It takes more than big names to win games in the W.N.B.A. The New York Times is talking to players across the league who are making an impact in their own way.
Bria Hartley has been like many working mothers during the coronavirus pandemic. Her 3-year-old son, Bryson, has been right by her side at work — inside the W.N.B.A. bubble in Bradenton, Fla. — and the time between practices and games has been dedicated to him.
“Right now, I’m making him chicken nuggets as I’m doing this interview,” Hartley, a Phoenix Mercury guard, said with a chuckle, while Bryson could be heard in the background. “Just multitasking.”
Hartley, a seven-year league veteran, was excelling at the “work” part of work-life balance before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on Friday, which will keep her out for the rest of the season. She was putting up the best numbers of her career in her first season with the Mercury, averaging 15.4 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 37.5 percent from 3-point range.
Though Hartley’s season ended early, it was just the first one in her three-year deal with Phoenix, and it has provided much for her to build on. She was an athletic, consistent scoring and playmaking threat for a Mercury team that has been without two star players, guard Diana Taurasi (hip injury) and center Brittney Griner (personal reasons), at points throughout this truncated season.
Before her injury, Hartley talked to The New York Times about her breakout season, what she has learned from Taurasi and how she has continued pushing for social justice from inside the bubble.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What has allowed you to have so much success on a new team this season?
Part of it is kind of coming to a new team with a different role. Coach Sandy Brondello had me come in here definitely to be a scoring threat, and that’s really encouraging. I think other times, it was kind of like teams wanted me to be more of a pass-first point guard. I think that made me a little more tentative, kind of always looking to pass rather than looking to score. She keeps telling me to be aggressive, and that just encourages me. I come off, I’m aggressive looking to score, and then that opens up things for me to create for other people.
At this point in your career, what would you say is the best part of your game?
I think it would be tough for a team to decide what they want to take away from me. I can definitely create for myself and get all the way to the rim. I have a midrange game. I’m able to shoot the 3. For me, it was kind of just deciphering when to use each one of those.
I think I’ve done better at my decision-making, and it makes it tougher for teams. Because if they’re going to go under a screen, I’m going to be able to shoot it. If they’re going over, I’m still able to get in the lane, get to the basket or draw help to create for my teammates.
How do you keep that versatility sharp?
Some of it, for me, is definitely experience. It’s being in certain situations over and over again. It’s like, all right, you really got to get this down. This keeps happening. You’ve got to work on this pass, getting that player open. I would say, in the past, I wasn’t always great at coming off the ball screens and hitting the post player. So I just really worked on looking off the player and trying to get the pass there, not always telegraphing it — and just using different types of passes, too.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned as a teammate of Diana Taurasi?
She’s very consistent. Regardless of whether she’s making shots or missing shots, regardless of if she feels tired or not, she’s always there after practice. She does her routine and gets her shots up. I think that’s very admirable, because I feel like there’s times I’m just like: “All right, I’m just tired today. I don’t have it. I won’t shoot as much today.” But she’s always there. She stays consistent in her work. Even getting older, taking care of her body, you see all the time she puts in after all these years.
You mentioned your son being with you on campus. What’s a good story or anecdote about him in the “Wubble”?
He kind of blew up on social media. He’ll come to practices. He loves taking pictures. They posted him as the “team intern photographer.” For everyone, sometimes it’s just, like, a breath of fresh air. You just see him, not a care in the world. He’s happy all the time.
I think it brings a good energy to practice on some days, especially when we play games back to back and people are tired. There’s so much other stuff going on in the world that’s on people’s mind, so it’s kind of good to have that little free spirit there running around just to lighten the mood.
You peacefully protested in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s killing. Since then, how have you remained socially active? (This interview was conducted hours before the W.N.B.A. paused games on Wednesday and Thursday to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake.)
We can’t get out there and protest or do stuff like that now. But they have calls a lot of the time, just speaking with different people whose family members may have been victims of police brutality. The players association is setting up a lot of those calls.
And then just kind of following the narrative of our league, the different initiatives that we have or the different T-shirts that we wear just to bring awareness to these issues. Continuing to post things on social media. Some of our games are on TV. People are watching. We’re gaining more followers. We’ve got to get that message out there for people to see.
What takeaways from those calls have been particularly powerful?
It’s just really crazy to hear their perspectives. Sometimes, for me, hearing the stories, it’s sad because you see all this evidence and this stuff that is public knowledge, and you wonder why certain people aren’t convicted. Even the recent video that comes out [of Jacob Blake], people watch that video and they’re like: “Oh, OK, but why was he walking away? Why was he doing this and that?” People’s initial reaction is to say something like that. And we’re just, like, even people who commit a crime should not be shot or killed, and this continues to happen.
The main thing we say to people is we’ve got to really get out and vote and try to change the system, because those are the people making the rules and making the laws.