This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American journalist on the scene.
SEATTLE — The word “replacement” often can be misunderstood, especially in sports.
Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson and Sugar Rodgers of New York were both named All-Stars by WNBA President Lisa Borders to replace two injured players: Brunson for Brittney Griner, and Rodgers for Elena Delle Donne.
Connecticut Coach Curt Miller is coaching the East in place of New York’s Bill Laimbeer, due to a family matter he is attending.
Sun Guard Alyssa Thomas will start Saturday’s game in place of Delle Donne, who was previously selected as a starter in fans, players and media voting.
These people may be replacing others, but each deserves to be here in Seattle. “You never want anybody around the league to get injured,” Brunson told the Only One before the West practice Friday. “You wouldn’t hope for that kind of opportunity. But I am grateful” to be in her fourth All-Star game and first since 2013.
“I am blessed to be here,” added Rodgers, who will make her All-Star debut Saturday in her fifth WNBA season. “It’s been a long time coming for me.”
Miller’s Sun have the best record in the Eastern Conference — Laimbeer was originally selected because the Liberty finished with the conference’s best regular season record in 2016. “I’m excited to coach the game,” noted Miller, whose squad started this season 1-5, and now holds the W’s third-best overall record (12-8).
Brunson joins her three Lynx teammates — Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles (starters) and Seimone Augustus (reserve). When told of the possibility of all four together on the floor at some point in Saturday’s game, she replied, “I think that would be fun for all of us to represent the Lynx at the same time.”
Fowles is on the West squad for the first time — she has been a three-time East starter when she played for Chicago. “I was just reminiscing last night and I went through my camera roll and found [a photo] with me, Rebekkah, Seimone and Maya,” the 6-6 Lynx center told us. But she doesn’t have a photo of the four of them as Lynx All-Stars: “I got to make sure we all take pictures tomorrow,” stressed Fowles.
Saturday’s All-Star Game (3:30 pm Eastern time on ABC) features many first-time All-Stars: “When I started packing for it, it was a surreal moment,” said second-year Connecticut Center Jonquel Jones, who was the pre-season pick by WNBA general managers as the player most likely to have a breakout year. “I think the first half [of the season] has been good. I want to keep playing consistently and keep making sure our team keeps playing good basketball,” she said.
“I’m excited to play with [her],” stated New York’s Tina Charles. “I think she’s a fantastic player.”
Of all the all-star contests, the WNBA year in, year out is the best in terms of competitiveness.
Especially in how the players put their intra-conference rivalries on temporary hold to play the other conference.
Los Angeles’ Candace Parker will be in the West starting lineup with Fowles and Moore — the Sparks and Lynx are the league’s latest rivals. “You’re coming to play with your competitors, so it’s a little bit different,” she points out. “We want to have fun, do it for the fans but we definitely want to win.”
Added Fowles, “We are very competitive. I think that’s the women in us. We come out here to have fun but everybody is so competitive, that makes it a game. It’s always good to get together and showcase out talents together.”
“Eight players out of the 11 are first-time All-Stars,” notes Miller. “You’re going to see a hungry group in the East.”
“It’s going to be an interesting game tomorrow,” stated Charles.
Both squads also will have Black assistant coaches — the Sparks and Lynx are the league’s latest rivals. “You’re coming to play with your competitors, so it’s a little bit different,” she points out. “We want to have fun, do it for the fans but we definitely Connecticut’s Steve Smith for the East, and Shelley Patterson and James Wade of Minnesota for the West.
“This is a time when everybody gets a chance to breathe, relax and enjoy the work we put in,” said Wade of his first All-Star coaching berth in his first season with the Lynx. “It’s an amazing atmosphere to see all these high level players, the 24 best players in the league. I really like that.”
But is the annual midseason contest that is staged each July in non-Olympic years in need of a format makeover? Sue Bird of host Seattle when asked offered a suggestion. “Take the top 22 players and…pick out of a hat to see who plays with whom. That actually would be kind of fun,” noted the 10-time All-Star, and eighth-time starter.
After a lengthy absence, the All-Star Game once again will feature a skills competition for the first time in eight years. Five players: Moore, Bird, Rodgers, Allie Quigley (Chicago) and Jasmine Thomas of Connecticut will compete during halftime of Saturday’s game in the2017 WNBA Three-Point Contest.
Each participant will represent their favorite charity — the Sparks and Lynx are the league’s latest rivals. “You’re coming to play with your competitors, so it’s a little bit different,” she pointed out. “We want to have fun, do it for the fans… the winner nets $10,000 to support her work in the community.
“I think Sugar can get really hot,” said Atlanta’s Elizabeth Williams, who is rooting for Rodgers, the third in the WNBA this season in made threes.
“I’m going to go with Maya,” added Candice Dupree of Indiana on Moore, who ranks 15th on the league’s all-time list for three-pointers.
Quigley is second in the league in treys. Thomas’s 38 three-pointers this season already surpassed her previous career high 35 in 2012. Bird reached the final round of the 2009 shooting event.
Saturday’s shooting exhibition, sandwiched in between two All-Star halves, should be interesting, many suggested.
“We have some lights-out shooters in this league,” concluded Moore. “I think a cool aspect…is we will each have a charity that’s we are representing, so it’s bigger than ourselves.”
Next: The Only One’s post-All Star reflections.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.