WNBA Finals stars inspired by coaches, family
Behind every player vying for a WNBA championship is her own village of supporters
As New York Liberty forward Kayla Thornton exited the Barclays Center on Sunday following New York’s 87-73 win over the Las Vegas Aces in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, she did so laughing alongside her mother, Merteen.
Thornton said she was likely laughing because her mother, who was wearing one of the three Thornton jerseys she owns for each of the three WNBA teams her daughter has played on, was most likely mispronouncing her teammate’s name. It’s common in the Thornton household.
“My mom, she’s so funny. She’s always messing up somebody’s name. She probably called Sloot [Liberty point guard Courtney Vandersloot], ‘Vanderbilt,’ ” Thornton said, laughing. “She was probably saying, ‘Vanderbilt had a great game!’ Probably something like that.”
It’s those moments, Thornton said, that are crucial to her day-to-day, especially in an intense environment like the WNBA Finals. The interactions with her mother help take her away from the game. When she leaves an arena, mom by her side, her mother’s energy and goofiness relax her whether the team wins or not.
Behind every player vying for a WNBA championship this week is her village of supporters. Some might be the size of entire countries, in the case of forward Jonquel Jones of the Bahamas, and some smaller, but the impact is all the same. They supported them unconditionally, uplifted them in times of struggle and motivated them to continue chasing their dreams. And at Game 3, they cheered for them, proud of the players who competed before them.
For Thornton, it was her mother. For Jones, it was Ole Miss women’s basketball coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin and Temple University coach Diane Richardson, who played major roles in her ability to play basketball in the United States. For guard Betnijah Laney, it was legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer, who has been in Laney’s life since she was a child and was her college coach at Rutgers. For forward A’ja Wilson, it was Dawn Staley, who coached the University of South Carolina team she played for to a national championship.
While these players may be chasing a title on the court — the Liberty will play the Aces, who lead the series 2-1, again on Wednesday night — off the court, these are their champions.
Betnijah Laney – C. Vivian Stringer (legendary college basketball coach)
I’ve known coach Stringer almost my entire life. My mother [Yolanda Laney] played for her [at Cheyney University], she’s been around since I’ve been a baby. We went on vacations and everything together as a child. To grow up under her, grow up going to the games and seeing her as a coach to then end up playing for her [at Rutgers] – she’s just instilled a lot into me both on and off the court in terms of what it means to be a woman, a Black woman, in sports and in life and just how to navigate things. She had tough love but it was very effective.
It was really special to have her come out and be able to support me in this moment, this big moment of hopefully winning a championship. All of the work that I’ve put in up until now, back to college, she’s still a part of that. She’s a part of this championship. To have her be there to support and see me thrive because of some of the things that she’s instilled in me as a person, as a player, to have her be a part of that moment is really special.
Kayla Thornton – Merteen Thornton (mom)
My mom, that’s like my best friend right there. My mom, she’s a preacher, we have a routine every game. Whether she’s with me or away, we pray before each game. We’ve been doing that my whole life. The impact she’s had is just unbelievable. I can always talk to her and she always gives me the most encouraging words. She just knows what to say.
I’m blessed to be able to give back to them, fly my parents out wherever I go. She’s retired now, so she’s always talking about are you going to hire me to be your personal assistant. It’s just great, everything they’ve sacrificed for me now God has blessed me to give that in return to them.
It’s a proud feeling to be able to compete for a championship in front of them. This next game, I’m just going to go out there and give it my all because it’s more than myself. It’s for my family, for my city, all the young kids in El Paso that can say a girl from a small town made it.
A’ja Wilson – Dawn Staley (coach, South Carolina)
I always say Coach Staley is like my second mom. She has been through everything with me and I feel like I have been through a lot with her. We just always, at any point in life, highs, lows, in between, I’m always generating back to her. No matter what. I could be having boy problems and I’m like, ‘Coach Staley.’ I could be having basketball problems and I’m like, ‘Coach Staley.’ For her to always be in my back pocket is something that is so key. I feel like I didn’t really notice it until I was pulled away from South Carolina and I was on my own and was like, ‘Dang, but I could still hit Coach Staley.’ It doesn’t matter. She’s my therapist, everything wrapped in one. It just deepens as I get older.
They say you turn into your parents. Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘oh, my God, that’s Coach Staley.’ It’s pretty cool just to see and be out there and be a little mini her in my heart.
Jonquel Jones – Yolett McPhee-McCuin (coach, Ole Miss) and Diane Richardson (coach, Temple)
I feel like I really can’t properly summarize their impact. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for them. When I was bugging my [mom], when I was a young girl in the Bahamas and I wanted to come play basketball in the States, it was just, I really didn’t have the opportunities.
Coach Yo had the opportunities because she was working in the basketball world and had connections. She was the person who got me in contact with Coach Rich to be able to have the conversations I needed to have, which then made Coach Rich feel comfortable with me coming over and living with her in the United States. Before I got to the U.S., Coach Yo was one of those role models that I looked up to. I came through the HOYTS [Helping Our Youths Through Education and Sports] program that her dad started. I remember her coming back and she would check on me. She would come to HOYTS and speak. She’s always been an inspiration and role model. For her to reach back and open those doors so I could be here means so much especially for me living this dream now.
Coach Rich, literally my second mom. [She] welcomed me into her home with open arms. Treated me like one of her kids. To this day, [she is] one of the first people I call when I’m going through something or need some motherly advice. I really can’t put into words what they mean to me and how influential they were. [They were] so inspirational to me getting to where I am today.
They’re prideful and I have a lot of pride to [to compete in a Finals in front of them]. I’m happy that they [were] able to come out there and see it and that I’m playing good basketball and playing like myself again. They’ve seen the journey so they know that it takes so much to get to where I am today … It’s been a lot of struggles. It’s not just all glory. They actually know the story for real.