WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert: It’s more than just a weight room
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Sophie Cunningham is a guard for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA. A University of Missouri alum, Cunningham was the highest former Tiger ever drafted into the WNBA when she was picked 13th by Phoenix in the 2019 draft. We caught up with Sophie to talk about life in the Wubble, playing alongside some of the game’s best, and what she’s looking forward to the rest of this season.
[Editor’s note: this interview took place before Phoenix announced that Brittney Griner would be leaving the bubble for personal reasons.]
We are a brand new team. The only two people who’ve been playing together for more than two years are Brittney Griner and Diana [Taurasi]. You have to kind of show us a little bit of grace considering no one’s really ever played together.
But when you have the big three – BG, Diana and Skylar Diggins-Smith joining the squad – those are three big time players, and Diana is the GOAT. As a team, we’re still trying to figure it out. When we’re on, we’re really freaking good, but when we’re a little bit off, we just have to stay together and stay as one. By the end of the season, I think that we’ll be able to gel and make a long run.
Well, thank you. I think for any rookie in any type of sport the first year is really just a learning experience. There’s so much change that you just have to embrace it and don’t be too hard on yourself and try to remain confident. I think everyone in the league was formerly a big time player, but now it’s time to adjust and own your role, whatever that might be. I’m starting for our team, but I probably only average about four points a game. I know my role. My role is to bring the energy, bring the intensity, hype up my teammates and do the dirty work. Get on the floor for balls, get rebounds and make good passes into BG. When the opportunity is given, when it’s time for me to score, then I can do that too. But I think that when you’re new to the squad and you have three big players, the focus is to give them the ball when they need it.
It is awesome. Getting to know her, personally and as an athlete, I realized why she is the way she is and it just freaking kills me. I think she’s so funny. She’s so nice. But I’m also very thankful that I’m her teammate, because I would hate to play against her. She is just so ruthless and reckless, but I just freaking love it. I think it’s good for women. I think it’s good for our sport of basketball – she is who she is and she owns it. I just love it. I ask her so many questions. She gives me advice – I mean, you have to. She’s the GOAT.
Our offense is really good – we just have so many threats from top to bottom. So that’s really not our issue, but defense is something we can work on.
Traveling sucks. I think when everyone’s little they’re like, “Oh yeah, you want to travel. You want to do all that.” But when you’re doing it for a living, you don’t really get to enjoy where you are. You go to the gym, to the hotel and back home. So it’s been nice not traveling. It’s not as tiresome.
But at the same time you’re playing so many games consecutively – I think that’s pretty hard on our veterans. For me as a young player with fresh legs, I enjoy it. You don’t play one good game, you have literally two days until you can prove yourself again. So I like it, but I do see how it can be pretty difficult if you’re one of the vets.
Last year was my first year going overseas and playing. I played in Australia and when I got back around March 7th—you’re interacting with so many different types of people from different countries. And I think I got it traveling back. I lost my sense of smell, taste and had a headache for about a week, but that one wasn’t bad. But then this last time kind of got me, and I don’t know how I got it, because I was following all the rules, doing what I was supposed to just so if we had a season, I’d be able to come play. But that second time got me. I had a really bad headache, sore throat and even getting up to go to the bathroom, I was just so exhausted and out of breath. So that one sucked.
All the bad symptoms only lasted for four or five days, but I can still feel the after effects from my sternum and my ribs—they just feel way different than they did before. It is what it is. It’s a new thing. Nobody really knows about it. And so it’s hard to kind of know what to believe. I’ve just tried to follow the protocols, staying away from people as much as possible because back home we have a family farm and we’re around our grandparents a lot. And so I just want to make sure that, if anything, that them and my parents are safe. I’m following protocols in the bubble and will keep following them after the season ends.
I think one huge positive is that you get to meet and spend time with players outside of the court. Last year, we were kind of missing on our team that chemistry off the court and it showed on the court.
Our team has hung out a lot – you have no one else to hang out with. You spend every day together. So it’s been really nice, just being able to relax and watch TV together or have dinner. As a whole, I think the bubble has just been really good. People are embracing it. It’s new, it’s different. It does suck that you can’t see your family and friends like you normally do, but it’s just one of those things that we have to embrace. And I think this season we’re playing for something much bigger than just basketball. And so it’s been real fun to come together.
You don’t really notice it. At the end of the day, we’re elite athletes, it’s competitive, and you’re just so focused that you kind of forget that you don’t have fans. So I don’t really notice much of a difference, honestly. The only weird thing is doing free throws. It’s almost too quiet. You can literally hear everything. You can hear people talking.
It’s hard because you think you know your role, but it could change any given day. You just have to be really flexible and be able to adjust. What they need from me is I’m the one who brings the energy. I’m the one who communicates on both ends of the floor. I bring that fierce, competitive attitude to the court. And I know that’s what my team expects from me and that’s what I expect from myself. So that’s what I do.
I would like to finish the regular season in the top three. I think we have the power to do it. We have the players and the mindset. So now we just have to go do it on the court.
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