The Storm entered the WNBA bubble — or “wubble” as it affectionately came to be known by the players — July 6. And now, nearly three months later, they are aiming to finally leave in a few days with the organization’s fourth championship trophy in tow.
“We’re at the point now, we can see the end of the tunnel,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “If we can come out and prepare, really come out hard, get these guys, then we can finish it up and everybody can go home. That’s some extra motivation, I think, for our players.”
Life ensconced at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, will be an experience none of the Storm players will ever forget, no matter the outcome of their best-of-five WNBA Finals with the Las Vegas Aces.
The road to this particular Finals has been the weirdest, most stressful, most tumultuous, most difficult, most profound and most rewarding of them all, says the person who should know — Sue Bird, who has been a vital member of each Storm championship back to 2004.
“I think everyone could sit here and tell you a story of, at some point, hitting the ‘wubble wall,’ so to speak,” Bird said Thursday in a Zoom call. “Everybody had to, at some point, hit it, find a way to get over it and move on.
“This isn’t me trying to be dramatic. I think we’ve all handled it the best we can. In some ways, regardless of who’s the winner, we’ve all come out on top. I really believe that. But it’s been hard. It’s been tough.”
For starters, the Storm had to deal with a sudden change of coaches when Dan Hughes was held out of the bubble for health reasons. Kloppenburg, who had served an interim role last year during Hughes’ cancer recovery, masterfully guided them to an 18-4 record and a semifinal sweep of Minnesota.
The backdrop of concern over COVID-19 was a constant, and reared itself before the Minnesota series when three Storm players returned inconclusive tests. After a two-day delay in which the players in question were quarantined and retested, they were cleared and the series commenced.
Throughout their stay in the bubble, the outside world roiled with social-justice issues that were keenly felt by the WNBA players. The league had dedicated its season to Breonna Taylor and the “Say Her Name” movement, in honor of the 26-year-old Black woman who was killed by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, home. In late August the league halted for 48 hours in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The Storm’s two stars, Bird and Breanna Stewart, have been heavily immersed in the social-justice issues. Stewart is a member of the league’s social-justice council. Bird is vice president of the WNBA Players Association and was a leading voice against Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican senator who was critical of the league’s support of Black Lives Matter. Bird backed Loeffler’s Democratic opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock, and encouraged WNBA players to wear “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to games.
Bird said such advocacy took a toll, not just on her but many of the 144 players inside the bubble.
“This season was, in some parts, amazing, because it wasn’t just about basketball,” Bird said. “But what I’ve come to find out, when you’re in this world of activism and organizing, there’s this other energy you expend. And oh, by the way, you have to be a basketball player as well. So I think for a lot of people it was exhausting at times.”
Bird pointed to union president Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks. Ogwumike missed games because of back spasms she attributed to stress, and then missed the playoffs because of a migraine.
“For her, sadly, it manifested physically,” Bird said. “So this season was a lot, for all of us. For me personally, the added stress was dealing with this bone bruise and being in and out of the lineup. You’re here to play basketball, and you’re here to say her name, and one of those got taken away from me. So when you’re here to play basketball and you can’t, it’s very frustrating. It’s been a lot.”
But here are Bird — healthy enough to have her best game of the season in the Minnesota clincher — and the Storm, needing three wins to secure their fourth championship. She stressed that whenever she felt overwhelmed by the gravity of bubble life, she would be buoyed by the support the players have received. And by the chance to do Zoom calls with the likes of Stacey Abrams and Michelle Obama.
“The moment you were kind of feeling down, you had people show they were in your corner, show they have your back, and it does re-energize you,” she said. “You can live to fight another day, so to speak.”
For the Storm, the end is in sight. All but two teams have departed. The final day will be no later than a week from Sunday, when Game 5 with Las Vegas is scheduled. That’s when the wubble wall will finally come tumbling down.