WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert: It’s more than just a weight room
The WNBA commissioner speaks out on the NCAA weight room and what it represents.
Kiah Stokes plays for the New York Liberty of the WNBA. A graduate of UConn, she won three national titles with the Huskies. She spoke with JWS about the Liberty’s struggles this season, how they’re building for the future, and the importance of the WNBA’s social justice platform.
It’s just tough because we don’t have a full roster. We had seven rookies, and then Sabrina [Ionescu] hurt her ankle so she hasn’t been around. It’s a lot of learning. I was fortunate that my rookie year we had great vets. We had Tina Charles, Swin Cash and Tanisha Wright. They know the game, they’ve been here, they’ve done everything that we want to do. I learned from them, but the biggest thing that I took from them is just to try to lead by example. So, coming to this team when I’m the second oldest person and third most veteran when it comes to years in the league, I wasn’t really ready in terms of being a leader. It was difficult for me, but the one thing I just tried to do was just play hard and do my job. And the coaching staff seems to like it. So I think I’m doing some things right.
This whole season has definitely been a learning process for everyone. Us older players call ourselves baby vets, because we’re vets compared to everyone else who’s a rookie, but in the league, this is my fifth season, Zahui’s in her sixth, I think Layshia’s in her seventh or eighth. But like I said, when I was a rookie, I had Swin Cash and Tanisha Wright who were 10 plus years in the league. So, we’re baby vets compared to them.
It’s been good. Our record doesn’t really show how good we can be, but like you said, it’s a new coach, new system, new everything. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. So, there’s a lot of things going against us. Everyone really wants to work hard. They show up every day at practice. It’s hard because we don’t have enough practice time to get the on court chemistry that we need. When you’re going against teams like Seattle who have been building this for years or Phoenix, although they have a new roster too, but they brought in superstars. But we’re getting there. The rookies, they’re super energetic, willing to learn. They’re easy to talk to. They don’t take things personally when you try to correct them or try to give them advice. I think that’s one thing that we’re super lucky on because a lot of teams have a lot of egos and we don’t have that, which is a very, very big blessing.
Oh man, the bubble. I have a lot of complaints. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say all of them, but I will say the one good thing is we don’t have to travel for games, which has been amazing. My knees swell up when I fly, so I’m totally cool not flying. So that part has been really good. But it’s just hard because we can’t leave. We can’t do anything. We see the same people every day. It’s a lot. I don’t like being stuck in one spot. I don’t like Florida weather. It’s too hot. It rains all the time. I hate it.
But we still have a job, which I can’t say for a lot of people in America right now. So I’m trying not to complain, but it could be better, could also be worse. But this has never happened before. It’s all a learning process for everyone, and I know the league worked really, really hard to make this happen. I’m grateful for the opportunity and the job and just that we’re able to have a season. But bubble life is tough.
I talked to Sabrina when she went to see the doctors in New York, and I was just texting her, filling her in, just seeing how she was feeling. And she was like, “Bro, it’s so crazy. You don’t realize how isolated you are until you leave the bubble.” I was like, “Wait, what?” She’s like, “Yeah. You’re missing out on life.” I’m like, “Oh no.”
I guess it starts from the beginning. I think it was my rookie year or second year, us and Minnesota, we were the first teams to wear BLM tee-shirts to warm ups, and we got fined for all that. We’ve always been at the forefront of all that. And then like in the beginning of the season, Layshia Clarendon, she’s our oldest vet, and she is one of the head people on the social justice council, and so she is super passionate about this and her attitude about it makes us want to do more.
So when we all decided as a league to dedicate this season to Breonna Taylor, it was kind of a no brainer. And we’re lucky that there was a pandemic because there were no sports on TV forever. So, we knew we were going to have a platform. Off course, we get all the hate and the “Nobody watches you” comments. We don’t really care because the people that follow us understand what we do, and we’ll talk to anyone who will listen. And the fact that we’ve had a lot of games on TV and even us sitting out the game after the shooting, it just brings awareness. And I think that’s our whole thing is just bringing awareness to what’s going on. And it’s frustrating, the majority of our league is Black women and I’ve said this a million times, but the Black woman is the most disrespected woman in America. She’s sometimes forgotten about. So, we just want to keep bringing awareness and just the fact that there was another shooting with the police in the middle of the season. It’s tough and it’s draining.
And then that’s when it hits you, that we’re fortunate we have our jobs and we’re in a bubble and we’re safe here, but what if our family member was in that situation or what if a sister or a brother, or my father — it could be anyone that you know and love. It just hits home and it’s tough. So, while we’re here, yes, we want to win games, we want to work hard, we want to fight for the title and get the ring, but at the end of the day, life is bigger than basketball. So, we’re just trying to use our platform in any way we can just to bring awareness and demand justice.
There was a small discussion, and then once Milwaukee sat out, we were like, “Oh, it’s for sure. This is what we’re going to do.” It was tough though because our season is so short in general so we didn’t really think of the logistics of everything, like, okay, if we sit out now do we get the game back? Is it a forfeit? But at the time, we weren’t worried about that. We were worried about what’s right and what’s wrong. We just want to be seen and heard.
It’s tough. It’s really hard because I feel like I can’t help in the ways that I want to. Just using our platform is all we can do right now. We had a meeting, and there were talks about players wanting to just go home after this because it’s draining emotionally and mentally and physically, but we decided if we’re here and we’re playing, we have a platform. We’re going to try to just do what we can, stay relevant, stay on TV, stay in the media. We need to keep the conversation going, because once the conversation dies down, people tend to forget about it. Especially in a hard time, everyone has short term memory and one day something goes viral, the next day everyone forgets about it. So we just have to stay relevant and keep the conversation going.
Besides having someone run for president? In all seriousness though, we’ve done a lot of voting initiatives because that’s how we can affect change by electing officials that we know and trust and believe in. People in their local markets are just reaching out, just trying to find people, make sure they vote, and know how to register.
I think we did a program here within the bubble to make sure all the players are registered to vote because there’s this stigma, “Oh, my one vote doesn’t mean anything,” but if a million people feel the same way then we’re out of luck. So, we’ve definitely just tried to reinforce how important voting is. Not only for president, but for your local officials, the Senate seats, because it’s a chain reaction, and that’s one thing that they really, really focused on because yes, we want to bring attention and awareness, but we need people in the positions who can actually make change. And that was the biggest thing I think that the league has done. And I think they will continue to do it as well.
Off the court, just the same things with social justice. Just trying to have my voice be heard. On the court, I’m just trying to improve my game. It’s a contract season for me. So, I try to do my part to stay around in this league, but it is tough. And this season hasn’t been how he wanted it to go, especially record wise, but it’s one thing I just had to expand my game because the game is evolving.
To perfect the little things. In film, the eye in the sky camera is the worst thing invented, because it shows literally every single mistake. You think in a game you’re doing things right, but then on film you’re like, “Oh, I should have been one more step this way. Or I should’ve cut now instead of then.” So we’re just focusing on the little things and our coach, he’s been great. He’s very positive and he understands the situation with the seven rookies and a pretty young team, but it’s just trying to do what you’re good at and do what you know how to do and just perfect that.
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