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At WNBA Finals, players don’t lose sight of broader basketball mission

Sophie Cunningham speaks to a group of high school girls during a Her Time To Play panel discussion. (Courtesy of the WNBA)

PHOENIX — Two days after the WNBA celebrated the 25 best players in the league’s 25-year history during Game 1 of the Finals, Sophie Cunningham couldn’t get the image out of her mind.

As she reflected on the moment Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and other basketball icons walked onto the court for the ceremony at half-court, the third-year Phoenix Mercury guard realized she might never again see that many WNBA legends in one place. It also reminded her why she was sitting on a Zoom call with a group of high school girls basketball players the night before the biggest game of her career, sharing her story in the hopes of inspiring young women who want to be in her position one day.

“Those are people who started our league, and you were kind of in awe and you wanted to make them proud,” Cunningham said Tuesday night after speaking to 40 girls from two Phoenix high schools, who took part in the panel discussion, a mindfulness session and a basketball clinic at the Footprint Center as part of the WNBA and NBA’s Her Time to Play initiative.

“But it also is our responsibility to make it,” she continued. “You might not see the change now, but you might see it in 10 years for the younger people.”

Cunningham, 25, can appreciate the power of a role model. Growing up in Columbia, Mo., she wasn’t around a lot of people who played professional sports and could show her what it took to get there. When she started traveling for basketball, Cunningham met players from the East and West coast who had the types of connections and resources she never did.

“It’s a college town and that’s about it. Everything else is farmland,” she said of her hometown.

So, Cunningham looked up to her parents and her older sister, who turned almost everything into a competition in their house, and soccer star Mia Hamm. “I just thought she was a badass,” Cunningham said, “and I was like, ‘I want to be that. I could be that one day.’”

Chasity Melvin, Mercury assistant coach and former WNBA player, described a similar upbringing during the panel Tuesday night.

Drafted into the WNBA in 1999, two years after its inception, Melvin didn’t have a stable professional women’s basketball league to aspire to while she was growing up in rural North Carolina. Instead, she drew inspiration from her dad’s belief in her and the daily competitions with her two brothers and two sisters.

“You just know where you come from,” Melvin said. “I think Sophie and I already know our history and how hard it took us to get here. So it’s nothing to try to give back to the young girls because we were once those young girls.”

Local high schoolers participate in a basketball clinic at the Footprint Center in Phoenix. (Courtesy of the WNBA)

The day before Cunningham and Melvin spoke on the panel, along with former WNBA star Marie Harris and AT&T’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Jamika Doakes, Sky guard Kahleah Copper took part in a similar conversation with girls aged 10-17 from the Chicago area. Her Time To Play, launched in 2018 with the purpose of empowering young women through basketball and recently expanded to reach 20,000 girls, held the two events in between Games 1 and 2 of WNBA Finals week.

Copper, leading the Sky’s pursuit of their first championship after a breakout season, explained to the girls over Zoom that it took her a while to realize she was good enough to play in the WNBA. A naturally shy person, she said the player they now see on the court is her “alter ego.”

Not being afraid to show your competitive side is something Cunningham also preached to the Phoenix high schoolers. Our society often confines girls and women into a box, expecting them to look and act in a way that fits conventional standards of femininity. Cunningham, known for her spirited play on the court, rejected that concept.

“You don’t have to look a certain way. You don’t have to be a certain color. You don’t have to be the most athletic,” Cunningham said. “I clearly don’t jump the highest, I’m not the quickest. But I do things well and I try to do them as best I can every single day.

“So I just want, especially young females, to be confident in who they are and know it’s OK to be goofy. It’s OK to smile, laugh, but also be super competitive and put someone on their ass.”

As the Sky and Mercury prepare to meet again for Game 3 Friday night in Chicago, driving the players is not only the chase of a WNBA trophy but also the appreciation of their careers coming full circle.

“We’re in the middle of the WNBA Finals and I’m making time for these kids because it’s important,” Copper said. “It’s important to inspire them so that when they grow up and make it, they’ll be like, ‘You know what, somebody inspired me and I’m going to inspire the next generation.’”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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