June 16, 2020 

The trail-blazing Phoenix Mercury will continue their fight during strange 2020 season

Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith have always been vocal, so expect them to lead the charge in Bradenton

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Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) warms up before the WNBA game between the Phoenix Mercury and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 12, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The Phoenix Mercury are uniquely suited, despite a frustrating 2019, to be leaders in whatever form of activism and visibility this year’s WNBA season takes on. 

Not only do they have perhaps the league’s most famous and accomplished athlete in Diana Taurasi, now (likely) fully recovered from dual back and hamstring injuries that challenged her last summer, but also Brittney Griner, simultaneously a vocal critic of the WNBA and a champion for what the league is at its best, as well as Skylar Diggins-Smith, perhaps the most powerful force toward overhauled maternity benefits in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in January.

So a season centered around vocally demanding change and raising the platform of the women’s game has to have room for the Mercury. That doesn’t mean they won’t be among the favorites for this year’s title. Altogether, owners finally put their money where their mouths have always been, committing to players and investing in the league more meaningfully. It’s the type of change the Mercury organization has been advocating for since essentially the moment Taurasi was drafted.

“There was a real commitment from ownership and the league to these players and to growing this game,” said Mercury COO Vince Kozar in a conference call shortly after the league announced its return. “It’s not just simply ‘prove it,’ as has long been the case for women’s sports. It really is if you build it, if you invest in it, we believe that you’ll see the results.

“Our players are worthy and they’re deserving, and just because they’re women doesn’t mean they should take anything less.”

With the return plan finalized, there are still questions about Taurasi’s health after she hardly played during the Team USA national tour this winter, and Diggins-Smith hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2018. Still, the Mercury have an accumulation of talent that matches up to any roster in the league. 

Griner is a perennial MVP candidate, and this year’s Phoenix squad will be deep. They return Brianna Turner, not only a new frontwoman in the conversation about racial injustice in America, but the MVP of the Australian NBL in her first year. They will get a better look at Alanna Smith, whose lower-body injuries made her rookie year a lost one. And veteran offseason acquisitions Jessica Breland and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough will provide good depth for what is one of the older teams in the league.

The WNBA’s return came after rumors that players were disgruntled with the conditions put in place by the league, while Tiffany Hayes and others have publicized those frustrations in recent days. What happens once the league descends on Florida remains to be seen, and Kozar would not comment specifically to any of Phoenix’s players’ decisions about whether to opt out of the season. (The players have until June 25 to do so.) But he maintained player experience was front-of-mind in these negotiations.

“Everything about the new CBA centers players, so it’s only fitting that figuring out what this season was going to look like, the site host, would center the player experience and player safety as well,” Kozar said.

The Mercury will not require players to return to Phoenix prior to traveling to Florida, but many will swing through the home market to take routine physicals and get their bearings. Besides the bizarre nature of pro sports in a quarantine bubble, one that becomes less strange as many leagues adopt similar setups, the tenor of this moment is different even than when sports paused in March.

The culture within the Mercury organization fosters activism, and this will be no different. Kozar admitted more can be done on issues of race than Phoenix has been in the past by the franchise.

“Our league exists at the intersection of women, people of color specifically black women, and the LGBT community and its allies,” he said. “As an organization and as a league, we have done a lot to focus the fight around the women’s movement. We’ve done a lot to push forward and represent the LGBT community through our pride initiatives. 

“We would all be candid with you to say we haven’t done enough in the space of racial justice, so I can’t speak for our players, but what I can say is when they play, they have a large platform.”

That intersection has always been fundamental to the WNBA, but for a Mercury organization that embodies and strives to push the boundaries of these values, a championship push will be conjoined with constant work toward progress within the league and outside it.

Written by Brendon Kleen

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