Sydney Colson (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimted)

For Sydney Colson, the inaugural Athletes Unlimited basketball season has been a culmination of hard work.

One of the first athletes to sign on with the league, Colson was instrumental in recruiting other players and helping to ensure the debut season would be a success. AU basketball generated buzz even before the first game tipped off in January, and the attention has only skyrocketed as the competition enters Week 4.

“It’s been really good to see how much the players are enjoying it, how much the staff is having a great time watching while they’re working simultaneously,” Colson tells Just Women’s Sports.

“And then fan support in the first week was tremendous, just seeing everybody happy that this league is in existence now, and wanting to tune in online or make it out to Vegas has been really good to see.”

As the games have ramped up, Colson’s goals haven’t shifted: Day in and day out, she is there to compete. And when her teams have been hit with COVID-19 issues, Colson has had to step up as a leader. Her experience playing professional basketball in the WNBA and abroad has helped with that responsibility.

“I think our team was the only team in the first week to lose three players to COVID-19 that probably would have started. But in basketball, there’s adversity. You’ve got to push through, and it’s next man up,” says Colson, who’s played for five different WNBA teams during her career, most recently with the Chicago Sky in 2020.

“It has been enjoyable. It’s just about figuring out each week within the group that you’re with. So, no shifting of goals — just compete.”

There has been time for some fun and games, too. Colson, who has aspirations of entering the entertainment industry when her playing career is over, is one of the league’s most active athletes on social media. Her quick wit has captured the attention of Twitter users and also flourished within the AU bubble.

The tweets offer insight into the player relationships forming in Las Vegas. While some have played against each other for years in college or the WNBA, many of them have never spent this much time together in one defined location. Colson has tried to make the most of the opportunity.

“I try to make sure I’m chatting with people that I don’t really know,” she says. “It’s a good opportunity to be around people that maybe you didn’t know before.”

The AU system that requires rotating captains to pick new teams every week has helped players forge bonds. Colson has found herself on three different teams so far: Team Mitchell in Week 1, Team Russell in Week 2 and Team Hawkins in Weeks 3 and 4. Colson and Tianna Hawkins, AU’s current points leader, have found a groove in recent weeks, giving Hawkins reason to redraft her.

Despite being shuffled around, Colson hasn’t let the changes phase her.

“Leadership, whether I’m a captain or not, it’s talking, being vocal and keeping people engaged,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t play a lot one week on a team, and then the next week you might be in a different role and you’re being asked to play more minutes.

“It’s an adjustment, and you have to be ready to adjust quickly.”

Colson has been at her best in the last two games, accumulating 922 points to vault into 18th place on the leaderboard with 2,073 total points. Through nine games this season, the guard is averaging 16.3 points, nine assists and 2.5 rebounds in 35 minutes per game.

Colson likes the AU format because it allows players like her to rebound from one week to the next. Hawkins is the most extreme example of that flexibility, jumping from 14th on the leaderboard to first after just two games earlier this month. She set an Athletes Unlimited scoring record with 38 points on Feb. 4, and then broke her own mark the next night with 46 points.

While the WNBA has established itself as the premier women’s basketball league in the nation as it enters its 26th year in existence, Colson sees ways in which Athletes Unlimited is setting itself apart.

“I think both leagues can get something from the other, and can learn something from the other,” she says. “I think the social media team here is incredible. They have a lot of people committed to it.”

The broadcasts with commentators Sheryl Swoopes and Cindy Brunson have helped shine a light on the athletes and their stories. They’ll often mic up players on the sidelines to get their live insights during the game, a feature that’s not always available for fans in professional sports.

“They’re not leaving it up to whatever media outlet is doing a broadcast for the game,” Colson says. “AU has their people. There are a ton of different camera angles throughout the game, angles that you don’t see in the WNBA. I think it’s just, like, a different book.”

Which is why Colson is planning on coming back next season.

“I was way too involved from the beginning to just do one season,” she says. “It’s been incredible.”

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.