May 11, 2023
Institutional Knowledge: The legend replacement plans commence in Seattle and Minnesota
A look inside life after Syl and Sue
There will be no video tributes this season in Minnesota and Seattle.. No farewell tours. No rocking chairs or gold watches. No more emotional goodbyes.
In Seattle and Minnesota, it’s time to activate the “Legend Replacement Plans”.
(Editor’s note: this is the first installment of Michelle Smith’s weekly column on the WNBA here at The Next, Institutional Knowledge.)
Sue Bird, the Storm’s defining player, and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles, who helped to sustain a dynastic run for the Lynx, are months into their retirements.
But with the first week of the WNBA season bearing down, their teams are in the early stages of life — and a season — without them.
In reality, there is no replacing either of them, two of the most distinct and decorated players in the history of the game. But replacing their leadership, their points, assists and rebounds, by committee, it simply has to happen for either the Storm or the Lynx to keep up with the new WNBA power teams.
“The biggest thing is this, Sue is one-of-one. There’s no one like her,” said Storm head coach Noelle Quinn of Bird, who spent 19 years in Seattle. “No one is replacing her. Or even filling her shoes. But there’s this blank slate we have now, and we have an opportunity to paint it the way we want to.”
A new era for Seattle opens on Saturday at home, on national television, against the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. The Lynx will open at home on Friday night against Chicago.
For Seattle, Bird’s is not the only absence to account for, with Breanna Stewart now in New York.
Jewell Loyd, in her ninth season, is now the name at the top of the Storm’s marquee, this team’s emotional touchstone and its go-to offensive player. Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor are the only two other players back from a season ago, but guard Sami Whitcomb – who won titles with the Storm in 2018 and 2020 – has returned after two seasons in New York.
“I came in here as a room with a lot of vets on this team and I was pretty much spoiled,” Loyd said Friday. “A lot of people wanted to help me. Now I need to know how to build people up. It’s something I’m honing in on…and I’m excited to do that for this team.”
Loyd said it’s a new culture in every way.
“We have a lot of new players, the energy is different,” Loyd said. “We will need to fill the voices until people are ready to step up.”
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Quinn has been planning for this since Bird, and as it turned out, Stewart, played their last games in Seattle last fall. Bird was the Storm’s “coach on the floor”, their facilitator, and their emotional level-setter. She knew what Seattle was doing, what needed to be done, and who needed to do it. All of that went into civilian life with the league’s all-time assists leader.
Quinn said her focus has been on changing the way the Storm plays to suit their new team, with the additions of veterans Kia Nurse and Theresa Plaisance, and empowering her most experienced players to take the lead. Seattle has eight players in camp with less than two years’ experience.
“The players we have who have been through it haven’t always had a huge voice,” Quinn said. “But Mercedes is a two-time champion, Jewell has obviously been here the longest and Ezi is a young player, but she’s got a lot of experience, especially after playing in the EuroLeague this year. And Sami is just comfortable. I’ve told them all that ‘We need your voice.’”
Loyd called this the “most competitive camp” she’s ever experienced in Seattle.
“Everyone’s hungry,” Loyd said. “Hungry to learn, hungry to compete.”
In Minnesota, the lineup and the locker room will not include Big Syl for the first time since 2015. Fowles was around the practice facility briefly before the start of training camp, but it was an entirely personal appearance. Her powerful, yet gentle presence is now going to be limited to visits.
“I always want Sylvia around,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “She is still invested and she will be at home games and she wants to make sure they know she is supporting them.”
Reeve said that it’s only partially true that you can adequately plan for the departure of a Hall of Famer.
“It’s really just about moving forward,” Reeve said. “We’ve had to do this with Whalen and Seimone and Maya and Rebekkah, and we haven’t really been able to replace any of those players. It isn’t necessarily a succession play. You just have to get accustomed to looking different and find a new path to success.
“They are generational players, and it’s not fair to expect anyone to replace them.”
Yet, Reeve has primed forward Napheesa Collier, the new team captain, to set the tone this season. Collier, back after missing almost all of last season following the birth of her daughter, is back and prepared to be Minnesota’s centerpiece. Following the Lynx’s first day of training camp, Collier told the media she feels a “good pressure.”
“It’s like an honor,” Collier said. “You know, obviously this is a dynasty organization. So to have that be on my shoulders now I take it really seriously and I definitely want to start appreciating the people that came before me and make sure that I’m leading the team in the right direction.”
Collier and Reeve have had weekly meetings on their calendar for months.
“Unquestionable, Phee will be that voice for us, but I’m also asking Kayla McBride and Lindsay Allen and Rachel Banham to lead,” Reeve said. And Reeve is adjusting as well.
“It’s different not having a bunch of vets and I’m doing a lot more teaching,” Reeve said. “I have figured out that I can’t assume things.
“It’s a new life for this team and it’s fun to see what this group can do.”
Quinn, meanwhile, doesn’t consider Seattle rebuilding this season. Rather, she says it’s a “renovation”.
“We may have new faces and new pieces, but we are keeping the foundation of what made us successful. And Sue was a big part of that,” Quinn said. “It’s about shifting our mindset to ‘This is who we have and this is how we want to play’.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.