September 12, 2023 

‘Heart’: New York Liberty’s guiding principle

'To be a New York Liberty player you have to live and breathe that'

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The New York Liberty ended the 2023 regular season in a similar fashion to how they began it: with a loss to their coastal conference foe, the Washington Mystics.

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They fell in blowout fashion 80-64 on May 19 and then lost around four months later 90-88 on a Brittney Sykes buzzer-beater on September 10. While the bookends of the regular season resulted in the same outcome, a loss, the context that surrounded both defeats is drastically different.

In May, the Liberty came into the regular season following an incompete training camp. Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot were all limited. Marine Johannès hadn’t arrived yet. That opening loss to the Mystics showed discombobulation and a tendency to fire shots off without the proper process behind them. “Hero ball” was played, but not for the reasons it usually is.

This was all before 500+ minutes of play between the Liberty’s starters. This was all before the revelatory commissioner’s cup victory that came as a result of the contributions of Johannès and Kayla Thornton off the bench.

But the Liberty were reminded of their ways of yore on Sunday afternoon. Head coach Sandy Brondello didn’t believe her group played physically enough against the banged up Mystics, a team that throughout the four months of the regular season became the league’s most injured team. The Liberty didn’t have much to play for. Their hope in the Phoenix Mercury’s ability to defeat the Las Vegas Aces to help improve New York’s playoff seeding was close to nonexistent. Brondello tried to make the regular season finale an important game, but that ultimately didn’t amount to a win.

“I didn’t think we executed very well,” Brondello said following the loss. “I think [Natasha] Cloud and Sykes could do whatever they wanted.”

The Liberty will also begin the 2023 postseason in the same way that both the regular season began and concluded. They’ll have to battle the Mystics once again beginning on Friday night for a best-of-three series that will be much more competitive than most 2 seed versus 7 seed matchups. But just like the Liberty’s first official loss of 2023, falling to Washington in September serves as a moment of reflection rather than a moment of panic. For Thornton, it’s a wakeup call.

Jonquel Jones (35), Breanna Stewart (30), Courtney Vandersloot (22), Betnijah Laney (44) and Sabrina Ionescu (20) look frustrated against the Washington Mystics on May 19 at Entertainment and Sports Arena. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

“It gives us something to think about,” Thornton said following the loss. “I think we’ve kind of been going in since we’ve been on that [7 game] winning streak, kind of relaxed a little bit. So I’m not happy that we lost, but I’m happy because now that’s going to give us something to actually play for and understand what we need to do against this team.”

Back on May 19, the locker room following that first loss of the season was somber and quiet. Concerned but not defeated. It was looking for answers and solutions.

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Breanna Stewart was earnest without being angry at her new teammates. Once Brondello said her piece about how the collective wasn’t tough enough and didn’t play with urgency, Stewart was a little bit more blunt.

“I think if heart is our word, our mantra and whatever, then we need to have it,” she said. “And we have to embrace the fact that everyone wants to beat us. People are yelling what super team whatever. Fuck all of that. And let’s at least have some type of emotion when we come in and play games.”

The Liberty’s word, heart, has been the guiding principle that has kept the team together through the ebs and flows of the 2023 regular season. It’s been the philosophy that has reminded the team of who they are not only for themselves but also for the community that they play for. Heart is at the center of the Liberty’s identity, their essence.

The origin story behind ‘HEART’

Following a practice, before and after a game, it’s commonplace for the Liberty to utter their mantra. Betnijah Laney, one of the only players left from the Liberty’s first season at the Barclays Center, is at the center of the huddle connecting everyone. “Heart on three,” she often says. And that’s followed by Laney’s countup. “1, 2, 3… ,“ she bellows. And then the collective responds in unison: “HEART.”

According to Laney, this was a role that she’s had since that 2021 season. She’s that connector, the person whose voice is loud and powerful enough to elicit not only a response, but immediate respect. When Brondello entered as the Liberty’s head coach last season, she wanted to preserve some continuity and that came in the form of Laney leading the huddle and choosing the proper words to help get her and her teammates ready for action. While she sometimes uses other words, the most common is heart. It’s the word and idea at the center of everything the Liberty do.

Prior to the start of the regular season, the Liberty gathered in their locker room. Brondello and her coaching staff put together what was their first of many culture meetings, opportunities for the team to discuss the team’s philosophies and foundation. These were meetings that created a dialogue that involved each player, giving everyone the floor to communicate how they felt in that moment. Everyone could explain how they felt success and winning habits ought to be founded.

Objective one was for the team to come up with what Brondello references as their culture word, the phrase that the team can hold onto when times are rough. “How do we just hold onto what we do in here?” Brondello asked the group back in the spring. “That’s the only thing that matters.”

The Liberty didn’t land on the word heart immediately. It took the team splitting into groups with a pen and paper in hand ready to brainstorm the ways in which they could be reminded of their values. Head video coordinator and player development coach Brian Lankton assumed the role of team scribe, helping the team visualize together what they had discussed in their smaller groups. They began with identifying what they believe are high performing characteristics.

Lankton wrote out 23 words and phrases that came out of the team’s breakout sessions, including: Selfless, buy-in, accountability, positivity, discipline, respect, good habits, joy, trust the process, and stay true to yourself.

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When Courtney Vandersloot saw the brainstorm right in front of her eyes, she thought that one term led to the execution of all of the others. Buy-in was what stood out to her. But how would the term buy-in work in a huddle setting? How could it trigger emotion and passion when the team needed it the most? Clearly that wasn’t going to be it, but Vandersloot made the case that buy-in was a key tennent of how the Liberty were going to accomplish what they wanted to this season.

Stefanie Dolson reminded the group about how the team’s mental and physical toughness is going to be an indicator of their success and their ability to reach their ultimate goal. “People are going to want to beat us up and beat us every time we go out there,” she said. “We’re going to have to be tough physically and tough mentally, and that’s something our group specifically will need.”

23 terms and a lot of discussion later, the Liberty had an acrostic poem in front of them. A word that would serve as a symbol, inspire emotion and be representative of many of the themes they had brainstormed moments before. Now how did they consolidate it all?

Habits-Effort-Accountability-Respect-Toughness. That’s heart. That’s always what the New York Liberty think about every single time they’ve taken the court this season.

Sandy Brondello coaching her team the New York Liberty against the Washington Mystics on July 21 at Entertainment and Sports Arena. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

How H-E-A-R-T has played a role in the Liberty’s success

The beauty of the acrostic poem is its multiple meanings and while it represents five of the Liberty’s principle values, the actual word itself all together means something all encompassing.

“This has just helped us because you can, it’s a symbol,” Brondello told The Next. “You don’t have to say anything, don’t even have to say heart. You can just go like this [gestures to her chest], heart.”

The Liberty believe by engaging in proper habits, applying the necessary effort, holding each other accountable with respect and playing with a level of toughness, they’ll embody not only the essence, but the spirit of New York Liberty basketball. Those are the team’s non-negotiables. Heart is representative also of the legacy that the team hopes to leave in 2023.

“To be a New York Liberty player you have to live and breathe that,” Brondello said.

The impact of heart on paper has been a 32-8 regular season record, but for Brondello, she also sees heart in practice when the team is together. It’s not just when they are working hard and are focused, but their values are at play when she sees joy come from her players. When they are just having fun, enjoying one another, telling jokes and making fun of each other.

The team might be ganging up against Courtney Vandersloot when it comes time for halfcourt shots after shootaround. (She’s apparently the best on the team at them, and the others want a chance at that $100 lunch money.) Johannès and Dolson might be playing each other one-on-one and challenging each other to 3 point shooting contests. Or Sabrina Ionescu, Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton might be singing along together to Mario’s “Let Me Love You.” It’s when Brondello shows her goofy side as well by dancing in the locker room or posing like Derek Zoolander for the team photographers. All of those moments also encompass what heart means for Brondello and for the group of players and coaches around her.

This philosophy and all of its meanings have translated into a high level of trust between the players on the court. It’s a trust that has stood out to Dolson, someone who’s played on many different WNBA rosters.

“I’ve played with a few teams and I don’t think I’ve had such quick trust built within a team as we have with each other,” she said following a Liberty comeback win against the Sparks on September 8.

For Ionescu, this foundational framing has been part of the reason why the team has come together so quickly. The framing confirmed how committed players across the roster are to their overarching goal: bringing a WNBA championship to New York.

Sabrina Ionescu hugs teammate Jonquel Jones (35) while the Liberty take on the Washington Mystics on July 21 at Entertainment and Sports Arena. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

“I would say the commitment that we have to one another has really made this thing go,” Ionescu said. “Who we are as people, how we’ve been able to build this in such a fast, like it’s so crazy to me. I’ve seen so many teams come together especially in the NBA that are ‘super teams’ and have not been able to make it work because there’s so many egos, there’s so many role changes and there’s one ball. And to be able to see this team all come in, buy in and commit themselves to the process.”

Ionescu did note that it wasn’t easy at the beginning. The Liberty gave up leads, relied too much on the individual brilliance of Breanna Stewart and weren’t playing the type of defense Brondello knew they had the potential to play. But what has stood out to Ionescu throughout this entire process has been how the team has stuck with it and hasn’t given up on not just their goal, but their principles of how to get there.

When the team with so much high level talent was assembled, there were questions about how the Liberty would be able to successfully execute — how could a team that many believe is more talented than any other roster be inclined to do the little things?

When Jones was introduced following her trade to New York this past winter, Brondello insisted those ideas weren’t mutually exclusive. Jones reflected on that balance as the Liberty reach postseason time.

“I think our toughness is the heart and soul of the team,” Jones said on Sunday, almost eight months following her initial arrival in New York. “I think not to sound cliche or like to rhyme or anything, but I think our togetherness as well. When we’re locked in we’re just a different team. And I don’t know if it’s exactly our heart and soul but I just know that we have a very special group and I’m very excited about what we are going to do in the playoffs.”

While the Liberty ended the regular season exactly the same way that they started it, the postseason is a separate season in itself. To begin the postseason, the Liberty will need to return to their principles, and know that they need to practice and play with as much heart as they can. They aren’t the New York Liberty without it.

“Most of the games that we won was from heart,” Thornton said. “There were times when we got down and we came back and that’s just nothing but heart and grit and the will to do what we had to do.”

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.

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