This weekend, the Chicago Sky defied the odds and the predictions and won their first WNBA Championship, anchored by legend Candace Parker, married gays Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, and now-established superstar Kahleah Copper. It was a shocking victory to many, as the Phoenix Mercury were anchored by gays Diana Taurasi, who was named the league’s all-time GOAT before the finals kicked off, and Britteny Griner, who lead Team USA to gold just a few months ago and was a serious contender in the 2021 league MVP conversation. And so of course Heather and Natalie got together to talk about the series, the queers, and what’s next for a league on an astronomical popularity trajectory.
Natalie: So, we should start out by admitting that we were both very wrong with our finals prediction: we both thought it’d be Connecticut/Las Vegas. In fairness, we had a lot of company…almost EVERYBODY thought we’d have a Sun/Aces final. What happened in both those semifinals that had the league’s top two teams going home early?
Heather: Great question. I think, first of all, you and I both knew that the Sky were one of those teams that were like Good Sky / Bad Sky all season. Their record did not show how great they actually had the potential to be if they were all flipped to Good Sky at the same time. And they came into the playoffs leveled up emotionally, mentally, physically and with a kind of full-game discipline they’d been missing all season. Vandersloot seemed to be operating every minute at an all-star level, Copper was just all-out astonishing on both ends of the floor with moves and finishes that could have made SportsCenter every night, Parker was somehow both wound tight and loose as a champ, Stevens stood in that lane night after night and went toe to toe with some of the biggest and most physical players in the league, Quigley made the big shot again and again, the bench provided some clutch plays and quality resting time for the vets, and while I usually get annoyed when people say “this team just wanted it more,” The Sky REALLY REALLY wanted it.
Now you were the first person I know to say the league better lookout for Phoenix when they came back after the Olympic break.
Natalie: I don’t think I fully appreciated how much that Big 3 of Skylar, Diana and BG needed time to gel and develop chemistry among them… particularly after dealing with all the injuries. But they came back from the Olympics and seemed to have built this rapport and went on this massive win streak. Still, I was surprised to see them beat Vegas in a series like that. To basically neutralize A’ja Wilson?!
Heather: My main heartbreak of the entire playoffs was A’ja Wilson. Also the Aces losing! I actually thought they were a sure-er thing than the Sun!
Once the dust settled, though, did you like this Finals match up? So many narratives in addition to the gameplay!
Brittney Griner made history during Game 2 of the #WNBAFinals 🤩
— espnW (@espnW) October 14, 2021
Natalie: I really did. I think it speaks about the competitive nature of the W that two teams could storm back from bad points during the regular season and end up in the Finals
I liked this match-up. You know how I feel about the Mercury but there were some great stories coming out of Phoenix… particularly with the emergence of Griner as the MVP caliber player that we always knew that she could be. You’ve got Skylar fighting for her first championship in the WNBA, Diana playing for (maybe) her last. Shey Peddy’s story of perseverance to get back into the W and to deliver on this level. So many good stories.
And then the Sky…whew….
Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley who both stuck around Chicago even as Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne left for other teams. Kahleah Cooper’s emergence as a future all-star. And, of course, Candace Parker. I appreciate that the narrative around CP has been about her bringing a championship back to her hometown but, for me, as a woman and as a black woman in particular, the thing that’s resonated the most is her being doubted in Los Angeles by Derek Fisher. He basically sits Parker during the playoffs last year and tells her she’s washed.
— ESPN (@espn) October 19, 2021
Heather: Absolutely, and I am so glad you brought it up! Because that’s a multi-level issue that runs up and down LA’s entire system, and as I was watching the post-game celebrations on Sunday, all I could think about was, “Imagine choosing Derek Fisher over Candace Parker.” And as you’ve shown in this clip, she said the same thing a lot more humbly and emotionally. I mean she gave basically her entire adult life and career to Los Angeles! The disrespect! The gaslighting! And look at her now.
Natalie: It’s a thing that happens to a lot of women…but, as you say, look at her now.
What do you think were the big keys in this series? How’d we end up with the Chicago Sky as WNBA champions?
Heather: So I think on the offensive end, there was a confidence and discipline to what the Sky were doing, minute after minute, night after night, and it wore the Mercury down. They let their plays develop, made the extra pass, had really pristine shot selection most of the time (which, after spending the season watching every NY Liberty and every Dallas Wings game was QUITE a change of pace), they hit the boards hard on both end on every play, took care of the ball. There was also an on-floor leadership that few teams ever get to see. We saw Parker tell James Wade to dial it back on Diamond DeShields and that she’d handle it, and DeShields played better for it. We saw the entire team encouraging Copper to keep driving, keep shooting, when her shots were falling and even when they weren’t; you could feel Copper’s belief in herself rooted in her team’s belief in her.
And then, to transition to the defensive end of the ball, Parker was as all over the physical help as she was the emotional and mental help. She never left Stevens or Stefanie Dolson stranded alone on the block against Griner. You saw her stepping up and taking those charges over and over. I don’t even know if enough good stuff can be said for the way Stevens and Dolson held their own in the paint against BG. It was textbook and all those players must have been bruised to heck. They Sky also kept coming up with huge rebounds and turnovers with nothing but grit and hustle. And while they never shut down Taurasi or Diggins-Smith, they did a great job neutralizing them a lot of the time, answering on the other end when they didn’t, and mentally they took Taurasi out of those last several games. I know she was hurt, but she was also, emotionally, beyond even her usual hot-head behavior. She spent so much complaining to the refs and yelling at them and begging for calls and, you know, clapping aggressively in their faces that she left her team playing 5 on 4 too much of the time.
What were some of your favorite moments from the series?
Natalie: As great of a series as Kahleah Copper had and, as deserving as she was of the Finals MVP, if I had a vote, it would’ve gone to Courtney Vandersloot who — to go back to your earlier statement — really wanted it more than everyone else on the floor. Watching her throughout the playoffs has been just a gift: her ability to see the floor, to get the ball to precisely the right spots at exactly the right moment… I mean, it was one of the greatest individual performances I’d ever witnessed.
One of my favorite things about the playoffs is seeing a player step up in the moment and I think that combination of Stevens, Dolson and (to a lesser extent) Ndour-Fall really did that. I mean, they were charged with guarding the MVP and the runner-up MVP in back-to-back series and just gave them both fits. Stevens’ length is such a problem for those players… and just when they adjust to that, Dolson’s off the bench and can really put a body on them and play physically.
I was so happy for Dolson when she hit those big layups late in the game. First the 3v3 gold, now coming up big in Game 4 and a WNBA championship… you love to see it.
.@bigmamastef bringing out the HEAVY MEDAL 😤🤘
— Chicago Sky (@chicagosky) October 19, 2021
Heather: There really were so many people on the Sky to just root for, and Dolson definitely became one of those people for me. Playing in that 3 on 3 Olympics tournament absolutely made her a better and more confident player. She was clutch in ways that were apparent (some big shots there at the end of games) and in ways that weren’t, like what you mentioned! She was also just fun! That bonkers reverse layup she made in game four? She blew her own mind! I think that’s actually another big difference between the Sky and the Mercury. The Sky were INTENSE but they were also having so much fun. (Which I guess is easier to do when you’re blowing out another team in the WNBA Finals.)
I was saying to my wife yesterday that when you really think about it, these Finals had more good queer stories than this season of The L Word. You’ve got the vet everyone loves and loves to hate, named the GOAT before falling apart and also her wife had a baby during the series! You’ve got the married couple, one of whom is a Chicago suburb native who grew up around Parker in AAU leagues. You’ve got the wild card who has struggled and grown and grown and grown as both a person and a player, who found an entirely new level to play on? You’ve got all that personal drama between Parker and Taurasi and the Olympics and the players who aren’t even out yet! I’m never gonna be over hearing multiple sportscasters on ESPN and ABC ask for “the wives.”
BIG SHOTS. BIG PLAYMAKING. VANDERQUIGS ❤️
— espnW (@espnW) October 17, 2021
Natalie: That was such a great moment!
I guess the other thing I’d add: the benches really mattered…and the bench for Phoenix just wasn’t there, particularly once Kia Nurse went down with that ACL injury in the semis.
Heather: I agree. The loss of Nurse was a dagger.
Natalie: The Mercury had to rotate Cunningham/Peddy into the starting line-up so they weren’t getting that usual lift off the bench…and then Kia Vaughn would come in for a few minutes to give BG some rest.
And it just wasn’t enough.
Heather: I agree. What do you think happened with Taurasi?
you mean to tell me the chicago sky have the door diana taurasi broke in their arena at their championship parade LMAO https://t.co/WmNESLqJqT
— whitney medworth (@its_whitney) October 19, 2021
Natalie: I’m not sure. I think her injuries probably caught up to her…I mean, when you’re hitting shots, you get this sense of euphoria that kind of overrides the pain receptors and it makes it easier to play through it…but once those shots start clanking off the iron, you start to feel it
Plus, I mean, you know how I feel about Diana Taurasi… but I sympathize with her being under unreal amounts of pressure. Your wife just had a baby and you have to go play basketball. You’ve got all these players on your team who have never played in the WNBA Finals or won a championship and they’re counting on you. And then, during the middle of it, the fans label you the GOAT and you’ve got to live up to that billing. That’s an impossible amount of pressure to put on one person, even when that person is Diana Taurasi?
Heather: Yes, I agree. And the Olympics on top of it, with all those expectations, the (rightful, I will say) controversy about you even making the team, everyone talking about how you’re ten million years old and this is it for you.
Heather: I also think maybe there’s something to be said about Diana Taurasi not exactly knowing how NOT to get her way. I’ve always thought if the WNBA had a bigger audience, if GIFs were going around Twitter for WNBA games the way they do for men’s professional sports, if there were more highlight reels, more post-/pre-show conversation, Taurasi’s hijinks would need some reformation. She’s an unbelievable athlete and generational basketball player who is also an unapologetic hot-headed bully who likes to get a rise out of people the same way Geno Auriemma does. I think she’s gotten away with it for so long because the WNBA has been so insular and because she’s such a star and of course because she’s white. The noise around her pushing that ref, that was picked up in the mainstream more than any WNBA controversy I’ve ever seen, I think. I don’t have a lot of love for Taurasi but it did bum me out thinking she might go out that way.
Natalie: Any other controversy maybe besides fights or domestic violence incidents or whatever other salacious stuff the media latch onto.
Here’s my question for you: both in the women’s and men’s professional game, we’re seeing the creation of these superteams… teams anchored by a trio of superstars…like Skylar, Diana and BG or A’ja, Chelsea and Liz… But in these playoffs, a team prevailed.
Do you think this will make teams re-evaluate the need to create “Superteams”
— Chicago Sky (@chicagosky) October 19, 2021
Heather: This is a very good question, and: yes. ESPECIALLY if the WNBA is serious about expansion. With a league like the WNBA that is still, to this day, struggling to make money and be taken seriously, despite its explosion of positive press and huge growth in viewership and merch sales this year, there’s gotta be some proactive parity to keep people in the seats, to keep them tuned in, and to continue to grow.
What do you think? And how do you think that might be achieved?
Natalie: I hope that team owners/general managers start to understand that superteams are great but you can’t manufacture chemistry with the same quickness that you can bring together two or three superstars. I mean, look at Washington…they put together a superteam in EDD, Tina Charles and Messeman and chances are, they’ll never play together
James Wade was great at bringing in the pieces that they needed to make the Sky a contender. Getting Dana Evans from Dallas for example. Is she going to give you big points and big minutes? Not yet. But is she going to be able to give you 5-10 serviceable minutes in a game…so you can rest Courtney Vandersloot? Yes, absolutely.
And having that recognition of those small pieces you need around your all-stars is so important. I hope that’s the lesson that GMs take from Chicago’s victory.
Heather: I completely agree with that! And also something you and I talked about last time, which is: You cannot overstate the importance of veteran leadership. The learning curve in this league is steep all the way around, and the gap of performance between the league’s best players and everyone else is huge. A lot of teams could learn something from thinking about how leadership is well worth having to build in rest and recovery for your older players.
Natalie: Well, the Finals are over…and a lot of our favorite WNBA players are headed abroad for their overseas commitments…what are you anticipating from the WNBA’s 26th season? What moves are you looking for in the off-season?
Heather: Two teams I’m fascinated to watch this off-season are the Wings and the Liberty, and not just because I am big fans of both, but because they’re such similar teams with so much promise and youth and I’m so curious to see who they add to their mixes, who they think they can live without, and how Vicki Johnson and Walt Hopkins incorporate what they learned about the alchemy of their players this year and if they’re able to find ways to highlight their strengths and shore up their weaknesses. I’m also curious about how much longer we’re gonna see the greats like Parker, Taurasi, Bird; will Angel McCoughtry give it one more try? And then players like Tina Charles who need their ring before they retire and are surely looking for the best opportunity to snag it, especially after Parker’s return to Chicago. How about you?
Natalie: I’m looking at Atlanta and Washington. I like the Dream’s selection of Tanisha Wright as the head coach but it feels like that organization has so many problems to work through, I’m not sure how they’ll manage. If the talk is true and they’re not planning to bring back Courtney Williams or Crystal Bradford, what are they going to do? How will they handle the situation with Chennedy Carter? There are so many unknowns with the Dream
I still think their best move is to beg Maya Moore to come play for them but that seems unlikely.
Heather: I was just going to ask if Maya Moore would ever come back! And now you’ve spoken it!
Natalie: I think Washington has to stop being nostalgic and get real about their future. Is Elena Delle Donne ever going to be 100% again? Can they keep Tina Charles if they’re still unsure about EDD? How long do you wait for Emma Messemann to fulfill her obligations to the Belgium team? Do you re-sign Myisha Hines-Allen or do you let her go? A lot of questions for the Mystics to answer.
I don’t know if Maya Moore ever wants to play basketball again. I think that Atlanta has to have the most appeal for her: it’s her hometown team, she’d revitalize the Dream and give them championship hopes….and she’d obviously have a platform from which to talk about her passion for social justice.
Heather: She could also diversify her financial portfolio! Angel owns an ice cream shop in Atlanta still!
These are good questions and I’ll also be curious to see how they all shake out. I feel like the Dream is cursed at this point. They need to sage that whole place, from the practice gyms to the locker rooms to the front offices.
Heather: There’s a lot of talk of expansion right now. How do you feel about that?
Natalie: I think the league has to announce a new team within a year.
What do you think is the best city for a new team right now?
Natalie: I’m not sure I think they’re the best city but I feel like Oakland’s the best positioned for a franchise. Thanks in large part to their openly queer vice mayor Roberta Kaplan, who’s been spearheading the effort.
What about you? Knoxville, maybe? Memphis?
Heather: If they’re going to look at the southeast, I think somewhere like Charlotte would be a cool place to consider. Or, I guess, reconsider. The Sting didn’t really have a chance with the way things were when they folded, but Charlotte as a market is an entirely different place now. It’s a city full of queer people, over 50% POC, and transplants from all around the country. It’s very much like Atlanta in that way. Plus, you’ve gotta think someone like Michael Jordan both appreciates the lucrative opportunity and the bet of backing a WNBA team to match his NBA team. That also gives you a direct pipeline from Dawn Staley to your roster! Secondly, for the south, maybe the unlikely candidate of: Louisville!
Natalie: Maybe once Staley’s multi-million dollar contract at South Carolina runs its cross, she’ll come back to coach the Sting. It’d be a full circle moment! Louisville is an interesting choice. Big basketball town but with no professional team currently.
Heather: If that happens, the next thing you’ll see is me dressed head to toe in purple and teal!
One other thing I’d love to talk about before we go is how much the WNBA has grown in the cultural zeitgeist this past year. They can’t keep their gear in their team stores, capacity crowds during the playoffs, social trends and Google searches up like a literal thousand percent over where they’ve ever been before, record-breaking viewership, players becoming household names, a boom of WNBA fashion blogs, and on and on. It’s been very cool to see.
I bought a Dawn Staley Olympic jersey out of the back of a man’s car trunk in a Sears parking lot in 1996! Times have changed!
Natalie: I love absolutely everything about that anecdote!
I think two things have really come together at the right moment: first, we have a commissioner that understands and prioritizes marketing the league…so now we have the relationships with Nike and Dick’s Sporting Goods…so the gear is really as accessible as it’s ever been.
The second thing is just the strength of the WNBA Players Association, led by Nneka Ogwumike and Layshia Clarendon.
Heather: You know what, that actually made me tear up. Seeing you write it so plainly and knowing it to be true, it made me feel a surge of hope for this league, for these players, and for our culture being influenced so much by these women.
On her way to the arena, @brittneygriner wore this sweatshirt. I’m addition to the @TheWNBPA’s recent ad in @nytimes, #WNBA players are taking advantage of this moment, the #WNBAFinals, with all eyes on them. (Photo credit 📸: Terri Jackson WNBPA Executive director.) pic.twitter.com/3oBCKbNdLW
— Jackie Powell (she/her) (@ClassicJpow) October 17, 2021
Natalie: They keep building on past progress and moving the league forward in new ways. They didn’t rest after the attention the league got after their BLM protests in the bubble and the support of Rev. Warnock…they looked for ways to keep advancing.
So it started with Kelly Loeffler but now they’re on to getting fertility services for players and taking out ads in the New York Times to promote reproductive freedom… If you don’t want to buy a t-shirt from one of the league’s corporate partners, the WNBAPA is working with Breaking T to develop merchandise for every single player in the league. Though i will say that both Nike and Breaking T need to work on size inclusivity.
Heather: Absolutely agree with that! And I’ve seen several pro-tweeters saying the same thing!
Well, I’m gonna get sappy before we go: I grew up entirely on a basketball court, have spent my entire life immersed in women’s basketball, and this has been my favorite season, hands down, in large part because I got to share it with you. It was a dream come true, Natalie, and my teenage self would never believe I’d had a friend to be able to talk to about my love for this game the way I’ve talked to you about it. I feel like you and I grew up on the same players and the same teams and have watched the WNBA grow from a sapling (competing with the ABL!) to the cultural phenomenon it is now. And that is such a gift for me, and I thank you!
Natalie: It’s always such a pleasure, Heather…and just remember: only 20 more days until Dawn Staley brings her South Carolina Gamecocks to Raleigh for a rematch of last year’s classic game with my beloved NC State Wolfpack….which (un)officially kicks off the college basketball season. I’ll meet you back here then to talk all about it?
Heather: I can’t wait!