June 3, 2023 

What the New York Liberty learned during a week of reunions

Jones, Stewart and Vandersloot all played against their former teams

Familiar faces, visitor locker rooms and emotional tributes were focal points of the New York Liberty’s week. In seven days, the Liberty played three teams in a row that were once the teams of their three new superstars, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot.

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The week began with a home game against Jones’ Connecticut Sun on May 27, and while Jones didn’t have to face a former home crowd yet, she hugged, greeted and then guarded former teammates. In the Liberty’s 81-65 win, Jones guarded Brionna Jones one-on-one and forced her into a shot clock violation. It was a strange sight for anyone who has kept a close eye on the Connecticut Sun in recent years: The Joneses are now on opposite sides.

That same afternoon, the Liberty welcomed back Rebecca Allen, who played for New York for seven years and was instrumental through New York’s countless ebbs and flows, coaching changes and location moves. Allen felt conflicting emotions being back in New York and wearing a different jersey, and her former teammate Stefanie Dolson experienced multiple emotions welcoming Allen back as well.

Dolson explained that, in just one season as teammates, she and Allen got really close. She spoke of how Allen’s smile can be seen from a mile away and how she played the game unselfishly and intelligently. But during her praise of her former teammate, Dolson remembered that this person she loved playing with and drinking wine with is now on the other side.

“She’s a really good player, a really good person,” Dolson said. “I just really miss her as a person.”

The bittersweetness of seeing someone or something again after a change or a trade was just beginning for the New York Liberty. Following their win over Connecticut, Stewart and Vandersloot were asked about the road trip that was to come. Head coach Sandy Brondello piped in to share her experience in 2022 returning to Phoenix as the opponent after coaching the Mercury for eight years.

“So I just kind of focus on … stay in the moment,” she said. “But I’m sure it’s not that easy. We have to get ready to go back to Seattle. I’m sure it’s going to be really emotional for Stewie and then in Chicago because they [both] had such long and successful careers [in those places].”

After arriving in Seattle, Stewart painted a picture of how strange it was to return to a place where she found herself, got married and started her family. Using the facilities at Climate Pledge Arena was familiar and comfortable but also strange. Passing restaurants that she used to eat at after games and staying with the team at the hotel rather than at her former home felt “happy sad.” 

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart stands with her hands on her hips, looking down with a small smile on her face.
New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart stands on the court during a game against the Seattle Storm at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Wash., on May 30, 2023. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd/New York Liberty)

“I’m just going to try and feel all the feels and and all the emotions and just really take it in because that’s what I owe myself and and that’s what this entire arena deserves as well,” Stewart said.

Stewart was introduced last in New York’s starting lineup so she could get her applause from the fans, and then both teams were off to the races. The Stewart-less Storm switched on a lot of the Liberty’s ball screens, which frustrated and rattled New York and Stewart. While guard Sabrina Ionescu took advantage of that in the first half, knocking down four 3-pointers on seven shots, Stewart only had three rebounds and eight points on 2-for-4 shooting, attempting one three and missing it.

The Liberty were leading 46-39 at that point, but it felt messy and too close against a team that’s projected to finish in the draft lottery. While Stewart’s first-half numbers weren’t bad, she didn’t feel like her most focused self. It was hard to concentrate.

“I was telling Sandy in the first half, I was just floating,” Stewart said postgame. “I don’t think I was really doing anything except just not sure what I was doing.”

In the second half, she found herself and adjusted to an emotional balance that she had never experienced before. She scored 17 points and added eight rebounds in the final two quarters and helped her team find a way as the Storm continued to threaten.

Stewart explained how she shifted from a half where she was in the clouds to one where she was laser focused on the game. “I was like, ‘C’mon, let’s get my shit together a little bit,’” she said she told herself. “But just trying to have that mentality of next play, next thing. Making an impact, whether it was scoring or rebounding or things like that. Sometimes the little things help lead to the bigger things.”

A few days later, it was Vandersloot’s turn to feel all the complex emotions that returning to Chicago would bring.

Just like for Stewart, it was surreal for Vandersloot. It was different to hear that she was getting cookies postgame from longtime WNBA reporter Maggie Hendricks while not on the Sky. “Oh, so she shares with everyone,” Vandersloot said. All she knew during her time playing home games at Wintrust Arena was that her former team was able to indulge in Hendricks’ cookies.

Vandersloot was also asked to clarify whether the Liberty have permission to call her “The General.” Sky guard Kahleah Copper had coined the nickname and expressed sadness over the Liberty using it. “Kah did come up with it,” Vandersloot said. “She was the first one. But I think that if I’m able to have permission, I give them permission. But honestly, we might have to bring Kah into this.”

Vandersloot came into her pregame media session talking about how she was going to train her body and mind to treat this like any other game, but it was easier said than done. Once she left the media room and trotted out onto the court as a visitor, the Chicago public address announcer welcomed her to the court. And less than 10 minutes before tipoff, the team played a tribute video that cycled through her best highlights, her most memorable press conferences and her entrances to All-Star Games.

The game began with a steal from Betnijah Laney and a kick-out to Vandersloot outside the arc. Her shot rimmed in and out, and two more threes didn’t fall in the opening half. Similarly to Stewart, Vandersloot wasn’t herself. She had two points and two assists in a first half that sent the Liberty to the locker room looking for answers as they trailed 43-35.

After a moment in the locker room where the Liberty challenged each other to play with more urgency, according to Brondello, a light went on for the point guard. She began to take in what her coach had told her previously. “Just breathe,” Brondello said. “It’s okay. Absorb it.”

Vandersloot got more aggressive in the second half, scoring six points on lane penetration to go along with six assists. The General was back. She took a breather and helped her current team put itself in position to win against her former team.

The Liberty battled back from being down as many as 12 to defeat the Sky by 77-76 on a game-winning mid-range jumper by Stewart that banked in off the glass with 7.6 seconds left.

The Liberty are adjusting to the fact that every opponent will want to give them their best showing, and every opponent will take pride in trying to knock down one of the two most talented teams in the league. This is something the franchise is getting used to, having not had a winning season since 2017. Though it’s still early in the season, Brondello explained that her team needs more of a sense of urgency moving forward and that the 4-1 Liberty need to play a more complete and consistent 40 minutes.

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While both Vandersloot and Stewart were trying to balance bitter and sweetness with playing a competitive game, Ionescu (against Seattle) and Laney (against Chicago) took the pressure off their teammates, played hard and focused on both ends of the floor.

Laney guarded the Sky’s most potent backcourt threat in Marina Mabrey and was also able to exploit Mabrey on the other end. Laney finished with an efficient 17 points on 8-for-14 shooting while holding Mabrey to 15 points on 5-for-14 shooting. But Laney noted that the Liberty wouldn’t have won the game without leadership and veteran savvy from Vandersloot.

“She showed up when it was really important for us, so credit to her for being able to withstand that storm in the first half and then come out in the second half and just be what we all know that she can be,” Laney said. “She’s very capable and we continue to believe in her, and she continues to believe in herself and just got it done.”

The Liberty have now won four in a row, but it was far from easy. Stewart appreciated the fact that her new teammates and coaching staff allowed her to take in the moment but also put it in its place. “I just really appreciate that staff and everybody for not making it a bigger thing than what it was, even though it was a really big thing,” she said.

New York Liberty guard Courtney Vindersloon autographs a black Vandersloot Chicago Sky jersey as a Sky fan looks on and grins. Several fans wait in line to be next.
New York Liberty and former Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot signs autographs at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Ill., on June 2, 2023. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd/New York Liberty)

When Ionescu was asked about how New York’s players helped support their teammates going through this emotional week, she joked about how the team viewed the whole experience as a “revenge tour.” But, jokes aside, Ionecsu noted that each player knows that they have each other’s back in anything they are going through.

“I think that’s leading by example and kind of showing all of us that, no matter what is going on, kind of riding the roller coaster of highs and lows,” Ionescu said about how her teammates were able to play through their emotions and win games. “We’re here for all the players that have gone through that this season.”

That includes Jones, who has yet to face the fans of her former team. When she does on June 27, the 2021 MVP will be a bit more prepared, having watched her teammates do it in back-to-back games. Those games were emotional, exhausting and eye-opening for the Liberty.

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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