CANADIANS COMMITTED TO BLACK LIVES MATTER AND WNBA JUSTICE MOVEMENT AS SEASON TIPS-OFF SATURDAY | Canada Basketball

CANADIANS COMMITTED TO BLACK LIVES MATTER AND WNBA JUSTICE MOVEMENT AS SEASON TIPS-OFF SATURDAY

By: Holly MacKenzie

TORONTO, Ont. (July 24, 2020) – When the 2020 WNBA season tips off on Saturday afternoon, there will be four Canadians for basketball fans in Canada to cheer for. There’s also likely to be more fans than ever before tuning in as the league seems to (finally) be on the verge of getting the attention it deserves.

After a thrilling 2019 postseason that culminated in the Washington Mystics being crowned WNBA Champions, a much-discussed new collective bargaining agreement being agreed upon, and WNBA athletes continuing to use their voices to lead in the fight for social justice and equality, momentum heading into this season is at an all-time high. 

For those who have opted in to participate, this season is dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. In a press release, the league has said all aspects of the game and player outfitting will be designed to affirm Black Lives Matter and to honour victims of police brutality and racial violence. 

Being active in the fight for change isn't new for WNBA athletes. They have been some of the most vocal professional athletes leading the conversation surrounding important social issues including systemic racism and police brutality. 

With the league set to kick off this weekend in Bradenton, Florida at the IMG Academy, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert acknowledged the uniqueness of this year’s season, via the league’s press release. 

“The 2020 WNBA season will truly be one unique to any other, and we’re looking forward to using our collective platform to highlight the tremendous athletes in the WNBA as well as their advocacy for social change,” Engelbert said.

During opening weekend broadcasts, team uniforms will display Breonna Taylor’s name as WNBA players raise awareness and seek justice for women and girls who have been the forgotten victims of police brutality. Beyond this weekend’s games, players will have the option to wear the placard with Breonna Taylor’s name for subsequent games. In addition to “Black Lives Matter” being displayed on the court teams will play on, players will also wear warm-up shirts that display Black Lives Matter on the front and “Say Her Name” on the back.

At IMG Academy, players will be living in villas with teammates for the duration of the season. Canadian Natalie Achonwa, entering her sixth WNBA season, gave fans an inside look at her home for the season, and as the first player to arrive and veteran on the Fever, also got to have the first pick of her room. 

While a “normal” WNBA season would have 36 games, this year each team will play 22 regular-season games. The postseason structure will remain the same. Following an offseason with a lot of player movement, as well as a handful of big names who will not participate in this year’s WNBA season due to medical or personal choice, there’s bound to be plenty of surprising moments and performances this year.

Though there are unknowns across all professional sports right now, what we do know is that Canadian Basketball fans can root for Achonwa’s Indiana Fever, Kia Nurse and the New York Liberty, and the Minnesota Lynx, who have a pair of Canadians, Bridget Carleton and Kayla Alexander, on their roster.

Indiana Fever are looking to end a three-year hiatus from the postseason. After finishing two games out of the final playoff spot with a 13-21 record last season, the Fever are eager to get this year’s campaign underway. With new coach Marianne Stanley and rookies Kathleen Doyle, Lauren Cox, and Julie Allemand, Achonwa, who was drafted by the Fever 9th overall in the 2014 WNBA Draft,  is second to 14-year vet Candice Dupree as senior player on the roster.

While Achonwa has earned her seniority status with the Fever in six seasons, Nurse is entering her third WNBA season with the New York Liberty since being drafted 10th overall in the 2018 draft. 

Nurse returns to the WNBA as a two-time WNBL Champion. She led the Canberra Capitals to back-to-back NBL Championships, hitting a game-winning three-pointer in Australia in early March just weeks before returning home to Canada as the pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Nurse, who was also named the WNBL MVP, is coming off a sophomore WNBA season with the Liberty where she was named a first-time WNBA All-Star starter.

The Liberty will have plenty of new faces this season, as they attempt to snap a two-year postseason drought. In addition to trading Tina Charles to the Mystics in a three-team trade and drafting Sabrina Ionescu as the first overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, the Liberty will have seven rookies on the roster this season.

Though Nurse is only in her third season, she is just one of four Liberty players with more than a year of WNBA experience. Seeing how interest in the league has grown over her two seasons with the Liberty, Nurse hopes this is just the beginning.

“I think there’s a long way to go, but I think a small increase here and there is important,” Nurse said earlier this year. “Obviously, it means we’re moving in the right direction. For the next generation of young basketball players coming up, their ability to say that their favourite player is a female player, someone from the WNBA or from college, that is telling you that we’re doing the right thing in terms of showing people who they can be and what they can grow up to be.”

For fans wanting more from the Liberty, the team will be giving fans a behind-the-scenes look at this season with The Lounge, a video series featuring Nurse and teammates Amanda Zahui and Kiah Stokes. The first episode, where the women talk about live in the Wubble (or, WNBA Bubble), can be found here: 

Minnesota Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve will lead a talented group that includes Canadians Kayla Alexander and Bridget Carleton. This is Reeve’s 11th season as head coach of the Lynx, who are coming off a first-round postseason exit to the Seattle Storm after finishing with a 16-18 record last season. The team drafted Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Crystal Dangerfield in the 2020 Draft, and added Alexander in the offseason, along with Carleton, who the team picked up midway through last season. Alexander and Carleton are roommates in Florida, sharing a villa at Bradenton. 

This is Alexander’s eighth WNBA season, and after battling back-to-back knee injuries, she is obviously elated to be back on the court. For Carleton, this will be just her second WNBA season. She’s looking to make an impression early, as evidenced by this recent buzzer beater in practice.

In an interview earlier this year, Alexander spoke about the increased media attention the league is receiving and how this will help young girls and women around the world.

“It definitely is encouraging,” Alexander said. “We still have a ways to go but I think it’s so important that for young girls, if they can’t see it, how can they dream it? How can they know, ‘Oh, that’s an option for me, I want to do that, I can do that one day.’ I think the media coverage is so important and I’m glad that we’re getting that and I hope it continues to grow and we continue to get more coverage.”

While the new CBA agreement has many positive changes benefiting players, Alexander is excited about the financial commitment being given to WNBA marketing.

“Once people get to see all of these players on a personal level and know their stories, there’s so many incredible women in our league who are more than just talented basketball players,” she said. “They have side gigs and personal stories [where], if you got to know them you’d be in awe. It’s great and I hope it continues to grow and continues to progress in the right direction.”

Saturday’s season-opening game will feature Nurse’s Liberty taking on the Seattle Storm at 12 p.m.. ET. Achonwa and the Fever will close out the opening-day schedule by facing the defending-champion Washington Mystics at 5 p.m. ET. Alexander, Carleton and the Lynx will play their first game on Sunday, at noon, against the Connecticut Sun.