March 21, 2024 

Courtney Vandersloot visits Hospital for Special Surgery; chats offseason, 2024 WNBA season

Vandersloot: 'They just pour into us, this community, and they support us so much'

NEW YORK — The pediatric wing of the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in Manhattan welcomed a very distinguished duo on Wednesday afternoon: Courtney Vandersloot, the New York Liberty’s point guard, and Ellie the Elephant, the team’s sassy and spunky mascot.

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Both Ellie and Vandersloot gave the children in the outpatient and inpatient wings autographs, smiles, hi-fives, Liberty themed T-shirts, mini basketballs and lots and lots of hugs.

The visit revealed Vandersloot’s continued willingness to step outside of her comfort zone, and understanding of how she can play a role in growing the game that has given her so much.

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Over four years ago and before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was Marine Johannès, Han Xu and former Liberty guard Brittany Boyd who made a similar visit to HSS. At that time, Ellie hadn’t been brought to life yet, the Liberty didn’t live and work at Barclays Center, and Sabrina Ionescu was still in college.

Ellie’s presence now in 2024, beyond being vibrant and energetic, is an indicator of just how far the Liberty franchise has grown since that previous visit.

Vandersloot and Ellie’s impact during the off-season 

When Ellie entered a hospital room to greet a child in bed, she strutted her stuff and hugged every single person in the room including the staff, the patient and their family. Vandersloot was more reserved, entering each room more casually but with a smile and a pen in hand, ready to sign autographs for each person she met.

“Thanks for letting us come say hi,” Vandersloot would say, leaving a young person in the inpatient unit after a visit.

The two made a unique pairing; a clear extrovert in Ellie, alongside Vandersloot, the introverted but incredibly talented point guard. While Vandersloot didn’t dance, pose and wave her hair around like Ellie did many times that afternoon, Vandersloot filled in what Ellie could not provide.

Each time Vandersloot met with a young person, she flashed a toothy smile, wide and bright. Ellie doesn’t have teeth. Vandersloot made sure to ask the children some questions about who they are, and what they like to do. She encouraged every young person she met to come to a Liberty game, at least when they were well enough to do so. Ellie also doesn’t speak but rather pantomimes.

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Courtney Vandersloot and Ellie of the New York Liberty visits HSS Children’s Hospital for Special Surgery and interact with Mila. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd | New York Liberty)

Vandersloot spent extended time with an 8 year-old girl named Mila who was dressed in a bright pink sweatshirt and sneakers. Mila was initially a little apprehensive around Ellie. She wasn’t sure what to make of the walking elephant dressed up in a seafoam jersey, a crown, and a braid tucked behind her ears. But Vandersloot noticed her apprehension and immediately focused her attention on Mila, introducing herself and reassuring the child that Ellie gives formidable hi-fives and excellent hugs. 

Vandersloot and Mila then chatted a bit about basketball. The Liberty point guard’s face lit up when Mila told her that she too plays the game. Then the child asked Vandersloot to explain what position she plays, and later what number Vandersloot wears while playing. 

“That’s the number of my birthday,” Mila told Vandersloot. The pair realized that they both have February birthdays, just two weeks apart. It was a simple conversation, but that didn’t make it any less important and impactful for both parties.

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After Mila was given an oversized white Liberty tee (which she pulled on over her pink sweatshirt), it was time to say her goodbyes. She waved to Vandersloot and Ellie, and they both gestured back.

“She waved back to me,” the eight-year-old squealed.

Later, Ellie made a giant impression with a young child named Oliver who just wanted to share his gummy candy with the elephant. While Ellie kept pantomiming that she couldn’t really accept the candy, the child instead decided to show the elephant his shoes. Before Ellie left her new friend Oliver, she took her trunk and placed it on his cheek, simulating a kiss.

Ellie interacts with a child named Oliver at HSS.
Ellie of the New York Liberty visits Oliver at HSS Children’s Hospital for Special Surgery on March 20, 2024. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd | New York Liberty)

Later, the duo of the star point guard and the loveable and rambunctious elephant teamed up together to bring some joy to a 22-month-old baby sitting with a parent in the outpatient clinic. Vandersloot charmed with her wide and bright smile and Ellie made sure to shake the hand of a little monkey stuffed animal the child was holding. 

When Vandersloot and Ellie had some downtime, a hospital employee asked the elephant: ”Does your season start the same day the Liberty’s does?” Another staff member murmured: “It started last night,” referring to Ellie’s dance-filled appearance at Barclays Center for the Nets’ Women’s Impact Night game.

But in reality, Ellie’s been out and about during her offseason. She’s made appearances at other sporting events, including heading out to Milwaukee for the birthday party of Bucks mascot Bango. And the same obviously can be said for Vandersloot, who spent her offseason on a team marketing deal and not playing overseas basketball, both firsts for the 5X All-Star.

Vandersloot has made appearances at Liberty fan events, multiple Nets games and a basketball and soccer clinic for girls at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn. After moving to New York City last spring prior to training camp, being on a team marketing deal during the offseason gave Vandersloot the opportunity to have more of a home base in New York. Without the 40-game grind of a WNBA regular season, she has been able to experience the community the Liberty play for.

She’s seen, up close and personal, the vision she was pitched during free agency meetings just over a year ago. During Vandersloot’s many stops in the five boroughs, she has noticed how much Liberty fans new and old pour into New York’s team.

“They embrace the Liberty you know, everywhere we go,” Vandersloot told a scrum of reporters after the HSS visit. “They’re just like, they just love us. And it’s such a cool feeling. It’s such a great feeling. I come from an era that hasn’t always been like that in the WNBA. A lot of the time you walk into a room, no one knows what the WNBA is. And so the way Brooklyn, the community has just embraced us, and you know, we’re theirs. I just love being a part of it.”

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While Ellie was moving, grooving and trying to entertain all within HSS who passed her by, Vandersloot remained a little bit more in the background. With her classy blonde messy bun on top of her head along with sweats and sneakers, her appearance and energy is more reserved. While she enjoys more intimate moments with people and sometimes doesn’t prefer to be social, she sees the value in participating in events within the different boroughs in New York.

“They just pour into us, this community and they support us so much,” she said. “So it’s just being able to reconnect off the court, in the community doing things, just about making an impact. And just as much as I’m trying to impact them, they impacted me.”

But Wednesday’s juncture felt a bit different and much more personal. 

In her chat with reporters, Vandersloot mentioned multiple times how doing a hospital visit reminds her of her relatively new reality, being in and out of a hospital setting with her mother as she continues to battle Multiple Myeloma. Vandersloot has a unique understanding of how difficult it is to be living a part of life in a place like a hospital. It isn’t easy. 

Vandersloot also has an affinity for children. Last season she enjoyed spending time with JJ, Betnijah Laney’s niece. When Vandersloot saw how the young people smiled on Wednesday amid their less than ideal circumstances, she reflected upon her current situation even more. 

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Courtney Vandersloot of the New York Liberty visits HSS Children’s Hospital for Special Surgery on March 20, 2024. (Photo Credit. Brandon Todd | New York Liberty)

“You know, kids,” she said. “I just love being around them. But also just how hospital…” Her voice began to quiver. She paused for a moment.

… “visits are a close thing to me and and kind of a part of my daily life, to be honest. And I thought that when I had this opportunity, I thought it was perfect for me to be able to be here and just inpatient, outpatient, whatever it is just trying to make an impact on some kids. Even if it’s just a smile.” 

In addition to meeting new people and smiling at and with new faces during the offseason, Vandersloot has been working on a collaboration with the cap company New Era, yet another project she might not have been able to pursue if she played overseas. She designed four different Liberty-themed hats in honor of International Women’s Day, and New Era shot a film with Vandersloot on top of a New York City rooftop to promote them.

The collaboration was personal for Vandersloot, as she remembered walking around in malls looking for the different Lids kiosks and stores that usually sell New Era caps. Back then, you’d be hard pressed to find a cap or a snapback dedicated to a women’s sports team. 

“For New Era to want to expand into the women’s [game] and have Liberty hats, exclusive Liberty hats, ones that I designed,” Vandersloot said. “I think it says a lot about them as a brand but also, how much growth the WNBA has and people want to be a part of it.”

Looking ahead to training camp

With the Liberty about to begin revving up for the 2024 season in around 5 weeks, Vandersloot has been training to get into season shape training prior to April 28th’s training camp kickoff. It’s going to be another 40-game season with, presumably, another long postseason run. 

While Vandersloot is in ‘go mode’ with less than two months until opening night, she was initially a bit anxious if the Liberty’s entire starting five would return. Before hearing from Jonquel Jones herself that she was returning to New York, Vandersloot was worried and understood that the free agency period is one where some of the most surprising outcomes occur. There was an off chance that maybe Jones wouldn’t return.

“So I was confident in that but again, you just never know,” she said about Jones. “But once she told me that she’s coming back, then I could sleep at night and everything’s good.”

Courtney Vandersloot pumps her first
Courtney Vandersloot of the New York Liberty pumps her fist during WNBA Finals game 3 at Barclays Center on October 15, 2023. (Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Vandersloot, Jones and the rest of the Liberty’s starting five will be met with a new and improved bench unit which the Liberty’s point guard believes not only will make the Liberty more versatile, but will be vital in order to accomplishing the franchise’s ultimate goal of bringing a first WNBA championship to New York.

Kennedy Burke has been incredible in Europe,” she said. “[Leonie] Fiebich is special. Not a lot of people know, but I think she’s going to be a really great player in the WNBA, which you know that’s just what [Liberty General manager] Jonathan [Kolb] does.”

Vandersloot was also all smiles when Rebekah Gardner was mentioned. Gardner, whose rights the Liberty acquired last week in a trade with the Sky, played with Vandersloot back in 2022. The New York point guard hinted that she and Gardner had been in communication during the offseason and there was a chance that Gardner might have been on the Liberty’s roster this season if she hadn’t ruptured her Achilles.

“I was looking forward maybe adding her healthy,” Vandersloot told reporters. “But you know, that’s the way it works. And I’m glad that she’s on the team and she’s in a really good spot to be able to rehab. She’ll be with us, she’ll be able to kind of integrate herself and I think that’s valuable, too. I’m excited to have her back with me.”

As the Liberty look to run their momentum from 2023 all the way back to the 2024 WNBA Finals, Vandersloot believes that the team will face smaller hurdles this spring than the Liberty faced just over a year ago. Training camp was chaotic. Vandersloot herself had sustained a concussion, Jones was working her way back from an injury and Stewart was limited after a full Turkish playoffs overseas. 

While avenging the ugly game four finals loss will be players’ minds, Vandersloot made sure to say that if that loss is the team’s only motivation, they might not get back to where they want to be. She recalled that unexplainable feeling the team felt following the defeat, the disappointment that came with being on the cusp of a championship for the first time in franchise history.

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For Vandersloot, there is a middle ground for how she and her team will remember that time and reflect upon it during the Liberty’s upcoming season. October 18, 2023 will be a reminder, but it can’t be all consuming.

“We have a lot of things, a lot of steps that we need to take before we’re even talking about that,” Vandersloot said about trying to win it all in 2024. “But I think just being able to play our best, be the New York Liberty, all of those things and the rest will take care of itself.” 

Meanwhile, with 58 days to go before the Liberty’s home opener against the Indiana Fever, both Vandersloot and her new companion Ellie the Elephant are preparing to be the best at what they both do best.

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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