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Kiah Stokes Discusses WNBA Strike & Whats Next for the Liberty

Basketball player about to take a shot/ JWS
Basketball player about to take a shot/ JWS

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.

You’re a verteran and a leader on the team. How have you rallied the team throughout what’s been a difficult season? 

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.

You have a new coach this season, Walt Hopkins, and a lot of new rookies. How has the team adjusted to the changes?

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.

Now that you are almost done with the season, what are your thoughts on playing and living in a bubble?

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.”

WNBA players joined the NBA in going on strike following the Jacob Blake shooting. I wanted to hear from your perspective how that all unfolded?

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.

How much discussion was there between players before sitting out games? Or was it a somewhat spontaneous decision?

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.

What has it been like being in the bubble while all of this is going on in the outside world?

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.

What more can the league do in order to amplify social justice messages? 

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.

What are you personally focused on during the rest season both on and off the court?

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.

And what would you say the team’s focus is for the last few games of the season? 

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.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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