On the Road with the Liberty
Once the Liberty are in their destination city, moving the team around happens by way of bus. The bus is nice, with comfortable seats, new TVs, Wi-Fi ready, and most importantly, equipped with outlets at each seat so that the players can charge their Iphones, Ipads, laptops, Kindles, etc.
The staff is always on the bus first. They get situated in their seats in the front early. Then Nicole Powell arrives, coffee in hand. A few minutes later, the rest of the team beings to shuffle into the back of the bus. Some players are like rays of sunshine wishing everyone a good morning. DeMya Walker and Leilani Mitchell take a moment to good-morning the staff. Some players stop to poke fun with the staff. The players love to joke with Jill Culbertson, the Liberty assistant general manager. Don't worry though, the staff dishes it out too- assistant coach Norm Ellenberger has something funny to say- ALL THE TIME.
There is a seat chart that must be obeyed. Rookies- get in where you fit in.
Left side: coach Norm Ellenberger, trainer Laura Ramus, assistant GM Jill Culbertson, a few empty rows, Nicole Powell, Leilani Mitchell, Kelley Cain, Katelan Redmon, Kara Braxton, Cappie Pondexter, and in the who do you think sits in the very last and final row, "Queen of the Back of the Bus"? Of course, "Da Enforcer" herself, Plenette Pierson.
Right side: Head coach John Whisenant, coach Monique Ambers, me, empty rows, Zachara (DeMya's Daughter), DeMya Walker, and Essence Carson. (Alex Montgomery and Kia Vaughn were not on the bus during the ride I sat in on)
The atmosphere of the bus is professional. People use the time to rest, sleep, and listen to music. From the front we hear quiet murmurs and the occasional laugh. This is not your college basketball team road trip where players bounce around, talk loudly and waste energy. One quickly realizes: this is business. Basketball is their livelihood and each of these women are preparing for the game, each step of the way.
I asked some of the players what they must always pack with them on a road trip.
Essence Carson had a hard time choosing between her headphones, Iphone, and laptop. In addition to basketball, Carson also has her hand in producing music, therefore having her music close is important to her.
Cappie Pondexter immediately answered, "My Bible".
Nicole Powell always travels with her Normatee Booties. She pumps them around her legs for 20 minutes before the game to "get the blood flowing and pump the junk out".
Rookie Katelan Redmon, affectionately called "Red" by the team, proudly holds up a brand new shiny Ipad. "Well nowwww, it would have to be my new Ipad", she says. The players around her start to laugh. "You don’t even know how to use that thing," exclaims fellow rookie, Kelley Cain. As her teammates poke fun at her, it becomes apparent, Red is not the most technologically savvy on the team. Still, she is proud of her trendy new purchase and pokes around at the device, trying to figure out exactly what it does.
The shoot-around starts with a stretch. The players line up on the sideline and static stretch first. After, they use the full length of the court for a moving dynamic stretch led by trainer Laura Ramus. Coach Whisenant has the team continue to warm up with three player layup drills. Shoot around is light; the goal is to feel out the opponent's gym and rims, get some shots up, and go over plays. The team uses the rest of the allotted hour on the court to run their own plays and then scout the plays of the other team. Then comes the excitement. Team Shooting. The Liberty break up into two teams, each one on either side of the court. They shoot at spots; first team that makes ten shots wins that spot and moves on to the next. Today's teams were: Alex, Kara, Essence, DeMya, Kelley, and Red vs. Cappie, Kia, Nicole, Leilani, and Plenette. Yep. Starters vs. everyone else. Who do you think won? It was a back and forth battle. And actually, ended in a tie. Coach Whisenant made the tiebreaker a free-throw shooting contest, and that ended in a tie, too. Anticlimactic, yes, however, I suppose that's good for morale.
Before every game, home or away, the team lines up at half court for their traditional pre-game half court shot contest. One by one, the players step up to the half court line to the jesting and jeering of their teammates. On this particular day two players made the shot. Leilani Mitchell hit the first one. Mitchell smiles sheepishly, and high-fives her teammates....no biggie. The second made shot is accompanied by screams, shrieks, and jumping. DeMya Walker made the shot for the first time this season. The whole team explodes in celebration. Walker is ecstatic.
On the way out of the gym I asked Essence Carson, how do you approach shoot-around? She replied, "my goal is to get relaxed and be loose. A good shoot around allows the game to come to us quicker and helps us to not be so tense".
The team heads back to the hotel after shootaround. They are given per diem money for food on the trip. Jill Culbertson, who is in charge of all things player related, explains that sometimes the team eats together, but often they are trusted to purchase a healthy meal for themselves. I watch as some players go off on their own; a few break into groups of two, and some meet up with family and friends. Depending on the travel schedule, sometimes the players use the gaps in their day to eat and meet with family and friends that they have in the road trip city.
I observed the dynamic between the players to be friendly and respectful. Everyone speaks to everyone, and the team enjoys a good joke.
The Rutgers crew, Cappie Pondexter, Kia Vaughn, and Essence Carson are tight and like sisters. "We run in packs," says Kia Vaughn with a smirk.
The rookies, Kelley Cain and Katelan Redmon stick together. Age is often an easy way to bond on a WNBA team. Unlike college where everyone is sharing in the same experience, the women are in various phases of life. Some are making their "real world" debut; others are mothers, or married, or 10-year vets. On an 11-woman roster, a team may only have one rookie, let alone two. "I'm so happy Red’s back," said Cain in reference to the time period when the Liberty waived Redmon from the team before re-signing her. "I used to stay to myself, but now I have a buddy" she explained. "AWWWWWWW!!!" Redmon says with a laugh.
Speaking of mothers, one dynamic duo is the mother daughter combo of DeMya Walker and her six-year-old daughter, Zachara. Most female professional basketball players play in the WNBA during the summer and then overseas the rest of the year. The travel schedule is intense with the majority of their time being spent on the road. As a single mother faced with the challenge of intense travel and raising a child, Walker decided not to be away from her daughter and takes Zachara with her overseas, to Liberty practice, and on most road trips. The team happily adopted Zachara, a pleasant, sweet, and adorable little girl. Everyone chips in to help or show kindness. DeMya and Zachara are always together. In the face of the challenge to balance a long and successful basketball career with raising a child, Walker has found her own solution.
In the visitor’s locker room Coach Whisenant delivers his pregame speech. The players describe his speeches as more informational than "rah-rah", and occasionally, unintentionally humorous.
Outside the locker-room the crowd begins to fill into their seats. In the WNBA some teams attract bigger crowds than others. On certain road trips the crowd can be big, loud, and hostile. Cappie Pondexter, the team's All Star and leading scorer shrugged it off. "We've all played in front of crowds. I try to draw energy from it and try not to let it motivate or bother me. I just go play and have fun. I tell the team, don't pay attention to it, we just have to focus up and use the energy to our benefit."
DARK TUNNEL, BRIGHT LIGHTS
Clapping on beat, the team rallies in a circle around Essence Carson who is dancing hard, uninhibited and free. The energy and nerves transfers from one player to another, the women share smiles, shout together, and get ready to charge the court. Eleven women, professionals, teammates, give one final hurrah before running out in a single file line, out of the shadows of the tunnel and into the bright lights shining from inside the arena.
It's Game Time.