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2022 WNBA All-Star Weekend: Wrapping up with thoughts and observations

2022 WNBA All-Star Weekend: Wrapping up with thoughts and observations

This year's WNBA All-Star festivities were held in Chicago, a special designation for a couple of reasons.

Broadly, it's the (beautiful) home of the defending-champion Sky, and giving the champs a little home cooking is a nice touch.

Zooming in a bit, it's fitting that Chicago was the host city. Future Hall-of-Fame center Sylvia Fowles is retiring at the end of the season, as is Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird. But for Fowles in particular, it all began in Chicago.

The Sky drafted her with the No. 2 overall pick back in 2008. Her seven-year stint with the franchise included:

  • Averages of 15.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks
  • Three All-Star selections (2009, 2011, 2013)
  • Six All-Defensive Team selections (4x First, 2x Second)
  • Four All-WNBA Team selections (3x First, 1x Second)
  • Two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2011, 2013)

Fowles has been shown love throughout her swan song season — probably not enough love, but we'll get into that later — so it's nice that her last All-Star appearance came in Chicago.

On a personal note, this was my first time attending All-Star festivities on The W side. To not only be there, but also be credentialed and gain some behind-the-scenes access is a blessing I'll never forget. I had an absolute blast catching up with, and oftentimes meeting, with some of my faves across W media.

Seeing players walking around at every turn was a bit surreal. Sometimes they were taking pictures with or signing autographs for fans; other times they were just walking around a hotel lobby grabbing a bite to eat. Fun stuff all around, and definitely an experience I'd like to have moving forward.

With this piece, I mostly want to chronicle my weekend. I sadly missed the fun on Friday night, but the next two days were a doozy for me.

GETTING THERE

I flew into Chicago from Las Vegas — yes, we pulled the Summer League-to-All-Star trip — a little after noon on Saturday. Catching an Uber to my hotel, then another from my hotel to McCormick Place proved to be a little annoying. Chicago traffic was not kind, though I'm not sure why I expected otherwise. 

(As a brief aside, shoutout to both Uber drivers for saying hello, confirming my destination, then completely ignoring me the rest of their drives. I'm naturally quiet, so I'm glad I didn't have to deal with forced conversations. #TeamSilentRide)

After arriving at the hotel/convention center, I then had the time of my life trying to find the credential area. And after that, finding where the Skills Challenge and Three-Point Shootout were being held became its own adventure.

This brings me to my first complaint of the weekend: It would've been nice if Wintrust Arena, where the All-Star game was held on Sunday, was also booked for the events on Saturday. The two competitions were essentially closed to the public, with fans left to watch things unfold outside during the "WNBA Live" event.

The WNBA Live setup was kinda cool — food vendors, large buses with baskets on the back so people could shoot around, a concert stage where a few artists like Chance The Rapper and Latto performed (more on that later), a few Pop-A-Shots. But ideally, that should've been a complement to the events going on inside; a fun alternative to people that couldn't secure tickets; not the sole option because public access wasn't granted.

COMPETITION TIME

As for the actual competitions, they went by pretty quickly. The Skills Challenge paired WNBA players with high school standouts. A concept I didn't expect, but one that was done pretty well.

I'm still cracking up at Rhyne Howard essentially getting herself (and teammate) eliminated in Round 1 because she simply... forgot about one of the jump shots needed to complete the challenge. Kelsey Plum was able to overcome a slow start and knock her out with a triple. Also, props to Howard and Plum for being the only players to compete in the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Shootout and All-Star Game.

Another highlight of the event: Jonquel Jones falling behind but stealing the win against Jackie Young with an absolute bomb.

In the end, Sabrina Ionescu and NC State commit Zoe Brooks won the competition. Honestly, it never felt that close. I got a good laugh out of how seriously Ionescu took it; she even acknowledged the switch being flipped once things got going. Like, this is freaking clinical.

We then transitioned to the Three-Point Shootout, in which Sky guard Allie Quigley won for a record-setting fourth time. When I tell you she bombed away, she bombed away. She needed 22 points in the final round to knock off Washington Mystics star Ariel Atkins; that score was eclipsed before her final rack.

The only thing better than watching Quigley shoot the heck out of the ball was watching the live reactions from her wife, fellow Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot. Everyone needs a hype partner like this, no matter your occupation.

As for the lowlight, Plum just didn't have it on Saturday. She was my pick to win the whole thing, but her first round score of 14 was the lowest of the contestants. Luckily for her, redemption was coming on Sunday.

SUNDAY — CATCHING UP WITH CATHY

Sunday's All-Star game was the main event, but WNBA Commisioner Cathy Englebert held a press conference an hour or so before the game. I was lucky enough to be in the room and mostly observe. I did have a question hit me in regards to media coverage later in the presser, but by the time I rose my hand, things were already winding down.

At any rate, we got some pretty big news early on. Englebert announced that charter flights will be provided for the teams participating in this year's WNBA Finals. Frankly, it's a shame that charter flights aren't provided for each team in The W already — either by the league or the teams themselves — but hopefully this is a small step in the right direction. Also related: the player postseason bonus pool is also increasing by 50%.

We also got scheduling news. Starting next season, the WNBA schedule will expand from 36 games to 40 games. I'm always here for more basketball. More games should mean more revenue moving forward; Lord knows the league could use more revenue coming in, even with the improvements we've seen over the past few seasons.

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows during the presser though. Englebert was asked about accessibility complaints that fans had. Fans have rightfully been frustrated about the difficulty of buying jerseys and other merchandise, navigating the WNBA app and website (whew, buddy, don't get me started), and with how restricted the events were during the weekend. 

On the latter point, Englebert cited health and security concerns.

“There’s also a lot going on in our world around security and even having an outdoor festival at this very crazy time as you see shootings and people driving into restaurants with outdoor diners and things like that. So as we were planning this last fall, we were trying to find the best thing to do to try to stand up at least a little bit of an outdoor festival, to have a fan festival element. We still have COVID out there. So you know, cobbling together everything that’s going on and coming off two tough COVID years and not having Wintrust available yesterday, it just wasn’t possible to have a fan event.

Sure, but... there were other outdoor events happening not even 2 miles away. When asked about the Chance The Rapper concert specifically, Englebert mentioned consulting with "security experts, Chicago PD, our WNBA security experts" before deciding to limit accessibility. That's fine and good, but Chicago PD released a statement essentially saying "that's not what we suggested."

Not the best look.

In regards to expansion, Englebert said she hopes to add a pair of teams by 2025, and ideally 2024. Fun stuff! 

She was also asked how a city or state's policies — hopefully I don't need to explain why Roe v. Wade being overturned could affect the WNBA and its players — would factor into the league's decision to grant an expansion team. The answer was essentially: It'll be something we look into.

You'd hope for a stronger statement there. And just when I thought, "Okay, maybe I was reading into the verbiage too much on Sunday," a thread circulated of some of the political donations she's made in the past; some of those funds, one could argue, run counter to some of the messaging we've received from the league. I'll just say it's worth asking some questions moving forward.

THE ALL-STAR GAME

The game itself was an absolute joy. I've never seen player introductions done from the stands, at least not to my knowledge; I'd love to see that tradition continue. The PA announcer would give the intro, and a player would walk down from the stands onto the court while high-fiving and dapping up fans on the way down. It was really endearing.

There were so many highlights, I don't know where to start. Fowles, who had taken and made one (1) three in her entire career to this point, had the first play of the game drawn up for her. It was a beautiful set that led to an open triple.

That's some execution for ya!

Fowles, of course, wasn't done. Her second bucket was the most memorable of the night. After racking up 1 of the 3 steals she'd have, she capped things off with her first dunk in nearly 15 years.

I have been to hyped regular-season games, for both the NBA and WNBA, and I've been to NBA playoff games. When I tell you the fan reaction to the Fowles dunk is among the loudest I've ever heard in an arena, despite there being less than 10,000 people in it, I mean it. 

The fans loved it. The players on both teams absolutely lost their minds. Media row was in shambles, but in a good way. Naturally, that's what everyone wanted to talk about after the game as well.

Fowles and Candace Parker did their postgame presser together, and Parker used the opportunity to:

  1. Shower Fowles with praise
  2. Try, on a couple of occasions, to convince her to return for one more year.

Fowles wasn't having it though.

One thing that (rightfully) goes unnoticed about the Fowles dunk highlight is the trap that came before it. This brings me, as nerdy as it is, to my favorite takeaway from Sunday's action: A'ja Wilson came in there playing some defense!

What could be described as friendly bullying, Wilson (and Plum) trapped their Aces teammate in Young almost every time she got the ball. After the first one, it was like, "Oh that's pretty funny!" But then it kept happening. Wilson was getting after it on the first couple of traps.

That's what it's all about! I get that it's an All-Star game, and it probably isn't fair to expect 100% effort for 40 minutes. But not expecting 100% doesn't mean we should be okay with 15% effort, either! Kudos to Wilson who, when I asked about the traps after the game, chalked it up to wanting to get on Young's nerves.

Continuing down the nerd trend, can I just say there was some pretty fun offense ran in the game? It wasn't at full speed of course, but I always find a little joy in the coaches getting creative when given the opportunity to exclusively manage elite talent. The Fowles three-pointer set was a nice one. And look at this flow from Team Wilson to get Plum a triple.

On the Plum front, she stole the show for opposite reasons on the spectrum. She was on the nasty end of an Arike Ogunbowale dribbling exhibition — you have to finish the play, though, Arike!

But on a much brighter note, she really couldn't be stopped offensively. Plum tied the All-Star game record with 30 points while converting all seven of her two-point baskets and shooting 5-of-11 from three.

If there's one thing I'd quibble about in regards to the game, it's the inclusion of the four-point shot. It was a fun idea in theory, but in practice? There was a lot of chucking, some bad misses and maybe a handful of made shots.  

The league itself is equipped with a ton of great shooters, but the list of players that can comfortably bomb away from 30-plus feet is a relatively short one. When you think of deep range bombing on The W side, star names like Plum, Ionescu, Ogunbowale and Diana Taurasi pop up.

As of this writing, they've attempted a combined 15 threes from 30 feet or further this season. We may be a little ways off from that becoming the norm like it is on the NBA side. 

Overall, the weekend was a fun one to be part of. Having that much greatness in one setting was a surreal experience. Here's hoping that screws are tightened for next season, wherever the festivities are held, so that fans can have as much fun (and access) as I did.

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