WNBA Finals notebook: Liberty experienced in bouncing back, plus Tom Brady's and LeBron James' connection to Aces

LAS VEGAS — It’s playoff basketball and New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello knows her team can, and has, played better than its Game 1 WNBA Finals loss to the Las Vegas Aces. But the Liberty plan to learn from it and answer, just like they’ve done all season.

“We haven’t lost two in a row all season long,” Brondello said Sunday. “And we’re gonna know that we respond in the right way and I trust these players and we’re going to keep competing and fighting.”

New York lost eight games in the regular season and only once did they happen in a mini bunch. After losing their opener, the Liberty rattled off four wins in a row before losing two in a four-game stretch over nine days in June. After all of their losses, they’ve won the next game by an average 14.8 points, including games after the regular-season finale and semifinals.

The Liberty lost Game 1 of the semifinals by 15 points, then bounced back to win three straight to reach their first Finals since 2002. New York defeated the Sun by a seven-point margin in Game 2 at home, and swept the double games on the road. That margin was their lowest of the season after a loss.

Sunday’s 17-point loss to the Aces is tied for their worst losing margin of the season. Las Vegas won, 98-81, in their first meeting of the year in June.

“They did what they’re supposed to do,” Brondello said. “Now our goal is let’s try and steal the next game. And then take it back to New York.”

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson, left, and New York Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot scramble for the ball during the first half in Game 1 the 2023 WNBA Finals on Oct. 8, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Michelob Ultra Arena sold out its three potential games almost immediately after the Liberty clinched their spot last week. The 10,300-capacity arena is one of the loudest in the WNBA and bellowed while fans whipped white towels as the Aces hit 60% of their shots in the third quarter to take a lead as large as 22 points. The Liberty shot 36.8%, missed all four triples attempted and had three assists on seven baskets to the Aces’ seven assists on nine.

“In the second half, the ball stopped, and got stuck a little bit and that made it easier for them to kind of clog the paint on JJ [Jonquel Jones] or myself,” Breanna Stewart said. “We just need to continue to keep moving and trust what got us here.”

In their five previous games, including the Commissioner’s Cup, the Aces won the first and fourth meetings. New York won two straight in the series in August, starting with a 38-point blowout at home. The second win was the Commissioner’s Cup victory, a 19-point margin. Two days later, Las Vegas won by 13. The final meeting was in late August and won by New York, 94-85.

Game 2 is Wednesday before the best-of-five series shifts to Barclays Center for Games 3 and 4, if necessary. Barclays opened the upper bowl for ticket sales, as it also did when Las Vegas was in town earlier in the year.

Commissioner responds to Hamby’s discrimination complaint

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Sunday she will let the lawyers do the work first before she makes any specific comment on if the league will further penalize the Aces in Dearica Hamby’s discrimination case.

Hamby, the Aces’ starting forward last season, filed a gender discrimination complaint against the Aces and WNBA with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in late September. The Aces traded Hamby, their 2015 first-round draft pick, to the Los Angeles Sparks in January while she was pregnant with her second child. She said she was traded because of the pregnancy and that head coach Becky Hammon and the Aces allegedly retaliated against her after she told them, which created an “abusive and hostile” work environment.

“I’m not going to comment on too many specifics because it’s obviously a pending litigation at this point with the EEOC,” Engelbert said. “We will cooperate fully. We’ll see whether there is new information we didn’t have at the original time.”

Hamby, a two-time Sixth Player of the Year, first went public with her allegations when the trade was announced. She said the Aces falsely accused her of signing her two-year contract last summer while knowingly pregnant and traded her because they didn’t believe she would be ready for the 2023 season. She announced her pregnancy publicly at the championship parade in September, gave birth in March and played for the Sparks in their May season opener.

Dearica Hamby with her son, Legend, during the Los Angeles Sparks' media day on May 4, 2023. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In the complaint, she said the WNBA failed to properly investigate her allegations. It also gives a timeline of the pregnancy news internal to the organization, and how she said she heard from Hammon that she was being traded. She said the organization attempted to obtain private OBGYN medical records after she was traded and she was “cut off” from her former teammates when she went public.

“As with any pending litigation in my prior life or current life, we'll withhold any details until we see exactly what those allegations were that might have been different than what we saw when we did our investigation back in the spring,” Engelbert said.

The WNBA investigated and days before the season announced Hammon was suspended for two games without pay for violating the league’s Respect in the Workplace policies. The league declined to share specifics of its investigation, telling Yahoo Sports in May, “We don’t think it would be appropriate to comment beyond that” she violated the policy.

“The investigation also did not result in any tangible remedy to me,” Hamby said in the lawsuit, via CBS Sports. “I do not believe the investigation sought to uncover the truth about my allegations that I was discriminated against for being pregnant, and I believe the Respondent WNBA, LLC failed to properly investigate my claims as a form of retaliation for my public statements.”

Hammon denied Hamby’s public allegations in May. The WNBA Players Association and the Aces, for different reasons, said they were disappointed in the results of the investigation.

Tom Brady shows up on celebrity row

The Aces x Tom Brady connection took off more than a year ago when Brady attended a game at Michelob Ultra Arena and Plum made eye contact with her favorite athlete courtside. The star Aces guard wanted to play it cool, but decided “screw it,” and approached him.

“I dapped him up, gave him a big hug, and I was like, ‘Man, you’re a dog, I love you,’” Plum said after the May 2022 game.

And then “Plum Dawg” barked at him. Just like the arena barks for her in big moments. It’s a thing; go with it.

The connection became an official one when Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion, announced in March he purchased a minority stake in the franchise. WNBA team owners approved the transaction last week, though Engelbert had already commented on the purchase in an indication it would go through.

And on Sunday for Game 1, Brady sat courtside with Aces majority owner Mark Davis.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘It’s about effing time you showed up,’” Plum said after the game. “But what I love about him is he was just like, ‘You already know.’”

Brady was announced on the big screen with a goat icon to large cheers. LeBron James and Mark Wahlberg were also in the house for Game 1. Ashanti performed at halftime and Jordin Sparks sang the national anthem.

A’ja Wilson praises ‘mutual respect’ from NBA stars

James could be seen at his courtside seat near the Liberty bench taking photos of the game. Later on Instagram, he shared photos of himself and WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes as well as the stat lines of the Aces’ blowout win.

He also showcased Wilson in the player edition LeBron XXIs he gifted the two-time MVP. The black-and-gold kicks are made of suede and velvet. The two superstars are close and have been since Wilson starred at South Carolina.

LeBron James and Sheryl Swoopes sit courtside during Game 1 of the 2023 WNBA Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Oct. 8, 2023. (Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports)
LeBron James and Sheryl Swoopes sit courtside during Game 1 of the 2023 WNBA Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday. (Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s pretty cool to just kind of see the mutual respect that we have for one another,” Wilson said. “We get hit with a lot of crap on the internet from a lot of really, really bad-minded people. So to be able to have someone’s favorite player still reach out and still support, it’s so key.”

James’ Los Angeles Lakers play the Brooklyn Nets in an NBA preseason game on Monday night in Las Vegas. Members of the Nets, who share a team owner with the Liberty, were also in attendance for the game.

“Always shout out to all the guys coming out to support us,” Wilson said. “We try to reciprocate in any way that we can but yeah, I mean, they like to see good basketball, hell, come to a WNBA game.”

Double-booked in Las Vegas

It’s a big, long weekend for Sabrina Ionescu’s family and friends. The Liberty guard played in her first WNBA Finals game Sunday afternoon. Across the highway on Monday evening, her fiancé Hroniss Grasu, a Las Vegas Raiders offensive lineman, is playing on “Monday Night Football” against the Green Bay Packers.

“We’re able to support each other as we’re both playing professionally and it’s not really done often,” Ionescu told Yahoo Sports.

Ionescu said she had about 30 family members coming out from California for the double showing. They’ll also stay for Game 2 of the Finals on Wednesday night. She is from Walnut Creek and Grasu is from Los Angeles. The couple also had a large contingent at the WNBA All-Star Game in July, where Grasu attended WNBA Live events with her and walked the orange carpet.

“We have a lot of family coming in. It’s a full house,” Grasu told the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week. “All the hotels are booked up with the Grasu-Ionescu families.”

The Oregon alumni began dating in 2019 and were engaged in January. The wedding is planned for this upcoming offseason. Ionescu was the Liberty’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020 and Grasu, a 2015 third-round pick by the Chicago Bears, has spent the past few NFL seasons in Las Vegas.

They’ve largely been long distance for the past six months, Ionescu said, while she’s been in-season and Grasu has been in OTAs and NFL preseason. It’s nice to “finally kind of know that’s over” for the time being, she said.

“The whole time we’re just talking and supporting one another as we’re going through our seasons, and now that we’re finally together, it’s really nice,” Ionescu said. “He’s at practice all day. I’m at practice all day. It feels like our lives have kind of merged finally after six months.”

Ionescu’s season will conclude by Oct. 20 at the latest whether it’s with a championship or not. In July, she told Yahoo Sports she was focused on the season and unsure what she would do basketball-wise in the WNBA offseason.

She has never gone overseas to play and has off-court income from a partnership with Nike, which recently released her signature Sabrina I shoe. She also has a part-time position as the Oregon Ducks’ director of athletic culture.