Brittney Griner's return, Aces win back-to-back titles and more: Top 10 WNBA moments that fueled our fandom in 2023

Aliyah Boston's brilliant Rookie of the Year campaign, the Liberty forming a super-team and Breanna Stewart's MVP season also highlighted the year

The top WNBA moments that fueled our fandom in 2023 included Brittney Griner's return to the court, the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty super-team battle and Aliyah Boston's Rookie of the Year brilliance. (Illustration by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

The WNBA had plenty of moments that fueled our fandom in 2023, from Brittney Griner's return to the court to the Aces' back-to-back titles to league expansion. Here are the top 10 moments of 2023.

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Brittney Griner returns to the court after being detained in Russia for 10 months

When Brittney Griner was released from Russian detention in December 2022, she almost immediately said she would play in the WNBA during the 2023 season. Her return to the court was embraced by everyone around the league as the joy and gratitude she exuded was undeniable.

From May after Griner's first games in 2023:

PHOENIX — Sarah Douida traveled more than 5,000 miles from Paris with her partner to sit in the rafters at Footprint Center and watch Brittney Griner’s 2023 home debut in person. During warmups, they sit a few rows up from the court and marvel at the Phoenix Mercury center each time she comes around. Doudia is so excited, she forgets her own age. Lea Sourribes, her girlfriend of five years, can only laugh at the mind melt.

“In the WNBA there [are] a lot of queer symbols that we don’t have in France,” Sourribes told Yahoo Sports. “So it’s really important. They’re like a model for us [that] we don’t really have.”

Douida, 31, and Sourribes, 24, were among the hundreds, even thousands, of people in the arena on Sunday afternoon for something bigger than watching a historically successful team’s home opener. Even bigger than watching the talented post go to work in a way only she can. Griner’s safe return to the United States in a prisoner swap after being declared by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly 10 months is bigger than the elevated status American society bestows on professional athletes.

For many, it’s about symbolism. What she signifies to them personally before her detainment was made public in March 2022 and what she stands for now as a prisoner freed. Fans who traveled to Phoenix told Yahoo Sports they wanted to make the trip because of what Griner meant to them as gay women, Black Americans and as fans of a sport treated as less-than most of its existence.

Griner, who at 6-foot-9 with characteristic dreadlocks can rarely blend in, has always been a symbol. Ahead of going No. 1 in the 2013 WNBA Draft, Griner became one for the LGBTQ+ community when she publicly and casually said she was gay, something then still controversial in sports and before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. In her decade-long career, every time she dominates the glass or dunks, she’s a symbol of the success and power of women’s basketball, making bad faith arguments against it more difficult for naysayers.

Brittney Griner returned to the WNBA after being detained in Russia for 10 months last year. (Illustration by Sofia Villar/Yahoo Sports)
Brittney Griner returned to the WNBA after being detained in Russia for 10 months last year. (Illustration by Sofia Villar/Yahoo Sports)

Aces win back-to-back championships, becoming the third team to do so

The Las Vegas Aces defeated the New York Liberty in a WNBA Finals battle of super-teams to win the first back-to-back titles in the league since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02. The Houston Comets won the league’s first four championships before the Sparks’ two in a row. Now, the homegrown super-team Aces look poised to become the league’s next dynasty.

From October after the Aces' WNBA championship:

NEW YORK — A’ja Wilson has never seen footage from the Houston Comets’ four WNBA Finals victories in the league’s first four seasons. Watching those championships, which took place starting the year after Wilson was born, is on her offseason list.

“I really do want to dive into more of the film sessions and how they just executed,” Wilson said at practice before Game 3. “What was it then that made them click? And I’m probably gonna get to that later on, but I’ve been so tied up in this Finals, that I wasn’t even trying to go back there yet.”

This Finals, the league’s 27th in history, concluded with Wilson and the Las Vegas Aces taking another step toward those Comets. They withstood injuries and the New York Liberty to win Game 4, 70-69, on Wednesday. It’s their second consecutive title, a feat only the Comets (1997-2000) and Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02) have matched. And it furthers the validity of a question that began sprouting last September after they lifted their first trophy.

Are the Aces set up to be the WNBA’s newest dynasty?

Houston was the first with its “Big 3” of Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke (née Cooper) and Tina Thompson. Wilson reached out to Swoopes, who attended Game 1 in Las Vegas, ahead of the series to see what it took to repeat. Cooper-Dyke, who attended Game 2 in Vegas, pulled Wilson aside for a similar chat.

“[It was] super important for me to talk to those young women, the Hall of Famers that have been in the spaces that we’re in, because those are the only people that can really tell me the truth,” Wilson said.

The Las Vegas Aces became the first back-to-back WNBA champions since 2001-02. (Illustration by Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
The Las Vegas Aces became the first back-to-back WNBA champions since 2001-02. (Illustration by Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

Liberty form first super-team through free agency

When Breanna Stewart announced she was signing with the Liberty in February, the two-time WNBA champion's move became the biggest free agency signing in league history. It vaulted the Liberty into immediate title contention after their trade for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones to play alongside All-Star guard Sabrina Ionescu. Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot also signed with the Liberty shortly after Stewart's decision. The accumulation of stars in free agency immediately made the Liberty into a super-team alongside the 2022 champion Aces. The battle between the franchises marked a season-long storyline for the WNBA.

From February after the Liberty super-team was formed:

New York Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb spent the last few weeks reading the “tea leaves via emojis” just like everyone else. It’s been the longest year of his life, he said, and if he ever forgot why, his office served as a reminder.

“I’ll be really honest with you, in my office right now there’s three names on a whiteboard and those names have been up there since the fall,” Kolb said.

Written on the board: Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot.

There’s no need for tea leaves when the emoji is a check mark. Welcome to New York, the Statue of Liberty emoji is waiting for you. Hours after the Brooklyn Nets’ super-team suffered its final implosion in the trade of Kevin Durant, the Liberty introduced at that same Barclays Center the two key pieces of their own super-team in Stewart and Vandersloot. And unlike the Nets, there are clear signs from the start that this newly combined collection of established All-Stars, MVPs and champions has staying power.

“What’s really important here is we didn’t just target the best names on a sheet and try to get them all,” said Kolb, who nonetheless nabbed two of the biggest free agents on the market. “We were really tactical with researching and going about getting people that will fit what we’re building and that’s these two right here, as well as JJ [Jones] joining.”

The Las Vegas Aces added Candace Parker to their title-winning core, while the New York Liberty added Jonquel Jones via trade and Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot in free agency to form super-teams. (Illustration by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

Diana Taurasi becomes first WNBA player to crack 10,000 points

Already the leading scorer in league history, Diana Taurasi set the bar even higher for future generations of WNBA scorers. The longtime Phoenix Mercury star reached 10,000 career points in August, and will continue to add to her record as she plans to return in 2024.

From August after Taurasi passed 10,000 points:

For more than a half-decade, Diana Taurasi has been the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. Now, the Phoenix Mercury guard has pushed the mark to a milestone number.

Taurasi surpassed 10,000 career regular-season points on Thursday night at the Footprint Center in Phoenix on a 3-pointer in which the fans and her teammates erupted. Taurasi finished with a season-high 42 points as the Mercury beat the Atlanta Dream 91-71 to snap a four-game skid.

“I want the number to be as big as it can be, because when someone breaks it it’s going to be even bigger and even better,” Taurasi said in the Mercury’s “The Drive” feature in June. “The game of basketball is about scoring points, but I think if you can do it organically and in a way where it doesn’t take away from what the team is trying to do, I think those become the people who are the best scorers.”

Taurasi, 41, broke the league’s scoring record in June 2017 when she scored her 7,489th career point to surpass Tina Thompson. She passed the mark in Los Angeles near where she grew up in Chino, California. In June 2021, she reached 9,000 points during the league’s 25th anniversary season.

Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi surpassed 10,000 career regular-season points in the WNBA during the 2023 season. (Illustration by Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)
Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi surpassed 10,000 career regular-season points in the WNBA during the 2023 season. (Illustration by Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)

WNBA announces Bay Area expansion team

To say that league expansion has been long-awaited would be an understatement. For years, there have been calls to add new franchises to the 12-team WNBA. In October, one of those calls was finally answered, when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced a Bay Area team would begin play in the 2025 season. A 14th team is still yet to be announced.

From October after the league announced the Bay Area team:

The WNBA will expand to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 2025 season, the league announced Thursday. The team will begin play in 2025.

The NBA's Golden State Warriors co-owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber will own and operate the WNBA franchise. The team will play at the Chase Center in San Francisco and use the Warriors' Oakland Facility as its headquarters. The Warriors used that facility until 2019 as a practice facility and front office.

It is the first team to enter the league since 2008, when the Atlanta Dream joined. The WNBA is concluding its 27th season with a Finals between the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces set to tip off Sunday. They are two of the four remaining inaugural franchises (the Aces began as the Utah Starzz). Northern California had one of the inaugural eight teams, but the Sacramento Monarchs folded after the 2009 season, four years after winning their only championship.

Expansion has been on the league’s docket for years and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has been asked for updates regularly during her tenure, which began in late 2019. The Bay Area would be the 13th team, and the league said it is talking to other potential ownership groups about expansion in other cities. Engelbert has visited Portland, Denver and Toronto to meet with interested parties.

ESPN reporter Malika Andrews (from left), Golden State Warriors president and chief operating officer Brandon Schneider, Warriors co-executive director and chief executive officer Joe Lacob, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Warriors co-executive director Peter Guber and San Francisco mayor London Breed pose for a group photo during a news conference on Oct. 5, 2023, to announce an expansion WNBA franchise in the San Francisco Bay Area at Chase Center. (D. Ross Cameron/USA TODAY Sports)

Breanna Stewart wins second MVP in tight three-way race with A’ja Wilson and Alyssa Thomas

The Most Valuable Player race was neck-and-neck in 2023 with three deserving candidates putting up monster stat lines nearly every game. The two super-teams were well represented in Stewart and Wilson, and Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas made her case through a historic triple-double campaign.

From September when Stewart was named MVP:

Breanna Stewart won her second MVP award after a career-best scoring season in her first season with the New York Liberty, the league announced Tuesday. She edged out Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, who made triple-double history, and Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, who won the 2022 award.

Stewart earned 20 of the 60 first-place votes and 446 total points (23 second-place and 17 third-place votes). Thomas was second with 439 points (23 first-place votes) and Wilson third with 433 points (17 first-place votes).

This is the second time in league history that the winner received fewer first-place votes than the runner-up. Sheryl Swoopes won the 2005 award over Lauren Jackson with four fewer first-place votes.

The 2023 award is the second-smallest margin (seven points) between the top-two finishers in WNBA history. The 2005 award was the smallest with two points separating Swoopes and Jackson.

Players receive 10 points for a first-place vote, seven for second, five for third, three for fourth and one for fifth.

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart receives the WNBA Most Valuable Player trophy at Barclays Center in New York City on Sept. 26, 2023. (John Jones/USA TODAY Sports)
New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart receives the WNBA Most Valuable Player trophy at Barclays Center in New York on Sept. 26, 2023. (John Jones/USA TODAY Sports)

Aliyah Boston wins Rookie of the Year in stellar first season

Once the Indiana Fever won the right to select No. 1 in the 2023 WNBA Draft, all eyes were on South Carolina standout Aliyah Boston and whether she would stay in school for her extra COVID-19 year. When the Gamecocks crashed out of the NCAA tournament, there were some questions if she'd stay. She put all that to rest, declared for the draft, was selected No. 1 overall and went on to have one of the most electrifying debuts in WNBA history. Boston was the first rookie in nearly a decade to be named an All-Star and unanimously won Rookie of the Year.

From October when Boston was named Rookie of the Year:

INDIANAPOLIS — Aliyah Boston tapped the nearby phone face awake in concern. She had spent extra time taking shots and feeding teammates passes after an August practice until coaches outnumbered players in the Gainbridge Fieldhouse practice gym. But it’s not as late as she thought, which is good, because there’s a TikTok video waiting to be published.

Boston’s TikTok dancing became a significant aspect of her public persona while she was winning championships and reaching Final Fours at South Carolina. It hasn’t ceased, even if she groaned at the “hassle” of it all, as the 2023 WNBA Draft No. 1 pick lifted the Indiana Fever out of the standings basement.

Boston has spent much of the last four-plus years in the public spotlight, from the modern Gen Z world of a meager thousands on TikTok to the historical high of millions watching the 2023 Final Four. She came to South Carolina as the No. 3-ranked recruit with analysts already dubbing her a potential, if not likely, No. 1 overall pick. In her collegiate debut, the 6-foot-5 center posted a triple-double with a school record-tying 10 blocks. She ended her collegiate career as the most decorated player in program history.

The expectations for her at the pro level remain high as the face of a franchise seeking a long-awaited return to the postseason and another title. The Fever won the 2012 championship with Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings, but have struggled since while cycling through head coaches and waived first-round draft picks. Boston is the foundational piece around which to rebuild an entire franchise and the spotlight has only grown brighter. And harsher.

“The pressures personally come from me,” Boston told Yahoo Sports in August before the Fever were eliminated from postseason contention. “Like, yes, there are expectations. There are a lot of them from people on the outside, but I put a lot of pressure on myself just to be great.”

Boston has eclipsed some of those expectations already. She joined her idols Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson, as well as Catchings and Breanna Stewart, as the only players with 450 points, 250 rebounds and 70 assists in their rookie years. She earned an All-Star nod as the first rookie starter since 2014. Her 57.8 field-goal percentage led the entire league. And on Monday, she was named unanimous Rookie of the Year. It’s the first unanimous selection since Wilson in 2018 and the Fever's second Rookie of the Year honor.

Aliyah Boston was electrifying during her rookie season in Indiana, helping spark the Fever's rebuild. (Illustration by Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)
Aliyah Boston was electrifying during her rookie season in Indiana, helping spark the Fever's rebuild. (Illustration by Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

The push for charter flights comes to forefront

Flying charter has been a priority for many WNBA players in recent years, but Stewart used her power during free agency to make it a bargaining chip. Teams are not allowed to fly charter in the collective bargaining agreement because it would create a competitive advantage for those that did. But players want it for their health and safety, and Stewart reportedly discussed it with the Liberty, Storm, Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics in negotiations. WNBA team owners would have to hold a board of governors meeting and vote to change the rule. The players' association would also have to agree since it's written in the CBA. Stewart had pledged to give her name, image and likeness to a potential league-wide charter deal and many other players raised their hands that they'd do the same.

From June after an airport security incident involving Griner:

The first NBA team to fly privately for road trips used VCRs to watch game tape. Depending on one’s own relationship with VHS, it was either an eternity ago or really not that long ago at all.

It was the 41st season in NBA history when Detroit Pistons owner William Davidson purchased a private plane for $2.5 million ahead of the 1987-88 season and flew his team “in style,” according to a headline in The Boston Globe. In one of the article’s anecdotes, four-time All-Star Bill Laimbeer brought barbecue to share on an 18-minute plane ride to Cleveland.

Two decades later, Laimbeer was back cramming his 6-foot-11 frame into the limited space of commercial airlines as a head coach in the WNBA. Forget barbecue for the league’s best team. In 2021, his Las Vegas Aces had to find food at a local Walmart following flight delays, missing luggage and traffic. Laimbeer joked he was “looking for the booze” because of the frustration of it all.

The lack of charter flights in the WNBA has remained an issue and took on greater urgency this week when Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury were harassed by a “social media figure and provocateur” when they were flying from Dallas to Indiana on Saturday. The individual recorded the interaction with Griner, who was released in a prisoner exchange with Russia in December. She had been declared wrongfully detained by the United States government for 10 months.

The collective bargaining agreement requires teams to fly commercially as a way to level the playing field for less wealthy franchises. In the past, the WNBA has provided charters in a few sticky situations as they arose and during certain postseason series. This season, teams are allowed to use charters for flights between back-to-back games, for the Commissioner’s Cup game if they win the berth and for the full postseason.

A’ja Wilson scores league-record 53 points

There is no greater indicator that the WNBA is still a very young league than the amount of records that can be broken as more talent emerges. Wilson matched the league record for most points in a game during an August outing against the Dream.

From Yahoo Sports' Ryan Young in August after Wilson's 53-point game:

A’ja Wilson went off in one of the best outings in WNBA history.

Wilson dropped a career-high 53 points to lead the Las Vegas Aces past the Atlanta Dream 112-100 at the Gateway Center in Georgia on Aug. 22. It matched the WNBA’s single-game scoring record and marked only the third 50-point game in league history.

"I don't know what kind of a creature she is, but she runs like a deer, jumps like a cat and catches like if she were Spiderman," Aces head coach Becky Hammon said, via the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Andy Yamashita. "I don't know exactly what that is, but she is just special."

Wilson shot 16-of-23 from the field and took only one 3-pointer on the night, which she made. She went a near-perfect 20-of-21 from the free-throw line, too.

Wilson got her 50th point on a free throw with just under a minute left in the game. She then made three more the rest of the way to get to 53 on the night.

Maya Moore officially retires from the WNBA

Maya Moore's impact will be felt through more than just her basketball contributions. So when she officially announced her retirement, the outpouring of love was swift and from every walk of life.

From January after Moore's retirement announcement:

There will always be an abundance of memories for Maya Moore to think of when she reflects on her career. She lifted the NCAA national championship trophy twice while at Connecticut, not to mention the various Player of the Year awards. She won four WNBA titles within seven years with the Minnesota Lynx, adding a Finals MVP and league MVP. Two Olympic gold medals belong to the superstar.

Yet when asked to choose a few favorites hours after announcing that she was officially retiring from the WNBA, Moore steered away from any of those accolades. The only mention of one was when she said a favorite Lynx moment was watching teammate Seimone Augustus win her first WNBA championship and Finals MVP in 2011. Moore, 33, briefly mentioned that it happened in one of her home states of Georgia, but that’s not what mattered in her mind.

While Moore might be on the GOAT mountain and a surefire Hall of Famer, her incredible basketball talents and success will not be her legacy. That's her ability to care so deeply for the connections she was able to make through it and the impact that has reverberated because of it. It's an impact that expanded when she stepped away from the game four years ago for social justice pursuits. Once a player who transcended basketball’s gender line, she now transcends the sports one for a different type of victory.

“I hope people can find inspiration from my heartbeat for humanity,” said Moore, who made her retirement official while promoting her new book with husband Jonathan Irons. “And engaging in sport in a way that remembers that our humanity is first and foremost in how we play the game, how we leverage that game, how we treat people [and] how we play the game responsibly.”

Moore's announcement signals the end of a WNBA era. She is the final player of the core Lynx dynasty to retire, following Lindsay Whalen (September 2018), Rebekkah Brunson (February 2020), Augustus (May 2021) and Sylvia Fowles (September 2022). Their imprint on the franchise is seen in the trophy cases and the rafters as their jersey numbers begin to be retired. It’s difficult to understate their excellence.

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