Lauren Manis was drafted by the Las Vegas Aces and exempted from the game ahead of the 2020 WNBA season. She then signed with a team in Belgium, where continued lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic kept her stuck in the middle of the game. his apartment.
She hasn’t been able to hit the gym, touch the basketball, or return to her hometown, Franklin, Mass. But in the end the time she spent on the pitch in Belgium proved fruitful: Manis almost twice as average by points and bounces for a 16-game season and, in 2021, invited back to the Aces’ training camp. Relinquished for a second time, Manis signed a contract to play for a team in Hungary. It didn’t go well.
“I lived in a campsite for three months,” says Manis. “The team was dishonest with the living arrangements.”
When mentally stressed, she told her agent to prepare a termination agreement to remove her from the contract. Her agent told her about the opportunity to compete in Athletes Unlimited, a network of player-driven sports with a new Las Vegas-based basketball league. The next day, Manis took a flight out of Hungary. It only took a Zoom call to convince her to sign up to play in the inaugural AU basketball season.
“I was very, very disappointed after Hungary,” says Manis. “I thank God, a few months ago I never would have imagined a situation like this would happen.”
For Manis, the tournament was an opportunity to correct a career clouded by bumps and false starts. She is joined by women at different stages of their basketball careers, many of whom focus on their own rescue arcs. Some see the tournament as an opportunity to compete in front of family and friends, some for the first time in their professional careers, rather than abroad. It may well be the rare pay and game time for professional women’s basketball players in the United States during the WNBA season.
Four weeks after the first 5-week AU season, many have found reasons to want success for this latest project in a long line. Emerging basketball leagues have come and gone. Court competition is intense because of its intensity, but the AU is measuring the success of its first basketball season based on player experience. Jon Patricof, chief executive officer and co-founder of AU, said: “Tracking how players are doing and how much they are enjoying the experience and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Unlimited Athletes begins March 2020 with softball, volleyball, and baseball tournaments. The first AU basketball season has ended January 23 at the Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Las Vegas Sports Center, with the recruitment and oversight of the player executive committee: WNBA veterans Natasha Cloud, Sydney Colson, Tianna Hawkins, Jantel Lavender and Ty Young. The season ends on Saturday.
It’s probably not what most fans expect: There’s no general manager, coach or set-up, and four teams of 11 players are rearranged each week. Their captains are the top four players in the standings for points accrued from on-field actions such as goalscoring, fouling and stealing, as well as votes from fans and players. Contrasting actions, such as turns and misses, count. Teams win the game by collecting the most points through beating the other team each quarter (50 victory points per quarter) and in the overall game (100 points).
The league has focused on engaging fans through social media and television programming for each match rather than attending in person. The arena can hold only 740 fans.
“From the very beginning, we really wanted to build a global national audience,” says Patricof.
That’s good news for Imani McGee-Stafford, who is in the AU and last played at the WNBA in 2019, for the Dallas Wings. “Even at the W, we don’t broadcast every game,” said McGee-Stafford. “I send Grandma the schedule every week and tell her which channel to watch, or what the link is, and she texts me after every game. It’s really dope, and it’s not very popular in the world of women’s basketball either. “
McGee-Stafford, a 6-foot-7 center, left the courthouse in 2020 to begin studying law, but her professional career is currently in precariousness.
“I just want to play basketball,” she said.
In keeping with law school and the WNBA, she chose a three-year, semester-based program. But after four WNBA seasons and playing internationally in Israel, China and Turkey, 27-year-old McGee-Stafford had not played professionally for three years before the arrival of the AU. In 2019, she signed to play in Australia, with Perth Lynx, but she said she was “cut because I was taking the LSAT and was late for something”.
In AU, she can fight hard on the court, and then retreat to her own room to finish her course. “They made it possible for players to do it all,” she said. “I’m taking three courses this semester, lighter course load, because I know I’m going to do this.”
For Tianna Hawkins, the 6-foot-3 forward who won the championship with the Washington Mystics in 2019, the AU has allowed her to rediscover the joy of playing. In 2021, she plays for the 8-24 Atlanta Dream, who suspended a player for conduct detrimental to the team and lost their coach job to another job just weeks before the season.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to regain my confidence because I’m about to have the worst professional season I’ve ever had,” Hawkins said.
She continued: “I can work on things that I did this season. And, if I make a mistake, I’m not out of the game. I was able to overcome my mistakes, and also learn different perspectives on the game. ”
Hawkins said being captain at AU has given her more respect for coaches.
“They’ve been through a lot, and they haven’t even played,” she said. “So imagine if you also had to train while playing. I have a new opportunity for coaches. “
A key challenge for WNBA coaches is the impact of overseas off-season games on their players, who may be late to the WNBA season, fatigued or injured due to injury. compete year round. For many players, brooding is necessary to supplement the low WNBA salaries and limited domestic competition opportunities.
But can unlimited athletes quell this need?
For Hawkins, it was a matter of weighing options: money, location, and the needs of her first-grade son. McGee-Stafford will be in for as long as the AU will have her. She says the $8,000 base salary “just to show up” is attractive and that she can simultaneously pursue her law degree. Additionally, players who finish in the top 10 on the leaderboard can expect prize money of up to $10,000, making the entire take-home cost of five weeks of basketball potentially more than $20,000, according to Patricof. The minimum wage for a four-month WNBA season is around $60,000, with a maximum around $230,000.
David BerriA professor at Southern Utah University who has studied sports economics and gender issues, sees AU’s long-term potential, as long as the league keeps operating costs low.
“Athlete Unlimited is definitely doing a lot to save money,” Berri said, citing the focus on television and social media rather than live audiences. And by focusing individual players on teams, Berri said, AU can build audiences faster than the traditional tournament model allows.
At the start of the AU season, Sheryl Swoopes, who provides color commentary for games, spoke to players about her Hall of Fame career in professional basketball. Her words resonated with Manis. “I think playing basketball for a living is really hard because you never know when it’s going to end all of a sudden,” Manis said. “And she has some really myths to say about being able to manage your money and have a plan to do it again.”
Swoopes said in an interview that if the AU existed during her playing days, she would seize the opportunity to play.
“Some players like to go abroad, some don’t,” she said. “It’s not for everyone.”
Manis, who has been dazzling with her grit on both sides of the ball, has become one of the stars of this season and caught the attention of Swoopes in broadcasts. Her redemption seems to be underway.
“It’s not real,” Manis said. “It’s great when you hear people rave about your game and enjoy watching it, but when it comes from an influencer like Sheryl Swoopes, it’s a pretty big deal.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/sports/basketball/wnba-athletes-unlimited.html Women’s basketball players get a new hotline, close to home