On the Road with the Phoenix Mercury
SLAM gets unprecedented access inside the WNBA.
As the players received their boarding passes, they made their way to the gate. I stopped and got my third cup of coffee of the morning already and saw Temeka Johnson sitting next to Candice Dupree. Her website, MeeksHope.org, was re-launching that day and I wanted to make sure I congratulated her on it. “Thanks, B,” Meek replied. “I appreciate that.” While the players make considerably less than their male counterparts, their participation in the community and in non-profit organizations surpasses most professional athletes. It might not be a ton of money they can give, but their presence and genuine belief creating awareness can often times be more beneficial than a check.
Sequoia Holmes and Taylor Lilley had asked about my tattoos while we were heading in to the plane. I explained that I still have a lot of work to do on them and when I have enough money (I estimated in about 10 years) I’d be able to finish both sleeves. They laughed and understood where I was coming from. I, along with the majority of the team, had never flown Virgin-America before. Bret and I noticed the lighting was much different than a traditional plane – more of a blue/purple tone that was more like mood-lighting. Each seat has an interactive media player that can play video games, TV shows, movies, etc. Ketia Swanier is a big gamer and I shot her a text when I saw that the classic game, Doom, could be played. She didn’t respond but I asked her once we got off the flight. “Yeah I saw that!” Swanier said smiling back. “I fell asleep though, Ben.”
In Los Angeles, ESPN Deportes was going to catch up with Diana Taurasi for an all-access piece over the next several days. Taurasi is an LA native and her family still lives there. We hopped off the bus at the hotel around 2:30 pm, checked-in, and the players scattered away. Practice was canceled that day so everyone was free until the bus to shoot-around at 10:15 the next morning. Many of the players have family or friends in L.A. so they were eager to see them and spend some time with their loved ones. The majority of WNBA players are overseas half the year so just a few hours with family is, unfortunately, a luxury.
I noticed that the same routine happens with the players every game day. They grab a quick mini-breakfast in the morning before shoot-around, lunch after, pre-game nap, and then the bus heads out about two hours prior to the game. With a 3-4 start, the team called a players-only meeting to get back on track as a collective unit before facing the Sparks in the evening. I figured this would be a perfect time to do a shoot-around of my own – on the Staples Center floor. How could I not? This was at the same time when the NBA Finals was going on and I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t take a few shots. At the other end of the court, Corey Gaines and Julie Hairgrove played HORSE – Julie won.
Later on, I headed down to the lobby to get some writing done and grab what was to be the fifth of my seven coffees of the day. Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi were coming back from lunch with family and friends. “What’s up, Ben?” Diana asked me. I told her I was just chillin’, getting some writing done. “Hopefully, we’ll give you something better to write about tonight.”
They did…but the outcome wasn’t what Phoenix would’ve liked.
A shot by Candace Parker with less than 4 seconds on the clock would give the Sparks the win. Despite the loss, the Mercury looked very similar to their championship team in 2009 in terms of rhythm, scoring and execution. Just two games later against the Tulsa Shock, they set the WNBA record for most points scored in a regular season game (116).
After the game, the mood was a bit deflated in the locker room and rightfully so. From my perspective as a former player, the last thing I wanted to do after a loss was talk about it in depth with anyone. Because of this, I was hesitant to approach the team. What am I going to say? “How painful was the loss?” Maybe just, “so…what happened?” It’s a tough call for any media member to make and I usually err on the side of caution. Still, each player and coach was extremely friendly and cordial; even if the responses were fairly generic.
The bus from the Staples Center back to the hotel was pretty empty. Most of the players met up with family or friends after the game for dinner. I caught up with my friend Betty Lennox of the Sparks for a bit while waiting for the bus to depart. Obviously, she was in a great mood after the win and scoring 16 points to go along with her 8 rebounds and 6 assists.
Sleep, pack, load bags, sign autographs, get on the bus, get off the bus, unload bags, check-in, wait in the security line, eat, wait some more, get on the plane, fly, wait for bags, sign autographs, wait for bus…you know the drill. We arrived in Phoenix safe and sound at 1:30 p.m. Arizona time on June 9. Right as they stepped off the bus back at US Airways Center, the team prepared for another practice. After all, they had a game against the Minnesota Lynx at home the following night.
Looking back at the trip, it became increasingly clear to me that these players aren’t in it for the fame and certainly not for the money. What matters most is the example and inspiration they’ve become for young women everywhere. The entire Mercury staff and players couldn’t have been more approachable or courteous during the trip; not just to me but to everyone – fans, clerks, security, hotel employees, etc. The amount of love and appreciation these players have for just being in the league is awe-inspiring.. Seeing dozens of little girls at the games wearing their Taurasi jerseys and dribbling a basketball tells me it’s working and that an immense amount of progress is being made.
It’s time they have our undivided respect.