Ten weeks later than originally planned, the WNBA tips off Saturday for a season that Storm star Sue Bird calls “one big experiment of trust.”
The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the league’s scheduled May 15 season opener, as states around the country sheltered in place and sports were forced to pause.
During the down time, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the league’s players union hatched an elaborate and extensive plan to play a 22-game regular-season schedule and playoffs at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“Knock on wood every day, but things are stable here,” Engelbert said Wednesday during a conference call. “So far the plan and the protocols are working. Wearing masks, washing hands, daily temperature checks.”
There were two positive COVID-19 tests when the players and staff arrived July 6 and none since.
At the time, Bird said: “Look, I don’t know if this is going to work. We’re all trusting each other to do the right thing.”
So far, so good. The protocols and precautions appear to be working.
“I’m not superstitious, but the more I talk about how well things are going, I do get a little nervous,” Engelbert said. “But I’m very confident right now.”
The season begins with a seemingly one-sided matchup 9 a.m. PDT Saturday between the Storm and the New York Liberty at the Feld Entertainment Center that’s being televised by ESPN.
Seattle was the unanimous No. 1 pick in The Associated Press preseason power poll, while a national media panel picked New York last among the 12-team league.
“That’s really tough to think about, because it’s just a preseason assumption,” backup Storm center Mercedes Russell said. “You never know how teams are going to pan out.”
The Storm’s plan seems relatively simple.
Seattle returns eight of its top nine leading scorers from the 2018 squad that compiled a league-best 26-8 record and claimed a third WNBA title after sweeping the Washington Mystics in a best-of-five championship series.
Bird, the league’s oldest player at 39 and all-time assists leader, is back running the offense after missing last season because of a knee injury.
And the 25-year-old Breanna Stewart, the 2018 WNBA and Finals MVP, looks to reclaim her title as the league’s best player following a yearlong layoff due to an Achilles tendon injury.
“Take the best of what we did in 2018 and put that together with what we did in 2019, and hopefully you get a pretty good team that’s going to be hard to deal with,” said Stewart, the AP preseason MVP. “It’s never as easy as it sounds or how it might look on paper. … You never know about chemistry until you get out there and play.
“But the thing about this group is we’ve been together. We’ve played a lot of games together, and we’ve grown together. In this league, that experience means everything.”
Coach Gary Kloppenburg, who replaces Dan Hughes this season, is tasked with somehow blending the championship formula from 2018 with the scrappy and defensive-minded 2019 team that received career-best contributions from forwards Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, reserve guard Jordin Canada and Russell.
On the eve of the season opener, Kloppenburg is relatively confident that the Storm is prepared despite a two-week training camp, which included a scrimmage against the Dallas Wings.
“I don’t sleep very well these days,” he said. “You wake up in the middle of the night. … You’re always, as a coach, it’s like 24/7.
“We feel pretty good where we’re at as far as our preparation. At some point you got to let go and let the players play. We tried to do a good job of getting them prepared. It’s a very competitive team that wants to win. We trust them. We’re all in it together.”
Once the games begin, it’s a virtual sprint to the Sept. 12 regular-season finale. The Storm plays four games in the first week, which is why Kloppenburg is stressing the importance of a fast start.
“Every game is really going to matter,” he said. “Once we get rolling, the games start coming so fast that you kind of get in a rhythm and you get in a groove. That’s what players like.”
Two months ago, many were skeptical if the WNBA would return while the nation wrestled with the coronavirus pandemic and civil-justice unrest.
The league is dedicating its season to social-justice causes, including Black Lives Matter. Players will wear special uniforms during the opening weekend that have Breonna Taylor’s name on the back.
Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician, was shot eight times by plainclothes Louisville police officers serving a narcotics search warrant at her apartment March 13.
“I had some doubts just because of everything that’s still uncertain out there,” Kloppenburg said. “With the league and players working together, they’ve really done a tremendous job of trying to make this happen. It’s an extremely difficult and uncertain time that we’re in.
“It’s obviously a historically unique situation. We’re on the cutting edge as far as a few other leagues. To do this in the face of this catastrophe is good. There’s a lot of issues. It’s not just being able to play. You have more eyes on this league. It’s a league that can really do a lot of good to try to help the progress of our nation.”
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