AT&T WNBA All-Star 2022: Honoring Legends and Eyeing the Future

On Sunday afternoon in Chicago, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles will both appear in their final WNBA All-Star Game as the two living legends have announced their intentions to retire at the end of the 2022 season. They do so as the WNBA is seeing an influx of young talent ready to push the league forward as the WNBA begins its second quarter-century.

This year, Bird extended her WNBA record with her 13th All-Star selection, while Fowles was named an All-Star for the eighth time. The 21 combined All-Star selections from these two soon-to-be Hall of Famers is three more than the combined total from the 11 players with the least All-Star experience entering Sunday’s game.

That list includes four first-time All-Stars — rookie Rhyne Howard of Atlanta (who was just two years and two months old when Bird made her All-Star debut in 2002), New York’s Sabrina Ionescu and the Las Vegas duo of Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum – all of which are former No. 1 overall draft picks. It also includes seven players earning their second All-Star selections: Chicago’s Kahleah Copper and Emma Meesseman, New York’s Natasha Howard, Las Vegas’ Dearica Hamby, Connecticut’s Brionna Jones, Washington’s Ariel Atkins, and Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale.

“I’m honored to be here; I’m honored to be recognized amongst some of the best players in the world and in history,” said Ionescu, who will represent Team Wilson. “Being alongside even some of my teammates, Candace Parker, Sylvia, a lot of these players. I just feel like I’m a little kid looking up to them and excited to be here.”

As each of the All-Stars spoke with the media on Saturday before the Skills Challenge and MTN DEW 3-Point Contest, they shared stories of the impact that Fowles and Bird had both on and off the court. Many recounted the duality of Sylvia Fowles – there’s “Mama Syl” who will cook your favorite meal off the court, and there is the Syl that will destroy you on the court — while others touted the advice they received from Bird over the years.

“For me, I’ve played against Sylvia since I was 14,” said Candace Parker, who entered the WNBA with Fowles as the top two picks in the 2008 Draft. “Coming to these tournaments and walking in and she was the same size and build at 14 — yes, she was. Very scary. And Sue, the same thing, just scary skills and scary to play against.

“I think for me it’s like your game is raised whether you’re on as teammates or whether you’re opponents. We have competed against SEC, national championships, and WNBA, together with the Olympics. So, I think this era of basketball has been — those two have been dominant, and they have had a hand in the direction of the way basketball is played as well as all of us having to level up because we’re competing against them or with them.”

For Fowles, this weekend offers a full-circle moment as Chicago is where her WNBA career began 14 years ago and now will mark her final All-Star Game as the city hosts the event for the first time.

“It feels great; I’m happy to see my career flourish to me playing again on the Chicago floor,” she said. “I got drafted here in 2008, and to have this opportunity to play my last All-Star Game back in Chicago means a lot, and of course, I get to do it with two special girls [Parker and Vandersloot flanked Fowles at the press conference table] that I’m very close with, and just hoping to have fun.”

When Bird and Fowles were selected as co-captains for this year’s All-Star Game, Fowles was paired with Breanna Stewart, while Bird was paired with A’ja Wilson. When Stewart and Wilson selected their teams from the pool of starters and reserves last week, they also executed a pair of trades. One of those trades involved the co-captains, as Stewart wanted her Storm teammate Bird on her squad, while Wilson wanted to team with Fowles.

“I’m always going to probably be one of the first to give Syl her flowers because Syl has mentored me in a way that she probably doesn’t even know,” said Wilson. “Just coming into the league as a big girl and watching that has been amazing. The things she’s done in this league are incredible, and to still have her body, it’s magnificent to look at. I hope I can look that good-headed into retirement.

“But no, Syl’s game and to be her teammate in the Olympics is truly special. Like it’s one of those things where Syl is always going to put a smile on your face. We don’t call her Mama Syl for no reason, like the nurturing of it, she understands how to talk to us, and I love that about her, and I’m going to miss it.”

By trading for Bird and drafting Jewell Loyd, Stewart made sure her Storm teammates would be her All-Star teammates. Team Stewart is also Team Fighting Irish as all four former Notre Dame players – Loyd, Ogunbowale, Young, and Skylar Diggins-Smith – will team together on Sunday.

“We’ve learned and we’re still learning from Sue,” said Loyd. “I have a big notebook of stuff that she’s taught me over the years. It is nice and thick. I think you want to make sure that we continue her legacy and our legacy, and that’s just treating the game with respect, going about everything as professional as possible, but adding our personality to it, as well, and I think we’re doing that now. … We’ve learned a lot from Sue and we’ve tried to do our best to make sure we can sustain that and hopefully pass it down to the next generation of hoopers.”

“Just understanding all that Sue has done for the game and appreciating that and also sharing these moments with her and being genuine and making sure that as we continue to strive for more in the WNBA and more for women, women in sports, things like that,” added Stewart. “That we are honest with who we are and what we do, and at the same time putting the league and endorsements and companies in uncomfortable positions that maybe they haven’t been in before where they need to get to, so then we can set the standard for something new.”

WNBA All-Star 2022 is not only a celebration of the game, it is a chance to honor veterans like Bird and Fowles before they exit the league, a chance to spotlight the young talent set to lead the league for years to come, and a chance to amplify the message to bring Brittney Griner home, and a chance to enhance the cultural footprint and long-term success of the WNBA.

This year, the league introduced WNBA Live – a new two-day outdoor fan festival connecting basketball, music, and culture to celebrate the WNBA and bring fans together leading up to Sunday’s All-Star Game. The festival allowed fans to interact with WNBA players and legends, pick up exclusive merchandise and participate in a variety of on-court events through WNBA partner activations.

The Orange Carpet was rolled out at Friday’s Welcome Reception to allow this year’s All-Stars to show off their off-the-court style with some incredible fits. And, of course, it wouldn’t be an All-Star weekend without a few parties to attend.

“To be honest, this particular All-Star marks, I think, a big change in terms of the excitement and the events surrounding the game,” said Bird. “This is the first year we’ve had multiple parties where different brands are hosting different events, and last night Brand Jordan had a party, they had a musical performer. These are the types of things you see at other All-Star weekends, and that really hasn’t been the case for us. The WNBA always does some sort of reception, but we’re talking like parties like people want to be seen at these parties, people want to go, and I think it does make a big difference in terms of the excitement.

“As far as the game goes, I must admit, through the years there have been some games that have been better than others, some hosts have been better than others, but the standard for the actual game, the event from a player perspective, it’s been pretty consistent. I think it has been a pretty high level and pretty consistent.

“As I said, some better than others, but to me it’s the excitement around the game like throughout the community, and I know it sounds silly, but the parties matter. I think they represent something different like the world of cultural capital. That’s kind of exciting to see that happen this year, and I hope it continues.”

Bird wasn’t the only player to use the term “cultural capital” during Saturday’s media sessions. Seven-time All-Star and WNBA Players’ Association President Nneka Ogwumike also stressed the importance of the WNBA in popular culture.

“The cultural capital is really important, especially as we’re in a time — not just in sport but also in the world — in which everyone is paying attention to like what you eat, what you wear, what you say, what you post, who you’re affiliated with, who you’re voting for,” she said. “These are all very important things, and it sways millions, it sways thousands. As athletes, we are walking advertisements. We are a walking brand.

“For us to be able to capitalize that on a collective level is important, and that’s kind of where the investment backing can shoot that pop culture and that cultural capital where it needs to be for us to be where we know our league can be.”

While Bird and Fowles may not be part of the WNBA future, they have helped set the groundwork and the blueprint for the league to build upon.

“I actually think we have finally in some ways cracked the code a little bit, so the answer to this question four years ago would have been different,” said Bird when asked about how the WNBA can keep its current momentum moving forward. “I feel like now what we’ve done can kind of establish a foundation of who we are as a league, a foundation of how we want to market ourselves, how we want to represent ourselves, and so to me, it’s just about following the path that we’ve finally figured out. That is really, I think what’s going to push things forward, and of course continue to put pressure on the powers that be, because in my mind — I’m sure you guys would agree with this, when the TV deal is up in two years, that to me, that’s the moment.

“So, I think we just have to continue down this path, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and then when they start negotiations for that, that could break things open and change the entire trajectory of our league.”

“I think the foundation has been set with a lot of great players,” added Fowles. “Unfortunately, you got to see some of those leave at this point, but I think we have a young group of talent that’s willing to do what’s needed to be done that’s not going to shy away from the things that they want and the things that they believe in. And so, I would say just piggy-back, piggy-back off these girls, listen to their thoughts, and see how we can make this thing grow in the next 25 years.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Brian Martin writes articles on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.