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How Layshia Clarendon became a Liberty leader on and off the court

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Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

When the New York Liberty signed Layshia Clarendon back in February, back when the world was a bit normal, she was seen as the back-up and mentor to Sabrina Ionescu and a player the very young Liberty players could look up to.

“Layshia is an elite facilitator and floor general with an extremely high basketball IQ,” Liberty Head Coach Walt Hopkins said of the eight-year veteran. “She not only leads vocally, but also by consistently modeling a tireless work ethic and respect for those around her. She is going to be a massive boon to our roster and our team culture — both on, and off of the court.”

Clarendon, 29, had just come off an injury-riddled season with the Connecticut Sun when she signed, averaging only 6.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists while missing all but nine games to an ankle injury.

But off the court, Clarendon spent a lot of time on the WNBPA team that won historic benefits for players. Clarendon, as WNPBA vice president, steered the union and the league toward what she called a “queer-inclusive” collective bargaining agreement.

“From the beginning I was like, we better be queer-inclusive on this,” said Clarendon, who married Jessica Dolan in November 2017. “Does it cover this type of mom or does it cover only the person who carried the child, not if the person wasn’t going to carry? All those things from the very beginning, I’m trying to really make sure we’re making it as inclusive as possible for all types of working moms in this league.”

Then, the world changed. First, COVID-19, then the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Moreover, Ionescu severely sprained her ankle in the third game of a shortened season in the “wubble.” Clarendon was now a leader of the WNBA’s social justice effort and a key player for a team with seven, count ‘em, seven rookies (and a rookie coach, too.)

In two stories this weekend in the New York Times, Clarendon touches on both sides of her life, but the one theme that echoes through everything she does is her fearlessness. Asked by Danielle Allentuck of The Times what’s the best part of her game, she replied,

“I would say tenacity and fearlessness,” she answered. “It doesn’t matter if I get blocked, I’m going to go right back in the paint again against the same player who blocked me on the previous play.”

That same fearlessness plays out in her social justice initiatives. She played a big role in getting the WNBA to dedicate the season to Taylor, killed by Louisville police two months before Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.

“Obviously, with COVID going on, the state of the world and police murdering people left and right, it’s been more emotional and spiritual than physical most of the time. You can sleep for nine hours and still wake up and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders,” she said.

She blasted Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler, now a candidate for U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket in Georgia. Loeffler had criticized the WNBA for putting “Black Lives Matter” on WNBA courts in the “wubble.”

“Kelly Loeffler is the anti-movement,” she wrote. “She represents what happens when people choose the identity of whiteness over everything else. She was OK with owning our team. She was OK with having players who spoke out, like I have, but she is not OK with us gaining this momentum and power.”

Most recently, Clarendon also led a “day of reflection” following the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police.

“After we had a players meeting we realized just how exhausted everyone was. It was more like we needed that day. I think very much of it was standing in solidarity with our N.B.A. brothers. You could see it in people’s faces that day on TV how exhausted and heartbroken everyone was,” she told Allentuck.

“Yes, we were striking. Yes, we were fighting injustice, but we are exhausted and we are tired. We are calling it for a day of reflection and a day of mourning.”

Her big emphasis has been calling attention to the large number of women who have been the victims of police brutality. As the Washington Post reported this weekend: “Since 2015, police have fatally shot nearly 250 women. Like Taylor, 89 of them were killed at homes or residences where they sometimes stayed.”

“We are going to really focus on voting and the work we have been doing with Say Her Name, which I think can’t be understated,” she said. “At a time when Black women continue to be erased from the larger conversation of police brutality and violence, that’s why our work is particularly important.”

She’s also noted that there is a difference between how the WNBA players and NBA players can effect change. Through solidarity. WNBA players have indeed been more out front, more radical than their NBA brothers.

“Kyrie [Irving] could play or not and people are going to listen to what he says,” Clarendon said back before the NBA and WNBA players left for Florida. “But our strength [in the WNBA] is in numbers.”

Clarendon of course is an athlete as well as an activist, as the Times notes in their second story on her ... about life in the “wubble,” the WNBA players name for their “bubble” in Bradenton. A typical game day starts out with a routine that sounds exhausting, just in terms of management.

“Before heading out, I get my yoga mat out and do some stretching or Pilates. I make a protein shake with banana, peanut butter, protein powder and ice that I can have after practice,” she told Alexandra E. Petri.

“To get around, we could have either a bicycle or a golf cart. I got a bike. It’s only about a five- to seven-minute ride — 10 max, depending on how fast you go — so it’s the perfect trip. I listen to music while I go, like Chance the Rapper. I’ll see other teams, too, like the Washington Mystics, who seem to be on the same schedule as we are. It’s funny, all of us headed out to work on our bikes or in golf carts, passing one another on our daily commute.”

It’s paying off for the Liberty on the court. The 5’9” Clarendon is averaging a career-high 11.7 points a game while shooting 46.7 percent from deep. She’s also open about how much she likes going into the paint and challenging bigger players.

“It doesn’t matter if I get blocked, I’m going to go right back in the paint again against the same player who blocked me on the previous play,” he told Allentuck, noting how she deals with getting hit. “Practice finishing a lot, trying to get into people’s bodies and create contact. I think it’s a mind-set, too.”

In December, she and her wife, Jessica, are expecting their first child back in California where she grew up. So in addition to basketball and activism, there’s “parenting prep.”

“After dinner, I FaceTime with my wife. We text all day, but we try to be intentional and have a FaceTime date so we have each other’s undivided attention. We’re having our first child. It’s tough that I can’t be there right now, especially when she’s pregnant. I miss her, and I miss the physical touch. We’re so isolated here.

“When I was home, I was reading all the books, like “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Bringing Up Bébé” and everything about nutrition during pregnancy. I made juices for her all the time and would say things like, “You’ve got to eat avocado every day!””