It was late May when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, died in custody of a police officer under the weight of the officer’s knee holding him down on the ground, sparking weeks of protests around the nation and the world.
When the WNBA returned to the floor in late July during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many players in the league had the name of Breonna Taylor on the backs of their jerseys. Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician, was fatally shot in her Louisville, Kentucky, home in February by police officers who entered her apartment.
The players in the WNBA dedicated their season to Taylor and the Say Her Name movement, which raises awareness of Black female victims of police violence.
But Sunday’s shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in Wisconsin seven times in his back by a police officer again re-opened this raw wound and the fear and mistrust many Black people in our nation have toward police officers.
“With all of this attention and then this happens again,” Connecticut guard Jasmine Thomas said Friday morning a few hours before the Sun resumed their WNBA season against the Los Angeles Sparks at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. “You feel fed up. How can people not understand? How can change not happen faster? Why are cops still shooting defenseless people?”
Led by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, players decided not to take the floor and NBA playoff games were cancelled on Wednesday night. A few hours after the Bucks game was cancelled, the WNBA cancelled their three games on Wednesday, including Connecticut’s contest with Phoenix. Professional baseball and soccer games were also cancelled to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
“It’s been tough,” said Thomas, a 10-year WNBA veteran out of Duke. “It’s been tough for everyone in our country to do their jobs with so many disappointing and disheartening things that are happening. When you see another Black live lost or senseless violence against a Black person, it’s hard to focus.”
But Thomas said that one of the reasons that the players agreed to come back and play this pandemic shortened season (22 games instead of 34 in about 7 weeks) in a bubble was to put themselves in the national spotlight and to remind people about Breonna Taylor and women of color who have suffered at the hands of police officers.
“We recommitted our season to “Say Her Names” which is extremely significant for all of us,” Thomas said. “That is why we are playing. We love our sport and would like to crown a champion but (Say Her Name) is why we are here and, ultimately, we are here for change.”
The WNBA cancelled games on Wednesday and Thursday but returned on Friday with three games including the Sun’s game against the Sparks, who have won seven straight games.
Connecticut had an 11-point lead in the third quarter but Chelsea Gray scored a season-high 27 points as the Sparks gave up just two field goals in the final six minutes to outlast the Sun, 80-76, and win their eighth straight game.
The Sun (6-9) committed 23 turnovers, which led to 27 points by the Sparks (11-3), who came into the game with the most points in the league off turnovers. Los Angeles rookie guard Te’a Cooper was outstanding with seven consecutive points at one point in the third quarter to bring the Sparks back into the game. Cooper finished with 14 points.
Gray hit a three-point shot from the top of the key over Thomas with 5:02 left in the game to give the Sparks the lead for good, 72-69. After Brionna Jones sank a pair of free throws, Gray drained another three-point shot from long range to extend the lead to four points, 75-71.
Following a turnover by the Sun, Candace Parker fought her way into the lane and scored with a one-handed shot off the glass with 3:40 remaining for a 77-71 lead.
Thomas drained a three-point shot from 25 feet away with 2:47 remaining to cut the lead to three, 77-74 but that is as close as the Sun would get. In the next two minutes, the Sun committed four turnovers – three being offensive fouls that infuriated the Sun.
Once again, Alyssa Thomas led the way for the Sun with 19 points with a team-high nine rebounds while DeWanna Bonner added 13 points with four assists and three steals and Jasmine Thomas added 12 points. Brionna Jones scored 10 for Connecticut.
“It’s been emotional,” Bonner said. “A lot of emotion around the team and certainly around the WNBA. It was extremely important for Connecticut and the WNBA to take a stand. There has to be change.
“Everything we did, we’re doing with heavy hearts right now.”
Before the game, the Sun players and coaching staff each took a knee and stood the court. Each team member had one word of this phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Today was also the 57th anniversary of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington in our nation’s capital.
The quote was special to Bonner, who grew up in Alabama.
“It runs deep in the heart for me it is something I stand for it something I stand on,” Bonner said. “The meaning behind it, I take a lot of pride in it. I wanted to hold that sign. It was a touching moment before the game.”
All 12 WNBA teams and players live, train and play their games in Bradenton, Florida, to stay safe from the COVID-19 virus. Still, the events of the past week were jarring to the players and coaches in the bubble.
“The focus among our players is bigger than basketball,” Sun coach Curt Miller said before the game. “Yes, we are playing but there is a lot of heaviness still here in our hearts and in our minds.
Having a game to play was helpful to a point.
“It’s a tough balance,” Miller said. “Your job as a coach is to prepare them. Today started out with a little bit of reflection.
“I can never put myself in the position of my African American players. But when there are police shootings, I am also triggered. I am the father of a son who was shot by a police officer so shootings trigger me, too,” he said. “It is bigger than basketball for all of us and because of that we continue to talk about things other than basketball as a team.”
Connecticut returns to action on Sunday when they tangle with the Washington Mystics at 4 p.m.
Powerful words from the Connecticut Sun before their game.
"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."
— ESPN (@espn) August 29, 2020