Entering Tuesday’s matchup, the Phoenix Mercury and Atlanta Dream both sat with several other teams in the middle of the WNBA at 2-2. Phoenix came into the campaign considered one of the strongest teams in the league – the addition of Skylar Diggins-Smith and forming a “Big Three” with her and Diana Taurasi and Brittany Griner will bring expectations. The Dream were a question marking, having lost Angel McCoughtry in free agency, not bringing its opted-out talent to the Wubble and showcasing tons of new faces that may or may not gel.
Four games into this strange season, though, the teams were even. For much of Tuesday, they looked it on the court, too. Eventually, Phoenix separated itself, 81-74, in a game that illustrated why Taurasi is one of the best ever.
The score was 55-49 in Atlanta’s favor at the end of the third quarter, and the Mercury guard was quiet on the score sheet for the first 30 minutes. Did you possibly think that would continue?
If you did, you might not have watched much of Taurasi before. But anyone who was tuned in Tuesday night got to see what makes her so special.
Taurasi exploded in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 of her 20 points in the final period after a previously frustrating night for her. A lot of those points came at the free-throw line (including a foul she may or may not have sold on the perimeter with a few minutes to play, and her rye smile after seemed to indicate she knew what she was doing), a sign of how savvy this veteran is at understanding game situations and knowing what her team needs.
She hit some big shots, too, and let the invisible crowd know afterward. Taurasi drained a triple with about three minutes to go, then turned and shouted at nobody in particular along the sideline. Without fans, players in all sports are having to find their energy from somewhere. It’s refreshing to see Taurasi generate her own by pretending they’re all still there – friendlies cheering her on and enemies wishing for her demise – which she has done throughout this strange bubble season so far.
In response, Atlanta rookie Chennedy Carter drilled a three of her own 10 seconds later to bring the Dream back within three, a portion of the 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting the Texas A&M product enjoyed in the game.
Carter has been on fire to start her WNBA career, posting double-digit scoring efforts in all five of Atlanta’s games so far. But none of her performances have been as impressive as Tuesday’s, putting up a career night in points, minutes (33), assists (4) and steals (2). The Dream played through her as the rookie accounted for 21 attempts from the field and touched the ball as much as possible. Clearly, head coach Nicki Collen sees something in Carter, and you can’t really blame her. She looked like Collen’s best scoring threat all night, and her start to the season should encourage all Atlanta fans about her future.
For as compelling as the contest was, perhaps the most interesting development from the game was what happened beforehand. At this point, anyone watching the WNBA should be accustomed to messages of social justice, and Dream and Mercury players delivered in that respect Tuesday.
Many players from both teams, as well as members of the Chicago Sky and Seattle Storm, arrived to the team wearing shirts that read “Vote Warnock,” a reference to Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate running against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the special election in Georgia for Senate this year. Loeffler is a co-owner of the Dream and has publicly decried the WNBA’s strong embrace of Black Lives Matter imagery and messaging.
Both the @AtlantaDream and @PhoenixMercury players arrived wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts to their game tonight. For more here is story from @ramonashelburne https://t.co/th5gtsfEtv pic.twitter.com/2oLdvn3kyJ— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) August 4, 2020
ESPN’s Holly Rowe, who is reporting live from the bubble, said during the game that the idea came from Sue Bird and that all the players in the league have had Zoom calls with Warnock to vet that he’s someone they can support. After that, many players decided to sport the shirts in support, partly in response to Loeffler’s July comments.
“We wanted to come in and wear Warnock shirts,” Atlanta center Elizabeth Williams said to Rowe between the third and fourth quarters. “He’s currently running for U.S. Senate right now, and he supports everything that all the players in the WNBA support, so we wanted to make a statement and be vocal about that.”
We are @wnba players, but like the late, great John Lewis said, we are also ordinary people with extraordinary vision. @ReverendWarnock has spent his life fighting for the people and we need him in Washington. Join the movement for a better Georgia at https://t.co/hC8iF9urak pic.twitter.com/mvN5e9m4oO— Elizabeth Williams (@E_Williams_1) August 4, 2020
It seems that whenever I turn on a WNBA game this season, social justice and politics are constant topics. I don’t say this as a negative thing – players have every right to express themselves, as any individual does, and I’m not opposed to the messaging the league is providing. I do wonder, though, if this is now the new normal, and not just in the WNBA. Will professional sports leagues remain conduits for pushing these sorts of messages moving forward? Will it just be this one season where we’re bombarded with social justice and racial inequality, or will it remain in 2021 and so on? And lastly, will it make any difference at all?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I’m sure that what happens with race relations and politics in this country over the next few months in particular will shape those answers. But we might be entering a new era of pro sports, or at least the WNBA, where these issues are at the forefront whether some fans, the president or – in the WNBA’s case – an owner likes it. As Houston Texans owner Bob McNair infamously said, perhaps the inmates are starting to run the prison. Although unlike the negative connotation McNair made his statement with, it might not be a bad thing.
“Their camaraderie saying they are in this together,” Collen said. “I certainly didn’t have any part in that. That’s something the players came up with themselves and I wasn’t alerted until I saw the T-shirts come in. Didn’t have anything to do with the players association and league in any way. That’s the players doing that. It’s their way to remind people that Black Lives Matter.”