Three players selected by Atlanta in the WNBA draft - Brittany Brewer (Texas Tech), Mikayla Pivec (Oregon State) snf Kobi Thornton (Clemson) - go over their draft night emotions. (Courtesy of Atlanta Dream)

WNBA players preparing for 2020 season bubble, but it’s complicated

Courtney Williams hasn’t played basketball in months.

She’ll know whether she’s ready for the WNBA season’s return during training camp.

“I haven’t been picking up a basketball at all,” Williams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Honestly, hopefully my God-given talent is going to carry me to the finish line because I have not been working out at all.”

The WNBA’s current 2020 season proposal includes a bubble for its 12 teams at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and a 22-game season starting July 24 to start the season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Williams, a Folkston native, signed with the Dream during free agency, making her debut in her new uniform a surreal one.

The guard returned home after her season in Turkey was canceled and has been spending time with her family and friends in her hometown. She traveled to Atlanta to work out at Dream veteran Tiffany Hayes’ gym on Old National Highway. Other than that, she hasn’t been practicing.

Meanwhile, the league plan isn’t finalized, and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert continues to say it is fluid. Williams said the latest version, which states players would receive their full paycheck during the short season, has her motivated to play. She made $59,718 with the Sun last season and is set to earn $185,000 in 2020 with the Dream, according to the High Post Hoops salary database.

With sports on hold, she’s experiencing a true offseason for the first time since she was drafted in 2016. Most WNBA players compete overseas during the offseason for increased pay. 

“This is the most (time) any of us in the league have had to actually be home and just breathe and take a moment, so I been taking full advantage of it,” Williams said. 

Since Williams is going into her fifth season, she isn’t eligible to bring a plus-one to IMG. But she may not have brought someone because she’d have to pay for the person’s stay. What made her pause, before eventually agreeing to the plan, was the actual bubble concept, since her hometown is only a few hours away from the venue.

“When I get a little frustrated, I’m the type to wanna hop in my car and go home. Then you telling me I can’t do that,” she said. “That’s probably gonna be the toughest thing for me. But I feel like overall, I mean it’s only two months. I don’t think that’s nothing crazy.”

Dream forward/center Elizabeth Williams, whom Sue Bird jokingly calls Dr. Williams because of her pre-med background, is on the WNBA Players’ Association’s executive committee and was involved with the plan and negotiations.

“I think part of why we chose IMG over Vegas was the health-and-safety factor,” Elizabeth Williams said on the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast. “We just felt like it’s more of that bubble, I guess you could say, than Vegas where you could go off to the strip and that’s that. At least with IMG, it’s gated, there’s a little more security and a little more you can do in a large outdoor space. I think that was one of the big deciding factors so that if there’s a spike of cases in Florida or what may have you, we still feel a greater level of protection.” 

She said players joked that the bubble is a step up from overseas experiences because they’d be with friends and able to do advocacy work together. She referenced her time in China, because of the language barrier and lack of transportation options in smaller cities, as the closest she’s been to the potential bubble at IMG. Courtney Williams echoed that sentiment. 

“A lot of us have been overseas in way worse conditions and some of us have been over there and had to deal with getting paid late and have to deal with all these other things,” Courtney Williams said. “And for me, you telling me two months to be stuck somewhere, that’s not rocket science for me. I’m there.”

The WNBA is a league in which 80% of its players are Black women. So when most players join the bubble, the risks and uncertainty of a pandemic, potential injury, the national unrest amid police brutality and racism and more won’t go away. Some players have voiced concerns about that publicly.

There is also health anxiety, according to Dr. Angel Brutus, the Director of Counseling and Sport Psychology at Mississippi State University. Brutus spoke on a mental health and wellness panel hosted by the L.A. Sparks about resocialization, especially for players in states that haven’t been largely open, as in Georgia.

“Some of the concerns I have heard have been something as simple as not trusting teammates to have done everything they need to do on their end to remain safe from a medical standpoint,” Brutus said.

“But also having the anticipation of being anxious about the return and depending on what athletes have done to maintain some sense of conditioning, what that looks like, being able to trust the system that’s ready to receive them and the agenda behind that. And so there’s a lot to sift through, but I think if it’s not addressed, then you’re now entering onto the court with all of that, and it’s not going to be healthy.”

Dr. Kensa Gunter, a clinical sport psychologist, also said on the panel that everyone coming into the spaces will be experiencing different things – there’s the pandemic, then the series of deaths including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and other racial incidents.

“You have all of that anxiety, angst, stress, uncertainty, depression that people were navigating, and I feel like right at the time people had gotten used to that a little bit, and were starting to see some light and thinking about integrating back into society as things were opening,” Gunter said.

“And then, it was a second pandemic. And now there’s fear. It’s not just a reaction to what’s happening now, it’s a generational and historical reaction to everything that’s happened prior to this.”

Forward/center Kristine Anigwe, who was traded to the L.A. Sparks earlier this year, has dealt with anxiety, and has been journaling and meditating while isolating at home in California. During this time, she has been focusing on “uplifting the Black woman and just shining light on her,” and she’s passionate about topics like women's rights, domestic violence and child abuse.

“It really just breaks my heart because they don’t have an escape. I get to go play basketball. I get to go two months in Florida with other athletes. It’s isolation, but I still get to be with people. I still get to be in a safe space,” Anigwe said.

“Those people in particular, they don’t have that, they don’t have that right now. They struggle alone and that’s a sensitive thing for me. I’m kinda dedicated (to), after basketball, just really committing to those spaces.”

WNBA players have often been at the forefront of political issues, and WNBA veteran and Dream guard Renee Montgomery decided to opt out of the 2020 season to focus on social justice work. Courtney Williams, who has attended two protests, said she supports her new teammate’s decision. While she doesn’t feel like she’s at the place where she can sit out to focus on creating change on the ground, she said it was difficult for a lot of players to go into the bubble knowing what’s happening around the country.

“When I see all the stuff going on, it hit a little bit different for me,” she said, “But I feel like at the same time, I got a lot of people that depend on me so, I don’t really have the option of saying ‘I’ma just sit this one out.’ And I’m not saying that other people that decide to have all this money in the world, I just know I can’t do that.”

The deadline for players to opt out of the 2020 season is Thursday, and for most it will be a tough decision. Other than spending time with family and friends, Williams has been working on finding ways to relax without basketball. She hasn’t found it yet. That’s part of the appeal of Florida.

“This two months in this bubble may be good for me to be able to just hoop and not just think about the things that I’m going through,” she said. “Not even what’s necessarily going on in the world, but just what I’m going through personally. Basketball’s definitely a stress reliever, for sure.”

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