NEW YORK – As Sandy Brondello and Becky Hammon walked to the sidelines during Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals, reminders of their past looked around the Barclays Center floor. Sitting on the bench for the Las Vegas Aces in New York were former WNBA players Sue Weeks, Vicki Johnson and Crystal Robinson. Teresa Weatherspoon sits on the starting line next to the New York Liberty bench. The four players who were teammates with Hammon during her playing days in New York from 1999 to 2006 were Brondello’s opponents, who played for three WNBA teams. From 1998 to 2003
For Brondello, this season has been filled with memories of her time as a player. New York faced off in the semifinals against Connecticut Sun coach Stephanie White, who played at the W for five seasons. The two were traded to each other in December 1999, with Brondello leaving the then-new Indiana Fever for the now-defunct Miami Soul. Brondello and Hammon’s playing careers briefly overlapped. In the year In 2007, when Hammon was traded from the Liberty to the San Antonio Silver Stars, the two reunited, this time with Brondello as an assistant on the San Antonio staff.
Fifteen years later, such side hustles among ex-players are surprisingly normal. As of 2019, the number of former WNBA players who are now coaches has tripled. Each of the WNBA’s 12 teams has at least one former player on its coaching staff. Six teams had former players as coaches at the end of their season in 2022, the highest finish in league history. This year’s championship game is the first to feature head coaches who were WNBA players. “It’s amazing to see Becky and Sandy go head-to-head in the finals,” said Liberty star forward Breanna Stewart.
.@nyliberty’s Sandy Brondello and @LVAces Becky Hammon know exactly what it takes to win a championship 😤
This WNBA Finals marks the first time two former players have met as head coaches. pic.twitter.com/QP3ysfjz5I
— On Her (@OnHerTurf) October 9, 2023
It is no coincidence that players are frequently seen on the bench. Former WNBA players Jenny Book and Jennifer Gillum coached in 2009, marking the first time the former players met to coach a regular season game. But the 2020 law made them less of an exception. It allows teams to have three assistant coaches as long as the hires have at least one year of experience as a WNBA player. It is organizational malpractice not to use a franchise to increase employees.
Due in part to the rule change, the path to coaching in the WNBA has been paved. Most head coaches are not hired without an assistant, and the new policy increased the number of positions offered by 50 percent. At the start of the 2023 season, five head coaches are former WNBA assistants, four of whom were hired after the league’s realignment.
“For a long time, former players weren’t involved in the merger, or at least weren’t being interviewed for jobs,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said. “That was the narrative. We have to fix this, but it has to be like a lawnmower. Let’s get former players who are learning quickly but are interested at a meaningful level.”
Retaining former players has several benefits for the league. These are people who understand the WNBA and how players think. Given their experience, they are uniquely placed to lead the next generation.
Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu appreciates that Brondello and Hammon understand what it’s like to be in the finals as a player. New York wing Kayla Thornton Brondello — and Johnson, who was Thornton’s coach in Dallas from 2021 to 2022 — have a better natural feel for their players. Liberty veteran Courtney Vandersloot appreciates Brondelon’s attitude as he goes through the highs and lows of a season.
“The biggest thing is that you don’t create such a weak environment after a loss, you don’t hit the panic button when we lose because you know what it’s like,” Vandersloot said.
New York assistant coach Roneka Hodges said her best developmental coaches during her playing days were Bridget Pettis and Johnson, both former players. As you go through those exercises as a player, you break down each skill development. Pettis and Johnson have shaped the future for Hodges, and now more players can look to Brondello, Hammons and Hodges — among others — as they think about their careers after the game.
“For me, as a young coach in this, I always have something to look forward to, because just as I watched them come up as a young player, I watched what the assistant coaches did,” Hodges said.
She was on New York’s staff the past two seasons and had hopes of one day becoming a head coach. However, despite her role models, the majority of player-current head coaches (four of them this year, including former Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard) have been white women, a contrast to the WNBA pool. Most black players. That’s why the recent hiring of Weatherspoon by the Chicago Sky makes sense to many.
“It’s awesome for T-Spoon,” Hodges said. “It’s great for the league. It’s fantastic for us ex-players aspiring to become head coaches. It’s exciting for young African Americans to know that someone else is stepping into those roles, knowing that it’s possible for all of us.
Opportunities were scarce, and in the early years of the WNBA, teams often turned to former NBA players and coaches to lead their franchises. This was the first year since 1998 that no former NBA players were WNBA head coaches, a change that coincided with the growth of former WNBA players holding those positions. “I think there’s something to be said for the people who have given their lives to this league,” Kolb said.
There is a feedback loop where the WNBA creates more opportunities for former players, they excel in those roles, and the current generation looks to fill those spots as they move on to the next phase of their careers. How does the League become a community that people want to continue to be a part of? When Hammon took over the Aces in 2022, she said it felt like a homecoming.
Las Vegas Aces general manager Natalie Williams joins two former players in the front office: Hammon and Jennifer Azzi as the team’s chief business development officer. Las Vegas, under the ownership of Mark Davis, has made hiring former Aces one of the core principles of the franchise’s operations, and the camaraderie between those individuals has not gone unnoticed.
“It’s hard when you retire, and you don’t have that peer group around you anymore,” said Williams, who played in the WNBA for nine years. “It’s great to be back.”
Las Vegas not only invests in the future, but also hires former players. Davis became the league’s highest-paid head coach last season, earning seven figures in incentives after winning the Las Vegas championship when he brought Hammon to the Aces from the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. From adding another job to each team and continuing to pour money into the coaching ranks, Phoenix Mercury Nate Tibbetts — a 13-year NBA assistant — has been named the WNBA’s new highest-paid coach.
Davis was excited when he heard about Hammon’s one-time contract with Mercury. “We can’t pay the players (more than they bargained for) but we can pay the coaches,” he said. As for the Hamon deal? “It’s paid for us,” he said. Owners like Davis say their teams need to increase their budgets and pour money into their franchises. Vandersloot added that she hopes the cash flow to these positions will make it to the players sooner.
But when considering the pool of coaches available, franchises don’t necessarily have to look beyond the WNBA. In The Athletic’s recent general manager survey, several front office executives cited Sun assistant coach Brian January, a 14-year veteran before retiring last year, as a possible head coach in the near future, while former players Kareema Christmas-Kelly and LaToya Sanders were also mentioned. Eligible for head coaching opportunities one day.
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There may be some candidate coaches in this year’s finals as well. Due to Vandersloot’s calm demeanor of many Liberty players, she would make the best WNBA head coach of anyone on the roster, should she choose to enter the profession. Thornton said she wants to one day become a coach to “give back knowledge” and help the next generation of players. Stewart added that she would be a good coach, but jokes, “I don’t know if the W can afford me.
The Aces roster also has some players who could make the transition. Williams and Alisha Clark note point guard Chelsea Gray is the most obvious candidate. But Clark said guard Kelsey Plum would excel: “She’s very loyal.” She is very straightforward.
At Tuesday’s practice, Plum heard Clark’s high praise. “I’m fired,” Plum yelled like a seasoned coach answering a call she didn’t like.
— The Athletic’s Kalin Kahler contributed to this report.
(Credit: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Becky Hammon and Sandy Brondello Photos: Jeff Bottari / NBAE via Getty Images, Michelle Farsi / Getty Images, Bill Baptiste / NBA via Getty Images, Rocky Widner / WNBAE via Getty Images)