The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, February 3, 2021

Authoring their own stories — Betnijah Laney talks New York move — Must-click women's basketball links

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Happy National Girls and Women in Sports Day! Love when this day is about jumpstarting new, sustainable projects to properly center women in the sports world on an everyday basis. Don’t love when it’s used by organizations to check a box, then ignore women the other 364 days of the year.

Oh and so there’s no mistake: Trans women are women. Trans people belong in sports. Here, read Layshia’s shirt. We are not going to let the humanity of certain people become a debate in women’s sports. We are NOT going to let the moderate position be somewhere between full rights and no rights. That’s not how this is going to go.

Moving on.

There are many reasons this week’s WNBA player movement, spurred by a jump in salaries, the salary cap and a loosening of restrictions in last year’s landmark CBA have changed the league for the better.

We’ve seen significant jumps in coverage — in detail, too, which go hand-in-hand. Knowing salary data allows for more comprehensive analysis, and follow-up stories, and allows smart reporters to push on other dominoes once certain moves are made.

And the players, who everyone agrees are underpaid even now, just less so — though what “underpaid” means, whether it reflects a market inefficiency or a temporary, solvable problem, is a matter of some debate. Either way, we saw growth in 2020, and so far, once again, in 2021.

But what struck me wasn’t so much the money — I mean, sure, the money’s good too — but that the players in this league are getting to do something much more powerful.

They’re getting to write their own stories.

A minor obsession of mine has long been the gap between how Candace Parker is perceived, internally, and the effect Candace Parker has had on the game of basketball. And maybe, maybe we’re seeing that correct, though it feels like a part of that has come from her TNT work, which is ancillary to the basketball playing she’s done that should live on for decades and decades to come.

But Parker, under previous CBAs, really didn’t have much of a choice. Los Angeles was going to make it difficult to leave, if not impossible. Other teams couldn’t offer more money, or build a championship team in a short timeframe to offer her the opportunity to join up. The Chicago Sky were, well, a franchise people left for years, from Sylvia Fowles to Elena Delle Donne.

But that’s all changed. Candace Parker elected to go home to Chicago to go win a title. And whether she’d done that or stayed in Los Angeles or gone to Atlanta or come to New York, the point is that was largely up to Parker. She could, and has, written her own story.

I’ve often asked her about this in-season, and she’s always demurred, the great athlete focused on the next game, which is why she’s the great athlete. But she acknowledged that this free agency gave her a chance to think about her arc in ways that are typically left to people like me.

“Big picture: it’s important to reflect on from time to time,” Parker said. “And I think you’re right. I think as athletes we get so focused on the next game and, you know, the next week and things like that and we realize, we look up and 13 years later — time has wings.”

Parker left Naperville, IL for Knoxville at 18, she recalled. Now she’s 35. And it’s mostly been one decision after another, made for her.

“I’m definitely not going to take for granted this opportunity,” Parker said. “And, I think I’ve learned a lot, but also, with reflecting, I’m very appreciative to have the opportunity to come back and play basketball here.”

The same is true for her ex-Sparks teammate, Chelsea Gray, who agreed to join the Las Vegas Aces. If free agency came just in time to help Parker shape her final chapter, it will define what should be the peak of Gray’s career, 28 and with a chance to play alongside a second ball-handling guard in Kelsey Plum, the MVP in A’ja Wilson and a remarkably talented center in Liz Cambage.

Gray took obvious pride in the control she had over her own arc.

“I think during this free agency, I’ve kind of taken control over that,” Gray said on Tuesday. “And I think these years, where you’re under rookie contract, or you’re a restricted free agent, the power is with the team. And I think, this year allowed me to find my own power, to have these conversations that haven’t really happened before.”

All week, on Zoom after Zoom, it is what I kept hearing from the players.

From Kayla McBride, headed to Minnesota in search of the championship she so dearly wants. I remember her plaintively hoping for just a playoff berth one night after a tough loss a few years ago, the two of us catching up in a postgame, a great player built for the big stage she should have in 2021 with the revamped Lynx.

From Alysha Clark, whose defense and hyper-efficient perimeter shooting fit perfectly with what Mike Thibault has already built in DC, whose love of cooking gets to be paired with the Washington restaurant scene, whose activism already powered her friendship with Natasha Cloud, her teammate now.

This goes beyond money, and as the WNBA continues to strive to become a 12-month-a-year concern, as Tamika Catchings put it when she welcomed Jantel Lavender to town, autonomy like this will only aid that effort. Catchings even said she’d have trouble using the core designation at all, knowing what it would feel like from a player perspective.

And for those players who don’t want to think about it at all?

They’re covered by the new WNBA reality, too.

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This week in women’s basketball

Just heartbreaking: Mechelle Voepel on Asia Durr’s COVID-19 battle.

Inside Mississippi State guard Xaria Wiggins’ four-month injury battle, from Ben Portnoy.

A very Big Ten edition of Around The Rim here.

Justin Carter writes about Rennia Davis’ WNBA Draft prospects.

Spencer Nusbaum does an excellent job breaking down West Virginia’s rise.

Ava Wallace tells the Amber Nichols story, rising to GM of the G-League Capital City Go-Go.

As usual, Jacqueline LeBlanc’s column is full of goodies.

Jamal Collier spoke with Gabby Williams.

This Chelsea Gray free agency documentary. THIS is the stuff.

Kent Youngblood breaks down the Lynx’s busy offseason.

Great to see a Nicole Auerbach byline on a WNBA story.

Matt Ellentuck on Candace Parker’s Los Angeles legacy.

Someday, DePaul will beat UConn.

Interesting list for NCAA Coach of the Year. I’m going with Cori Close at the moment.

The great Jenn Hatfield has the piece you’ll need to read on how Alysha Clark fits so perfectly with the Mystics.

Yo, did you know about Justė Jocytė? Neither did I, but it sure sounds like we’re going to hear a LOT more about her.

Get to know UConn freshman Saylor Poffenbarger.

Tweet of the week

Five at The IX: Betnijah Laney, New York Liberty

(We’re obviously going to get into the weeds on fit and player movement, but here’s a sneak peak: Betnijah Laney is a great fit in New York. She defends the PnR so well, she is an elite three-point shooter, she was a Pokey Chatman favorite so you KNOW she can play. Listen to her avail, along with New York general manager Jonathan Kolb, from earlier today by clicking on her picture.)

Written by Howard Megdal

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