February 10, 2023
Stewart and Vandersloot bring on new era full of star power, sacrifice and selflessness to New York
The Liberty aim to put on a show and to win a championship
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The fanfare began quite early. At a quarter past 8 in the morning, swarms of cameras were waiting at the plaza right in front of Barclays Center. New York Liberty Assistant general manager Ohemaa Nyanin was waiting close to the curb of Atlantic Avenue, expecting the arrival of two very important people who are now a part of the franchise.
Two luxury black SVU’s pulled up to the curb, and out popped new Liberty signees Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot followed by Stewart’s immediate family and her team in the car following right behind. Once Stewart walked onto the curb from the car, the cameras immediately began clicking and flashing. Vandersloot followed and in the car behind, Stewart’s wife Marta Xargay Casademont and her father Brian Stewart followed behind the two WNBA champions as they began their journey through the Barclays Center Plaza and toward the Oculus which already had giant electronic seafoam, white and black banners up on the outdoor jumbotron welcoming Stewart and Vandersloot to New York.
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The cameras followed the new Brooklyn dynamic duo and as they made their way to take some formal pictures in front of the Oculus, a person passing by the scene asked: “wait, are these famous people?” The answer in response: yes, yes they are.
The cameras flashed and Stewart and Vandersloot posed in all smiles while flexing their Brooklyn style. Stewart arrived in a houndstooth long coat embroidered with New York Yankees logos and Vandersloot took a simpler approach, arriving with layers. She had on a white and gray puffer down coat which showed her black bomber jacket underneath. Both were ready for their moment, and their many closeups which were only the beginning that morning.
When the pair finally sat down in front of more cameras and media members alongside Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb, head coach Sandy Brondello and Governor Clara Wu Tsai moments later, it all felt unreal. A vision that had been put together months upon months ago became reality right at that moment.
“I have to be honest, it’s a bit surreal,” Kolb said during his opening remarks during the press conference as he was about to introduce both Stewart and Vandersloot.
Stewart smiled at the comment and shook her head up and down, mumbling her accordance with Kolb’s assessment. “I’m sorry what was that, what did you say?” he said to Stewart.
“I agree,” she said out loud. Vandersloot smiled, giggled and then wide smiles made their way across the table spreading to Brondello and Wu Tsai like a wildfire.
“Sloot and I were coming over in the car just an hour ago and it’s like ‘can you believe it’?,” Stewart said moments later. We can’t believe that it’s actually here. We were actually able to make it happen. A lot happened. I didn’t know what Sloot was going to do.”
Stewart was referring to the chaotic nature of the 2023 WNBA Free Agency period, one where the decisions of multiple players including both Stewart and Vandersloot were connected, and in this case connected to each other. It wasn’t always certain that Vandersloot was going to join Stewart. ESPN’s Alexa Philippou reported— on the day when Vandersloot announced her final decision to the world—that she had “a very tough time saying no to her hometown team of the Seattle Storm,” the team Stewart had played for prior to her own decision to return closer to her hometown of Syracuse, NY.
While Stewart had more of a familiarity with the Liberty’s front office and ownership group due to a meeting she took with the group over a year ago in Los Angeles, how was Vandersloot—who “never thought” she “would live in New York City” and claimed to not be “much of a city girl”— convinced?
The Liberty’s plan and vision not only impressed Vandersloot, but it was the clarity of it all that left a mark on the four-time WNBA All-Star. “It was not dependent on this or you know if this happens or this happens,” she said. “It’s like this is what we see. This is what we’re gonna do. We want to bring a championship. We want to bring the best players here. We’re going to take care of you.”
Was this a reference to what she had experienced from other franchises this offseason, in particular the Storm, whose entire plan hinged on Stewart’s decision? It also could have been a reference to the franchise Vandersloot spent WNBA career in prior to New York in the Chicago Sky, a franchise that is known to struggle providing professional level amenities to their players.
What helped Stewart decide on New York wasn’t only the fact that her family is a drive away rather than a plane, but in her own words it was all about “greatness.” She wanted to be surrounded by “greatness,” a superlative that means on face value that she wanted to be in a place and in an environment that was well distinguished and had a certain high standing and status.
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What a difference five years makes. The vision that baited both Stewart and Vandersloot, and this level of stature and constant talk of meliora (striving to always be better and achieve more); was simply inconceivable in 2018. Five years ago, the Liberty didn’t treat their players like professionals, like the greatest players in the world. They played in what Vandersloot remembers as “the community center.” (She means the Westchester County Center (WCC) of course.)
But both Stewart and Vandersloot’s mission statement about why New York and why the Liberty bellows loudly and clearly that what was once impossible is now a reality.
Winning is about sacrifice
Aside from all the glitz, glam, smiles and talk about if what was happening was truly real, the Liberty’s two new stars, their GM, head coach and governor communicated what exactly the identity of the Liberty’s new look is. And that identity is going to be directly connected to how the franchise got to this point, via all the sacrifice, hard work and selflessness that led the franchise to a point where they now employ a WNBA All-Star starting five.
Both Stewart and Vandersloot took significant pay cuts to ensure that the Liberty could feature the best team that they could. No one took the supermax, so there wasn’t a sign and trade from either Chicago or Seattle. Neither Stewart nor Vandersloot even got the max salary. Betnijah Laney, who could have been an opportunity cost for adding Vandersloot, will stay on the Liberty for the final year of her contract and will help the organization that embraced her in 2021 march toward its first WNBA championship.
Getting to play with Laney, someone Stewart has known since she was 14 years old, came at the cost of taking less money, and she communicated loudly and clearly that having the best chance at a championship means being willing to sacrifice.
“To see [Laney] come into the WNBA, kind of figure out where her footing is and find a home in New York and really find success in that I think is amazing,” Stewart said on getting to reunite with Laney since their U16 days playing for Team USA.
“Her fight and her hard work and her grit has never stopped and she knew that she could be at this stage and at this level, and I’m excited to have her be on our side or to be on her side, because I know that she just doesn’t stop working, and she wants to win and she’s a competitor and that’s that’s what we all love about her.”
While Stewart spoke about a player she’s known since adolescence, her mother Heather who was watching her daughter speak to the media on Thursday, smiled and bobbed her head up and down, agreeing with Stewart’s assessment of Laney.
Let’s analyze that, shall we? Stewart’s answer about Laney reveals how she sees not only herself, but the Liberty’s other additions in Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones’ transition to their new team. Stewart’s choice of words when she said “our side” but then immediately altered her position to “her side” is intentional and doesn’t go unnoticed. Stewart and Vandersloot understand that this isn’t their team yet, or rather this might not be any one individual on this roster’s team. The duo wants to “add” to the current roster, rather than tearing it down. “We wanted to be additions and I think that was the most important part,” Vandersloot said.
And something that the Liberty’s new duo doesn’t want to alter or blow up are the values and expectations that have been built in the locker room prior to their arrival. In prior seasons, the Liberty were actively building a reputation of having a team of hard workers that play with a level of grit and pride alongside a selflessness while on the floor. Vandersloot and Stewart were both playing close attention to how the Liberty finished their 2022 regular season and how they shocked folks during the first round of the playoffs. Working hard and playing with an unrelenting grit is a streamlined response when a team doesn’t have the most talent. At the end of the 2022 season, the Liberty battled with the Atlanta Dream in the survival of the grittiest in order to make it to the playoffs.
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But now that the Liberty might have close to the most talent in the entire WNBA, how does that level of toughness and grit survive? And how do the Liberty not lose themselves in what’s on paper in making their jump from scrappy No. 8 or 7 seed in the playoffs to one of the teams with the largest target on its back?
That survives through mutual respect according to Vandersloot, and the continuity of the culture that the Liberty built when they were fighting and clawing to just even be in the playoffs will serve them well when they have more eyes on them than they’ve ever had in the franchise’s 26 year history.
What lies ahead for the Liberty and the league won’t be easy
The tall order of delivering the city of New York its first basketball championship since the 1970s is one that the Liberty don’t take lightly. Their new duo in Stewart and Vandersloot are fired up by the challenge but also are well aware of how much hard work and how difficult it will be to get there.
“It’s gonna be hard, but also, it’s going to be great,” Stewart said about how confident she is that this new group in New York can reach the ultimate goal. “And there’s going to be a lot of experiences that us as players and really everyone else has never had. And that’s the hope is to really bring it full circle back to New York, get the momentum around the Liberty and put on a show for people every night.”
In tandem with fighting for the Liberty’s first WNBA championship in franchise history, Stewart, Vandersloot and their new teammates and front office will also aim to be on the front lines of advocating for seismic changes in the WNBA especially on the subject of travel and commercial air travel. Wu Tsai spent three full days with Stewart in Turkey where they had ample time to discuss the type of macro impact their new partnership could make. While Wu Tsai didn’t comment in specifics what their plans to pressure the board of governors and commissioner Cathy Engelbert on this issue might be, she replied that getting charters for WNBA players and teams has become “enough of a topic” that she believes Engelbert will act.
When Joe Tsai and Wu Tsai moved the Liberty from WCC to the Barclays Center following the 2019 season, the road to reestablishing the Liberty as a franchise “that leads” in the WNBA was long and arduous. In 2019 New York wanted to be leaders, but weren’t exactly ready yet. The COVID-19 global pandemic pushed a lot of the foundational work that the franchise needed to do to establish itself in its new home. Also, on the court the Liberty faced growing pains. Even through the first two seasons at Barclays, the team had to climb up difficult hills to make the posseason. The Liberty still haven’t posted a winning record since 2017, the season prior to their move from Madison Square Garden.
But now, the Liberty are ready to be the leaders they had always planned to be ready to take the WNBA by storm and to another level. “We’re trying to promote our game and create those rivalries,” head coach Sandy Brondello said. “I think that’s great for the WNBA you know, hopefully more fans can come and watch us and we’re like selling it. We’re going global. We’re not just thinking about just America. I think about going global…”
Could global notoriety lead to a dynasty? The WNBA hasn’t really had one following the end of the era that was led by the Minnesota Lynx and that was challenged by the Los Angeles Sparks. Wu Tsai has been talking about bringing a dynasty to Brooklyn ever since 2021, and while she might have been referring to the Liberty’s brother team in the Nets when she sat down with Michael Grady following the Liberty’s first season at Barclays Center, that desire hasn’t changed but now is streamlined much more toward the Liberty.
But in addition to internal hope for a dynasty, there also has been external rumblings especially amongst some of the team’s most fervent fans. Ari Chambers conducted her own “Billy on the Street” like survey, and the fans are confident not only in this team’s potential but believe that the Liberty are going to be the team that conquers the defending champions the Las Vegas Aces.
“We’re winning the WNBA championship, and we’re going after Las Vegas too,” one fan said with ‘I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too’ type energy.
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.