The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 20, 2021

A'ja Wilson, Kamala Harris and elevating women of color — Kellie Harper talks UConn-Tennessee rivalry — Must-click women's basketball links

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A’ja Wilson, Dawn Staley and others in front of forever A’ja. (Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics)

I’m an optimist by nature. So when I felt a surge of excitement this week, seeing A’ja Wilson get a statue on the South Carolina campus and Kamala Harris sworn in as Vice President of the United States, I wanted to check myself by asking Dawn Staley if I was right to see this as a trend toward massively overdue progress in how much, and how quickly, we elevate and celebrate Black women in this country.

She repeated my question, and chuckled. “I’m going to say yes, in hopes that it continues, it seems to be trending that way,” Staley said a few hours after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in this afternoon. “But we can also look at the SEC and see how many black coaches are in our conference, there’s movement, there’s movement.”

The number of Black women head coaches in the SEC now — seven, thanks to Kyra Elzy of Kentucky — reflect two sides of the coin. Because A’ja Wilson is not as much in a position of life where she’s being asked to lead. She’s very much in the process of creating her legacy, still younger than Staley was when she won a gold medal with the 1996 USA Olympic team.

The parallel between Harris in government and the coaches in the SEC is very much a live one, but the analog, from my view, to Wilson was the incredible poem from Amanda Gorman, 22, the youngest poet laureate in American history, a Black woman telling an unvarnished story of today.

Her presence and her words filled me with hope as well, that we have progressed past the tone-deaf efforts to occasionally pay lip service to elevating women of color in this country, and instead simply making it what we do every day. Not an MLK Day, not a Black History Month, but always.

Knowing that statue is there, always, and not some temporary installation feels qualitatively different. Seeing Kamala Harris take the oath of office is qualitatively different. It doesn’t solve anything, but it is also irreversible. It has happened. It is real.

I couldn’t help but think back to the final weekend of A’ja Wilson’s career this week when I watched the ceremony. You have to understand: anyone paying the slightest bit of attention understood, in real time, that Wilson was a figure who’d live on forever, a first, a South Carolina native who stayed home, in the center of the attention, and built with Dawn Staley, something that, no matter how many people like Aliyah Boston come along, will always be the cornerstone. Staley would have found a way, I believe that. But Wilson was how they did it, how they reached the Final Four, how they won it all.

In typical Dawn fashion, when I asked her about all the firsts she’s been in her life — too many to name, but I’m going to assume if you’re here you know them — she made it about A’ja.

“She chose to come into a place where there was a tremendous amount of pressure to do well,” Staley said. “It wasn’t easy. She made it seem easy, but it wasn’t easy, behind closed doors. Because she couldn’t just go to the mall, she couldn’t go to restaurants, she couldn’t have a bad day, publicly. She had to put on that face, the one we all know and love, all the time.”

That, truly, is what it means to be first. And progress doesn’t mean the chance to rest, either. Staley talked about how what’s next is fighting the backlash that always comes, the Trump that follows Obama. That we cannot get complacent. And that staying political is the new normal, because as Staley put it, “I’m political because politics has a direct impact on my life.”

But it is possible, too, to recognize that something new and better might be dawning. That a league with a vast majority of Black women on its rosters might receive the kind of attention and respect that it has always deserved because 2021 America might just be a place where that is finally possible.

Dawn’s done it at South Carolina. And she thinks Kamala Harris can do the same thing for America.

“Because, when you give Black women an opportunity, and I can speak from my own experience, we tend to be able to pivot, and do well with the opportunity that we’ve been given,” Staley said.

I can’t wait to see which A’ja Wilsons help make it happen.

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This week in women’s basketball

Debbie Antonelli and C. Vivian Stringer. What else do you need to know???

At FiveThirtyEight, I broke down the stats of this amazing freshman class.

And checked on which free agents could be on the move.

Burn It All Down talked to Elizabeth Williams.

And Renee Montgomery joined Slate’s What Next podcast.

Your periodic reminder, and I’ll keep them coming, that Charli Collier is the TRUTH, this time via at SLAM.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is back, with a column this time on Becky Hammon!

Madeline Kenney caught up with Jantel Lavender, who is still perplexed as to why she was traded.

PJ Brown takes you inside Arizona’s wearable tech that helps prevent COVID-19.

It’s #UpsetSZN, Jacqueline LeBlanc writes.

Gabe Ibrahim looks at which WNBA players improved their free agency stock last season.

Debbie Antonelli had Ashley Joens on her podcast.

Here’s Brandon Sudge on what it means, and doesn’t mean, that Georgia is ranked.

Terrific Charlotte Carroll piece on Geno Auriemma.

And Jenn Hatfield looks at the women’s basketball figures helping to fight the Hecox case.

Tweet of the Week

Five at The IX: Kellie Harper, Tennessee head coach

Kellie Harper. (photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics)

I thought Kellie’s take on Geno, Pat Summitt and the Tennessee-UConn rivalry was absolutely fascinating, as one who played in it. Take a look, from her media avail this week. The game is Thursday, and as of… this moment, it’s still on!

On how the team might be more prepared to play UConn this year than they were last year: 
“I think we are a better basketball team, overall. I think we have grown; everybody is a year older and a little bit more mature. I think we have had some pretty good games this year that we have been excited about. So, I am hoping that the experience that we have had in the last year will help us.”

On Auriemma’s comments about the rivalry:
“Obviously, I can not speak to his opinion, but we are really excited about Thursday and are really looking forward to the game. And I think a lot of people are. I think people are looking at this as a big game, and it should be a lot of fun. I think a lot of people worked hard to make this a big game for women’s basketball nationwide. And to have those games in our sport, I think is really good because people tune in and people watch, and hopefully, they will do so on Thursday.”

On how this year’s UConn team compares to those she faced as a player:
“I think that they are so similar because they are just so sharp and fundamentally sound on both ends of the court at every position. And to me, when you see their team play, they are identified by those characteristics. That has not changed.”

On her memories of playing against UConn:
“I think that, for me, some of the biggest memories are just the fans and how passionate both sides are and how much they enjoyed not liking the other team. They loved that part. Both sides could really have a lot of passion and a lot of emotion in that game. And obviously, just some specifics of talented players on both ends and some fantastic games with big plays made, because there were some good ones.”

On Pat Summitt’s impact on this game:
“Well, this is a really important week for women’s basketball and for us to remember Pat’s legacy and to honor her legacy and to continue to raise awareness for the (Pat Summitt) Foundation. And to have this game for nationwide viewership really enhances that. People are going to tune in, and hopefully, the Foundation can benefit from that. She meant so much to women’s basketball, period, and across the nation even beyond women’s basketball, she meant so much to so many people, and it is really important, in my opinion, to educate. Because we are about to get to a point where we have to educate young people on the history of our game. As one of her former players, she did that so well for us, and we want to make sure we do that well for the next generation.” 

On what Coach Harper is focusing on for scouting UConn for Thursday’s game:
“We haven’t yet gotten into too much detail with our team, but I think the first thing is to guard the entire court with them. They are so fundamentally sound, so you have to be able to guard all people on the court all the time. Offensively for us, it’s taking care of the basketball. Making sure we get good looks, I think, is going to be really important. So, for us, we are just going out to be the best team we can be and be as prepared as we can be to walk out there, and we are excited about competing.”

On how her relationship with Jordan Horston is evolving:
“Jordan has really stepped her game up. She had really taken a big (leap) from last year to this year, and I’m so excited for her. One thing she does well that I really enjoy is that she communicates well. She’ll be on the court, and she’ll come over and ask me what I’m seeing. I enjoy that communication, and I think you have to have that. She’s calling a lot of shots out there when she’s on the court, and she needs to know how I’m thinking and what I’m thinking. We’ve been in practice a few times recently and in the middle of a drill, she is saying what we say. She is repeating the language that we have. It’s a simple drill. She’s saying, ‘Grab the ball with two hands.’ It’s a very simple drill, but now we’re starting to hear our coaching points come out of the players’ mouths. That’s when you know you’ve taken a big step forward when we’re all trying to do the little things together.”

On having four consecutive home games after the reschedule with Kentucky:
“Any time you can stay home and play, I think it’s good. When you’re on the road, you have a lot of control over your players. You know where they’re at, they’re in the hotel. It’s just different, but I do like a homestand. You get maybe a little bit more rehab in and do some different things at home. It will be nice because we’re starting classes up as well, so they can really be here and use the resources here on campus for their classes. On the flip side, at some point we will have some road games down the stretch. If that’s the next game up, it’s the next game up.”

On the team posting the second-highest GPA in program history:
“Our staff did an unbelievable job. Our staff in the Thornton Center that really monitors things academically and keeps our players on track, I’m really proud of their effort, because these are tough times with COVID, online classes and how you have to stay up to date and current. The players have to communicate, so I’m really proud of them. I’m also proud of my staff because our players know that we emphasize the academic piece. Our players know that’s really important. We talk about it. We’re there to support our academic staff as much as possible. I’m really proud of the Thornton Center, our staff, but extremely proud of our team. I am so proud of them. We saw some players be really competitive in the classroom. They fought hard for some grades. They were focused during a really tough time, so hats off to them. I’m really pleased.”

On if she sees UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma potentially passing Pat Summitt’s career win total with a win on Tuesday night as another chance to celebrate Summitt’s legacy:
“I do. She set the bar really high. It’s taken coaches a long time to get there, some really talented coaches. Congratulations to them. Two things: one, it’s a reminder how much we miss her being out there and how much we wish she was still coaching. We all do. I can’t imagine if she were still coaching. What was that number (of wins) going to be if she were still coaching and had that opportunity? She already set the bar so high. How could she put it even higher? But, she would have. That’s something I think of a lot. Also, anybody passing her doesn’t diminish what she did. It doesn’t take anything away from her and what she was able to do. It wasn’t about the numbers. It was about her legacy. It was about who she was as a person and how she uplifted all of us to be better and gave us an opportunity that we have. That’s what she was all about. She won a lot of games in the process, but her legacy is so much more than numbers.”

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 Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

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