Disrupted by injuries, an ill coach and loss of the home court, the Storm had a hard 2019. Now it’s a pandemic and racial discord. Stewart and Bird say bring it on.
Since the Seattle Storm won the WNBA championship in 2018, the hoops storm rarely has ceased.
The three-time champs lost their Seattle Center home court for two seasons, now likely three. In 2019, they lost to injury their two star players, Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. Their head coach had health setbacks and won’t be on the sidelines.
Now they join the rest of the sports world, and everyone else, in finding a way to be fully functional in a pandemic, wrapped around a monumental national reckoning over racial injustice following the killing by police of George Floyd.
A week away from the start of a regular season shortened from 34 to 22 games in a sanitized, fan-free bubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton FL., the Storm is getting close to play, albeit far away.
“We all wanted to play in front of our fans and be playing in Seattle, but with what’s going on with the COVID-19, we need to stay safe,’’ forward Natasha Howard, who went to college at Florida State, said in a team teleconference this week. “I think that we’ve done a good job of bringing us all together in Florida and making sure that we are protected and healthy.
“Just having all of us together in one spot. Me, I don’t have a problem playing here.”
Even if it’s for seven weeks. Besides, their home in the newly named Climate Pledge Arena, after dealing with virus-related construction delays, won’t be ready until September 2021.
New court who dis? 😏 pic.twitter.com/uXQrAeau08
— Seattle Storm (@seattlestorm) July 16, 2020
“We’re all dealing with not having played basketball for a long time, and I’m not talking about just myself,’’ Bird said. “Even players who had to stop in March from playing overseas. Everybody is kind of dealing with all that stuff.’’
The Storm opens against the New York Liberty, which drafted University of Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. The game is 9 a.m. Friday, July 25, the first in a tripleheader of nationally televised games on ESPN.
But a few noteworthy WNBA players will not play this season.
One is Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, who will not play in order to focus on reform in the American justice system. Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics may not play either, because of off-season back surgery and an underlying history that Lyme disease which could put her at greater risk for COVID-19. Controversy swirled this week when the Mystics said they wouldn’t pay her salary in a medical opt-out, then relented Thursday.
The Storm has neither controversies nor absences. Just talent.
“We literally have a starting five on the bench,’’ said Bird, 39. “Players who have proven themselves in those roles. When we all come back together, because we have a goal in mind to win the whole thing, everybody just knows they have a role.
“Bench players who were starters (a year ago), hopefully they learn from that experience (so) when they come into the game, they can be such change-makers. In some ways it can be even easier for us . . . We do finally have what was a championship team back together.’’
In an activist league, Storm players are out front in support of Black Lives Matter. Stewart in mid-June spoke at a protest event at Renton’s Liberty Park, as did Jewell Loyd. The WNBA is dedicating the weekend’s opening games to Black Lives Matter.
“It’s really important, especially the league being 80 percent African-American,’’ guard Jordin Canada said. “It’s super important to continue to voice our concerns, our opinions about what’s going on in the world. Not just what’s going on with us, but younger girls growing up, and what we all struggle with. For them to know that we aren’t just athletes, that we’re more than that.
“This is a powerful time to show what side we’re on, and being very open and advocating for Black Lives Matter.”
Added CEO and GM Alisha Valavanis: “This season is about much more than showing the world’s greatest basketball players – it is about amplifying their strong voices. Our season gives us a platform to drive positive action in the fight to end systemic racism and injustices against our Black communities in this country.’’
Although Stewart (Achilles tendon surgery) and Bird (knee) are back, head coach Dan Hughes will be out this season. He had cancer treatment last summer, and also is over 65 and at more risk for serious consequences from COVID-19. Assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg, the son of former Sonics assistant Bob Kloppenburg, will take over.
“Coach Dan was so much fun to work with,’’ Kloppenburg said. “It was difficult going through that. But you have to move on. We’re not in a normal situation. None of us are. You just adjust and move on. I’m just excited for the opportunity to be able to have such a great group of players.
“The best way to coach these guys is don’t mess them up. Don’t over-coach.’’
This week in practice, Stewart was cut under her right eye from an accidental elbow, but said she was fine.
“It feels great to be back — we went from 2018 right to 2020,’’ Stewart said. “For Sue and I, that’s how it’s going to feel because we didn’t play in 2019. We are here in the bubble and we’re going to try to win.’’
Bird thinks Stewart will be as great as she was when she won the MVP award in 2018.
“I think her skill set combined with her size, combined with her basketball acumen, it’s just all the makings of a great player at her size,’’ Bird said. “It’s just going to make the game easier.’’
The Storm won titles in 2004, 2010 and 2018, then, at 18-16, made the playoffs last year and won its opener but lost to the Los Angeles Sparks in the second round. The troubles may have a payoff.
“Last year our team went through a lot of adversity,” center Mercedes Russell said. “We fought as much as we could. This year, we have our full roster back and the strength is in numbers.’’
“Being full go, having a core group and some additional players, is exciting,” Canada said. ” I think we’re a really strong team.
“That’s our plan — another title. I think we’re more than capable of doing that.”