The WNBA’s Never Seen a Team Like the New York Liberty
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It’s the end of a long day for the New York Liberty’s brand-new big three.
The WNBA season doesn’t start for another few weeks, but Sabrina Ionescu, Jonquel Jones, and Breanna Stewart have been at work since the early morning, trudging through hours of team-related obligations that will eventually yield the Liberty’s media guide, gameday programs, and other in-arena visuals. They’ve spent all day milling about Barclays Center, which has been transformed into a giant hall of promotional materials—but will soon be a basketball canvas for the most exciting team in the WNBA.
As afternoon turns to evening, Ionescu, Jones, and Stewart still have more to do. It’s a beautiful spring day in Brooklyn that they’d all certainly prefer to use for something else. All this, it turns out, comes with becoming the biggest story in women’s basketball. And if everything goes according to plan for this team, the spotlight on them will only grow brighter.
“I could see how you would get a first day of school type of vibe,” Jones says, with the team getting accustomed to the people they’ll spend the next six months with. “But everybody is willing to make this work because we understand how special of a group it is.”
How special? Start here: three years ago, the Liberty went 2-20. Rookie sensation Ionescu suffered an ankle injury that prematurely ended her time in the WNBA’s pandemic bubble. After two more seasons of mediocrity, they’ve gotten her some help. In a big way.
This past winter, the Liberty caused an offseason earthquake, the likes of which the WNBA had never seen before, over the course of three weeks executing a pair of mega-transactions that brought in two of the best women's basketball players in the world. First, they swung a trade for Jones, the only player in WNBA history to win the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Woman of the Year, and Most Improved Player awards.
Then came the move that really put everyone on notice—the one that brought a third superstar to Brooklyn and the loaded “superteam” label that comes with it. Stewart, arguably the most decorated women’s hooper ever at just 28 years old, signed a free agent contract with the Liberty in February. Ionescu does not hesitate to call her new teammate the best player in the league. The non-comprehensive list of Stewart’s accomplishments: four college national championships in a row at UConn, a regular season MVP, and two championships with the Seattle Storm, with two Finals MVPs. Just like that, a team touting a miserable .297 winning percentage since the start of the 2018 campaign became instant title contenders. In conversations with each of the big three, I learn that they’re still very much getting to know each other—and Jones and Stewart are still getting used to the city of eight million people that they now call home. But they’ll take a little adjustment period if it means hoisting a trophy this fall.
“We know we’re going to be a good team,” Jones says. “But it’s day-by-day. We’re not going to win a championship tomorrow.”
Still, that’s the goal—and they’ll be chasing it at the perfect time. There is a real changing of the guard happening in the WNBA, with the new-look Liberty at the forefront. The very idea of a superteam is somewhat novel to this league, as are the simmering plans for the Liberty to ditch the WNBA’s customary commercial flights and conduct their travel on private planes, something that team owner Joe Tsai has been adamant about bringing to the WNBA. The league also has a new television deal with ION that will broadcast games nationally every Friday night, parlaying the momentum of last season’s WNBA viewership—the league’s highest since 2006—and the gargantuan ratings from the most recent NCAA tournament into new fans. There are more eyes than ever on the women’s game, and more excitement, too. And now, in Brooklyn, there’s about as much firepower (especially once you include the other big time new addition, four-time All-Star Courtney Vandersloot) as has ever been assembled on a WNBA team.
“This is the fun part,” Ionescu declares. “Now we get to play with each other.”
The Liberty have a storied history as one of the WNBA’s first powerhouses, making the Finals four times in the league’s first six seasons of existence. But the sport has come a long way since then, and the Liberty haven’t necessarily kept up: their loss in the 1997 championship—which came in the WNBA’s inaugural season, and was just one game rather than a series—came a few months before Ionescu was born. The years since their last Finals appearance, in 2002, have been itinerant: the team has moved between Madison Square Garden, the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, and the suburban Westchester County Center about 30 miles north of the city. They even had a six-game pit stop at Radio City Music Hall in 2004, because the Republican National Convention was occupying the Garden. But the Liberty were purchased in 2019 by Tsai (who also owns the Nets) and have played in Barclays since 2021, which is now home to three of the most dominant female athletes alive. They arrived in their new Brooklyn digs like a trio of sitcom roommates, sort of like if you crossed Girls with The Last Dance.
Ionescu, entering her fourth season with the Liberty, lives just a bounce pass from the arena in Fort Greene, and spends offseasons in her native California. She takes the subway, but still hasn’t totally adjusted to the palpable energy difference between NYC and the West Coast—the constant din of car horns, or the way that “everyone’s dressed swaggy and doing big boy stuff.” Since she’s only in Brooklyn during the WNBA’s summer season, she gets to experience the borough in a sort of Spike Lee technicolor. “People here are just different,” she notes. “You’re like, ‘This is cool!’ Everyone’s out here hustling. You’ve gotta keep up.”
“Keeping up” is not exactly a problem for Ionescu. She did things in college that no other athlete had ever done, becoming the first Division I player of any gender to score 2,000 career points, grab 1,000 rebounds, and dish 1,000 assists. She set the NCAA record for triple-doubles while she was still a junior. Along the way, she drew praise and mentorship from Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry. But her first years in the league have not been without difficulty: she was close enough to Bryant and his daughter Gigi to speak at their memorial service, in 2020. When COVID showed up shortly thereafter, it canceled the rest of her senior season, robbing her favored Oregon team of a shot at a championship. An ankle sprain ended her rookie season after just three games, and she wasn’t totally herself in 2021, either. Playing the full 2022 season with a clean bill of health—and making her first All-Star team in the process—provided the rhythm that got her groove back.
“It had been a rough first year and a half playing for this team, just due to injury,” she admits. “So, I kind of had this negative [association]. But now I’ve had a good season, we played well, there’s a new coaching staff, my family came out to New York a lot. I was able to enjoy the city and create new memories. Now it’s happy vibes in New York.” Don’t expect a move across the river any time soon, though. “Business is in Manhattan, regular stuff in Brooklyn,” she laughs.
Jones, meanwhile, will turn 30 in January, making her the oldest of the trio, and she’s also the only one who wound up in Brooklyn via trade, citing a gut feeling that it was time for a change of scenery. In her six years with the Connecticut Sun, she perennially led the league in rebounding and made the Finals twice, but the team never finished the deal. “I’ve done a lot of things in my career,” she tells me. “One of the only things that I haven’t done is walk away with a championship. I wanted to go to a place where I would have a good chance to do that and play with people I respect.” Jones’ move to New York could very well go down as a seminal moment in league history not just for its on-court implications, but for the way it heralds the dawn of an NBA-style player empowerment era. If all goes according to plan, Jones’ decision to take her career into her own hands will be equal parts gratifying and cool as hell.
After ultimately getting her trade wishes granted, Jones got to recruiting, trying to coax the free agent Stewart to come join her. “We were talking the entire time once free agency started,” Jones explains. “I told her the teams that I was interested in. We were definitely in constant communication to try and make this work.” Being part of a massive five-team trade and helping lasso Stewart were not the only big events of her offseason, though. She also got engaged, punctuating a saga that began like every great modern love story. “She liked some of my pictures. I liked some of her pictures,” she says of her fiancé, Nesha. “But I guess one day she was tired. She hit me up and was like, ‘Sooo, are you going to shoot your shot?’ I was embarrassed. I said something like ‘I always shoot my shot’ or something corny like that. We were dating for some time, then we broke up, then we got back together. But now she’s my fiancé! When I came back for her the second time I was like, there’s no chance I let that happen again. I had to lock it down! That’s my person.”
Stewart, meanwhile, is the one with a full trophy case. She’s won major individual awards and experienced boundless team success, including championships in Russia and Turkey. (Many women’s basketball players—even ones as accomplished as Stewart—head overseas at the end of a WNBA season, since foreign teams often pay significantly larger salaries.)
But in recent years she’s been working on opening up. It’s for herself, to be clear, but is also the sort of thing that can help the modern athlete cross over into mainstream celebrity territory—forging a bond with fans in ways other than draining jump shots and giving out haircuts at the rim. In a 2017 essay for The Players’ Tribune, Stewart outlined her painful family history, including a detailed story of childhood sexual abuse. Sharing her story with the world marked the first time she ever revealed the scars that had long been hidden beneath accolades, gold medals, and a limited public perception. Doing so, she explained, felt necessary. The only way out was through.
“I think it’s something I had to do: opening myself up more, being more genuine, and letting people see me in all facets of life,” she states. “I just wanted people to know that there’s more than what you see. I wasn’t going to hold my tongue because I was uncomfortable with being vulnerable, when I could help a lot of other people with my story.”
Less than a year after the essay was published, she posed nude for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, saying it felt like the right time to “just take off the robe and share everything else!” Other things worth sharing: she got engaged to Spanish basketball player Marta Xargay in 2021, and they decided to have a baby via surrogate. As she nears the end of her twenties, Stewart’s period of keeping things close to the vest is emphatically over. “I’m living unapologetically! This is me. I have a wife. I have a baby via surrogate. That’s my life and I’m happy with it, and with being vulnerable.”
Stewart had to make a few tweaks when she moved across the country with her family. She traded in her Maserati for a Range Rover—“The car seat didn’t really fit in the Mas”—and during our interview, the only time she shows any visible stress is when she thinks about having to downsize her sneaker collection to fit her downtown Brooklyn apartment. But she’s not losing sleep over her decision to pack things up and start what is essentially a brand new life: “The other day I was walking down the street and I was like, ‘I’m happy to be here! This is right.’”
I wonder aloud if a sports psychologist or therapist helped her reach this place. She says no. “I went [to therapy] once. I think therapy is good and people need to go to therapy. But I’m busy! And that’s not an excuse, but for someone who hasn’t gone, I’m able to handle everything pretty well.” That includes the individual pressure that’s been on her since high school and the championship expectations foisted upon her new team before they’ve played a single minute together. She spells it all out for me plainly: “Not many have been able to do what I've done. And I hope to do, like, way more. I feel like I’m just entering my prime. There’s a lot left to do. It’s hard for me because I can’t dub myself the GOAT. But if I continue to win and do all these things, then…”
This is undoubtedly a massive year for the WNBA. There’s more media coverage than ever—in some cases for unfortunate reasons, like Brittney Griner’s stint in Russian prison, and the fact that, because there’s only 12 teams in the league and roster spots are limited, first-round picks are regularly cut just months after being drafted—but that also means that the league is finally finding its footing. With New York and Las Vegas—constructors of the league’s other superteam—on a crash course for the championship, the WNBA stands to make more noise than ever.
The stakes are crystal clear to all involved. Winning a championship in New York obviously puts any team in rarified air, and the Liberty are already main characters without taking geography into account, but the league also expanded its schedule this season. Each team will play 40 games for the first time ever, giving Ionescu, Jones, and Stewart ample time to learn all of each other’s idiosyncrasies.
How their symphony of personalities comes together will be one of the more fascinating subplots of the summer. Despite being the youngest of the trio, at 25, Ionescu is a certified alpha. She comes off as the most type-A of the group, and during a lull in the afternoon at Barclays, she seizes the opportunity to do her interview first. Nothing about her demeanor suggests that she will shy away from a challenge. In fact, she knows that achieving the team’s goal—a championship, and nothing less—is supposed to be hard. “I joined Oregon when they were at the bottom and built them to the top,” she recounts. “I didn’t want to join a team that was already established. [Now], there’s definitely a target on our back every single game. People want to be in our position, and we understand that. We’re the team to beat. It’s us and Vegas.”
Stewart is the goofball, the type to playfully stick her tongue out in response to a question. She added to her free agent frenzy by posting a series of wildly cryptic tweets that featured zero words, only emojis. These sent internet sleuths scrambling to decipher what the keyboard hieroglyphic sequence of “basketball emoji, wave emoji, equal sign emoji, cheetah emoji, alligator emoji” meant. Turns out, it was mostly nonsense, and baby Ruby was responsible for some of them. “I just emoji’d out. Some of them made sense, but some of them were just nothing,” Stewart discloses. “That was my moment to be in total control of everyone.”
Jones is somewhere in the middle. She describes herself as laid back, and revels in the fact that Ionescu and Stewart are around to absorb some of the media attention. “[At media day] they had so many questions for them and I was able to just sit back and chill,” she says. “People were like, ‘Do you have anything to add?’ Nope! It’s not because I’m lazy, it’s just if somebody else wants to be in the spotlight, they can have it.”
If they were a band, Ionescu would be a straight-laced guitarist, with Stewart serving as the lead singer who gives the group its personality. Jones would handle drums or bass—though the real heads know that she might be the most talented, despite her more incognito public profile. When Jones does speak, it’s for a reason. She is the only Black member of the Liberty’s big three, and highlights the fact that the league has sometimes struggled to promote its Black stars in the same way as its white ones. Jones has a significantly smaller social media following than Ionescu and Stewart. She’s also the only one without a signature shoe. After winning MVP in 2021, Jones called out the gendered difference in endorsement opportunities that NBA and WNBA players have, and thinks that progress is being made. “I feel like the league is trying to make sure there aren’t disparities between superstars [and lesser known players] or between Black and white players. I try to look at things objectively and not emotionally,” she says. “If I’m a brand and I’m choosing a spokesperson, I want that person to reach as many people as possible, right? If there’s a person who has 800,000 followers versus me who has 40,000, of course they’re going to go with the person who has 800,000. I don’t think all of it is implicit bias or anything like that. But we do have people in the WNBA whose stories need to be heard, just have a seat at that table. I’ll always be an advocate for that. Let’s get some fresh faces in here.”
As a straight and white player in a predominantly Black and gay league, Ionescu readily acknowledges her privilege. She’s never had to go overseas to supplement her income, thanks in part to that deal with Nike. “I’m honored and blessed to not have to go overseas for the sole reason of making money,” she says. “Hopefully the changing of the [WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement] in the next couple years will help players not have to go, because playing year-round is tough. But also I think it’s a choice. Sometimes people go because they want to play more than six months of the year. It’s tough being in a six-to-seven month offseason and not playing competitive basketball. You end up missing out on live reps and you’re not in game shape. There’s definitely pros and cons. I’m hopeful that younger players will have the opportunity to not go. The main thing is having the opportunity to choose.”
In the face of the hoopla surrounding the state of the league and women’s sports at large, the noise that comes with America’s largest media market, all the talk of what they have and have not done—the so-called superteam is ready.
“What else would you call this team, you know? But with the word superteam, there’s a lot to live up to. You can get lost in that word,” Stewart cautions. “We’ll take it, but we know we have to back it up.”
Originally Appeared on GQ