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“I can even speak more broadly that the Seattle Storm,” says the team’s CEO and General Manager. “This season, the players of the WNBA continued to show they represent something more than just the best women’s basketball players in the world.”
In July, the WNBA formed its Social Justice Council, its mission to raise awareness on issues concerning race, voting rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy. Throughout the season, players entered the court inside the Covid-secure bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, wearing jerseys emblazoned with the name of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was killed by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, in March.
Ahead of the Storm’s first game in the bubble, against the New York Liberty, both sets of players left the court ahead of the playing of the US National Anthem, save for the Storm’s Breanna Stewart and New York’s Layshia Clarendon, both members of the Social Justice Council, who remained on the floor to speak about Taylor.
“Along the way we watched those initiatives play out,” says Valavanis from Seattle in a FaceTime interview, “and it was really special that the bubble was more than hoops.”
Yet the Storm excelled at the hoops. As the No2-seed, they went through the postseason 6-0, winning by 15.3 points on average before routing the No1-seed Las Vegas Aces 92-59 in game three of the finals. The result was the franchise’s fourth WNBA championship.
Just days later, Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, appeared at an NFL post-game press conference sporting Sue Bird’s jersey in a gesture of civic, sporting solidarity. “I feel like Sue Bird in the clutch,” he told journalists of his tribute to the 17-year Storm veteran when asked about his own sterling performance.
“Saying something like ‘Oh, I was like Sue Bird in the clutch,’ is putting it on the same level without the comparison [to men’s sport],” Bird said when asked about Wilson’s comment on The Old Man and The Three podcast. “And so it does mean a lot and that was really cool for him to do and for me to see.”
Bird was one of the figureheads of the Storm’s recent rebuild and, with her teammates, helped to elevate the team to a level where it has claimed two of the last three WNBA championships.
Here, the Leaders Performance Institute investigates how the Seattle Storm’s commitment to promoting social justice underpins their success on the court.
Sisters in arms
Back in January, Bird, in her position as a Vice President of the WNBPA, the players’ union, was involved in the negotiation of the players’ new eight-year collective bargaining agreement, with landmark stipulations that included improved salaries and greater maternity benefits.
Then the pandemic intervened. The WNBA draft went virtual, the planned 36-game regular season was postponed and reduced to 22 games [with a truncated preseason], and Storm Head Coach Dan Hughes was unable to enter the WNBA bubble in June due to health concerns. He would hand the reins to his assistant, Gary Kloppenburg.
Nevertheless, the Storm’s depth and cohesion amid the disruption always placed them in good stead to reclaim the WNBA championship they had won in 2018, but nowhere are the threads of sporting excellence and social justice more tightly entwined than the WNBA. Decisions, such as the creation of its Social Justice Council, feel inevitable with the benefit of hindsight. The league may have been moving in that direction but the cause gained momentum in March when Breonna Taylor died.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, various incidents of racially-motivated police brutality. and an increasingly toxic US presidential race, the players felt they needed to act. As Bird told NPR in October: “Our season was going to have to be played with social justice messages, on our jerseys, on the floor — forefront and, to [the league’s] credit, right from the jump, they were in.” With the national elections on the horizon, the WBNA also committed to combating voter suppression through a series of voter education and registration initiatives.
It starts with establishing personal relationships and building relationships on trust and connection so that players can share with us what their hopes are off the court.
Throughout the Storm’s 94 days in the WNBA bubble [widely referred to as the ‘wubble’], the team never let up in its approach to winning games and fighting for their chosen causes. “Everyone really focused on what the season could be about, how we could stay true to our core values,” says Valavanis.
Those values come from the top. The Seattle Storm’s culture is driven by the team’s owners Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder [an Olympic silver medallist in sculling at the 1984 Los Angeles Games], and Dawn Trudeau, who make up one of the few female ownership groups in North American sport. The trio bought the team through their holding company, Force 10, in 2008. The original ownership group also included Anne Levinson, who left in 2010.
“I don’t think you can be a part of women’s pro sports, or even women’s college sports at this point, and not realize, if you’re at all awake, that you’re on the front lines of trying to generate access to opportunity,” said Gilder in a 2017 interview with ThinkProgress. “It kind of goes with the territory still. You don’t have the privilege of feeling entitled.”
Three years on, the message has been amplified, as Valavanis says: “We focus a ton of time and energy on fostering a positive culture, protecting that culture. On the court, the players are the custodians of that vision.”
“We understand what it’s like to have to band together and fight for respect,” Bird told NPR. “When you’re a male athlete you’re allowed to just play your sport. But everything about us, regardless of our play on the court, we’re judged on. We’re judged on what we look like, we’re judged on who we love. And it’s been that way for many, many years.”
This sisters in arms mentality galvanised the roster and allowed the team’s talents to flourish, even when Bird missed 11 regular games to due to bruising in her left knee. “Night-in, night-out we had different players in different roles,” says Valavanis. “The goal of the group was to win – it was not about which player scored 30 points – it was the collective interest in cutting down the nets at the end.”
Being intentional about culture
Delve into the Storm’s locker room culture and Bird’s name comes up time and again. She has played for Seattle since 2002, winning a joint-record four WNBA championships in the process. The first of those came in 2004, the second in 2010.
Valavanis arrived as CEO and GM in 2014 and immediately set upon the rebuild that saw the Storm acquire two future WNBA All-Stars in Jewell Loyd, the guard who was drafted first overall in 2015, and Stewart at forward, who was the first pick in 2016. Piece by piece the roster solidified around a clutch of generational talents and third championship followed in 2018.
It takes a collective effort across the Storm’s locker room and front office to create an environment where the world’s best want to play. “It starts with establishing personal relationships and building relationships on trust and connection so that players can share with us what their hopes are off the court,” says Valavanis.
“One of the first steps is introducing the new players to the ownership group. That’s a key part of getting to know the organisation you’re going to be part of and gives the player an understanding of the history, core values as well as future goals and hopes.
“There’s a real intentional effort to learn all about all of the individuals in our organisation and we certainly have conversations with players on how we can support them and make sure that everyone is clear what it means to be part of this organisation.” The players feel both welcomed and wanted.
Playing with WNBA icons
Within weeks of the Storm sealing the 2020 championship, Valavanis stated that her attention was turning towards free agency, which begins in January, and the 2021 draft. There can be no greater incentive than the opportunity to play in a team packed with WNBA icons.
For one, Bird is always ready to impart her wisdom and experience. “She’s the first one to reach out to new players and she’s a mentor, not just a leader,” says Valavanis. “We’re lucky to have her and her commitment to the organisation’s future.” Then there are Loyd, Stewart, Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard. “There is also no question that these players are a major part of getting to know new players and those relationships they foster are important.”
Bird and Stewart missed the entirety of the 2019 season through injury. Bird underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and Stewart suffered a torn Achilles while playing for Dynamo Kursk in EuroLeague basketball. The team needed to turn to its bench and, during the season, Bird was replaced at point guard by Jordin Canada, who started 29 games and acquitted herself admirably. This season, Canada started just 11 games but came off the bench on a further nine occasions to influence proceedings. Kloppenburg had made it clear to Canada beforehand how he intended to deploy her in 2020. In truth, his preferred starting line-up tended to pick itself when available, but he needed a sensible player rotation that enabled his veterans to rest and recover, while ensuring the younger players who stepped up in 2019, such as Canada and center Mercedes Russell, were happy despite their reduced minutes.
“We’ve talked to [Canada and Russell], and they understand obviously that their role is going to change this year,” said Kloppenburg on a media call in July. “However, those two starters that are now coming off the bench really established that they’re very good players in this league so it really enhances our team.” It augurs well for the future too.
The signs of Canada’s desire to learn were there in 2017 when she reached out to Bird during her senior year at UCLA. The two spoke on the phone and, eight months later, became teammates when Seattle took Canada as the fifth overall pick at the 2018 draft.
“It’s an honour being able to learn from the best,” Canada told Fox Sports that same year. “It’s great for me. I see her in practice and games and what she does, her confidence, the way she leads. It’s unbelievable to experience that first-hand.”
For her part, Bird was happy to talk. “It’s a huge compliment when that happens,” she said in the same article. “They are doing it for a reason. I didn’t know Jordin personally, but had seen her play a few times.” Canada also sent Bird a written note to express her gratitude.
Sue Bird is the first one to reach out to new players and she’s a mentor, not just a leader. We’re lucky to have her and her commitment to the organisation’s future.
Bird’s teammates laud both her humility and commitment to the cause. “She’s the ultimate professional. She’s incredibly humble,” Clark told NBC Sports in November. “I joked one time like, ‘listen if I had all the accolades you had, nobody would be able to tell me anything.’ That’s just who she is.
“She’s always doing her rehab and recovery workouts or just fuelling her body in a way that just helps her maintain and perform at that high level. So when you see that on a daily basis as a teammate, it only inspires you to want to do the same and learn from that.”
“I feel like I’m learning a lot from her in practices and shootarounds,” added Canada. “She is always talking to me in games making sure I understand different terminology.”
“Once this franchise started to rebuild a couple years ago, I always felt like this is my opportunity to help them and pass down as much knowledge as I can,” said Bird. “Prep them to take over and take this franchise and keep it going. That vibe has trickled on to Jordin.”
Coach Kloppenburg steps up
In June, when Hughes announced that he would not be joining his team in the bubble due to his health concerns, his assistant, Kloppenburg, took the head coaching reins. The transition proved seamless.
“I give that to the coaches in terms of how inclusive and how much of a collective the group is,” says Valavanis. “Also to Dan for his willingness to take on a role that was really important as the season played on. Although he couldn’t be in the bubble, he certainly had an important role.” Kloppenburg revealed during the bubble that he sought his counsel, with practices filmed and clips sent to Hughes.
What of Kloppenburg himself? He is a coach of four decades standing whose father, Bob, was also a renowned NBA coach, but did not necessarily expect to be taking a head coaching role at this stage of his career. He first served as an assistant coach at the Storm between 2000 and 2002 and, upon his return to the team in 2017, enjoyed two spells as interim head coach.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to be able to have such a great group of players,” he said upon his elevation. “This team is a veteran team that’s very savvy, it’s a gifted offensive team, a lot more so than last year. We want to take those good qualities from last year, keep blending them in with this team to put together kind of a combination of the last two years. This’ll be a really fun challenge to do that.”
To meet that challenge, Kloppenburg, a noted defensive specialist, promoted former Storm point guard Noelle Quinn to Associate Head Coach from her position as an assistant. He would focus on defensive matters and Quinn, who won the 2018 WNBA championship with the Storm during her final season, would focus on offensive play. His coaching ticket also included long-time Storm coach Ryan Webb.
Kloppenburg also drew on his existing rapport with the roster. “Throughout the process of Dan being the head coach, we’ve always heard Kloppy’s voice,” said Loyd in July. “He’s goofy and allows us to be our own coach, but also understands that he needs to step in and say certain things, so it’s a pretty smooth transition.”
Kloppenburg knew that he needed to let this group of champions express themselves on and off the court. “During these times, the best way I can lead is to listen, learn, follow their example and be an ally,” he told the Seattle Times in September. “I couldn’t be prouder of how these players have educated themselves and used this season to try to enact real change in this world.”
“Any time there’s something that brings you together that’s bigger than basketball, it’s a connecting point,” says Valavanis. “It’s a force to really drive the chemistry and connectedness of the group and drive the impact that the players have set to accomplish this season and beyond. We’ve watched that play out and it will continue.”
As her attention turns to 2021 and the message is clear: “let’s stay focused on what we can do off the court as well as what we can do on the court. Let’s continue to use these platforms to provide positive change.”
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This article first appeared in our latest Performance journal, which features Justin Langer, Head Coach of the Australian men’s cricket team leading the way with his reflections on how the role is shaping him as a coach. Elsewhere we spoke to McLaren F1, who switched their focus to ventilator production at the start of the pandemic, and GB Hockey, where Danny Kerry continues to build a winning men’s programme.