NEW YORK — As Devin Rybacki and her mother, Jennifer, walked down 8th Avenue towards Madison Square Garden to see the New York Liberty play host to the Chicago Sky, they were already having a good day. Wednesday was Devin’s birthday, so the overnight trip (the family hails from South New Jersey) was a bit of a birthday present.
Devin, who was sporting the jersey of her favorite player – Elena Delle Donne – was holding a Sharpie.
The Sharpie’s marks were all over the back of her jersey. On their stroll in the city the two stumbled upon the Sky players waiting for a ride to The Garden. There, she saw Delle Donne, Tamera Young and all of her other favorites. They signed her jersey and left Rybacki beaming with excitement. And the trip had only just begun.
“I’ve never seen [Elena Delle Donne] play in person before,” said Devin.
But that was all about to change. The Rybackis, like so many other fans around the league, decided to capitalize on the opportunity to see one of the WNBA’s best players in action. She and her mom made their way to the arena a few hours before doors opened. What was already a wonderful day was poised to get even better.
After sitting out for two straight games with a foot injury, Delle Donne entered Thursday’s game as a game-time decision. But it was evident from the moment she stepped foot on the floor to get up shots that she was going to give it a go. Delle Donne was the first player on the court, which should come as no surprise given what she’s done so far this season.
The best player in the league this year, Delle Donne has the Sky back in the WNBA Playoffs with a chance to take care of unfinished business. The Sky fell to the Phoenix Mercury in the 2014 WNBA Finals, and since then there’s always been one goal: get back and reverse last year’s outcome.
When the game was over Thursday night, the Sky had moved one win closer to that goal, and they gained a wealth of experience in the process. Delle Donne and the Sky toppled the Liberty in impressive fashion. And although their offense clicked, it was their defense that was really key.
“We wanted to make a statement that we can play great defense as well,” Delle Donne said. “and that’s huge for us. If our defense is on, everything seems to click for us.”
The Liberty came into the game with the league’s best defense, but Sky head coach Pokey Chatman focused her entire gameplan around what the Sky needed to do defensively to be effective. She said Thursday’s game was the best defensive performance she’s seen from her squad this season. In the end, it accomplished numerous things for Chicago.
They earned a win in a tightly contested Eastern Conference, and they did it on the road in Madison Square Garden in what felt like a playoff atmosphere.
“This was just a huge mental game for us,” Chatman said. “Obviously, heading into the playoffs we hadn’t beaten the Liberty yet. And to come here on their home court and get a win was huge for us mentally.”
Just one glance across the crowd inside Madison Square Garden was all it took to notice the spattering of Chicago Sky blue. Fans from all over made the trek to see the Sky – and assumedly Delle Donne – play the East’s best team.
Jennifer Rybacki and Devin Rybacki watched the Sky from seats underneath the basket, just feet away from the Chicago Sky bench. And they were just two of many fans who have been making the trek to WNBA arenas to watch the league’s best stars – including Delle Donne, who is currently having one of the best seasons in league history.
Sessie Robinson and Donna Hammond drove from Newark, Delaware, where Delle Donne played four strong years at the University of Delaware, to watch their hometown star in action. Like many, they’ve been impressed with her abilities on the court, but her actions in the community have not gone unnoticed, as is evidenced by the fact that she’s won two-straight Dawn Staley Community Leadership Awards.
“I think she’s very humble,” Robinson said, “and especially with how she gives back to the community and people who have special needs. You see how close she is to her sister. Even when she comes home, you see her in the news with how close she is with her sister. She’s just a great role model for everybody.”
In what has been a huge summer for women’s athletics, the buzz around the league continues to grow. Hammond believes it will only continue as stars like Maya Moore, Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins continue to dazzle on the court.
“When I’m at work I wear my jerseys,” Hammond said. “I talk to all of the guys about it. I told them, ‘It’s blowing up. The stars are coming. The singers are coming.’ More people are coming to see the WNBA and it’s going to continue to just get bigger and better.”