How the New York Liberty built a WNBA superteam in just one offseason

ByAlexa Philippou ESPN logo
Thursday, May 18, 2023

NEW YORK -- The Big Apple is known for its unrelenting pace, but one of the central scenes of the New York Liberty's blockbuster free agency came some 5,000 miles away, during a two-hour boat ride where no one was in a hurry.

One morning in late January, Clara Wu Tsai, Liberty co-owner and co-governor, and WNBA superstar Breanna Stewart took a morning voyage through the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey with Stewart's wife, Marta Xargay Casademont, and their 21-month-old daughter, Ruby. The Liberty sent a delegation, including Wu Tsai, general manager Jonathan Kolb, assistant GM Ohemaa Nyanin and coach Sandy Brondello to Istanbul to woo unrestricted free agent Stewart -- who was competing with Turkish club Fenerbahce during the WNBA offseason. Following several meetings with the former MVP, the rest of the Liberty contingent left the country, leaving Wu Tsai, Stewart and her family together.

During their boat ride, they talked about the league, about the surrounding sites, even their pasts -- "When you have that amount of time," Wu Tsai said, "you can pretty much just talk about anything." The group brought snacks and toys and played with Ruby.

"I'm invested in her and her family, and she needs to be happy," Wu Tsai told ESPN. "Things need to work out for her family in New York in order for this to be successful. It was not only getting to know Stewie on a personal level, but also Marta and Ruby, and of course I was able to observe an incredible, powerful partnership between her and Marta."

The time together and conversation resonated with Stewart.

"The way that she came all the way to Istanbul, really getting to know my family, Marta and Ruby, and taking us on an experience through the Bosphorus, she knows what hits close to home," Stewart said. "And she made it a point for it to be important for her too."

In the most momentous free agency move in league history, Stewart called Wu Tsai within a week to tell her she would sign with the Liberty. That, in conjunction with New York's trade for Jonquel Jones 2 weeks earlier and subsequent signing of Courtney Vandersloot, marked the realization of a vision.

For the first time in years, the Liberty are a legitimate championship contender, with sights set on bringing the city its first basketball championship since 1973 -- what would also be the Liberty's first title.

"It's a pillar original franchise," Kolb said. "I'm really tired of the continuation of that sentence being 'but the only one that hasn't won a championship.'"

Amid a ratings explosion for women's basketball (2022 was the most-viewed since 2006, averaging 412,000 viewers for 49 games, up 22 percent from 2021), a new TV rights deal on the horizon and persistent calls for expansion, the WNBA is at an inflection point. The Liberty want to set the standard for what franchises can do on the court by winning championships and off of it by prioritizing the player experience -- and they see New York, a city that draws more attention than anywhere else, as the place to do it. "There really is something to be said for having the best collection of talent in the biggest market, for this league at this time," Kolb said.

"I think everybody realizes the momentum and power that we have here and making sure that we're all a part of something bigger," Stewart added. "Obviously winning a championship, but something more than that."

New York? It's been a minute

When she entered the league in 1998 as a player with the Detroit Shock, Brondello, an Australian, didn't understand why Madison Square Garden was considered so special. Once she experienced it for herself, though, it became one of her favorite arenas. Liberty crowds were always sizable and spirited, especially when Brondello was later traded to the Miami Sol, New York's rival. She remembers rock star Joan Jett stabbing a voodoo doll courtside, intended to doom the Liberty's opponent.

"Everyone wanted to beat New York, I suppose," Brondello said. "Back then, too."

The early momentum and popularity surrounding the Liberty were ultimately supplanted by languishment. After four Finals appearances between 1997 and 2002, New York hasn't been back since. A particularly symbolic blow came in 2018 and 2019, when games were relocated to the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York, as owner James Dolan pursued selling the franchise -- a harsh demotion for a team that for the majority of its existence called the World's Most Famous Arena home.

"When you walk in that gym, it takes you aback," Kolb said of the Westchester site. "You're like, 'Wow, this is where a pro sports game is being played?'"

"I don't think anyone enjoyed that very much, including the visiting teams," Brondello said, adding with a smile, "but as the Phoenix coach back in those days, we enjoyed it. We always won."

In April 2020, the team embarked on a new on-court direction, trading former MVP Tina Charles and drafting Sabrina Ionescu at No. 1 overall. But after the triple-double sensation out of Oregon suffered a season-ending ankle injury three games into the season, a rookie-laden Liberty team finished 2-20, missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

There have been highs and lows since -- signing a strong free agency class headlined by Betnijah Laney in 2021; parting ways with Walt Hopkins in December of that year and needing to hire a fourth head coach in six seasons; landing Brondello, who led Phoenix to the 2014 title plus a Finals appearance in 2021. Even 2022 was mired early on by injuries, but ended on a positive note as the Liberty won their first playoff game since 2015.

But the gears were in motion for a game-changing 2023. New York's front office maintained roster flexibility financially by not overspending and building around a core of young players. Meanwhile, the league's new collective bargaining agreement, ratified in 2020, reduced the number of times a player could receive the "core" designation (akin to the franchise tag) from four to two by 2022, opening player movement like never before.

The Liberty's new owners as of 2019, Wu Tsai and husband Joe Tsai, came to embody an ideal ownership. The Tsais moved practices and games to Barclays Center in Brooklyn by 2021 -- a massive upgrade in facilities from Westchester. The Tsais weren't afraid to push the envelope, either, illicitly purchasing charter flights for some away games that summer, which resulted in a $500,000 fine.

The Liberty's 2023 offseason will go down as the most seismic in league history. But those seeds were long-ago planted.

"We started at the bottom," Ionescu said, "and have now worked our way into being this desirable team where two former MVPs want to come be a part of, and be a big part of, winning a championship."

Landing Jones

Over a year ago, Kolb wrote "Stewie" and Vandersloot under a heading titled "FA" (free agency), and "JJ" under one for "trade" on a whiteboard in his office at Barclays.

There was a world -- Kolb envisioned -- in which the Liberty could acquire all three players. Come December, those three players were also picturing the same future.

In December 2022, prior to the official start of free agency, Vandersloot held a group chat with Jones and Stewart, starting the chain with the eyes emoji. Those three were potentially on the move, but to where? Vandersloot, a four-time All-Star with the Chicago Sky and one of the best passers in league history, and Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm and 2018 MVP, were unrestricted free agents. Jones, the 2021 MVP with the Connecticut Sun, was one year into a two-year contract. But in search of a fresh start, which the Liberty heard rumblings of, she had reached an understanding with Sun management that if she wanted a trade following the 2022 season, Connecticut would honor her wishes.

Having played together in Russia on the juggernaut UMMC Ekaterinburg, Jones, Stewart and Vandersloot knew they meshed well on the court, were selfless players and enjoyed being around each other.

While the prospect of landing at the same spot was tantalizing and they kept each other informed of where they stood, each had to make a decision on what was best for them.

As the only one still under contract, Jones took the first leap. The Sun permitted the Bahamas native to take meetings with potential franchises. She met with the Liberty, including Ionescu, over Zoom.

In Connecticut, Jones wasn't surrounded by shooters who opened up the paint for her. That wouldn't be the case with Brondello's system. But the call also included Liberty business personnel who discussed how they could promote Jones in the biggest sports market in the country and connect her with New York communities.

"In CT, like as much as I love CT, it's very hard to find people that look like me, youth that look like me," said Jones, who has spoken about how endorsements and superstardom are more difficult to come by for WNBA players like her who are Black, gay and as she describes herself as masculine presenting. "To come into a city where there's a melting pot of people and then to have a marketing team tap into that and really just understood how important that was, I feel like that was the biggest game-changer compared to all the other teams."

Jones seriously considered the Washington Mystics, a homecoming of sorts since she went to high school in Maryland before playing at George Washington. Maybe if Stewart and Vandersloot weren't in the picture, her heart would've led her there. But when Jones determined she'd be happy with her decision even if the others didn't end up in Brooklyn, she knew New York was where she wanted to be.

The first domino tipped, then fell: A three-team trade moving Jones to New York was executed in mid-January before the start of free agency.

The professionalism Jones saw over Zoom carried over to her first days at Barclays. The franchise served Bahamian food at her introductory news conference and invited members of the New York Bahamian Consulate. Touring the home locker room for the first time, Jones remarked, "This is what a professional locker room looks like." And the adjacent player lounge stocked with snacks and liquid fuel -- the first she's had in the pros. When she was sick and congested upon her arrival to New York, she was offered a stint in the sauna and gladly accepted.

Landing Vandersloot

Vandersloot was surprised when the Liberty expressed interest in her during free agency. Did New York want her to play behind Ionescu? Even if that wasn't the case, Vandersloot didn't want to step on Ionescu's toes.

To the contrary, Ionescu was intimately involved in the recruitment effort for all three players and was in favor of bringing in a point guard, acknowledging she's more of a combo guard who thrives off the ball. After being trapped and double-teamed much of last year, having a ball-dominant guard could open up the floor for her. And she wanted Vandersloot specifically, the league's six-time assists leader whom Ionescu considers "the best true point guard in the league."

Ionescu and Vandersloot -- who coincidentally shared the same college coach, Kelly Graves -- hopped on the phone for the former to directly assuage Vandersloot's concerns. Vandersloot even consulted Graves as an impartial judge to ensure the pairing could work. But it wasn't just the basketball fit Vandersloot had questions about.

Vandersloot has lived in the suburbs her whole life and doesn't consider herself a city person. Moving to New York entailed swapping her house -- her yard, her pool, quiet surroundings -- for a Brooklyn apartment. She couldn't imagine not bringing her car, but didn't know how she'd manage with minimal parking options ("I'm a big parking lots person," she said. "I just like parking lots"). She was worried how her dog would adjust, though Jones -- a dog owner herself -- recorded a video from a nearby park showing Vandersloot her dog would have space to play.

Vandersloot visited New York twice, and the Liberty helped her realize not only was she a valued player to their future plans, but she could manage living in the big city. She realized in mid-conversation with Kolb, while driving, she wanted to be in New York, and told him: "Screw it, I'm in."

Part of why she wanted to take the plunge was to get outside of her comfort zone.

"I felt like I had done what I could do in Chicago," said Vandersloot, who was drafted by the Sky in 2011. "That's not a knock on anyone. It's more for my personal growth, I needed a different voice, a different perspective, something different just to grow my game. I just felt like I would be challenged here."

Ionescu, meanwhile, couldn't be happier. With Vandersloot and the others on the way, for once she actually practiced open shots this offseason.

Landing Stewart

When Stewart first met with the Liberty as a free agent in January 2022, she wasn't ready to leave Seattle. Sue Bird, with whom Stewart played since the Storm drafted her in 2016, had one more season left in the tank, and Stewart signed a one-year deal to return to help send her off into the sunset.

In January, Stewart took meetings with the Liberty, Storm, Mystics and Minnesota Lynx in Turkey. The Liberty delegation convened with her once in a hotel meeting room and then over a pair of dinners -- the first featuring a tasting menu and wine, and the second at a seafood restaurant overlooking a cathedral.

After meetings, Liberty personnel spent rides in their Sprinter van discussing whether they thought Stewart was in. She didn't supply an answer by the time they parted ways. The decision came to her gradually, she said: "It just felt right, I just knew I wanted to be here."

Moving to Brooklyn meant moving closer to her grandparents, who live a 40-minute flight away in her hometown of Syracuse. Xargay Casademont, who spent two seasons with the Mercury, also spoke highly of Brondello's even-keeled demeanor and ability to coach everyone from superstars to the 12th player on the roster.

But Stewart's decision was also about, in her words, pushing the needle forward. By teaming up with New York, she could capitalize off playing in the country's biggest sports market and align with ownership who is similarly enthusiastic about ushering the league toward its next phase of growth.

In meetings with each team, Stewart inquired about their ownership's stance toward adopting charter air travel and what they would be willing to do to make that happen. Tsai had made clear his support for chartering, previously tweeting he was working to find a corporate airline sponsor.

"I think that it was very clear that we had this alignment of values and of objectives. Stewie, I think, sees herself as a change agent," Wu Tsai said. "She understands her power as an athlete. She understands that as one of the best female basketball players in the world, she has a platform and she's driven to use that platform."

Aside from air travel, New York prides itself as an organization that listens to its players, not just in boasting top-notch facilities and accommodations, but by providing regular meals and snacks -- the cadence of serving in-house food varies across the league, according to players -- as well as installing updated recovery technology and expanding the performance staff.

It was a commitment and passion for the league, Stewart told Wu Tsai on the boat ride, that stood out above the rest.

"You can tell when you walk into a room with Clara, she wants to invest and takes pride in making sure that our league grows," Stewart said. "Obviously, you see the charters and all of that, but really from the top down, making sure that we have everything that we need and using her resources as much as she can to help us. That's something that you're seeing with some more progressive owners, but we need everybody to get on board."

Stewart still struggles, as she phrases it, with the "we, they, us -- because if you talk to me about Seattle, I'll say 'we.'" Wearing Liberty gear has taken some getting used to, as is being in the Liberty players group chat.

One of her first days walking around, New Yorkers greeted her with "Go Liberty! Go Stewie!" cheers, and a random woman hugged her. "I hope that energy translates to when we play games," she said.

The stature of the Liberty

Talk of a "superteam era" having finally arrived in the WNBA dominated the offseason, but Brondello would be the first to tell you the Liberty, and the Aces, are hardly the league's first juggernauts. Her 2014 Phoenix squad -- featuring Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Candice Dupree, DeWanna Bonner and Penny Taylor -- won a league-record 29 regular-season games on its way to clinching the franchise's third championship.

She knows, too, common trends such teams possess to be successful, ones she's working to instill in New York: buy-in from top-down, sticking together through adversity and sacrifice. The latter was already demonstrated when Stewart and Vandersloot signed for significantly less money than they could have demanded otherwise to fit under the WNBA's hard salary cap.

Brondello also knows what doesn't work. Ask anyone in New York about the prospects of winning a championship in October, and the focus shifts immediately back to the present.

"Whenever we had teams and we talked early about championships in a locker room is the year it didn't happen," said assistant coach Olaf Lange, also Brondello's husband. "So we won't talk about championships. We'll talk about what we can do today to get better. And if you guys come to us and talk about championships, we'll probably ignore you."

Dry humor aside, everyone in Brooklyn and beyond knows that's the expectation for this team -- in of itself a remarkable turnaround considering the Liberty have recorded five consecutive losing seasons, finishing 16-20 last year. Should they win the championship this fall, it would mark the second-longest streak of losing seasons before winning a title in WNBA history.

Questions about the early goings of integrating the Liberty's new Big Three are met with a chuckle. Jones and Stewart are still ramping up their activity; Jones is recovering from a stress reaction from last season while Stewart is recuperating after recently finishing her overseas season with Vandersloot.

Vandersloot and Ionescu experienced a strong first day and a half of practice, they said, before Vandersloot suffered a concussion.

But, like Stewart and Wu Tsai's boat ride, the Liberty aren't in a rush.

"[We can] try and run this for the next couple years, it's not a one year crack at it but more of: Let's try and build a dynasty and run it for as long as we possibly can," Ionescu said.

Because if everything goes their way, this will be the start of what was conjured on Kolb's whiteboard and cemented on the Bosphorus: The standard-setting, the needle-pushing and, yes, maybe even the championships. And to finally fulfill a dream in one of the epicenters of basketball culture.

"It is New York," Brondello added. "I mean, it's the basketball Mecca, isn't it?"

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