The extraordinary introvert driving the Liberty's championship push

ByKatie Barnes ESPN logo
Friday, September 15, 2023

COURTNEY VANDERSLOOT SCOOCHES into a chair at one of the round tables in a drab meeting room in a downtown Los Angeles hotel. If she weren't sporting New York Liberty gear, you would never peg her as a professional basketball player, let alone the WNBA's premier point guard who is second all-time in assists.

That's the way she likes it.

With her blonde hair pulled up in a messy bun, she sits quietly, if not patiently, as she waits for me to figure out my laptop issues. I almost feel the weight of her green eyes peering over my shoulder. This must be how referees feel when Vandersloot stares them down after a call she finds, shall we say, objectionable.

It's not personal. Vandersloot just doesn't like people. Or social media. Or attention.

"She's a simple broad," Liberty center Stefanie Dolson says through a grin. "She likes three things: her wife; her dog, Gem; and beer."

Add basketball to Dolson's list. My laptop is running at last, and we watch video of the Liberty blowing a fourth-quarter lead in an early-season loss to Chicago. The spiral includes a couple of turnovers from Vandersloot, who is suddenly talkative, animated. She damn near winces as she watches herself overthrow Kayla Thornton in transition. "It was a dumb pass," she says.

When she finishes a double-clutch reverse layup during a 44-point first-quarter outburst against Indiana, she smirks at her out-of-character flair. "Athlete Sloot!" she cheers.

Being the point guard for the Liberty requires Vandersloot to put herself in a position that she'd otherwise shun like a skunky beer. She has to be a leader, a facilitator and a people pleaser. And she has to do it for the franchise in the league's biggest market in front of fans who have never celebrated a Liberty championship. If that weren't enough, she has to do it for a so-called "superteam" that was built to win and win now.

Back to the video. With the Liberty struggling late against the Sky in that early-season game, Vandersloot catches a pass on the wing. She fakes the jumper and drives toward the baseline. She sees two Chicago defenders collapse toward her. She also sees Breanna Stewart open on the perimeter. Even though Vandersloot has space for the reverse she loves, she fires a chest pass to Stewart, who blows by a defender for an easy pull-up and a bucket the Liberty desperately need.

Regardless of the numbers she puts up, every night demands an incredible performance from Vandersloot. She has to dig deep. It's not natural for her to command a room full of people, let alone some of the biggest personalities in the WNBA, but she does that on the court and in the huddle every time she puts on a Liberty jersey.

"I'm not social by any means," Vandersloot says. "I try to avoid all encounters with people."

She has chosen to endure this discomfort zone with the Liberty for one simple reason: She loves to win.

VANDERSLOOT SWEARS SHE'S surprised she's here at all.

"I'm just still this skinny little girl from Kent," the 5-foot-8 New York newcomer says. "I can't even believe I'm in the WNBA."

Kent, Washington, is a city 20 miles southeast of Seattle that can boast it was once considered the Lettuce Capital of the World. Vandersloot, who also played softball and soccer as a kid, starred on the basketball court at Kentwood High School. Still, she wasn't a highly touted recruit and decided to stay close to home and enrolled at Gonzaga. There, she was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year three times and became the first college player in men's or women's basketball to have 2,000 career points and 1,000 assists.

Vandersloot, who was mentored by NBA assist king John Stockton during her time in Spokane, still holds Gonzaga's single-season records for both points and assists. As a senior, she won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, given to the top player in the country no taller than 5-8, and the Nancy Lieberman Award for the top point guard in the country. In 2011, she was drafted No. 3 overall by the Chicago Sky, where she spent her entire career and won the 2021 WNBA championship before leaving for New York ahead of the 2023 season.

Though she was a shrewd scorer in both high school and college, passing grew as a focus for Vandersloot. "I started to figure out [passing] was more natural for me than scoring," she says. "I just find joy in creating shots for others."

Spotlight, follow her not me!

She has passed her way right into the WNBA record books. Other than her first two seasons in the league, the 34-year-old Vandersloot has been in the top four in assist average every season she has played in the WNBA. She's also the only WNBA player in history to average 10 assists in a season, which she accomplished in the "Wubble" in 2020. This year, Vandersloot finished the regular season averaging a league-leading 8.1 assists. It's the seventh time she has led the league in assist average, tying her for most all-time with Ticha Penicheiro.

"Her IQ is off the charts," coach Sandy Brondello says. "She sees things happen before they actually do happen."

Vandersloot has 2,701 (and counting) career assists, putting her 533 assists behind the all-time leader, Sue Bird. If she maintains her career average of 6.8 assists per game, Vandersloot would need to play just over 78 games to pass Bird. With WNBA seasons expanding to 40 games not including the playoffs, the league could be anointing a new career assists leader in two seasons. Vandersloot's per-game average is 1.3 assists better than Bird's and 1.8 assists better than that of fellow championship-contending point guard Chelsea Gray of the Las Vegas Aces. Vandersloot leads active players in assists by a wide margin. Forty-one-year-old Diana Taurasi is in second place with 2,272 assists. After her, there's a steep drop to 37-year-old Candace Parker (1,634) and 30-year-old Gray (1,499). Vandersloot's career average puts her nearly one assist per game ahead of the next-closest active player -- her teammate Sabrina Ionescu -- and the only other players at or near 5.0 assists per game are Gray, Natasha Cloud and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The math suggests Vandersloot is poised to shatter the assist record if she plays into her late 30s, and that her record will hold for a long time.

The numbers don't lie. Take it from Stewart, who set the Liberty's franchise record for points this season with 919 and might not have been able to do it without her point guard. Of Stewart's 919 points, 254 of them came on assists from Vandersloot. And of Vandersloot's 314 regular-season assists, 116 went to Stewart. The 254 points are the most by any player combination on any team this season.

"I'm sure she won't even call herself a superstar," Stewart says of Vandersloot. "But what she does is not normal."

And to think, the two almost missed their connection.

ON A CHILLY fall evening shortly after Chicago's semifinal exit from the 2022 WNBA playoffs, Vandersloot poked around the Washington State Fair. Wearing a black-and-white plaid flannel and black jeans, she blended in with the crowd as she passed art and agriculture exhibits with longtime friend Rita Gray and her kids. Vandersloot and Gray met during their freshman years of college, and their friendship has grown over the 15 years since.

On this night, Gray was waiting for Vandersloot to tell her what was going on. Gray has access to Vandersloot's phone location and knew that she had been home in the middle of the summer, but she hadn't told Gray. Normally if Vandersloot -- who is the godmother to both of Gray's children -- was in the vicinity, she'd stop by (and make Gray promise not to post pictures on social media). But Vandersloot hadn't been ready to tell Gray what was going on; she hadn't been ready to talk about it at all. And Gray knew better than to ask. For over a month, the two had been texting as if nothing was different.

But at the fair, while the kids were on a ride, Gray turned to Vandersloot and asked her if she was ready to share what was going on. Tears brimmed in Vandersloot's eyes. "I don't want to get into the details because we're at the fair," Vandersloot said. "But it's my mom."

Vandersloot had learned two months earlier that her mom had cancer. The day after the Sky's 10-point loss to the Aces in the Commissioner's Cup, Vandersloot had decided to sleep in and shake it off. But that morning, her mom texted Vandersloot's wife and former Sky teammate, Allie Quigley, asking if Vandersloot was home. That made Vandersloot suspicious. "She has my location," Vandersloot says now. "She knows where I am. I'm at home."

Vandersloot got up and FaceTimed her mom immediately. She listened as her mom told her that she had cancer. She listened as her mom explained that a lot was unknown. As Vandersloot processed the words her mother was saying, tears poured out of her eyes. "I've never expected for my mom to be like 'I have cancer,'" she says.

Things moved quickly after that.

Her mom was hospitalized last August. They learned that her cancer was multiple myeloma, which attacks a person's bone marrow. Vandersloot's mom had 70% of her marrow affected. Her back pain had become debilitating. She couldn't walk. Vandersloot wanted to be there. Nothing mattered more to her than supporting her mom, not even the ongoing WNBA season.

"We basically had to tell her to stay," Courtney's older sister Kelsey says. "'We've got it handled. Finish your season.'"

While playing against the New York Liberty in the first round of the playoffs, Vandersloot made calls from quiet corners of Barclays Center, the arena that would eventually become her home court, desperately trying to get her mom appointments with specialists and top-notch doctors. She often was told she couldn't get an appointment until November. It was August; that felt like way too long. "I was trying everything," Vandersloot says. "I tried every resource I had, and I can't imagine somebody that doesn't have those resources. You know what I mean? I have people that have CEOs of hospitals on call, and I couldn't get my mom into somewhere. Imagine somebody that couldn't make that phone call. What do they do?"

After spending three months in the hospital, Jan Vandersloot was discharged right before Thanksgiving. She went through eight rounds of chemotherapy and two rounds of radiation. During that time, Courtney traded shifts at the hospital with her dad. If her dad was there in the morning, Courtney had the night shift, and vice versa. Quigleywas the support at home, taking care of the meals, keeping the house clean and handling the laundry, even if it belonged to Courtney's dad. If the cars needed fixing, Quigleygot them to the garage.

"I always knew how amazing Allie was, but this past year, I'm just like, 'I am just the luckiest person,'" Vandersloot says with tears in her eyes. "She never complained one time. Never."

Once her mom's cancer was under control, there were still questions about the scope of Jan's recovery. At 65, doctors weren't sure if she would ever walk again. With consistent hard work, Jan has been able to regain a lot of movement, and today she uses a walker.

As her mom continued to heal, Vandersloot knew she had a decision to make about her career. Her mom was feeling well enough that Vandersloot decided to play a limited spring season abroad in Turkey, joining Stewart on Fenerbahce. (They'd eventually win a EuroLeague championship.) After 12 seasons, 359 games and one title with Chicago, she was a free agent. She knew it was time to move on, but she didn't know where.

Seattle was a strong contender for all of the obvious reasons: It was close to family and (a few) good friends. New York was also a strong contender, also for obvious reasons: Sabrina Ionescu, Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart.

In early February, Vandersloot walked into Gray's house, and her 6-year-old godson had a question. "GG," he said, using the nickname he and his sister have for Vandersloot, "Where are you going?"

"Where do you want me to go?" she asked.

"New York," he said. "I want you to win."

Vandersloot had already made the call. With her mom's blessing, she was headed out of the former Lettuce Capital of the World and to the Big Apple, creating the WNBA's first superteam.

Now, the self-professed introvert who detests the spotlight and people equally, just had to figure out how to manage a team full of big talent and big personalities to make this so-called superteam work.

VANDERSLOOT, STEWART AND Jones first started to chatter about playing together during the brutal Yekaterinburg winters while playing for Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, or EKAT for short. At the time, they played for three different WNBA franchises: Stewart for Seattle, Jones for Connecticut, and Vandersloot for Chicago. Bringing all three of them together would require something that had never happened in WNBA history.

There have been historically great teams in the WNBA, many who have won multiple championships. The Houston Comets (RIP) won the first four WNBA championships with superstars Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Tina Thompson. The Minnesota Lynx amassed four championships in seven years with multiple Hall of Famers in the starting lineup. Of course, the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces -- and the Liberty's current primary rival -- boast a two-time MVP in A'ja Wilson, an incredible point guard in Gray and three former No. 1 picks in Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young.

What makes the Liberty singular (for now) is that the players collaborated and made it happen. They might have been courted by Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb, who stared at their names on a whiteboard for a year. But it was Stewart, Jones and Vandersloot who fell in basketball love playing together abroad and decided to re-create that experience in the United States. Never before had players with their pedigrees left teams to join another one together. That makes them more like the Miami Heat than the Golden State Warriors. Now might be the time to mention they joined former No. 1 pick Ionescu, a walking-talking superstar in her own right.

For much of its history, the WNBA preferred to limit player movement in favor of keeping franchise cornerstone players in the same cities. Similar to the franchise tag in the NFL, WNBA teams could "core" top players to keep them from becoming unrestricted free agents.

Part of the collective bargaining agreement enacted beginning in the 2021 season limited the number of times a player could be cored by a team. That meant that more players would have the option to move franchises earlier in their careers. Without the new CBA, this iteration of the New York Liberty might not have come together.

Of course, the "superteam" moniker is not a welcomed description by all.

"I'm not for it," Kolb says. "I think 'superteam' is a flashy name and I'm not a flashy person."

"I think it's something that has gotten put on us," Ionescu says. "I don't think we're a superteam until we've won many championships in a row."

"I suppose that's for the media," Brondello says. "I focus on the process, not about what people are talking about us."

"I fricking hate it," Vandersloot says. "I hate it so much."

Not only does it bring attention, but being a superteam also brings the pressure of rings and banners and championships. When asked if she feels that, Vandersloot doesn't hesitate. "I do," she says. "I think if you ask people, they'll probably say no. But I think they're lying."

One other expectation is that the team will be greater than the sum of its parts. In some ways, that's been true already for the Liberty, who lead the league in assists, averaging 24.1 per game as a team. The Liberty also lead the league in assisted shot rate at 75%, meaning three quarters of the team's made shots have been assisted.

Numbers like that reflect why Vandersloot decided to come to New York, and why New York wanted Vandersloot to come. When the Liberty are executing at a high level, they play beautiful basketball. And it is Vandersloot at the heart of the harmony and chemistry.

"I feel responsible for making sure everyone is performing at their best," Vandersloot says. "And I think that sometimes gets in my own way, but it's just the way I am. I feel like if someone's not getting good shots or if Stewie is not getting really good, open looks, it's my fault."

While Stewart (second in the league in scoring), Vandersloot (first in the league in assists) and Ionescu (first in the league in 3-pointers made) are having super seasons, the results have been mixed for Jones, who isn't in a featured role in the same way she was in Connecticut. Jones is the team's fourth-leading scorer, averaging 11.3 points and 8.4 rebounds. In 2022, she led the Sun in points per game with 14.6, while adding 8.6 rebounds. That was already down from her 2021 MVP season averages of 19.4 points and 11.2 rebounds. Statistically, Jones has taken a step back in New York, but she doesn't see that as a problem at all. In some ways it was the point.

"I'd give up my MVP trophy to be a champion," Jones says. "That's what you play for. You don't play for individual accolades."

The Liberty went 8-2 over the last 10 games of the regular season to end up with the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. That means to hang the franchise's first championship banner, the Liberty might not have home-court advantage all the way. Vandersloot & Co. will likely have to go through reigning champion and emerging rival Las Vegas.

VANDERSLOOT SETTLES IN at Baba Cool, a favorite neighborhood coffee spot, as the late-morning August sun beats down on the outdoor seating area. She's joined by Quigleyand Gemini, their 7-year-old French bulldog. Gem for short.

"Not to be confused with Jim," Quigleysays.

Vandersloot's blonde hair is, once again, pulled up in a messy bun, accented by a white T-shirt and shorts. Quigleysits down and pulls out a small bowl for Gem, pouring a bit of water into it.

This is what they do in their new life in Brooklyn. They walk the dog at a nearby park, hang out at the local spots and go to practice, though Quigleyis sitting this season out. She hasn't retired, but the 37-year-old also hasn't ruled it out. But when the Liberty are practicing, Quigleyis often sitting on the baseline watching Vandersloot work.

The previous night, Vandersloot and the Liberty crushed the defending champion Aces by a stunning 38 points. Led by Ionescu's 31 points, five Liberty players scored in double figures. Not only was it a high-powered matchup between the two teams with the best records in the WNBA, the Liberty also announced before the game that the organization would donate $500 to multiple myeloma research for each Vandersloot assist in the game, as well as $100 for each assist at Barclays the rest of the season. She has raised $6,500 so far.

In the fourth quarter, Vandersloot spied Jones beginning a post-up on a smaller defender deep in the paint. There was no one from the Aces to help on Jones in transition. Vandersloot picked up the ball and fired a high pass to Jones, who extended her right arm to tip it down to herself, turned under the basket and laid in an easy reverse. It was assist No. 2,600 for Vandersloot, which moved her into second all-time in WNBA history, passing Penicheiro.

"I didn't know you did it," Quigleysays. "I didn't even see the thing." The "thing" in question being the announcement on the arena's big screen.

"I didn't know it either," Vandersloot says. "I forgot."

She had been reminded minutes before when the TV broadcast called her over for an interview heading into the fourth quarter, after she had tied Penicheiro. As usual, she was loath to talk, but this time she was also confused. She didn't know why anyone would want to highlight her when her teammates were shooting the lights out. "I was like, 'I think I'm just closest to her,'" Vandersloot says. "And then she tells me and I'm like, 'Oh s---!'"

More than her individual moment, Vandersloot is impressed with how the Liberty played against the team with the best record in the league. "It's not very often that you put a full complete game [together] like that," she says. "It's hard to do in this league."

The Aug. 6 game against Vegas solidified the Liberty as contenders. Based on talent alone, New York was in the championship conversation since the tip of the season, but chemistry takes time to build. The Aces had been the title favorites all year (and still are, according to oddsmakers), but over the course of their four August matchups, the Liberty went 3-1, including the Commissioner's Cup championship. It was a declaration that, like it or not, "superteam" might not have been an embellishment.

The Liberty (32-8) open the playoffs Friday with a best-of-three series against the Washington Mystics, the team that beat the Liberty in the first game of the season as well as the last. Still, the Liberty are 13-2 since August's arrival. And Vandersloot is about to learn if her time in her discomfort zone has been worth it, in the form of the franchise's first title.

If that happens, you damn sure won't find her celebrating in a club. She'll be with Quigleyand Gem, sipping a nice, cold beer. Relishing being back in her comfort zone.

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