May 19, 2023
Cutting DiDi Richards was ‘devastating’ for the Liberty
Inside the agonizing decision to waive fan favorite Richards
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Two days before the New York Liberty’s season opener against the Washington Mystics on the road, Sandy Brondello was reminding her team of what they are up against. Defense was on the agenda and on the brain of New York’s coaching staff. “Brittney Sykes is going to get in there,” she said while her team was practicing how they execute a 2-3 zone.
While focus was definitely the vibe on the Barclays Center courts on Wednesday afternoon, something was missing. The energy in space was subdued, although it reached a peak when Breanna Stewart drove on a practice player through the lane and scored an and-one. The group off the floor cheered, but something or rather someone was missing.
The late afternoon prior, following optional team workouts after the team’s return from Las Vegas, the team waived DiDi Richards. She was drafted 17th overall in the 2021 draft by New York prior to their first official season in the Barclays Center and came to the Liberty following recovering from a spinal cord injury that left her temporarily paralyzed during her final college season at Baylor.
Tuesday was an incredibly difficult day for the organization, one that head coach Sandy Brondello calls the worst day of the entire season. She was blunt when she spoke about how it felt to cut Richards, someone who she got to know since beginning her tenure with the Liberty over a year and a half ago. For Brondello, a former player in the WNBA and a coach in the league for almost two decades, it feels like taking away someone’s dreams. It’s a result of the harsh reality in the WNBA: a hard salary cap, limited roster spots and no real in-season development league.
“DiDi in particular was very hard,” assistant coach Olaf Lange said. “She’s been obviously here for a long while and I got to know her last year closely and then this year. She’s very energetic, great, wonderful, humble, inspiring person to be around so it’s hard to not have someone like that with us.”
Teammate Stefanie Dolson has seen teammates get cut from rosters since 2014. This is something she’s grown accustomed to, but this year it felt very different. It was “a much tougher pill” to swallow.
“I think her getting cut was devastating for the team and for the city, you know, everyone,” Dolson told The Next on Wednesday. “There are people who bought season tickets just for her. Yeah, so I think it’s just her energy, her spirit. That’s why I got along with her so well. It’s just she was always just so positive. Whether she was playing, not playing, it didn’t matter to her. She just wanted to bring that happy energy and positivity to the team. So it’s something that’s rubbed off on me even more, I think, on the girls on the team and the organization.”
Why she missed the cut
Richards had a feeling this might be coming. When she was asked on media day what it meant to be a part of the organization, she got emotional. She began describing the culture of not only the team but of the city itself, describing both as “rich.”
“It means the world to be a part of,” she said of the organization.
“I hope…” Richards paused and her eyes got super wide. …”That I can continue to be a part of New York Liberty…” She laughed nervously.
“…but like you said, for your second question, like what player do I have to be to like, to be on the New York Liberty? I think I just got to do what I do. And that’s just play defense. Do the little things, get 50-50 balls, be a high-energy player and be the spark off the bench and I am.”
Richards wasn’t a spark enough to make the roster, and there wasn’t much Richards could do to alter her fate. She spent the first two years of her WNBA career mostly battling injuries. The first half of her rookie season in 2021 was spent rehabbing from an injured left hamstring that she sustained in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup against UConn. She didn’t appear that often in the first half of the season. But following the Olympic break, Richards was healthier and showing flashes of her ceiling. But it was clear early that she belonged in New York.
“I think that DiDi is definitely one of the players on this team that embodies the New York state of mind, that embodies that hard work because her effort and energy is something that is hard to coach,” former Liberty legend Crystal Robinson said when she returned to New York to get her jersey retired by the team in 2021. “To me she brings that workhorse mentality to this team and sometimes those players don’t always show up in stats.”
But then in 2022, the Liberty’s new coaching staff had the idea to employ the second-year player who had tons of potential in a facilitating forward role, one that she had during her final season at Baylor. But injury struck again, in preseason in addition to a myriad of injuries on the team as well. In a preseason scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun when Brondello noted how much Richards stood out, this time her right hamstring was injured. Richards was activated on May 13 but then aggravated it once again. For the rest of the 2022 season, it was incredibly difficult for Richards to get time on the floor because she was still coming back into game speed following weeks spent rehabbing with Terri Acosta and the rest of New York’s performance staff.
The injuries she sustained also influenced a lot of her offseason decisions. She elected not to play overseas or in Athletes Unlimited so that she could properly rehab from her injured hamstrings. Her development, high ceiling and the potential that the Liberty’s front office saw in her when they drafted her in 2021 had been halted due to her inability to stay healthy. But after rehabbing again during the offseason and working with the Liberty’s assistant coaches on skill development such as ball handling and shooting while earning money on a WNBA league marketing deal and a Liberty team marketing deal, Richards was finally ready to prove that she could stay healthy and contribute to the Liberty in training camp.
But then the 2023 offseason, which turned the Liberty from a building playoff team into a team on top of the league’s pecking order made her chances of proving that she could contribute in addition to making the roster became slimmer.
It’s not that Liberty’s talent evaluators didn’t give her a chance to prove herself. But the indicator that Richards wasn’t going to make the team came in the preseason game against the Aces. It was difficult for her to prove to New York that she could consistently play a pivotal role, especially on the defensive end when she picked up three quick fouls. Her effort was consistent, but the results weren’t always.
The Liberty know that this year they won’t have as much time to focus on player development. The task at hand is to put themselves in the best possible position to contend for a championship. I asked Brondello what qualities players that made the final roster would have to have. Her answer indicated that players needed to be able to handle the emotional pressures.
“If we’re at the end of the game, can they handle that pressure to execute?” she said. “That’s what we’re thinking, especially with the team that we have. We’ve had a lot of younger players coming in here but to win you need talent, you need experience. It’s probably not like the NBA when you have to just go through the development level when we’re not like that, we want to win.”
That was also the rationale for bringing back Epiphanny Prince on a hardship contract going into opening night and through at least the home opener against the Fever on Sunday. Prince surprised the New York talent evaluators with how dependable she was in practice running the second unit of the offense while Courtney Vandersloot was recovering from her concussion. As of now, she has a higher floor than Richards amid the much higher ceiling Richards could have.
What could be next for Richards and for the Liberty
Since the Liberty can only house 11 full-time players, they will be using the hardship system quite often. This will come into play especially in June when both Marine Johannès and Han Xu will be abroad participating in national team commitments. When both players will be out at the same time, from potentially June 12 through June 25th, the Liberty will be down to nine total players available barring injuries. Without any other injuries at that point, the Liberty would be eligible for a hardship contract.
New York would aim to add someone who knows their system and knows their players. There are only a few players who do in Prince, Sika Koné, who was picked off of waivers by the Sky, Stephanie Mawuli, who would need a different visa to return to the U.S. and could have national team commitments of her own at the Asia Cup, and then there’s Richards.
When General Manager Jonathan Kolb and Sandy Brondello sat down and broke the news to Richards that she didn’t make the final 11-player roster, they emphasized that they are not closing the door. They hope that this isn’t a goodbye but rather it’s a see you later or see you soon. If Richards isn’t on a team by the second month of the season, the Liberty might bring her back.
“She was loved by everybody, the fans included but especially our team here,” Brondello said on Tuesday afternoon. “So you know, I hope that obviously, she gets another opportunity. You never know what the future holds as well. It’s just a numbers game at the moment.”
As for the Liberty themselves, a roster without Richards is different. There’s less joyful energy, less creative bench celebrations and a bit less endless positive energy. Who will uphold that mantle without Richards?
“I would say me possibly,” Dolson said when I asked her. “I might be a little old for it, but I’ll do my best. K[ayla] T[hornton], but I think it’s going to be a joint effort. I think before it was her and I. I think the two of us kind of both came in and were just happy and always brought positive energy. And now without my other half, I’m going to have to do my best to bring as much as I can to the team.”
It’s a next-player-up type of mentality and a responsibility that multiple players including Dolson and Thornton will have to uphold. But, it will be hard. Richards and who she is for people and players is irreplaceable.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.