NEW YORK — DeWanna Bonner sat behind the microphones with Tiffany Hayes attempting to describe the emotional toll the Connecticut Sun were still undergoing after learning Alyssa Thomas had not won the 2023 WNBA MVP award. It was a “double-whammy” a week after hearing Thomas was also not named the Defensive Player of the Year.
“She’ll be all right. I got her,” Bonner said. “That’s all that matters.”
“We got her,” Hayes interjected.
“We got her, actually,” Bonner said, a smile breaking across her face. Hayes reached over to tap Bonner on the back and leaned back into the mic. “Especially you,” she said. Laughter erupted from the packed room in acknowledgment.
Bonner, 36, and Thomas, 31, are more than close teammates. The two are part of a small group who have their long-term partner directly next to them on the court, chasing a championship together. The duo began dating in 2020 during the COVID bubble season, months after Bonner joined the Sun in a sign-and-trade with Phoenix. In July, after they both made the All-Star team, they announced their engagement.
Any couple that works together knows it’s a unique dynamic, and that’s no different for professional basketball players. Most partners of pro players are only left to groan when they see a missed shot or coverage from the stands. Bonner and Thomas can help each other in real time, with first-hand knowledge and recommendations.
It’s a group to which two couples on the other side of the semifinal series are also included, though the approach has changed for them. New York Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot and wife Allie Quigley won the 2021 WNBA championship together in Chicago, where they played together since 2013. Breanna Stewart, who earned her second MVP this week, and her wife, Marta Xargay, played together on the Russian team, Dynamo Kursk, that finished runner-up in EuroLeague play in 2018-19.
Vandersloot and Stewart, with the support of their wives, evened the best-of-five semifinal series with an 84-77 Liberty win in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
ATDB: Bonner and Thomas
After Connecticut’s 78-63 win in Game 1 last week against New York, Bonner said her game improved from the first half to the second because Thomas purposely made her mad to get going. It’s something that “happens all the time,” Bonner said ahead of Game 2.
“Clearly our connection is different,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “I know what she’s capable of. We look to each other on the court, and we play so well off each other.”
When Thomas sees Bonner passing up shots she knows Bonner should be taking, she’ll tell her. But when Bonner is still doing the same thing, Thomas has to take a different approach. She knows “when I need to push the button,” but also doesn’t want to overuse it. The two declined to share what is usually said; Bonner said she might need it later in the playoffs.
“I just got to go and push her to a different gear and get under her skin, because I know she always wants to prove me wrong,” Thomas said. “Usually, it works. Once I know I’ve done that, then I know the second half is going to be different.”
In that first game, Bonner scored five points, all in the first quarter, during an inefficient outing before Thomas worked her secretive move.
“When that happens, I kind of have to show her a little something,” said Bonner, who answered with eight points in the third and seven in the fourth.
Does it work the other way? Can Bonner say something to get Thomas going if she’s not playing to her triple-double level early?
“That’s rare,” Bonner said. “Every minute she busts her ass, excuse my French, but every second she plays her heart out.”
Bonner said sometimes she’ll tell Thomas to be more aggressive on the offensive end because she’s “always so focused on getting everybody the ball.” But otherwise, Thomas holds herself to a “standard that no one else can even touch.”
It’s an energy Bonner feeds off of because of what this means to her fiancée.
“She wants to win so bad,” Bonner said. “She’s been in Connecticut for the longest out of everybody from my coaching staff all the way down to the end of our bench. … When you see somebody that wants it that bad, you kind of want to go out there and play for them as well.”
Bonner knows what it’s like to win a title. The Mercury drafted Bonner with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 draft and won the WNBA championship as a rookie. The Auburn star was named Sixth Player of the Year, the first of three consecutive 6POY honors.
The big Mercury three of Bonner, Diana Taurasi and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Brittney Griner won the 2014 title. When Bonner signed with the Sun in 2020, it was viewed as the final piece to get the Sun over the hump to the franchise’s first title.
Thomas has been working to lift the trophy for a decade. The Sun drafted her No. 4 overall out of Maryland in 2014 and she quickly became known as “the engine” for the franchise’s success, though she hasn’t stacked up many individual accolades. She’s played through two torn labrums since 2017. From that season to present, the Sun are the winningest franchise in the league. She was named Comeback Player of the Year in 2022 for returning from an Achilles injury early to lead the Sun into the Finals. In four of the six previous seasons, they reached at least the semifinals and the Finals twice.
But there’s still no trophy at Mohegan Sun. Thomas helped the team outperform expectations after the season-ending injury to center Brionna Jones. It’s largely because of Thomas’ production at every level and her will to win.
“I get to see that [energy] every day off the court [and] on the court. I hear it all the time,” Bonner said. “It kind of pushes me to try to be my best [and] try not to let her down a little bit. Because, I mean, Connecticut — this is her stuff. This is her, so we want to make sure we represent well.”
New York power couples
Vandersloot signed with New York in free agency, so Quigley, though she’s not playing, became an unofficial part of the team, too. Quigley opted out of the 2023 WNBA season, but is not retired and could sign with a team next season.
“I couldn't imagine her being on a different team,” Vandersloot told Yahoo Sports. “You know, that, that’s just too complicated. She’s all in on helping me be successful and helping this team be successful. And that’s huge for me.”
The VanderQuigs, as they’re colloquially known, are still teammates, Vandersloot said. And the point guard relies on her teammate a lot even after leading the league in assists seven times in 13 seasons.
“She’s obviously my teammate and she knows what I’m going through. Like, she knows it firsthand,” Vandersloot said. “And to be honest, she’s really going through it with me, [all] the ups and downs with me.”
Vandersloot described Quigley as her sounding board and her biggest cheerleader.
“She’s pumping up my head as she did when we were really teammates,” Vandersloot said. “And so yeah, I rely a lot on her through these times.”
Stewart can also turn to a former real basketball teammate in her household. The two-time MVP met Xargay when they were playing in Russia and began dating while she rehabbed a torn Achilles she sustained in their EuroLeague Final Four game in April 2019. Xargay also played for the Spanish national team and for the Mercury for 14 games in 2015-16 when Bonner was with the team.
Hours before Bonner put into words the emotions she felt for her fiancée losing out on awards, Xargay sat in the front row taking photos of her wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, at the podium accepting the 2023 MVP award. Xargay is pregnant with their second child due in late October.
“The moment that I told Marta shortly after [WNBA commissioner] Cathy [Engelbert] called me was emotional for both of us just because as a former player, she knows what it takes to be great and to be able to balance both,” Stewart said. “And I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. It was a moment for us to celebrate it all and, you know, let our emotions flow free.”
At the end of each day, no matter the emotions, they all count themselves as members of a small group whose partners know firsthand the jubilation and heartbreak.