October 27, 2023
The WNBA in New York ‘hasn’t been like this in a long time’
What the New York Liberty accomplished in 2023
BROOKLYN — A day before the New York Liberty were about to play their first WNBA Finals game in front of their home crowd in 21 years, head coach Sandy Brondello tried to diagnose why Games 1 and 2 in Las Vegas were such duds for her team. Why did the Liberty play so poorly, missing shots they routinely make, while not communicating and playing hard defensively?
Brondello didn’t want to make excuses, but she found a rational case for the Liberty’s battle tested postseason working against them rather than for them. The Washington Mystics made the first round a sweep the Liberty had to battle for until the end. The Connecticut Sun punched the Liberty hard first at home before New York won three straight and advanced to the finals while in Uncasville. Both series drew out not just physical wear and tear— which left Sabrina Ionescu struggling to walk for the beginning of the finals— but a mental exhaustion as well.
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“I suppose everyone anticipated us being here, so that’s a lot of pressure, mental pressure, too, isn’t it?,” Brondello told reporters on October 14, a day before WNBA Finals game 3.
This wasn’t something the Liberty’s head coach discussed with her team because she didn’t want to put even more weight on a group that in just six months transformed not only a franchise but a city’s regard for basketball and women’s sports.
She spoke about her team competing even if they were more exhausted and worn out than their opponent. “We gotta lay it all out,” she said. “We can’t be kicking ourselves for the next five months wondering what the hell happened.”
The Liberty went on to win Game 3 on October 15 in front of a crowd of over 17,000 people. The last time the Liberty had a crowd of that magnitude was in 2017 during the team’s final season at Madison Square Garden. But then in their quest to send the series back to Las Vegas for Game 5, New York came up one point short and one shot short. And in turn their rivals were dog-piling in the center of the Liberty’s home court and parading around the Barclays Center with a boombox.
Two days later, Brondello told reporters that she hadn’t watched the Liberty’s Game 4 collapse, one that occurred without 2022 WNBA Finals MVP Chelsea Gray and starter Kiah Stokes playing for the opposition. She “probably won’t” for months. If she watched the game over, it would have triggered that type of destructive thinking that she hinted about prior to Game 3. Those thoughts of mentally kicking themselves “for the next five months wondering what the hell happened.”
Instead of ruminating about how the Liberty’s season ended in the here and now, which will be inevitable during the offseason, Brondello began packing up her apartment so that she and her family could return to their home across the country in Phoenix. She had to focus on something else and stay distracted. She couldn’t put any more energy into that game because it hurt so much. The Liberty came so close but yet were just so far from accomplishing what they set out to do from day one of the 2023 calendar year—win that elusive first WNBA championship. “But that’s sport, isn’t it?,” she said rhetorically.
“If you’ve been in sports, you can’t just put a team together and expect miracles. But we actually did a lot of miracles this year and I’m really proud of that.”
What was accomplished alongside falling short?
During the Liberty’s introductory press conference of Jonquel Jones on January 20, the franchise made it quite clear that their goals for the season were as high as they could be. So naturally, anything short of that was going to result in crushing disappointment.
Ionescu made sure that when she reflected on the 2023 season she referenced what these past six months weren’t. “This season wasn’t a failure,” she said.
She described to reporters that the silence she felt in the locker room after the Liberty’s Game 4 loss was striking, depressing and heartbreaking. There was a lot of hard work that the group sitting with their heads down had done to get here. Without the championship hardware, would it go unnoticed?
In the hours following that crushing defeat, Ionescu realized that a season when the Liberty won their first Commissioner’s Cup trophy, achieved the best regular season record in franchise history, set a new WNBA record for assisted shot rate over a full regular season and set a new WNBA record with 11.1 made threes per game was far from failure. A season when her teammate Breanna Stewart was awarded the first league MVP trophy in franchise history was far from failure. A season when Ionescu herself broke the single season three point record was far from a failure.
In six months, the Liberty achieved the best offensive rating in franchise history and the best defensive rating since 2017. This happened with six players that had never been coached by Brondello and her staff before. In six months the Liberty jumped from 8th in average attendance in 2022 to 4th in 2023. And those numbers lend themselves to almost a 60 percent increase over just a calendar year.
“What we’ve been able to accomplish here in such a short amount of time with this entire city backing us, behind us and doing something that’s never been done before is a success,” Ionescu said. “And so I think obviously there’s this, there was this pressure and understanding that we didn’t achieve our goal and the season, you know kind of goes to shit. And I don’t believe in that.”
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When general manager Jonathan Kolb spoke about what the Liberty accomplished in 2023, he began explaining too how raw and fresh this all felt: coming so close but yet being so far from being the last team standing. But the silver lining for him was seeing what the New York market can do when his vision of almost five years was very close to realized.
Sellout crowds and a three point shooting juggernaut and a team that played selflessly. That’s always been the vision. That’s a reason why both Kolb and Brondello were as bothered as they were by Kelsey Plum’s comments that the Liberty “didn’t care about each other” and retorted to “individual basketball.”
Creating and nurturing a team culture that greatly contrasted the 2019 team Kolb began his Liberty journey with was a mission that took a long time to behold. He needed the right coach and person to shape it and the right players to execute and believe in it.
That vision finally being realized was exemplified by the way in which Laney answered a question about the moments during the 2023 season that brought her joy. For her it wasn’t really one moment but rather it was more a feeling that came with being able to achieve greatness as a unit. “So it’s not just one moment but just those moments of us coming together, being able to accomplish something is big, like that brings me joy,” Laney said.
And that’s not just talk for the eight year WNBA veteran. When the Liberty clinched their trip to the finals, Laney’s joy was palpable. When she spoke on the podium following semifinals Game 4, she giggled. Laney, known for speaking in earnest, was just so giddy.
Is that what not caring about one another sounds and looks like?
Anyway, what comes with a lot of firsts often yields mistakes as well. The Liberty’s two foundational players in Ionescu and Laney had never made deep playoff runs in their WNBA careers. Both Brondello and Ionescu acknowledged the fact that the Las Vegas Aces also struggled to win a championship during moments when they were in position to contend. A’ja Wilson’s first finals was inside the 2020 Wubble when she and her team were swept by a Seattle Storm team that featured Stewart, Sue Bird, Natasha Howard, Jewell Loyd and Alysha Clark. Could that have been a quasi-super team? I don’t know. But what we do know is that it was a team that played together for years. Then the following year, the Aces failed to even make the finals when they lost to Brondello’s Mercury in five games.
“Vegas lost many before they were able to win and so I think it’s not losing sight [that] that’s part of the struggle,” Ionescu said. “That’s part of figuring out what it takes to get on top — is having to lose.”
The Liberty see their predicament through a more modern WNBA trend. It’s one where both the 2018 Washington Mystics and the 2020 and 2021 Las Vegas Aces had to live through losing on the largest stages before they figured out how they could win on one. With all else being equal, it stands to reason that the Liberty could also follow this path.
MVPs in Stewart and Jones took on new challenges
When Jonquel Jones appeared in a bright seafoam green suit on a wintry January day in Brooklyn, she was glowing. She was now on a team that had a huge media market around it where she could get much more shine. She was now on a team that had professional resources that she hadn’t had in her first six years in the WNBA. She was potentially going to be on a team with two players who have become friends in Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot.
But did Jones know at that moment that with all of that exciting change would come immense challenges?
When Jones sat in front of reporters to reflect on yet another lost WNBA Finals, she expressed frustration at the team’s situation, frustration over out-of-pocket comments from Plum but also gratitude for how the people around her in the Liberty organization rallied to her need when life on and off the court wasn’t going the way she wanted it to.
She began the preseason ramping up from an injury she sustained while playing in the 2022 WNBA Finals and World Cup. Her minutes were limited in the beginning of the regular season due to a need to improve her conditioning since she was out of the gym for so long. Throw that in with learning a much more read-based system that she hadn’t played in during her six years in Connecticut and that yields growing pains — and a lot of them.
Jones called this season her toughest year in the W since her rookie season. She explained how there really weren’t moments in her professional career prior to this season when she actually had to abide by the “trust the process” cliché. Some of Jones’ depressive symptoms, not feeling like going to the gym and feeling unmotivated playing basketball, began to creep in.
Her saving grace amid everything going on in her life on and off the court was her teammates.
“Thank God for my teammates and, and the ladies in the locker room to pick me up because yeah, it was just a lot of things in life happening,” she said. “It wasn’t even just basketball and then the only bright spot I had in those days was my fiancé and my teammates. And so if it wasn’t for them, I probably — I really don’t know what I would have done this year.”
While Jones found support and love in those around her on the Liberty, especially in Jocelyn Willoughby, Kayla Thornton and Nyara Sabally, her growth came not only in her ability to handle hardship but in how she leads a team. The collective heartbreak that she shares and still shares with the Liberty franchise was a large part of New York’s ability to bounce back in Game 3 and make sure the 2023 WNBA Finals weren’t ending in a sweep.
Vandersloot and Laney both agreed that Jones came into her own knowing when and how to use her voice when the Liberty had their backs against the wall. Vandersloot noticed how Jones was a “soundboard” for the entire team; other than Jones, not one player in the Liberty locker room had ever gone down 0-2 in a WNBA finals, not even two-time league MVP Stewart.
Speaking of Stewart, when she arrived to face the music of not accomplishing all that she and the Liberty had set out to do this season, she arrived once again wearing a fit that was an homage to New York culture. She had done the same when she was first introduced to the New York media back in February with a New York Yankees houndstooth coat.
When she sat down at the podium, Stewart made sure to show the reporters what was underneath her jacket. It was a metro card-like design on her shirt, but with the Puma name and logo instead. Core tag or no core tag, Stewart wasn’t going to leave New York. Reporters oooed and ahhhed taking a look at how Stewart was dressed like a New Yorker. “Listen, Puma does it right,” she said in response to the reaction. Stewart laughed.
But the first MVP in Liberty history too went through a rollercoaster of emotions. While she won the MVP this season, she had to adjust to playing in a new city, for a new coach and with new teammates. A lot of her teammates would be looking to her — something else that was completely new for Stewart, who had won championships with the companionship and leadership of now retired WNBA legend Sue Bird. From day one, Stewie wanted to show the locker room what being great and what making history ought to look like and feel like.
But also, never in Stewart’s career has she gone through this type of heartbreak. Never before had she lost a WNBA Finals. This season represented a long list of growing pains for the two-time MVP.
“Falling short of our goal is something that’s frustrating and tough,” Stewart said. “But leadership doesn’t always happen when things are going good. You know it needs to happen when things are going bad and obviously losing means things weren’t going like we wanted them to and just making sure to continue to lift my teammates up.”
But Stewart made sure that she also expressed disappointment while keeping her own head up too. When she described that emotional rollercoaster of the entire 2023 season, a thought that couldn’t escape her mind was the atmosphere at finals Game 3. It was hard for her to feel it completely while playing, but once she saw the crowd on social media and in the game film waiving their rally towels, she knew how special that environment truly was.
Stewart noticed that like the Liberty’s six month build to the top of the WNBA standings, the presence of Liberty fans also grew on a similar curve. She’s hoping that becomes the Liberty’s standard, not their exception.
“I know that the WNBA has actually been in New York City for a long time,” she said. “But it hasn’t been like this in a long time and I’m happy to have it be back and I hope that when we start this next season, the way that we finish will be the way that we start.”
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The destination franchise the Liberty have become
While Stewart, who most likely will be back for her second year with the Liberty next season, talked at length about continuing the Liberty and the WNBA’s momentum into 2024 and beyond, there are some players on the 2023 roster who might not be able to reap what the Liberty accomplish in a year’s time.
The Laurel and Hardy of the team in Stefanie Dolson and Marine Johannès not only entertained reporters for their 20+ minute question and answer period with the media, but they were also blatantly honest about their futures. For both of them, 2024 in New York is uncertain. Johannès’ main commitment is to her national team for the Olympics and Dolson could be a casualty of Kolb’s desire to have more wings and ball handlers on the roster rather than bigs next season.
Johannès, who usually lets her facial expressions do the talking, shared some moments of vulnerability. While this season wasn’t her best statistically and led to a lot of growing pains for her too, she felt like she grew up during the 2023 season.
“Anyway,” Johannès said after Dolson pipped in teasing that no, Johannès hasn’t grown up. “It’s a lot of learning and I’m really proud of what I did even if it was tough sometimes. Maybe I didn’t play my best every game, but…I’m really proud of myself. I learned a lot about basketball but also myself and yeah, I’m proud of myself.”
There was a sadness from Johannès while she spoke about how magical the Barclays Center crowd was in the playoffs and how it was unlike anything she had ever experienced in her pro career. She tried speaking into existence that maybe she could return next year while it does look quite bleak. “We have to remember that for the next season that we can bring something to New York,” she said. Who knows if she’ll be able to do that.
But both she and Dolson were asked to juxtapose that special 2023 WNBA Finals crowd with where Johannès played in 2019, the Westchester County Center. Johannès told reporters that she saw one of the before and after videos on Twitter of what the crowd was in White Plains in comparison to what it is now in Brooklyn. “We were playing at the Westchester and I saw it again those last days and it was like, ‘oh wow’.”
Dolson blurted out after Johannès that it was “awful” playing in Westchester as a visiting team and she couldn’t imagine playing there as your home arena. She even began to say that the conditions at her high school might have been better than in White Plains. While the animation that Dolson spoke with set the entire room into a cacophonous laughter, Dolson realized how jarring her comments were.
She took a beat and said that her mother taught her if you don’t have anything nice to say, not to say it. But when discussing the Westchester County Center as a professional arena, that is very difficult to do. “I’m glad that we’ve gotten better and that the Tsais have taken over and have really put investments into us and cared,” she said.
That investment was part of what brought Vandersloot to New York, a place that was way out of her comfort zone. Far away from not only her and Allie Quigley’s home in Chicago, but across the country from the town she grew up in outside of Seattle. This is something that, in conjunction with Vandersloot’s desire to win and create women’s basketball history, was what the Liberty were able to sell their point guard on.
Vandersloot left the 2023 season feeling inspired and moved by the way the city of New York embraced the Liberty so quickly. And while the five boroughs were at first a lot for the introverted Vandersloot, she found herself embracing the city and how quant and village-like Brooklyn is.
The vision that she was pitched in the cold winter months earlier this year is coming to fruition. “I can see it unfolding and to me that’s so special, because that’s why I came here,” she said. “That’s why I’m gonna be here.”
And that’s why Laney will be here too. That vision was one she believed in years before Vandersloot. But for Laney, being able to see the jump in attendance and passion for the Liberty following the COVID year of 2021 has been eye opening and humbling. She’s cognizant of how when she plays for the Liberty franchise it’s not just about her or her teammates; it’s about the fans that have been cheering for the many different iterations of this team. It’s about her mom getting to see her daughter accomplish what she couldn’t. It’s about her niece “Baby JJ” being able to have a role model at the tender age of two.
And while Laney’s niece was cooing, smiling in Vandersloot’s lap and bunny hopping all around the press room on Friday morning, Laney reflected upon what having this little toddler has meant for her journey toward bringing New York its first championship. When New York came up short during WNBA Finals Game 4, it was JJ who wiped her tears. She had no idea what was going on or why her aunt was crying.
But maybe in a year’s time, the toddler will have more of an idea. And instead, she’ll be wiping different types of tears — the tears of a WNBA champion.
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.