Jackson), we’re getting a 2020 outcome that, at long last, is about gratification, not just the delay of it. On the cusp of a season with plenty of other storylines, amid a world with so much to mourn and fret over, this is an outcome we’ve all been waiting for.

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This week in women’s basketball

Arizona got to hear from Jenny Boucek via Zoom.

Layshia Clarendon dishes on rookie trial by fire for the Liberty.

Part II of LaChina Robinson’s Undrafted is posted, and great.

These companies are supporting Kelly Loeffler.

The HerHoopStats crew made 2020 WNBA predictions.

Fred Katz on the EDD-based adjustments the Mystics will be making.

Jamal Collier caught up with the still-recovering Syd Colson.

Molly Hensley-Clancy took a deep dive into how mothering works inside a bubble-based sports league.

Always listen to Around The Rim.

This is a must-read from James Wade.

Kane Pitman caught up with Sandy Brondello on the #wubble.

I wrote about quantifying the opt out effect on WNBA teams.

Kurtis Zimmerman is doing the lord’s work.

Jackie Powell profiled rising star Grace Thybulle.

Jeff Metcalfe writes that Brittney Griner and Kristine Anigwe have let bygones be bygones.

A’ja Wilson is always worth your time.

The Athletic has re-assigned Chantel Jennings to women’s basketball full-time reporting, the company’s first full-timer on women’s basketball.

And here’s her piece on a Sabrina Ionescu shot that predicted all that’s followed.

Bria Felicien goes in-depth on the rookies who were cut, then brought back to the WNBA fold.

Jordan Ligons documents the stakes for the WNBA players, off the court.

Power rankings from Calvin Wetzel and Jacqueline LeBlanc are live.

Same with the AP!

Russ Steinberg caught up with the NCAA on plans to evaluate teams for next year’s tournament.

The great Matt Ellentuck has a five-part preview.

And Ben Dull brings it as always in his two-part preview!

Jackie Powell brings the early days of Sabrina Ionescu’s pro career to light.

Christine M. Hopkins looks at the role Victoria Vivians will play for the Fever.

Get to know Pancake Gustafson.

And David Yapkowitz is can’t-miss on Reshanda Gray.

Tweet of the Week

Five at The IX: Cathy Engelbert, WNBA Commissioner

(The commissioner took questions from the media Wednesday afternoon. Here are a few of the most noteworthy answers.)

Q.It seems when you first got down there, we’ve not heard any of the COVID testing numbers. Do you have any update what the COVID testing numbers are for the league now?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Sure. If there was something to report, we would report it out. Obviously, we’re testing our players and our staff often. We had tested prior to players coming here. We had released those. If we had a story to tell, we would. Thankfully, we do not.

We have had only two players test positive when they got here. That was in the initial quarantine period. Once we’ve come out of quarantine, we’ve had no other players test positive.

We’ll report out if there’s some significant story there. Knock on wood every day, but now things are stable here. No positive tests since we came out of quarantine a couple weeks ago.

Q.With no tests being positive, wouldn’t that be something you would want out there? Other leagues are saying there’s no positives, no positives, one positive. Wouldn’t you want that information out there as a story that the bubble is working?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, sure. I had this media today. We knew you would ask. We’re happy to put that out. It’s just we’re really focused on the social justice platform, keeping everyone safe and healthy. Sure, we can do that periodically if that’s helpful.

Q.The players have been in social justice initiatives for years, but yet one of the co-owners is making a big deal about them focusing on that. Can you talk about the council, your involvement with that, and your players being so dedicated focusing on these issues this season.

CATHY ENGELBERT: I mean, obviously everybody is aware, hopefully you saw my comments last week on CNN, when I was asked about Senator Loeffler, who is co-owner of the Atlanta Dream. I was surprised to receive the letter from Kelly. From the short time I’ve known her, even seeing public statements prior to me joining the league, she’s been very supportive of women’s issues, women’s empowerment, has been interested in their players and what they stand for. Having played basketball herself, she wanted to help grow and support the league.

Again, not sure what all is at bay here. I’ve been so proud of the WNBA players who, as you said in the latter part of your question, have always been at the forefront of social movements. A lot of people didn’t know that coming into these recent events.

I’ve been talking about this since the day I walked in the door last July, how impressed I was. I quite frankly wasn’t that focused on how they were using their platforms to vigorously advocate for the things that matter most to them. You just have to look at Maya Moore, what she was able to accomplish from a criminal justice system reform perspective. You look at Natasha Cloud, some of our players who opted out to focus on social justice.

More importantly, the players that are here and the Social Justice Council we formed with the players and the Players Association, already so many great ideas coming out of that. So proud of them as they go forward that they’re not being distracted by politics or other things. They’re really focused, and quite frankly excited to be together.

They’re energized. That’s probably the best word to make their voices heard and make lasting change in this country because that is what they are here for. It is bigger than basketball right now for them. There’s tremendous momentum for their voices to be heard.

Q.Back to the COVID numbers. More broadly, since the last week you’ve heard encouraging results for the NBA and Major League Soccer. You look at those numbers, your own numbers, what have you learned, especially over the last five to seven days? What has that initial information helped you understand as you refine your protocols trying to keep your numbers as low as well?

CATHY ENGELBERT: I think the really interesting part is so far the plan and protocols are working. Wearing masks, washing hands, daily temperature checks, daily symptom checks, making sure we’re rooting out any issues. Kind of what we did with an initial quarantine period, then an initial kind of team-only period, now moving into scrimmages and games this weekend.

You really have to follow the science. We have done an enormous amount of work on understanding data and the science, obviously consulting with specialists. That’s why these were so stringent. You probably heard complaints early on here because we were really stringent, having developed these health and safety protocols in consultation with these public health medical experts.

Nobody loves wearing masks, but masks are required other than on the court. Physical distancing. Really important part of it, too, and hard to do, required as well. Having designated areas exclusive to the WNBA. Temperature checks, symptom checks, following up with somebody not doing them.

Those are the types of things we consistently communicated on the first week let’s say until 14 days. Now we’re past that period of time. I think players and staff are feeling good.

You really have to continue to just trust the science. I know that’s sometimes hard to do. We’re showing that if you follow the science, you follow the protocols, you can remain stable in this very uncertain environment.

Q.Are there any policies in place that if a player leaves the bubble without permission inadvertently? Warnings, fines? What kind of medical protocol would they have to go through? What if someone gets really sick? Where do they go? Local hospitals? What are their options?

CATHY ENGELBERT: If someone leaves for unauthorized reasons, obviously there will be significant ramifications of that, including that they may not be able to come back for the season.

Certainly for authorized reasons, family and medical emergencies, things like that, that’s permitted with advance notice. There will be a quarantine when they come back in because they will be back outside of the confined site that we have here. There will be a quarantine period of seven to 10 days when they come back.

So far, we haven’t had anyone. Knock on wood – every time I talk about this, I say that with regard to testing. We have not had any unauthorized exits. You’re permitted to leave at any time. It’s the coming back that’s a challenge to make sure we have the proper quarantine period and testing period both before you get on the plane to come here or in the car as well as when you get here on campus. I think we’ve got that pretty well nailed down.

Thankfully, the positive tests we’ve had have not been symptomatic or anything serious. We have relationships now with the local hospitals. In the area in Manatee County, I’ve talked with the public health officials in the county. We are all set.

We have a whole team of physicians on staff here, on-site, inside the contained site, who are working with players for a variety of things, not just COVID, but a variety of medical issues, sports medicine and other things you would think we would need during a time when people are going to be here for three months or so.

Q.I wanted to ask you about Elena Delle Donne. Specifically, she put out an open letter last week saying that both the decision by the league’s panel and also the way in which it was conveyed had left her hurting a lot about it. In retrospect, any regrets about the way it happened? If you have reached out, what are your thoughts about repairing the relationship with someone who is obviously one of the most prominent players in the WNBA?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Let me give you some context. Obviously, we’re sensitive to her health and support her. What we’ve been trying to do throughout setting up this whole season is to follow the science of the virus, consult with infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists.

The virus is very complicated. We had to put in a process that we worked out collectively with the Players Association to create a level playing field for all WNBA players so everyone is treated fairly. Independent medical review panel, including specialists.

The level of player is not a factor when making those decisions. As you know, separately the Mystics confirmed that because of Elena’s recent back surgery, she was not going to be required to report to Florida, and will receive her full pay. The pandemic has disrupted her back rehab, as it has many of the non-essential type things that we’re doing during the height of COVID. There were a lot of things that were disrupted by the pandemic back March through July here.

Absolutely highly respect Elena. Great player in our league. Her level of play was not a factor. It’s an independent medical review process with infectious disease specialists that were reviewing her and other cases as well for us. That’s why it’s called independent. It was an independent medical review panel.

It is unfortunate that the reaction was what it was, but we are sensitive certainly to her health and support her all the way here.

Q.Would it be safe to say that the WNBA, which was founded in 1997, was way ahead of its time when it came to causes of social justice, giving women a chance to play professional basketball? Isn’t that a statement itself about the league?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah. I’ve been reflecting a lot on this this year. David Stern, who was part of launching the league, died on January 1 of this year. It’s not lost on me that 2020 has turned out to be a huge challenge for all sports. After David, Kobe Bryant went down with those young girl basketball players, their parents. Now we hit this pandemic.

The WNBA players were definitely ahead of their time. I think the NBA was ahead of their time in launching the league. I think the players were then ahead of their time with their social justice platforms as, again, indicated by the Maya Moores and Natasha Clouds out there, courageous voices around social justice.

Q.We always talk about momentum. Is there concern that Kelly Loeffler’s words, since they directly kind of contradict what this league is about, if that will affect the momentum? Also, separately, some of the players are sitting out for a variety of reasons. Is there any worry that that might have an effect on the momentum and the growth that we’ve been talking about?

CATHY ENGELBERT: I think your two questions are intermingled, so I’ll answer them all at once.

As commissioner, I’m committed to making sure that this season is dedicated to the players’ platform that vigorously advocates for social justice, to make sure Black Lives Matter. We’re proud of our players for speaking out on these issues. They have always led and will continue to do so. There’s nothing political about that. It’s a statement of their values.

I think they’re bringing awareness to issues that have long been ignored, particularly as they advocate for #sayhername, for female victims of racial injustice and police brutality. I think that’s an important voice to be heard. They’re uniquely positioned as a league of huge diversity, 80 percent black women, and more even diverse than that.

I’ve been counseling the players to make sure that that is what they’re focused and energized by, not to get caught up in a lot of the other elements of the divisive society we live in. They can be the voice, especially in this season of cultivating community conversations, roundtables, player-produced podcasts, other activations that address this country’s long history of inequality and implicit bias that has targeted their communities.

There’s no better time to do that than to be tipping off our season this weekend. Their uniforms will display Breonna Taylor’s name, the Louisville victim of police injustice. That’s going to be a huge statement by these women. A variety of other forgotten victims that they’re going to continue to carry.

No, I definitely don’t think it takes away from the momentum. I’d be betting on the WNBA players right now that they’re going to be successful in getting their voice heard.

Q.My name is Pepper. I’m a nine-year-old journalist and I am a big fan of the WNBA. I created my own show and podcast called Dish with Pepper. My question is this: How do you bring more fans to the WNBA when they can’t physically be at the games?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Pepper, it’s great to hear your voice. Great to hear you as a next-generation leader. What a fabulous question about how do you bring fans and attention when there will be no fans in the seats.

I think this is an area, if you were listening earlier, we talked about how to engage fans when they’re in a virtual environment. We’re working on it very hard. We’re going to pilot some things, hope to have some things stick for next year if we can get fans back in our seats.

This is about telling the story, getting the coverage, building rivalries. The personalities are there. I assure you now that I’ve been here almost three weeks with these players, the personalities are showing through. I think the storylines are here, the rivalries are here. The veterans, the rookies, everyone in between.

It’s going to be an exciting season. We have to find ways to market the players in a more robust way among a broad set of media outlets. I am thankful to everyone on this call for your interest. Certainly our broadcast partners as well as our social media platforms.

We need to find ways to market. That’s why we need a call to action around more sponsors so we have more funding to market ourselves more broadly. That’s all part of the strategy and transformation we’re undergoing.

Great question. Thank you for calling in today.

Q.Do you have any sort of anonymous tip line that we read so much about from the NBA bubble in terms of tracking any outside movement? The Delle Donne situation, some of the way all that was done, the part where she wrote how the league panel of doctors without anyone speaking to me or either of my doctors informed me they were denying the request. It did bring a lot of criticism and negative publicity, something we’re still talking about. Is that just the way it was set up, that they didn’t have to communicate directly with the player in question or examine them? Do you wish you could have had any kind of do-over in that situation?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Again, obviously as with any medical issues, those are confidential under HIPAA between medical professionals. I can’t comment specifically on what doctors talked to what other doctors. I know there were discussions between physicians and a nurse practitioner.

Again, it’s a confidential process, confidential for all of those that were considered by the panel. It’s a confidential medical procedure protected by HIPAA. I cannot have any interaction with that process. As I said, nor would the level of the player be a factor or anything like that.

Your question on the tip line, I think given the size and scale of what you’re hearing from other leagues, having to have a tip line, kind of confined campus here at IMG Academy, we don’t have an official tip line. But we do follow up on any observations.

We’ve asked the IMG Academy staff as well as our teams to be very honest, to let us know if they’re hearing or seeing anything not in compliance with our protocols. As soon as we get any information, we investigate it and follow up and take the appropriate action, send the appropriate reminders out.

Most of it’s like how important it is to wear a mask at all times except on the court. Again, making sure we’re following the protocols, making sure we’re getting tested, the daily temperature checks and symptom checks.

Our size and scale, we didn’t need an official hotline or tip line. We certainly are receiving indications and we’re following up with them immediately. With the teams, we’ve assigned a central team contact for any things we need to get done at the team level. It’s working pretty well right now.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.