Elevate the standard. When you’re aiming to be the best, you can’t cheat the process. You have to lay the foundation every single day, develop good habits, and ensure that everyone is pushing in the same direction. It doesn’t come overnight, but if you do continue to do things the right way, the rewards will be massive.
It’s been a four year journey for the New York Liberty to make it to this moment. In 2019, the franchise was stuck under bad ownership and in a location that was not befitting a professional sports league. The losses were difficult and things were dire for one of the original WNBA franchises. However, their loyal fans stayed with the team, continued to support, and have seen their team grow year by year since 2020. The team left 2022 on an optimistic note, and entered 2023 feeling good about where the road was taking them.
The Liberty rewarded their fans’ loyalty with an offseason for the ages. First, they acquired defensive stopper Kayla Thornton alongside the 2021 MVP, Jonquel Jones, in a blockbuster trade in January. JJ’s presence took a good team and made them a great team. And from great, they became super.
“Stew York” has been two years in the making. In 2022, Sandy Brondello, Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai met with Breanna Stewart in free agency. The team made a convincing pitch, but the allure of playing with Sue Bird in her final season led Stewart to re-up with the Seattle Storm. This time, and with the help of a friend, Stew York became reality. Stewart didn’t come alone. Courtney Vandersloot was also a free agent and she decided to join the Liberty as well. The acquisitions have vaulted the Liberty in to title contention and they pose the biggest threat to the reigning champions, the Las Vegas Aces.
When the season tips off this Spring, the Liberty will roll out possibly the best starting five in franchise history
On Thursday morning, Stewart and Vandersloot met with the media at Barclays Center. Joining them were Liberty and Brooklyn Nets co-owner, Clara Wu Tsai, head coach Sandy Brondello, and General Manager Jonathan Kolb. It was a festive atmosphere and a full circle moment for a franchise that was in dire straits as recently as five years ago.
Stewart was asked about how she can go about making the team succeed and she said:
“I think great players wanna play with other great players, and when you have those great players, they know and respect the people to the left and right of them so much that they know that they can make this work.”
Vandersloot was asked about dynasties and gave a pretty great answer:
Sloot on culture building in NY. pic.twitter.com/KH7gbn3WOv— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) February 9, 2023
Stewart and Vandersloot mentioned that they were looking to build upon the success and foundation that has been on the team over the past few seasons. Integral to that foundation is Betnijah Laney. Laney’s absence was felt throughout 2022 and Sandy Brondello has consistently cited her as essential to the team’s success. Laney’s leadership and toughness helped define the improved Liberty, and having a player like Laney that establishes a positive culture is of the utmost importance.
Chemistry is crucial to any enterprise, and the Liberty will have a little extra time to build it up. The season is expanding to a record high 40 games in 2023, and I had a chance to ask Brondello about the importance of having extra time to develop that chemistry and avoid putting too much on the players, and she said:
“I think playing more games is great for the league. I look forward to training camp. I look back to my first year in New York last year and we had so many injuries. Some days, I had five players. I had to use the first month of the season to have training camp, develop that chemistry, and learn a new system. It wasn’t just the new players. It was a new coach and how we wanted to play. My husband, Olaf [Lange], he’s on staff and has coached Courtney before. Obviously, I’ve coached against a lot of these players for so long. It will take time, but I don’t think it’ll take as much time as what everyone probably thinks because of the kind of people they - number one, the kind of players, but how they go about doing their things. They’re very unselfish, but we wanna make sure we’re playing in an entertaining way on both ends of the floor. And I think we’re gonna continue to grow the more we get used to each other. As a coach, that’s what you want.”
As Brondello alluded to, there’s a lot of familiarity on this Liberty roster. Stewart and Vandersloot played with Jonquel Jones on UMMC Ekaterinburg in the EuroLeague. Stewart played with Laney and Sabrina Ionescu on the US Women’s National Team in the most recent FIBA World Cup. Stewart has known Laney since she was a teenager as they played on Team USA. She also went to college at UConn with last season’s marquee free agent signing, Stefanie Dolson. The roster is fully bought in and all working towards the goal of winning the championship.
Star-studded CeLIBERTY row pic.twitter.com/KxBipm3k4l— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) February 10, 2023
Thursday was a full circle moment for the Liberty franchise. It wasn’t too long ago that the team was stuck with ownership that didn’t prioritize them and had them in a location that wasn’t conducive to success. The fans hung with them, and have been paid off with a team that is trying to bring a basketball championship in New York for the first time since the 1970s. As the curtain closed on one super team earlier in the morning, another rose to take its place. One city, two teams, one building, and two divergent paths to glory.
Move the needle
A theme that you could pick up throughout the presser was that everyone wants to push the WNBA forward. Stewart has been advocating for better travel conditions for the players in the league, and it’s an issue that Clara and Joe Tsai tried to remedy with great consequences. Clara Tsai couldn't delve into the specifics of the CBA as it relates to travel, but did note that it’s enough of a topic within the league and amongst other governors that it will be addressed by the Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert. Tsai spoke about investing in the league, and it’s something that has made them stand out in the WNBA.
As one would expect, it’s gonna be a hot ticket this summer. Tsai reported season ticket sales are up 55 percent for the team, and it’s a wonderful development for a team that has put a roster like this together.
Last June, I had the opportunity to a panel called “Own Your Advocacy” that featured Liberty CEO, Keia Clarke. In the discussion, she called the move to Brooklyn “a beacon of light,” and a ray of hope for how women’s sports should be treated. After the panel, I had a chance to talk with her and asked about having a space like Barclays as it relates to equal partnership, and she told me:
“In a league with 12 franchises in the cities that we are, it’s important that there be a strong team and a team in New York City. Just the amount of people that we can reach and the fandom, and the fan engagement, the people of New York City deserve a women’s basketball team to root for. And I think, and this is no disrespect to Westchester County at all, but because we had been in Manhattan for so long, to be in the boroughs, to be accessible to all of the boroughs, to be accessible to the people who have supported the team for over 25 years, that was not only symbolic but it was really a symbol of resiliency. I give all credit and all kudos to Joe and Clara Tsai for making that major decision. As the owners of the building and as the owners of the Brooklyn Nets, they thought it important, they thought it equitable to make sure that the WNBA team in New York was calling something that was of high caliber, was of high quality, home.”
Investment is such an incredibly important aspect of the team’s success, and as Kolb and Tsai noted, it goes simply beyond charter flights. The topic of expansion came up and the fact that it has been pushed back again. Tsai noted that for the league to grow, they need to get the right valuation for franchises as well as owners willing to invest in their teams.
As Stewart noted, this level of activity and movement is great for the game. It makes the WNBA a year round sport and encourages more people to tap in and watch great basketball. For us in New York, we’ve seen the result of what happens when you put support behind great players and create an environment for them on the road to a championship. The journey is just beginning, but the Liberty are continuing to elevate and set new standards for not only themselves, but for pro basketball in New York City and all over the globe.
So to hell