The WNBA recently unveiled its plan to begin the 2020 season in late July at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. They'll play just 22 regular-season games in the shortened time frame, though the postseason format will remain as normal. Other than that, however, the specifics have been sparse.
In the days since the format was announced, a number of key players have announced they'll be sitting out: Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders of the Washington Mystics and Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream. Both health concerns and a desire to continue fighting for social justice were cited as reasons.
With the coronavirus pandemic surging in Florida, all 12 teams stuck in a bubble environment, a shortened season and key players sitting out, it goes without saying that this will be the strangest season in WNBA history.
Ahead of the teams traveling to Florida early next month, CBS Sports caught up with the reigning All-Star Game MVP, Erica Wheeler of the Indiana Fever.
CBS Sports: Obviously a lot going on in the world, but I want to start by asking you about the protests and the social justice movement going on. What have the conversations been like between you and your team, or even other players in the league?
Erica Wheeler: We all support each other, the Black community and the Caucasian community. We all support each other. We know that right now it's a delicate time and people are listening and watching. So for us, our main thing is to keep talking and keep explaining, and letting people know that Black lives do matter. So I think that's across the board, that's what we're all trying to do.
CBS: Have you been able to get out and do anything in your community?
Wheeler: I was able to get out in Miami. It was a peaceful protest with my boy Anthony Walker, who plays for the [Indianapolis] Colts. He called me up and was like 'we need to do something.' So we ended up going to take a peaceful walk, and the surprising thing was there was more Caucasian people out there than Black people. So for me, that was a really awesome feeling to see and be a part of. It was awesome to see that we could all come together and do something peaceful.
CBS: There's been a lot of discussion about whether returning to basketball would be a distraction from the current moment, or an opportunity to have an even bigger platform to speak out. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Wheeler: For me, I tell people all the time: I'm no activist. I'm gonna use my platform and I'm gonna use my voice to speak on what I believe in, and that's what I've been doing. But basketball changed my life. You could throw me in the woods with a basketball and I'll still play, because it changed my life, it saved my life. So I'm no activist. I'm gonna stand for what I believe in, of course, but this is my dream, this is my love. I want to do the right thing by my community, and my teammates, but at the same time I have a job to do -- what I need to do for myself as well.
CBS: I assume you voted "yes" on starting the season then?
Wheeler: Yeah, absolutely.
CBS: In terms of the return to play plan, what was that process like? How much were you hearing before they actually came to you with a proposal?
Wheeler: My main thing was wondering where we would play at, and how much of a percentage of our salaries we would get. Honestly and truthfully, I didn't have much opinions about things once they showed us we were getting 100 percent. You know, we're WNBA teams, so we're gonna get the top of the line with whatever it is that we're doing. It's gonna be the top of the line, I don't doubt that.
Once they said they would pay us 100 percent but we would be in a bubble, of course I don't want to be in a bubble for X amount of days, but it's a lot of people that don't even have jobs. People are losing their house, people getting laid off, and how can I complain about being in a bubble doing what I love, and getting paid for it? I'm not around my family, but it's just like I'm overseas. Of course it's gonna be tough, but if you've been overseas, you know that this bubble will be challenging, but it's nothing that we can't deal with.
CBS: How much have you talked to your teammates and coaching staff about what it's going to be like down there?
Wheeler: Indiana is not really a needy team. I don't want to speak for all my teammates, but we'll adjust. Nobody expects anything from us, so we're really the underdogs. I tell my teammates, 'Look man, we got a great opportunity to be down here, playing with each other. You know, seize the opportunity, you never know what we'll get out of it.'
So our main thing is our mind is open. We're open to whatever we may come across. Don't have no expectations of something being super amazing when we don't even know. So I think we're at a great place, and our mind is open about what to expect. We have to drop our expectations and just hoop.
CBS: How difficult has it been to try and prepare for a season in a quarantine situation, where you don't have the same type of equipment or access to facilities? Did you even have access to a hoop or a gym?
Wheeler: I was in Miami. I started cycling, riding my bike. On an average day I would ride probably 20-30 miles, so that was something I fell in love with. You realize you can live in a city for almost your whole entire life, but once you get on a bike you see more of the city. So for me in Miami being able to ride bikes was almost like a vacation, but still a workout.
So for me I was doing that, and then I was able to get in the gym every couple of days. My guy who has a gym, if it wasn't too packed I would get in there and shoot. So I think I was more active than most.
CBS: During this whole time it's still been kind of a training camp situation. What's it been like trying to figure out the team aspect when you can't be together, especially with Lauren Cox (No. 3 overall pick) and a new head coach (Marianne Stanley) coming in this year?
Wheeler: I mean the Zoom calls help, but our group is pretty tight knit. You know we added a couple of new pieces, so the Zoom calls help, but these kids want to know. They want to know, they want to talk. It's not like they won't reach out or try to have a conversation. Of course it's nothing like being in person to build a bond, but Zoom calls and FaceTime calls helped a lot.
CBS: You end up falling short of the playoffs last season, but it seemed like you were starting to put things together a bit. You're coming off a career year, you've got a bunch of young talent and a new coach. How excited are you to see what this team looks like once you can get on the court together?
Wheeler: I think this season will be super delicate, just in the sense that we don't know what's gonna happen. Our bodies are not ready for 22 games, I'll tell you that. But are we gonna do it and try to make it happen? Absolutely. It's not enough time for us to really be ready, but it's important to do something while we're home so that process can speed up a little bit.
Like I said, I think it will be super delicate in terms of the outcome. I don't have an expectation. I can't say we're gonna win the championship, or we're gonna win 12 games, we're gonna win 20 games, whatever. So I don't really have an expectation besides for me and my team to give it our all and do what we can.
CBS: Speaking of the time frame then, I know they mentioned early July for teams to start heading down to Florida. Have you heard anything more about that, or when exactly things are gonna start?
Wheeler: Whatever you know is what I know. I can't give you any information. What's out in the world, that's what it is.
CBS: Has that been weird or frustrating at all? What is it like trying to train and prepare when you don't know exactly what you're preparing for?
Wheeler: For me, I've never really known anything. That's been my career. You know, undrafted, then super in the limelight. I never knew if I had a job coming into the next season. I didn't know if I had to prepare for certain things. So I think everybody just needs to stay ready. It's coming closer, I think in maybe a week or two, so just stay ready. I think everybody's trying to do that. I know me and my teammates are.
CBS: As you've mentioned it's going to be a strange season, but how do you feel about your game right now, especially coming off All-Star Game MVP and a career year?
Wheeler: I feel like my game is on a steady pace, but there's always room for improvement. But my main thing is I'm not worried about what I did last year, or the year before that. My main thing is stay consistent and do my job and help lead my team. I don't have any expectations of anything. I just want to be a ball player, play to the best of my abilities and lead my team.
CBS: I wanted to ask you. I assume you saw the news about Jonquel Jones. What was your reaction to hearing that she was going to sit out.
Wheeler: I mean, I didn't have any reaction. Everybody has their personal preference. I don't think no answer is right or wrong. Everybody has their reason of doing certain things. Like my reason is I'm in love with basketball. This is my life, so under any circumstances I'm gonna play. I just think it's a personal preference. I don't think nothing is wrong, I don't think anybody should be thrown under the bus if they don't want to play, I don't think anybody should be talked about because they do want to play. It's just a personal preference because it's a pandemic, and we're all trying to figure it out.
CBS: Do you get the feeling that there will be other players who decide to sit out? (Editor's note: In the days since this interview, Natasha Cloud, LaToya Sanders and Tiffany Hayes have all announced that they will also sit out the 2020 season.)
Wheeler: I don't know, I don't know. I don't know about any other players, I don't know about any other teams. I just know about myself and my team. I try not to get involved in any of that.
CBS: Lastly, I know you've mentioned a few times how it's hard to know what's going to happen this season, but what are your thoughts or hopes for this summer?
Wheeler: It's a unique situation. All 144 players have never been in one location all at one time, so you just never know what we can do with that time frame and that group. I think it's something unique, and I think we can make something amazing out of it once we come together and collectively think of things to do to make an impact.