July 11, 2022 

Sights and sounds from the 2022 WNBA All-Star weekend

Inside what worked, what didn't in Chicago

CHICAGO — There are few events like WNBA all-star weekend. In a community trying to build up a league that’s only 26 years old, it represents a time where fans and media alike can celebrate the progress — and discuss how to build off it — while enjoying the best basketball players in the world putting on a show.

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That’s exactly what happened in Chicago this past weekend.

The electricity in Wintrust Arena was overwhelming on Sunday afternoon when Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles took the floor as all-stars for the last time. Even in pregame, the crowd was deafening when the starters descended from the top of the 100 level at Wintrust and walked onto the court.

It wouldn’t have been all-star weekend without honoring Phoenix Mercury center, Brittney Griner (more on her later). Each all-star came out of the second half wearing her name on their backs along with her number 42. Griner was named an honorary starter and her presence was felt even with a physical distance between her and the league right now.

Kelsey Plum took home the all-star game MVP after tying a WNBA all-star record with 30 points. She and A’ja Wilson put the clamps on Jackie Young when they hedged on her multiple times. In Saturday’s press conference, Wilson jokingly said, “This weekend, we don’t know Jackie.”

With the 18th WNBA all-star game in the books, these were the highlights from the weekend.

Sylvia Fowles dunks in final WNBA All-Star game appearance

Sylvia Fowles hadn’t dunked in a WNBA game since 2009 but she found herself in the open court with no one attempting to stop her. Fowles took a couple steps before rising up for a one-handed slam, drawing a boisterous reaction from both benches and the crowd.

Fowles wowed everyone in the building, including the captain of Team Wilson.

“I was shook,” A’ja Wilson said after the WNBA All-Star game. “I’m not even going to lie, I was so focused on trapping Jackie, so she didn’t score. When Syl got the steal and the breakaway I was like, ‘Oh my God, no way.’ When she did it, it was crazy. Syl could have walked off the court at that point and I would have been happy.”

Fowles didn’t put too much significance behind it in postgame but she was smiling ear-to-ear after providing the highlight of the all-star game.

“I think I just heard the momentum of the crowd,” Fowles said. “I probably heard a couple of benches and seen a couple of faces on the other team and I was like, just go for it. It was just in the moment. I didn’t really think about it.

Not only did Fowles dunk in her last all-star game, she hit her second-career three-point attempt. Her team drew up a play to free her at the top of the arc. She knocked down the shot to the delight of the crowd. Fowles ended the game with seven points, nine rebounds and six assists in 20 minutes.

Allie Quigley wins fourth career 3-point contest, makes history

Allie Quigley had nothing to prove heading into this year’s 3-point contest and yet she did it anyway. Right after winning the 3-point contest last year, the three-time all-star stood at center court in Las Vegas and swore off the idea of competing in the shooting exhibition again. For weeks, Quigley took questions from the media and light-hearted pushes from her family and the fans before agreeing to take part in it this year.

Her teammate and wife, Courtney Vandersloot, said she had some conversations with Quigley about giving the city what it wanted.

“I felt a little pressure because she didn’t really want to do this and I basically forced her to,” Vandersloot said before the all-star game. “By that time the final rack came, I was so excited for her and I’m so proud. It’s amazing what she can do. It’s incredible.”

The contest was held at a practice gym in McCormick Place, located across the street from Wintrust Arena (it wasn’t available to the WNBA this past weekend). The crowd was full with the all-stars’ family members, participants from the Nike Tournament of Champions and Nike Girls Nationals teams and a flood of scattered media members (more on that later).

It didn’t take long for Quigley to get ahead of the rest of the pack. She led all scorers with 26 points in the first round and took home her fourth-career 3-point contest, the most in WNBA and HBA history, before reaching her final rack. As she shot her last attempt, the PA yelled, “Allie Quigley does it again!” Her teammates ran onto the court, including Candace Parker who was sporting an Allie Quigley DePaul jersey.

For both her sake and Vandersloot’s, Quigley said, for real this time, was the last time she would be taking part in the contest.

“100%, 120%,” Quigley said. “This was it. You won’t be seeing me again.”

WNBA, Al Sharpton unite before ASG to talk about Brittney Griner

The league and its players stated multiple times leading up to this past weekend in Chicago that Brittney Griner would be one of the main focuses of the all-star game and its festivities. Griner has been detained in Russia for over 140 days and recently pled guilty in order to further the process of a potential prisoner swap.

Before the all-stars dispersed to host their sponsored events, the league opened Friday morning with a press conference with Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, and civil rights activist Al Sharpton. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association’s president Nneka Owummike and vice president Sue Bird stood behind the podium with Cherelle next to them along with Terri Jackson, who is the WNBAPA’s executive director.

Sharpton was first to speak and said, “We stand rock solid behind Brittney Griner at this stage of which she is going through.”

Cherelle displayed strength throughout the entire press conference. She didn’t take questions from the media but provided a short statement.

“I want to make it very clear that our next move as supporters for [Brittney Griner] is to make sure that the administration understands that they have our full support and are doing any and everything necessary to be able to bring [her] home as well as every other wrongfully detained American.”

Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife

Both Bird and Ogumwike spoke separately and thanked Sharpton for using his platform to send the message they have been reiterating since Griner has been detained in Russia: Bring BG home.

Sue Bird and Fowles get hero goodbyes

Throughout the entire weekend, players and coaches shared stories about the two legends making their final all-star game appearances. Memories ranging from James Wade guarding Bird when he was a Seattle Storm practice player to Fowles’ “Momma Bear” mentality were a constant theme in press conferences. It all culminated when the future hall of famers checked out with 2:10 left in the fourth quarter. The game stopped as both benches stood up and the crowd roared as Bird waved to the fans.

Bird reflected on the moment during the postgame press conference.

Fowles, admittedly, isn’t a person who wants the spotlight directed at her. However, she enjoyed the experience being in Chicago for one last celebration.

“I appreciate the love that I’m getting, which is weird because I always shy away from it,” Fowles said. “But it’s been comforting knowing that people do appreciate the things that I have done throughout my last 15 years in this league.”

Bird was given the game ball at midcourt at the conclusion of the exhibition. She gave it to Fowles as the two shared the court in an all-star atmosphere for the last time.

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Commissioner Engelbert’s “state of the union” address

Before the game, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke to the press about the league’s future endeavors and the state of the WNBA before taking questions. Here were some highlights from it.

  • Engelbert said the league is going to have 40 games in 2023 and she hopes to expand it to 44 in the future.
  • Both teams in this year’s WNBA Finals will be chartered instead of flying coach, which the players currently do now.
  • The league has narrowed its expansion search down to “10-15 cities that are interested in hosting a WNBA team.”
  • According to Engelbert, the league had been planning the all-star game from last October until this past weekend. She hopes the league will be able to announce the location of future all-star games sooner so the WNBA has more time to plan its events.
  • After fans were upset they couldn’t attend the concert from Chance The Rapper that the league hosted, Engelbert said the event wasn’t open to the public because of security issues. She mentioned recent tragedies related to gun violence across the country and in Chicago being the catalysts of that decision.
  • After Roe V. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court a couple weeks ago, Engelbert was asked if the league would move future all-star games away from states that pass laws targeting basic reproductive rights. Engelbert said, “It’s certainly something we would take into consideration, but I also think WNBA players have such a strong platform that could they effect change, and like don’t just run away from a state but also help effect change in a state where we might be playing or ultimately if we selected a state that had those restrictive laws for an all-star game.”

Where the league missed the mark

Sunday’s all-star game was a giant success but the weekend as a whole had a lot of fans questioning how much the WNBA valued the fan experience. Others pondered if some events were thrown together at the last minute. On the media side, the latter was certainly felt.

The orange carpet event, for example, took place in a small room that was poorly lit. Media members struggled to see over the first row of people stationed in the front of the orange carpet. The league did well with coordinating interviews but after halfway through there were multiple scrums talking with players with who just posed. This event probably would have worked better in a bigger and brighter space.

Most peoples’ frustration, fans and media included, came during Saturday’s skills challenge and 3-point contest. Because Wintrust Arena was occupied for a cooking convention, the league couldn’t host either competition at the Sky’s home. They settled for a practice facility next door at McCormick Place. The layout for the fans was excellent, but the WNBA didn’t open up either event to the public. According to the United Center’s website, there were no events scheduled where the Chicago Bulls play their home games. If the WNBA was looking for a venue, it potentially could have had access to the United Center.

The media section inside McCormick Place was set up so poorly that most reporters left their seats and tried to find space around the court to see what was happening. There were four rows of seats that weren’t elevated, making it difficult to do any reporting from our assigned locations. One reporter called it a “complete disaster.”

Sunday’s All-Star game made up for a lot of the miscues on Friday and Saturday but the league will definitely have to learn from them if they want to keep the fans engaged this time of year.

Written by James Kay

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