MINNEAPOLIS – “Man, that was great. It was so exciting,” Rebekkah Brunson says calmly through a contemplative smile ahead of Minnesota’s final practice before a winner-take-all Game 5 of the 2017 WNBA Finals.
“We had a group similar to this with the connections within the team. We were willing to do so much for each other. I wasn’t in the league a long time at that point, so that win made me think it was almost easy to get there.”
A locker room doused in champagne holding the WNBA championship trophy. That’s where a 24-year-old Rebekkah Brunson found herself in 2005 as a member of the Sacramento Monarchs. Brunson had starred at Georgetown before being selected 10th overall in the 2004 draft by Sacramento. In just her second season, she was able to add something to her basketball résumé that many wait years for, or for some, an accomplishment that never comes: WNBA Champion.
At 24 years old, Brunson wasn’t the youngest WNBA champion of all time, but reaching the pinnacle of your profession that soon can often mean a player attains that euphoric feeling a little too early in their career, leaving them little to look forward to. For most, one title is the dream and in turn becomes the reality. For Brunson her 2005 championship was just the beginning.
The 6’2″ forward would go on to play four more title-less years in Sacramento before she was acquired by the Lynx in 2010 via the dispersal draft after the Monarchs folded.
She would be joining a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since her title run back in 2005 and would be led by relatively unknown, first-year head coach Cheryl Reeve. The team finished 13-21 in Brunson’s first season in Minnesota. Another championship, let alone a trip to the postseason, seemed to be teetering in the balance.
Something clicked the next year in 2011. The team drafted heralded rookie Maya Moore out of the University of Connecticut and paired her with veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen. They sprinkled in talented scorer Seimone Augustus with the aforementioned tenacious force and championship pedigree of Brunson, and suddenly there was title talk in Minneapolis.
While Moore, Whalen and Augustus spearheaded the scoring on a nightly basis, it was Brunson’s do-it-all mentality that allowed her to lead the Lynx in field goal percentage and rebounds in 2011. She also tied the then-WNBA record with six consecutive double-doubles during the month of June.
Brunson and the Lynx entered the team’s first postseason in six years as the top overall seed, and they carried that momentum all the way to the franchise’s first title and Brunson’s second. A juggernaut was born.
Brunson would go on to win titles in 2013 and 2015 with the Lynx, bringing her championship count to four. With her 2015 title, Brunson joined Comets legends Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes as well as Janeth Arcain and Tammy Jackson as the only players with four championships in their careers. Players like Taurasi, Catchings, Bird, Jackson, and Leslie aren’t able to call themselves members of this selective crowd.
In 2016, Brunson had a chance to etch her name all alone atop WNBA Finals record books with her fifth title, but Nneka Ogwumike and the Sparks had other ideas.
On Wednesday, Brunson will again find herself on the precipice of history as the 35-year-old will take the floor inside Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota’s campus.
“To win the title here in front of these fans would be amazing,” Brunson said after the team’s final practice before Wednesday’s showdown (8 PM ET on ESPN). “No matter if it is fifth for me, or one for some, these fans have been behind us the whole way. They always are here for us during ups and downs and they support us through it all.”
The 2017 Finals have been a roller coaster for Brunson, who many viewed as the x-factor heading into a series with so much talent on either roster. In Game 1 she came out flat, only tallying two points on a rough 1-for-6 shooting night. Her 12 points in Minnesota’s Game 2 win seemed to point in an upward trend, only to have her drop a six-point dud in the Lynx’s Game 3 loss. No one knew what a must-win Game 4 would hold for Brunson.
She delivered as gritty and gutty a performance as anyone could have asked of her. She recorded a double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds while also knocking down 10-of-13 free throw attempts, the latter a testament to not only her concentration on the charity stripe but also her willingness to put her body in harm’s way for the better of the team.
“No matter what point in the game we’re at or what it is that I’m doing, I try to do it with some aggression and energy,” Brunson said. “It allows me to lead the team in a certain type of way, so Sunday’s performance felt really good because I feel like my teammates fed off of that.”
Brunson’s resolve throughout this series has been unmatched, as she’s put underwhelming performances quickly behind her to keep her focus on the task at hand. In Sunday’s win, it was the Rebbekah Brunson show that her teammates and Lynx fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the years. A player whose value serves as the unseen but all-important gravitational pull that swings this pendulum of a series in Minnesota’s favor.
“She was huge for us the other night,” Whalen said on Tuesday. “Her aggressiveness and assertiveness to just go and get the ball saved so many possessions for us. And a lot times in these games that’s what it comes down to, having the ball and being able to execute. Her providing all those extra possessions was a great thing for us.”
As mere hours stand between Brunson and history, the seasoned veteran doesn’t appear to be letting history creep into her psyche.
“It doesn’t really factor into how I’m preparing for tomorrow,” Brunson said. “I think we’re just working on what we’ve been doing as a group, the legacy of this team and the amount of work we’ve put in. I’m just going to try and leave everything out there.”
Legacy is an important word in the sports world as it goes on to define how you will be remembered in the years to come. With a win on Wednesday, the Lynx will be mentioned in the same breath as the great Comets teams that won four straight titles at the onset of the WNBA’s inception.
When the league looks back on Rebekkah Brunson, words like fearless, imposing, ferocious, and inspiring will all come to mind, but so will champion. But, if it’s the Lynx that are hoisting the championship trophy through the rainfall confetti, Brunson’s definition of champion will be in a class of one.