Sister act: Satou and Nyara Sabally finally face each other in WNBA game after long journey

The Sabally sisters haven't played together since growing up in Germany and have faced injury setbacks prior to this season

Satou Sabally ran a few minutes behind for a video session with reporters and her younger sister, Nyara Sabally, didn’t miss a beat in telling those assembled it was nothing new. Her sister was always running late.

When they were later asked to describe their sibling bond and how they stay connected while physically apart, they both laughed, mentioning texting and sending each other social media posts. Satou wasn’t quite sure how to answer.

“What do siblings do?” she asked.

Exactly what they showed: jab in jest, joke, laugh, compliment, lovingly call each other out. And on Sunday, this set of siblings will be back playing on the same basketball court for the first time since a school tournament in Germany when Nyara’s New York Liberty host Satou’s Dallas Wings at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

Satou, the Wings’ No. 2 overall pick in 2020, and Nyara, the Liberty’s No. 5 pick in 2022 who sat out last season for injury rehab, said they knew playing together in the WNBA was more of a “when it will happen, not an if it will happen, type of thing.”

“I’m pretty confident in both of our abilities and I know that we are able to be on the biggest stage, so it was just a matter of when will it finally happen,” said Nyara, a 6-foot-5 reserve forward.

They will be the fifth set of sisters to play against each other in the league’s 27-year history. But when they discussed it as kids and teens, they envisioned it differently.

Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally will face her younger sister, Nyara, for the first time in the WNBA when Dallas visits the New York Liberty on Sunday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally will face her younger sister, Nyara, for the first time in the WNBA when Dallas visits the New York Liberty on Sunday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“For me, it was always with one another,” said Satou, a 6-4 forward who has started the majority of games heading into her fourth season. “I never imagined playing against her, but obviously once you knew where we were going it was like, ‘Oh, I’ll see you soon.’ But, I knew for sure when we didn’t play together in college, we would play with each other in the league one day. Now we’re not, but it’s in a cool way. So that’s fine.”

Satou, 25, was born in New York City and is the third of seven siblings, including 23-year-old Nyara. At the age of 2, Satou moved to her father’s native country of Gambia, and at 7, the family settled in her mother’s native Berlin, Germany. A couple years later, a basketball coach noticed the sisters at a playground and Satou began attending practices, where she fell in love with the game and first fostered a dream of WNBA stardom.

Satou left Berlin after her sophomore year of high school to play for Rotteck Gymnasium in Freiburg, which Nyara would also attend, and later signed to play without pay for German pro team Eisvogel USC Freiburg. In 2017, she committed to the Oregon Ducks and earned Freshman of the Year honors while forming a dynamic duo with Sabrina Ionescu, who was later drafted ahead of her at No. 1 by the Liberty.

Nyara joined them in Eugene in 2018 as the fulfilling piece of what Satou has described as a “package deal.”

“We knew we didn’t want to be in America as separated siblings, especially as foreign people. She trusted my decision,” Satou told the Eugene Register-Guard in March 2019.

The package deal never stepped foot on the court together for a game at Oregon. Nyara sat out her first season after a knee injury in the FIBA U18 championship game the previous August. She re-injured it the next summer, underwent another surgery and was in talks with head coach Kelly Graves to possibly play in a late-season game for the No. 2-ranked Ducks. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

“One of the biggest disappointments of my coaching career is that you two never got to play together while you were here,” Graves said during a surprise appearance on the video call.

Satou opted to enter the WNBA Draft early as a junior since she turned 22 that calendar year, citing the opportunity to financially provide a “better lifestyle” for her family both in Germany and Gambia. She played before college athletes could make money off of name, image and likeness deals.

Satou started 14 of 16 games played for Dallas in the shortened 2020 WNBA season held in a bubble in Bradenton, Florida. She averaged 13.9 points per game and 7.8 rebounds, which ranked 12th in the league, and was the only rookie on the league’s social justice council. Months later, Nyara finally suited up for the Ducks and started 21 of Oregon’s 24 games, leading the team in scoring and rebounding.

In 2021, Satou arrived to the WNBA late after German national team commitments and still earned her first All-Star nod. It’s a basketball moment her little sister recalls as one of the most joyous, even though Satou laughed at being a reserve for Team WNBA, which defeated the U.S. national team in Las Vegas.

New York Liberty forward Nyara Sabally played at Oregon, just like her sister, Satou, but they never got to take the court together in college. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
New York Liberty forward Nyara Sabally played at Oregon, just like her sister, Satou, but they never got to take the court together in college. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I feel like that was a very significant moment when I was watching that,” Nyara said. “Still, even making it is like such a big accomplishment, so watching that was very cool.”

Nyara continued Oregon’s success with a school-record 31 points in an NCAA tournament game that tied the mark set by Ionescu, who would later become her WNBA teammate. She set a record for blocks in a tournament game, with seven, as questions lingered about how her knee would hold up and what her prospects would be at the pro level because of it.

Satou remembers watching those games and thinking, “Yeah, she’s good.”

“The way she just played, there’s no doubt she’s a basketball player to me and can be one of the best in the world,” Satou said. “And that’s the last happy moment I had [watching her] because I felt just so secure in her game.”

Their long-awaited moment on the court together, which Nyara mentioned on her draft night, was delayed further when the Liberty announced she would not play in 2022 while rehabbing from Osteochondral Autograft Transplantation (OCA) surgery on her knee. Satou endured her own various nagging injuries that season and played in only 11 games. She thought of her sister on the tough days and gave herself a mental note of Nyara’s perseverance in overcoming her severe injuries time and again.

“For her, it was never a question,” Satou said. “She always wanted to play basketball and really fought through her injuries and just rehabbed … it’s hard to rehab.”

Nyara is now a key piece off the bench for the Liberty (4-2) while playing and learning behind the likes of Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones. The early all-rookie team candidate is averaging 5.3 points, fifth among rookies, and 1.5 rebounds in 9.9 minutes per game, which ranks 12th. Extrapolated, she'd average 21.1 points per 40 minutes

The more-established “unicorn” Satou is well on her way to another All-Star nod, and maybe even more hardware. She’s averaging a career-high 22.4 points, third-most in the league behind Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd and Stewart, and a career-high 10.6 rebounds that ranks second behind Alyssa Thomas.

The Wings (4-3) leader is shooting 46.8% overall, 36.4% from 3, 90.2% from the free-throw line and adding on average three assists (25th) and 1.9 steals (sixth) per game. Her 34.4 minutes per game is also a career high by more than six minutes from when she was a rookie.

They are already the eighth set of sisters to have played in the WNBA over the years, from Heather and Heidi Burge in the early years to arguably the most successful and iconic of them in current Los Angeles Sparks stars Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, who were back-to-back No. 1 picks out of Stanford. Their youngest sister, Erica, was also drafted in 2020, but went to medical school.

Satou said she was happy to be on the same list as such “amazing, smart sisters” who also played in the Pac-12. Not only are they able to join them, but they’re able to represent in their own ways, too.

“We are not from here, so I feel like that just makes it more special that we show how great European basketball is and how good Berlin pride can be as well,” Satou said. “I think we’re making a lot of people proud at home and we’re inspiring a lot of girls to play basketball, to cross borders internally. And it’s just the fact [that] it’s both of us, it shows mass, it shows numbers, and it’s just a really great thing for women’s basketball in general and the global game.”

Their former home of Eugene has been buzzing about the former players as the game gets closer, Graves said. One of the Sabally brothers and his wife are flying to New York to be there in person. And back home in Germany, this time at a reasonable 7 p.m. local hour and without split screens, their whole large family will be on time to watch the Sabally sisters take the court together. Even if right now it is in different jerseys.

WNBA sister trivia

Heidi and Heather Burge were the first set of sisters to play in the league. Heidi played the inaugural season with the Los Angeles Sparks and was drafted second overall by the Washington Mystics in the 1998 expansion draft. Heather played 13 games for the Sacramento Monarchs in 1999. The story of the 6-5 identical twin sisters was told in the Disney Channel’s “Double Teamed,” and though their WNBA paths never overlapped they did play each other in France.

In 2001, Kelly Miller was drafted No. 2 overall by the Charlotte Sting and her twin sister, Coco Miller, was drafted No. 9 overall by the Mystics. Kelly had a 12-year career playing for seven teams and won the 2007 title with the Phoenix Mercury. Coco also played 12 seasons, sticking with the Mystics until 2009 when she played three seasons for the Atlanta Dream and one for the Sparks. They played together as starters in Atlanta in 2010 when the Dream lost in the Finals.

Doneeka Hodges-Lewis, who attended LSU, was selected late in the second round of the 2004 draft by Los Angeles, and the following year, her twin sister, Roneeka Hodges, who attended Florida State, was drafted by the Houston Comets early in the second round. Roneeka would be a part of the 2008 expansion draft and the 2009 dispersal draft in her 11-year career. Doneeka played six seasons. They never played together.

The Sparks drafted Nneka Ogwumike No. 1 overall in 2012 and the Connecticut Sun drafted Chiney Ogwumike No. 1 in 2013, making them the only siblings other than Peyton and Eli Manning to both go first overall in American professional sports. Nneka won a championship in 2016 and ahead of the 2019 season, the Sparks acquired Chiney, also an ESPN analyst, from Connecticut. Chiney has been hampered by injuries over her career, but is feeling fully healthy and starting games with Nneka as they seek a title together. Their youngest sister, Erica, was also drafted in 2020, but later waived ahead of the season.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike (13) and forward Nneka Ogwumike (30) were both chosen No. 1 overall in back-to-back WNBA Drafts. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike (13) and forward Nneka Ogwumike (30) were both chosen No. 1 overall in back-to-back WNBA Drafts. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Erica McCall joined her older sister DeWanna Bonner in the league in 2017 when she was drafted by the Indiana Fever in the second round. She played five seasons, most recently with the Mystics in 2021. Bonner, the No. 5 overall pick by the Mercury in 2009, dropped a career-high 41 points for the Connecticut Sun on Thursday night to great celebration from sis. The 14th-year veteran has two titles while with the Mercury. The sisters played together overseas, but never in the W.

In that same 2017 draft, the Sun selected Brionna Jones with the No 8 overall pick and the center has spent her entire career there emerging from Most Improved to Sixth Player of the Year to the core of the team. In 2021, her younger sister and former Maryland teammate Stephanie Jones joined her in a reserve role at Connecticut after going undrafted. Stephanie played three games for Washington in 2022 and two games for the Sun. They never played against each other.

Karlie Samuelson went undrafted out of Stanford, but stuck with the Sparks in 2018 and has bounced around the league ever since, playing 48 games over five seasons. Katie Lou Samuelson, who attended UConn instead of where Karlie and oldest sister Bonnie played, was taken No. 4 overall by Chicago in 2019 and played for a different team each season. They have played against each other and are now teammates in Los Angeles, where Karlie is the designated replacement player for Katie Lou, who is out on maternity leave awaiting the birth of her first child.

Jermisha Dosty (Sacramento) and Jerkisha Dosty (Miami) were both drafted in 2002, but the twins never played and were released prior to training camp. Oklahoma stars and twins Courtney Paris (Sacramento) and Ashley Paris (Los Angeles) were both drafted in 2009. Courtney played 10 seasons and won the 2018 title while in Seattle. Ashley was released in the preseason and never made a regular season roster.