Every start of a new WNBA season brings some uncertainty for Cheryl Reeve.
In a typical season, even the head coach with the highest winning percentage in the WNBA can’t predict exactly how her Minnesota Lynx’s teams are going to perform once their training camp progress culminates.
But in 2020, that preseason uncertainty has grown tenfold.
On top of deciding best lineup fits, implementing new offensive schemes and introducing new players to the Lynx culture, Reeve and her players must also determine how to use their platforms to advocate for racial equity.
“Playing basketball is what we do, but the bigger part of us is wanting to make the world a better place for everyone,” said Reeve during a recent Zoom conference call with media members. “I would ask all of you to be a part of that change with us, and as we continue to talk about this throughout the season and then some, indefinitely until we see meaningful change.”
And, of course, this work will all have to be done in Bradenton, Florida, where the condensed, 22-game WNBA season will be held due to the continuous spread of COVID-19.
That’s a lofty to-do list for a team that has yet to take the court together.
And yet, like always, the uncertainty doesn’t deter Reeve.
“We’re excited with the announcement,” Reeve said. “First, I want to talk about the importance of what I think our group finds most important right now, which is to continue our great work with regard to racial inequities.”
But before Reeve and her players could decipher how to use their platforms to fight for racial equity, they had to gage how George Floyd’s May 25 murder and the racial injustice that has defined our nation has impacted them.
How did Reeve initiate such heavy conversations with players she has yet to hold an in-person practice with? Did she guide the conversations, or did she mostly listen?
“I would say a little bit of both and partly because I have a newer group versus in 2016,” Reeve said, referring to the work her team did after Philando Castile was murdered in 2016. “I share stories about the past. First things first, you want to let them know — again, whether it’s this or other issues important to them — that I always want to make them feel empowered to be able to speak and be themselves.”
Reeve said she has presented her players with ideas and ways to battle racial inequities, but mostly, she wants her players to make their activism their own.
“(It’s) giving them the platform, giving them the opportunity and saying, ‘How can I support?’ I’ve had that conversation with (Director of Operations of the WNBPA) Terri Jackson,” Reeve said. “I want to learn more. I’m proud of what we did in 2016, but I also feel like we didn’t get there, so to speak. Not a whole lot of change. I want to be better. It’s like every year when I come back as a coach and I want to be better, and this is a situation where I want to be better. How can I best support?”
Reeve is adamant in her belief that real change needs to start with the removal of Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis President Bob Kroll, but she knows Kroll’s removal is just one step in an ongoing process.
Will players and coaches be hindered from aiding to that process while in Bradenton away from their respective communities?
Reeve isn’t convinced.
“I think that this is the tipping point for many of us that we’re saying, ‘We’re not going away,’” Reeve said. “And you have to be relentless just as many of the great players are relentless in their pursuit of being great. This is what it’s going to take to reach the idea that it’s not enough just to do one or two things.
“Reaching an equitable situation for all is a tall order. There are certainly people who don’t want that change. But what we’re going to do down there in Bradenton should end up proving to be pretty powerful.”
But media members must be part of the process, too.
“The work will be ongoing, but I think it’s all about the approach the media takes,” Reeve said. “When do you all tire of hearing about it? When do you all go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I just want to know why Sylvia is an MVP candidate.’ To me, it depends on all of you and your interests and how long that remains.”
Of course, this process will have to be navigated through COVID-19 safety protocols — just as the entire unprecedented 2020 season will be.
“I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had around player safety first,” Reeve said. “Every decision that’s being made is about safety, the integrity of the clean site. That’s of paramount importance. There’s no way we want to do this unless we can put our very best foot forward.”
WNBA teams won’t be out and about in Florida, where positive COVID-19 cases continue to swell, during the season. Rather, they’ll be confined to IMG Academy until the season concludes. But Reeve will hold her players to the highest standards, per usual.
“We cannot go down there and be dismissive or be lax and violate the protocols because that’s when you let your guard down and you think you’re in this safe bubble,” Reeve said. “That’s when something could happen.
“Any violation I would encourage (commissioner) Cathy Engelbert to have a zero-tolerance policy. Any violation means you’re out of the bubble. That’s the only way to ensure that our best chance for providing the most safety for everyone who’s going to be there.”
And yet, Reeve knows these safety measures won’t be enough incentive to play for some players.
As of Monday, 20 players, including Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones and Atlanta’s Renee Montgomery, have already chosen not to participate in the 2020 season. Some of those 20 players are sitting out to nurse injuries while others are reluctant to play during a pandemic and in light of our country’s recent police brutality fatalities.
Last week, the Lynx announced Cecilia Zandalasini would be missing the 2020 season due to personal reasons.
“I would say up until last week we thought Ceci was a part of things as well,” Reeve said. “But I think it’s that ultimate next big step of booking your ticket and actually saying now I’ve got to start packing and getting ready that forces you to maybe come to realize maybe you were having some apprehension about it. A lot of international players are going to be in these situations.”
Though she’ll miss coaching Zandalasini this season, Reeve respects her decision and won’t be surprised if more players follow her lead.
“I feel like I have a pretty good pulse, but it’s really important that none of us be surprised by any decision that might come from this as you start to really get closer to having to join your team and make a go of this,” Reeve said. “Your family is involved, and would I be surprised if we might have more? No. And none of us should be surprised by that.
“Until everyone gets here and we’re on a plane to Bradenton, then I guess there’s possibility that things could change.”
Players have until June 25 to decide whether they will participate in the 2020 season. If they do choose to make the trip to Bradenton, Reeve believes opportunities to amplify their league and values will await them.
“I think it’s all what you make of it,” Reeve said. “Players don’t necessarily want right now to be led by other people. This is probably one of the coolest things to see. They want to do this themselves. So I think you’re going to see some really interesting things and ways that you can see different sides of the great personalities we have in the league.”
Not to mention, the 22-game season will raise the sense of urgency already enforced in a typical 34-game season.
“I think you’re going to see a little more coming out of the gates wanting to be ready,” Reeve said. “You can’t lose a week. You lose a week, that’s three games. That could change things for you.
“I just think it makes for really interesting viewing. I’m excited for fans to be able to see that. It all depends on the commitment from ESPN, from CBS, and any other ways that we can have our product out there because I think it will be consumed.”
A heaping amount of logistics still need to be solidified. But while uncertainty continues to surface, Reeve and her team will lean on what they’ve always known. And they suggest Lynx fans do the same.
“I want (fans) to expect the same things they’ve always expected: be a team that when they tune in that they’re really proud of how hard we’ve worked and brought this thing together,” Reeve said.
The Lynx way will always deliver — even in Florida.