July 30, 2020 

The Phoenix Mercury remain committed to mothers, even amid a chaotic season

'I want my players to feel comfortable that they can focus on just playing'

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PALMETTO, FL- JULY 29: Bria Hartley #14 of the Phoenix Mercury shoots the ball against the Indiana Fever on July 29, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.

When the Phoenix Mercury got to the clean site at IMG Academy in early July, head coach Sandy Brondello took new signee Bria Hartley to the side and let her know basketball wouldn’t infringe on family, even amid the chaos of the condensed 2020 WNBA season.

Between Brondello’s own kids and the Mercury staff, Brondello assured Hartley that 3-year-old Bryson was free to join the team whenever she didn’t have anywhere else for him to go. While Hartley’s boyfriend, Jordan Taylor, was allowed to enter the “Wubble” as a caregiver for the first few weeks of practices, his departure left Hartley scrambling to entertain and watch over Bryson while balancing an important training camp after the longest break from basketball of Hartley’s life.

The Mercury have long made it a priority to recognize and support mothers who play for the team. The team facility in Phoenix features a playroom, and children are welcome at practice and in the building whenever mom’s on duty. Talking Stick Resort Arena is where everyone from DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree to Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor to Brondello herself have raised kids during Brondello’s six years as a head coach and executive in Phoenix.

“I want my players to feel comfortable that they can focus on just playing,” Brondello told The Next. “I think it comes back to, I’m a mother too. My passion is basketball, I played for a long time and now I coach and I have a lot of passion for it, but I’m also a mother. That’s a big priority for me. When I can do both things together, that’s great, so it fits.”

League rules for the clean site allowed parents to bring their children as well as one caregiver, but finding someone to go to Florida for three months was easier said than done. Because Brondello and husband Olaf Lange, an assistant coach for the Chicago Sky, are both at IMG Academy this summer and they have no family in America, their children Brody (13) and Jayda (10) are along for the ride. Jayda has been hanging out with Candace Parker’s daughter, Lailaa, battling on the Xbox in Brondello’s hotel room.

“In the Mercury, we’re all about family,” Brondello said. “That’s what we want. But really, we’re one big WNBA family here.”

There may not be a playroom at IMG Academy, but the presence of Brondello’s kids and the family atmosphere she’s created as Mercury coach sent the message that the organization’s support system would remain intact, even this year. 

After being invited to practice, Bryson became the talk of social media when he took control of the camera for a few days, posing for silly shots and snapping pictures of mom while she integrated with the new-look Mercury. Since then, Hartley has found a lifeline in Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby, whose mother came to the clean site as a designated caregiver. Hamby’s daughter Amaya is near the same age as Bryson, and the two get along well, so Hamby’s mother often watches both while Hartley or Hamby are away.

It’s been hard for Hartley to let go, accept the help, and not worry.

“I want everything to be perfect, so when something’s kind of off, I’m stressing,” Hartley told The Next, but Brondello’s support “helps me feel relaxed and not be so stressed.”

For other Mercury players, the risk of bringing the kids along simply wasn’t worth it. 

“It literally was an hourly decision of coming, not coming, and ultimately we just thought it would be safer for them in Phoenix,” said Diana Taurasi, whose wife and former Mercury assistant Penny Taylor stayed in Phoenix with son Leo this summer. 

“For three, four months now, we’ve been quarantining just the three of us in the house now. When you’re in the bubble, you’re just automatically exposed.”

New point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith has not said whether her family is with her in Florida, but in her first media appearance of training camp, she said she was “conflicted” about even making the journey herself.

Brondello didn’t want anyone to feel pressured to play in 2020, let alone bring their family along.

“I’m very grateful for the organization, (because) my kids are going to be around,”she said. “That’s just how it is. I want to see them and not be totally isolated from them. I try and do that back for the players because I don’t need them stressing about who’s going to take care of (their kids).”

Having a coach like Brondello who prioritizes family and goes out of her way to extend help to players was refreshing for Hartley, whose previous coaches haven’t been so helpful. Even if it was unspoken, Hartley often felt Bryson wasn’t allowed to be around, even if it was her only choice.

“It comes from the point that (Brondello) has kids and she understands and is used to it,” Hartley said. “In New York, the other coaches didn’t have kids, so I don’t know if they really understood.”

With the acceptance of her new coach and teammates and people like the Hambys who’ve lent her a hand, Hartley said “the routine is pretty seamless at this point” with Bryson. He loves the pool, and constantly asks when he’ll see Amaya next. “He’s probably going to have some good memories of this,” she said.

As the season continues, whether a player’s family is in Florida or across the country, Brondello said she will maintain a dialogue with each player to give them space to stay connected and destress. 

“This is what we’re all about and that’s not going to change,” Brondello added. “We want to support you any way we can.”

Written by Brendon Kleen

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