A year ago, things were not going well for the New York Liberty. They started out 1-7 following a rough training camp filled with injuries and late arrivals from overseas. As Howard Megdal reports in Sports Illustrated, there was one refuge for the Liberty’s new head coach, Sandy Brondello who had taken the Suns to the WNBA Finals the year before and was decidedly not used to losing. It was General Manager Jonathan Kolb’s office deep in the bowels of Barclays Center.
Every time Brondello walked into Kolb’s office, though, she’d see the three names on his whiteboard he’d been targeting since the previous offseason’s free agency: STEWART. JONES. VANDERSLOOT. Stewart and Vandersloot would be free agents, obviously, but there were already leaguewide rumblings that Jones might want out of Connecticut. Brondello said the whiteboard helped elevate her spirits as she worked with her group, finishing strong.
As every WNBA fan knew, the three names were at the very center of the league’s universe: forward Breanna Stewart, center Jonquel Jones and point guard Courtney Vandersloot who combined have won three WNBA championships, been selected to 12 WNBA All-Star games and named to the All-WNBA teams 13 times. Stewart and Jones have both won the league MVP award. They have all been winners in college, in the WNBA and in overseas leagues.
By this winter, the wish list was an accomplishment. All three were acquired by the Liberty and has Megdal points out, the three targets also wanted to play with each other, texting each other regularly about the possibility, not unlike what happened with the Nets in 2019 when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and ultimately James Harden talked about bonding in Brooklyn.
With Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney already on the roster, the Liberty now represent a powerhouse that could fulfill the promise that KD, Kyrie and James couldn’t, bring a basketball championship to New York ... and Joe and Clara Wu Tsai. Megdal writes of the combination:
Now, the Liberty loom as the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on a WNBA team, with a legitimate chance to bring a pro basketball title home to New York for the first time since the Knicks in 1973.
Unless you want to count the two ABA titles the Nets won in 1974 and 1976 (We do.)
While the Liberty’s targeting of the next Brooklyn Big Three was known around league, Megdal adds details to that and to the desire of the three women to play together. The Liberty had a lot of things going for it, the prospect of playing in New York, in a big, bright venue with a WNBA fandom that despite James Dolan’s worst efforts was ready to be revived. Not to mention Brondello who had taken her teams to the WNBA playoffs eight straight years while coaching the Australian national team. The Tsais are also popular owners in the league, pushing for added creature comforts like charter aircraft as well as top flight medical and training staffs. Bottom line: If you are pushing for the WNBA to raise its profile, reach its potential, was there a better place to attract attention than New York?
Stewart, like Durant, was the key. Clara Wu Tsai along with Kolb and Brondello, first tried to recruit then free agent Stewart in 2022, flying to Seattle to meet with the 6’4” big. That didn’t work but it planted the seed with Stewart and Wu Tsai, Kolb and Brondello met with Stewart again last season, this time in Istanbul.
Megdal quotes Stewart on the lure of a return to New York — she’s from outside Syracuse — and the prospect of playing near her family played a big role in her decision.
“O.K., what if we do this?” Stewart recalls asking (her wife Marta) Xargay. “What if we stay? What if we go? And ultimately, I mean, I’m in the best position possible, because there really was no wrong answer. But I’m excited about being home in New York. I’m excited about being closer to my grandparents. I’m excited about all the relationships that I’ve built from when I was born until when I left when I got drafted, are all going to come back and mean so much more.
“Two years ago, I wasn’t even thinking about this possibly happening. And then once I started thinking about, Oh, maybe I’m gonna go back to New York? Then it was like, I couldn’t see anything else but that.”
Ultimately, there was similar conversations over tables in Chicago where Vandersloot played with the Sky and Connecticut where Jones played with the Sun. Like the NBA, the WNBA is bound by a salary cap and Kolb was able to thread the needle to make it all work, helped by the fact that Stewart and Vandersloot are repped by the same agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas. Stewart and Vandersloot took pay cuts to get all the contracts in order.
Will it work? As Nets fans know, there’s a reason why they play the games. Bur it’s not just the Big Three that are pushing hope in Brooklyn. Ionescu is the most popular player in the WNBA and was seen as transformative when she entered the league two years ago. She’s a triple double threat anytime she’s on the floor. Laney is a proven top scorer and defender, having won the Most Improved Player award in 2020 and voted first team All-Defense the next year. There are bigs like Stefanie Dolson and Han Xu, a 3-point specialist in Marine Johannes, etc., etc. The roster is loaded.
“It took a herculean effort, a collective effort for that to come to fruition,” Kolb told Megdal. “You almost don’t believe it when you get that word. But then you go right to the next thing. How do we continue to make this team great? It’s fantastic that we have this roster that’s coming together, but we have a lot of work to do. Great, this looks awesome on paper, but let’s make it work on the court.”
- A Superteam Perfect on Paper. But Will It Work? - Howard Megdal - Sports Illustrated