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And One with Brittney Sykes: How a change in mentality ‘saved my career’

Brittney Sykes is having one of her best statistical seasons with the Sparks in 2022. (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Have you ever thought about having a regular conversation with a WNBA player? Say, over coffee or just hanging out at backyard barbecue?

That’s the kind of vibe I’m aiming for with And One — a new regular series for Just Women’s Sports involving 10 questions. I ask about basketball things, of course, but also about their lives off the court so you can get to know the players of the WNBA a little bit better. The first edition featured a conversation with Las Vegas Aces All-Star Jackie Young.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes didn’t mind fitting in some time after practice to chat. She was as breezy on the phone as she is on the court, slicing through defenses on her way to the hoop. One of the most affable players in the WNBA, Sykes — known fondly as “Slim” by coaches, players and fans — has become one of the top defenders in the league since the Atlanta Dream drafted her seventh overall in 2017.

Sykes remains the winningest basketball player in Syracuse program history, despite suffering an ACL tear her freshman year. Since then, the 28-year-old has been named to two WNBA All-Defensive Teams and finished the 2021 season as the league’s steals leader. She currently leads the WNBA again in steals with 2.1 per game, while averaging 10.3 points, 3.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 18 games for Los Angeles.

We talked about how that injury — and a second ACL tear later on — helped her evolve as a player and as a person, where she got her nickname from, what the 10-12 Sparks need to focus on in order to make a playoff push in the second half of the season, and more in the latest And One.

1. When you saw the Sparks make offseason moves to bring Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter and Katie Lou Samuelson to Los Angeles, what were your initial thoughts?

I get to play with a big again in Liz, and then I got a dynamic guard in Chennedy and I’ll have another shooter on the wing with Katie Lou.

2. The Sparks have a roster full of talent. What do you think has been the biggest issue for the team as far as putting it all together on the court?

I don’t really think it’s an issue. I think it’s more of a thing where people get hellbent on the physical aspect of the whole thing. You see Liz, you see Chennedy, you see Katie, you see KT [Kristi Toliver], and you think, oh, this team is supposed to be 10-0, right? And then what people don’t realize is that the only people that were returning were me, Nneka and Chiney [Ogwumike]. I was the only person that played the entire season.

So, there’s a lot of variables that go into having a team like what we have right now. I don’t think people really understand that. Or those who don’t understand basketball like that, they see the people, they see the bodies and then they think, oh, this is just supposed to come together. Well, no. You’re supposed to work the kinks out. It takes teams years sometimes, and some teams get it in months. I look at it as that. It’s gonna take some time and it’s gonna take some effort.

3. How can this team turn things around and make a playoff push?

I think these last [few] games is the direction that we want to go in, how we’ve been playing. We’ve been getting points in the paint, rebounding. Of course, we’ve been working on our free throws, making them when we get to the line. We’re starting to move up in the rankings in the specific things that we want to do in this league and be top five in every category, so I think these last few games kind of showed us that we can be the team that we’re trying to be. It’s there. We’ve just got to keep going.

4. You’ve mentioned in the past that recovering from two ACL tears in 2016 has helped make you a stronger player and person. How so?

Yeah, I mean honestly, my ACLs, I think the first one was kind of eye opening, like hey, this s—t can be taken from you at any moment, right? Because I was, like, taking it for granted. I wasn’t working out like that. I just relied on my athleticism. I got a scholarship to college, like I’m on the high horse. I’m a freshman, I’m starting, all these things. And then boom, I get hit with my first ACL tear. I’m like, OK, I need to take basketball seriously.

So, I do all the work, I do all the rehab. I’m going to rehab twice a day. I’m knocking it out. The second [ACL] comes, and now I realize I need to work on the individual. I’m not a s—tty person. I take pride in my character. But my mentality was terrible. I was just all me, me, me. Like once I get this surgery, I’m good — just nonsense, complete nonsense. Once that second one happened, I’m like, you need to sit down. You need to get more in tune. Talk to a therapist. That second one definitely saved my career because there was definitely some things I was missing. I was going through PTSD and I didn’t know, and that second one definitely opened my eyes to the things I needed to improve on.

5. You’re one of the top defensive players in the league. How have you honed and improved your defensive skills over the past few seasons?

Finding new ways to just be in the play, because teams are now starting to scheme me out of the play. Whoever I’m guarding, they just take them completely out of the play and I hate it. Like, I’m starting to realize that. So now I have to find new ways to still be effective, make teams pay even when I’m not on the ball. Because teams don’t want me on the ball. They want their point guards to breathe. Apparently, I don’t let them.

6. Where does the nickname Slim come from?

It comes from [former Dream head coach] Michael Cooper. He gave it to me in training camp ‘cause I had on all black leggings. He was like, “God dammit, Slim. You just slim. You would wear black when you that skinny.” He called me Slim Quick. And in the game, he would yell at me so much. He’s like, “I can’t call you Slim Quick. I’m just gonna call you Slim.”

7. You have your master’s in instructional design, development and evaluation in education from Syracuse. What does that involve?

It’s just a long ass name for consulting. It basically teaches you how to teach others in multiple ways. That’s the best way I can describe it.

8. If you weren’t a professional basketball player, what would you be doing?

I’d be a PBA bowler. I’m nice. I’m like that. I love bowling. It’s me and my dad’s thing.

9. What show streaming on Netflix, Hulu, etc. are you obsessed with right now?

I’m obsessed with Legendary [on HBO Max]. It’s like America’s Best Dance Crew and voguing all smashed together. It is fire.

10. What is the funniest/craziest thing that’s happened to you in the WNBA?

Some of those I cannot disclose. Oh, I missed my flight. I missed a flight (laughs). It was crazy. We were at the wrong terminal and we thought we were at the right terminal. And we were texting the group like, “Hey, did the plane board yet?” And apparently as I’m texting, the flight door closed. So, there was no chance of me getting on the flight.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.