A Historic Storm

During 2020, a year that has tested our resolve, tested it again, tested our capacity for sanity, tested our resolve once again, then tested both in a split, SAT-style day filled with panic and repetition that shares a wide border with madness, Bradenton, Florida has been home to what will one day be told as history.  There have been many scenes, but witness one: on a given Monday, the 10th of August, an hour before tip-off, Sami Whitcomb takes a few short-running steps, dribbles precisely once, takes a few more of those odd, half-shuffle half-trot movements, and lobs a WNBA standard issue from the halfcourt.  If it touches the back-rim at all, it’s in a minimal way, the minimalism of Scandanavian design, of Marie Kondo, the swinging of a sledgehammer with the weight of a feather.  Sami screams.  It was fun.  Meaningless, but fun.

Almost twenty games through the 2020 season, the Storm have a Net Rating of 15.  This is a historic number.  More than five points better than the next best team.  Better than the 2019 champion Washington Mystics.  Better than their own championship team from two years ago.  Better than the best teams of the last two presidential administrations, including their own championship team from ten years ago.  Better than any team in the last two decades.  Indeed, the last team to boast an even better rating, the 2000 Houston Comets, no longer exists.  (The dismantling of that team under the ownership of mattress [!] magnate Hilton Koch is its own saga.)  Setting aside statistics of ontological uncertainty, a Schrödinger Net Rating, the Storm have a better Net Rating than every team for whom such a rating has been calculated, going back at least to 1997.  When we talk about dominance, this is what we picture.

The answer to the obvious question — How are they doing it? — comes in a package of simplicity that takes far more time to convey than it does to understand.  It begins with the deepest roster in the league: three guards shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range (a fourth guard is second in the league in assists per game); a team that ranks second, fifth, second, third, and first in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, all per game; a vanguard of dominating but versatile forwards more terrifying than Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky; and a frontcourt bench of experienced veterans, all of whom were starters in prior years.  And all of this ignores the return of the 2018 MVP, who is somehow both the Storm’s best offensive and defensive player, who seems almost even better after a ruptured Achilles in EuroLeague play forced her to miss the 2019 season.  The Storm are so good that they would be an even better team in 6-on-6 basketball; they are pantheon that becomes more powerful with each addition.

But even if this story has no true beginning, we can give it one, and it’s fitting to start with the redemption arc of one Breanna Stewart.  In her first game back, she led the Storm in minutes, rebounds, and points.  She has five double-doubles in those sixteen games, including a dominant 29 points and 18 rebounds in their loss to the Aces on August 22, and has led the Storm in both points and rebounds in ten of those games; what’s more, she has led the Storm in one of those categories in 18 of their 19 games so far.  She paces Seattle in points per game, rebounds per game, and blocks per game, and is shooting a very respectable 36.7 percent from long range (which incidentally makes her the Storm’s second best forward from deep).  In her first post-game interview, she was sporting a shirt that read Black Lives Matter, and spoke about solidarity. The whole league is speaking about solidarity, even when their mouths are shut or their minds are on hoops.

We all have our own first names.  Mine is Oscar Grant, like me a son of fair Oakland, nestled on the east shores of the San Francisco Bay.  His name burns like wildfire in my mind, my own awakening to the sick horror that his name was not the first, and will not be the last, simply one more in a huge and vast line of black men and women murdered by cops or other agents of a global white supremacy that cannot tolerate any opposition.  Oscar Grant was murdered for the cardinal sin of being not quiet enough to satisfy the whims of a BART cop, for the audacity of being a black man, full of celebration.  It isn’t always cops, though; sometimes, it’s people who simply want to be cops, think of themselves that way.  Like George Zimmerman, convinced of Trayvon Martin’s criminality solely because of his own racism, whose acquittal sparked such a surge of grief and wrath that Alicia Garza first typed those now-immortalized words, a manifesto of Mattering, plain and simple that propelled a long-delayed and necessary movement that now grips the world far less tightly than it should.

Nor can we forget Seattle’s favorite and winningest athlete, Sue Bird, who, despite Tristan Carosino’s protestations to the contrary, has returned, an assassin on the court, a jester off of it, transformed into half-player, half-coach.  While there’s no comparison between her and Stewart’s dominating stat-line, it is worth noting that the Storm are 9-1 with Bird on the court, with two-thirds of their losses coming during her absence due to a lingering knee injury.  (Nearly vindicating Tristan.)  It can be difficult to know what exactly to point to in terms of her contribution to the team.  Among other guards, Jewell Loyd is the more dependable scorer, Jordin Canada is close to cementing her role as the second starting guard, and backup Sami Whitcomb’s incredible play has been key to the diminished significance of Bird’s absences.  But forward Alysha Clark put it best, calling Bird the team’s “floor general”, saying that, with her return, “our team is complete again.”  But this influence isn’t limited to their play on the court.  Subsequent to the creation of a joint WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council, Angel McCoughtry proposed the now famous “Say Their Name” jerseys.  And when Sue Bird sported a t-shirt with the words “Arrest the Cops who killed Breonna Taylor” to the Storm’s game against the Mercury in August 8, her team did the same.  (All profits from the shirts went to the Breonna Taylor Foundation.)

How fickle America has become in loving its heroes.  Breonna Taylor was a hero, a savior of lives, a calm presence in the face of emergency just as much as the cops, firemen, and soldiers that we’re instructed with such vigor and pride to revere as paragons of our exceptional nation.  There are circumstances to this story that at once both matter and do not matter – that she had just finished her fourth overnight shift in the emergency room of the hospital where she worked, that her younger sister was out of town, that, as so many of us who work for our bread can empathize with, she just wanted to watch a movie before bed.  They are important, but meaningless in the face of a no-knock warrant executed by undercover cops whose negligence resulted in murder.  There was no ambulance stationed outside.  By almost every account, they didn’t identify themselves as police.  They failed to follow their own rules of engagement.  We talk about these failures as if they were accidents, incidental things, meaningless.  They are not, but until everyone really and truly knows that they are not, they might as well be.  Yet all of this ignores the critical facts: they shot and killed a hero, and still walk free; nothing matters more than this.

And yet, the core of this team really lies, must lie, in the ensemble.  For every game in which Stewart didn’t lead the team in rebounds, Natasha Howard was there, still perhaps the Storm’s best defensive player.  And now that she no longer needs to be the team’s best player outright, she’s been largely freed to play a different role (she’s listed on the roster as a center, not forward), focusing on rebounds and a close game that favors her height over distance shooting.  While her season began somewhat slowly, in the second half of the season she has put together three double-doubles of her own, and has eclipsed 10 points or rebounds in nine games.  There’s also the strong case to be made for Loyd, who in her sixth season has become the Storm’s best guard and most dependable scorer behind Stewart (she is second on the Storm in PPG), and who has finally ascended to the role for which she was drafted by Seattle: Sue’s successor.  While Loyd hasn’t always been a dominant scorer, she has been the team’s leader in almost every game where Stewart wasn’t, particularly in the Storm’s victory over the third-place Sparks on Sept. 4, with a buzzer-beater from three so electric that it still makes me want to cry when I hear people who say they just don’t like the WNBA for some assortment of reason[s]. 

Loyd is also posting career highs in shooting percentage and steals; she is well on her way to demonstrating that she can maintain her level of excellence even when Sue Bird isn’t on the court.  And then there’s Alysha Clark, who still sees herself as predominantly a defensive player, despite playing with Stewart and Howard, despite being the Storm’s most versatile forward, who led the league in 2019 with a 48.1 percentage on threes, and looks to reprise that role in 2020 with 45.5, second only to… Bird.

It’s difficult to tell this story with going overboard or feeling you left some important cog out.  Who do you ignore, whose accolades are deemed less?  Can you tell this entire story mentioning Whitcomb only once?  Rarely considered more than a permanent rotational player, Sami has become one of the team’s best shooters from deep.  Can you talk about Loyd without mentioning her status as the team’s rock-paper-scissor champion?  Can you ignore players like Langhorne and Russell, veterans who could be starting on other teams, doomed on the Storm to be behind a frontcourt of Stewart, Howard, and Clark?  Can you ignore Australian rookie Ezi Magbegor, who has impressed in her limited play so far, who despite exceeding all expectations will still struggle to be a starter?

You can ignore any or all of them, but like a team of maniacal whack-a-moles, you do so at your own peril.  Double or triple team Stewart, and the Storm will have no problem dishing it out to Loyd at the perimeter.  What’s that?  Now you’ve covered Loyd too?  That’s fine, you missed Clark, at the opposite corner.  Dedicate your best defenders to Stewart and the arc, somehow? No worries, says Howard.  You will eventually have to choose one over another, and in that choice you likely foretell your own defeat.  What this team does, it does as a team.  Whether it’s playing dodgeball with water balloons, or the time they all sported shirts bearing one word: Equality.

It’s a novel concept, at the intersection of all liberational politics.  Justice for any one victim of police brutality, of a daunting and nearly 600-year old tradition of white supremacy, at times seemingly indomitable, demands justice for every victim.  But it isn’t just an antidote for racism; it defeats misogyny too, a game in which every Storm has her own stake, a stake magnified by the 66 dollars her average male counterpart makes for every dollar she earns with no less skill, athleticism, work.

Of course, it’s not just the Storm speaking out on matters of race — it’s the WNBA as a whole.  When the WNBPA signed off on the league’s new CBA earlier this year, it accomplished some real and true good for the players.  But some of this good – -maximum veteran player salaries of $215,000, full guarantee of base salaries when players miss time due to pregnancy, reimbursement for childcare, and expanded funds for marketing and promotion — should be redundant, needless, already done long ago.  Players demanded that this season center social justice, demanded it even after signing a contract that gives them only 25 percent revenue sharing, and even then only if the league achieves a contractually-set revenue growth target.  It’s not surprising, though it is continually frustrating: the underrepresented and marginalized are all too often on the front-lines of conflict, especially that in pursuit of equality.  Despite how much they still have to gain, despite how much they still have to lose, they found their voice.  Go find yours.