New York Diaries: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

June 9, 2023
Crina Mustafa
June 9, 2023

The room darkened almost immediately, and I pulled the curtain open. The sky was orange, almost post-apocalyptic-like, and it was only the middle of the day. Reports of the hazardous air quality flooded my phone, and I thought to myself, what a week to be in New York City for the first time.

Being based in Toronto, I have covered the WNBA from afar for three years. Lots of Zoom calls, league pass, and talking about a league that I love to Canadians. The New York Liberty were the first team that I actually started covering, and I instantly fell in love with them.

Although no longer on the team, it was players like DiDi Richards that helped grow my love for a team that had struggled for a period of time but was starting to show flashes of potential. After a 2-20 Wubble season, they won three straight games to start the 2021 season, and in 2022, they made the playoffs and even won a game against the Chicago Sky in that playoff series. Fast forward to 2023, and we find ourselves with a star-studded roster, led by Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot being the biggest acquisitions of the offseason.

And so, with some new faces on the team, I joined them this week. Here are some of my takeaways:

A WNBA City has so much potential for marketing

The New York Liberty play in Barclays, which is located in Brooklyn. The entire team is shown across the outside of the arena, and you can also see Stewie PUMA posters surrounding the area.

Inside, the branding was strong for the Liberty game, and the merch store had a lot of cool things available for purchase. For my Toronto peeps, Barclays felt like Scotiabank Arena inside, with a different colour scheme, and it felt a bit newer. Fans started filling the courtside and lower-level seats, with people of all ages being present and engaged. 

The “Superteam” does not like to call themselves that

When the Liberty added Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, and Courtney Vandersloot to their team in the offseason, they were immediately labelled as a “superteam,” along with teams like the Las Vegas Aces, who improved in the offseason by adding Candace Parker and Alysha Clark. From training camp, they were hyper-aware of the narratives and expectations that had now been placed on them.

Stewie had spoken on multiple occasions about having a “target on their back.” Before their game against the Chicago Sky, Coach Sandy Brondello said, “You guys [the media] call us a superteam, but we’re not so super.” 

The Liberty have started the season with a 4-2 record, different from where they want to be, especially with how they dropped their last game against the Sky.

The beginning of the game was full of fun plays like the one above. Lots of ball movement, behind-the-back passing, everybody getting touches, and some fun defence. All of a sudden, the Liberty find themselves up 19 points against the Chicago Sky, starting the game off strong after warming up slowly in previous games. 

The crowd was loud, and the arena was bumping. Until…

“We became complacent…hopefully this is a wake-up call…we went away a little from what we are…we have to use it as a learning opportunity,” said Coach Sandy after the Liberty went on to give up their lead and the Chicago Sky took over to win the game.

“It’s on all of us. We all have to be better.  Who’s the most persistent, relentless team?”

Keys for the Liberty moving forward

There are a couple of lessons on the basketball side of things that the Liberty can do moving forward, based on what coaches and players have said this week.

One: getting the ball to Stewie. It’s no secret that she’s been the most important player for the Liberty in their wins so far, and no, I will never stop talking about that 45-point performance through three quarters against the Fever. With Courtney Vandersloot leading the floor, hopefully, she can help find creative ways to get Stewie enough touches to put this team in positions to succeed and exploit their opponents’ defence.

Two: playing a full 40 minutes instead of only 20. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that this week, I’d have…like 5 dollars. Regardless, that’s a lot! For a lot of the early games, the Liberty would start the first half slow and play a good second half to get the win. That was something they wanted to change, but then they just flipped the switch against the Sky and started off well but finished poorly. 

They want to play a full game of solid basketball without taking their foot off the gas pedal. How they do that is up to them, but they’ve had practice and a couple of days to recharge and think about how to adjust.

They are a relatively new group, with some players familiar with each other and others less. The chemistry is building, and they will learn how to play together as a team as they face different matchups.

The beauty of in-person interactions

As I mentioned at the top of this article, this was my first time covering the Liberty in person in the three years I’ve covered the team. Going from Zoom calls to making eye contact and having proper conversations is something I don’t take for granted, and it was pretty cool.

Here are some bits and pieces from practice with Kayla Thornton and Sabrina Ionescu on self-care & more:

KT on the Liberty facilities:

It’s been amazing. You know, I was in Dallas for six years and coming to New York, it’s definitely different. It’s a blessing, every facility is different and every organization is very different. Here in New York, it’s like home, it feels calm; and that’s the most important thing.

KT on team-bonding activities:

We had a couple outings that we went to, visited our owner’s house and stuff like that; so it was pretty nice.

KT on self-care:

Mainly I try to get in the cold tub, I do contrast, so like heat and then cold. I normally get something called a “flush” and then our NormaTec boots. I do that on repeat, I like to stick with my same routine every time we travel and keep it constant.

Sab on self-care:

Taking time to recharge and not really dwell on games and letting them pile up. I think the beauty of having so many games in a short amount of time is there’s something else you need to focus on and being able to improve and make that adjustment quickly. Put it behind you, on to the next challenge. I think that it’s important to take time for yourself and be able to recharge with whatever that looks like for you.

Sab on her Romanian background and how it’s translated to her mentality as an athlete:

I just want to preface this question by saying that for those of you who don’t know, I also come from a Romanian background where my parents immigrated to a new country with very little to create a better life for themselves and their future family. 

I wanted to ask Sabrina about her perspective on growing up in a similar way and what her family taught her growing up that translated to her as an athlete because Romanian parents can be pretty tough. :) 

Her answer:

Hard work, I think that’s what I’ve learned. Not taking anything for granted, working for everything that I’ve gotten in my career. My parents coming here, not speaking any English, not having any money and having to just figure it out, it’s just something that you’re born into. Seeing how hard they worked to provide a better life for me and my siblings, I take that kind of hard work and readiness with me and my game and that’s where it comes from.

Leaving New York with perspective, and a little less smoke

The plan was to cover the Liberty’s game against the Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday night, but wildfires in Canada had other plans. The city of New York became orange and dark very quickly, and as I was on my way to the game, I got an alert that the game had been officially cancelled/postponed. I guess, in a way, you could argue that I started off strong and ended my New York trip poorly, like the Sky game. I joke, but I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed.

Nonetheless, I will take a lot from this trip. Resiliency, grace, and a constant state of adaption. Thank you, NYC, and I’ll be back. For more of the “diaries” series, check out this piece I wrote from Vancouver in April:

For more WNBA & New York Liberty coverage this season, follow @crinamm on Twitter.