Basketball players have a new lifeline, close to home

Lauren Manis was drafted and waived by the Las Vegas Aces ahead of the 2020 WNBA season. She then signed with a team in Belgium, where intermittent lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic left her stuck in her flat.

She was unable to enter the gym, touch a basketball or return to her hometown of Franklin, Mass. But the time she was finally able to spend on the ground in Belgium proved fruitful: Manis on average nearly a double-double in points and rebounds for the 16-game season and, in 2021, was invited back to training camp for the Aces. Waived a second time, Manis signed to play for a team in Hungary. It didn’t go well.

“I was living in a campground for three months,” Manis said. “The team hasn’t been honest with the living conditions.”

Mentally strained, she told her agent to prepare a termination agreement to get her out of the contract. His agent told him about an opportunity to participate in Athletes Unlimited, a player-focused sports network with a new Las Vegas-based basketball league. The next day, Manis boarded a flight from Hungary. A Zoom call was enough to persuade her to sign up to compete in UA’s first season of basketball.

“I was very, very depressed after Hungary,” Manis said. “I thank God, because a few months ago, I would never have imagined such a situation arising.”

For Manis, the championship is an opportunity to raise the bar in a career strewn with pitfalls and false starts. She’s joined by women at different stages of their basketball careers, many of whom are focused on their own redeeming arcs. Some see the league as a chance to compete in front of family and friends, some for the first time in their professional careers, rather than in obscurity overseas. It may also be the scarce salary and playing time of professional female basketball players in the United States during the WNBA offseason.

Four weeks into UA’s five-week inaugural season, many people have found reason to want success for this new venture in a long line of basketball leagues up and down. The competition on the court has been exciting due to its intensity, but AU judges the success of its first season of basketball by the experience of the players. “Follow how the players are doing and how much they’re enjoying the experience, and the feedback has been incredibly positive,” said AU Managing Director and Co-Founder Jon Patricof.

Athletes Unlimited started in March 2020 with softball, volleyball, and lacrosse leagues. UA’s first basketball season has begun January 23 at Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Sport Center in Las Vegas, with the help and supervision of recruiting by its executive committee of players: veteran WNBA players Natasha Cloud, Sydney Colson, Tianna Hawkins, Jantel Lavender and Ty Young. The season ends on Saturday.

It’s probably not what most fans would expect: there are no fixed general managers, coaches or squads, and four 11-man squads are replenished every week. Their captains are the top four players in a leaderboard for points accumulated by on-field actions like scoring, fouls and stealing the ball, and by fan and player votes. Opposed actions, such as turnovers and missed shots, cost points. Teams win games by collecting the most points by outscoring the other team each quarter (50 victory points per quarter) and in overall play (100 points).

The league focused on fan engagement via social media and TV broadcasts for each game rather than in-person attendance. The arena can only hold 740 fans.

“From the start, we really wanted to build a global national audience,” Patricof said.

It was good news for Imani McGee-Stafford, who competes in AU and last played in the WNBA in 2019, for the Dallas Wings. “Even in the W we don’t have all the games televised,” McGee-Stafford said. “I send my grandma the program every week and tell her which channel to turn to, or what the link is, and she texts me after every game. It’s really great, and it’s not not yet very common in the world of women’s basketball.

McGee-Stafford, a 6ft 7in center, stepped away from the court in 2020 to start law school but now finds her professional career mired in uncertainty.

“I just want to play basketball,” she said.

To accommodate law school and the WNBA, she chose a three-year, semester-based program. But after four WNBA seasons and international stints in Israel, China and Turkey, the 27-year-old McGee-Stafford hadn’t played professionally for three years before UA arrived. In 2019 she signed to play in Australia, with the Perth Lynx, but said she “was cut off because I was taking the LSAT and showed up late to something”.

In AU, she is able to fight hard in the field and then retire to a private room to complete her classes. “They allowed the players to do everything,” she said. “I’m taking three classes this semester, a lighter course load, because I knew I was going to do this.”

For Tianna Hawkins, a 6-foot-3 forward who won a championship with the Washington Mystics in 2019, AU has given her the joy of playing again. In 2021, she played for the 8-24 Atlanta Dream, which suspended a player for harmful team conduct and lost its coach to another job just weeks before the season.

“It was a great opportunity for me to get my confidence back because I just had maybe the worst professional season I’ve ever had,” Hawkins said.

She continued, “I’m able to work on the things I’ve been working on this off-season. And, also, if I make a mistake, I don’t get pulled from the game. I’m able to play through my mistakes, and also learn different perspectives of the game.”

Hawkins said being captain in UA gave him more respect for coaches.

“They go through a lot and they don’t even play,” she said. “So imagine if you also had to coach while playing. I have a new grace for coaches.

A key challenge for WNBA coaches is the effect of off-season games away on their players, who may arrive for the WNBA season late, tired, or injured after competing all year. For many players, the grind is necessary to supplement the WNBA’s low pay and limited national opportunities.

But will Athletes Unlimited meet this need?

For Hawkins, it’s about weighing the options: money, location and the needs of his first-year son. McGee-Stafford is all in as long as AU has him. She finds the $8,000 base salary “just for showing up” appealing, she said, and she can simultaneously pursue her law degree. Additionally, players who finish in the top 10 on the leaderboard can expect bonuses of up to $10,000, so the total salary for five weeks of basketball could potentially exceed $20,000, according to Patrick. The minimum salary for the four-month WNBA season is approximately $60,000, with a maximum of approximately $230,000.

David BerryA professor at Southern Utah University who has studied sports economics and gender issues, sees long-term potential for UA, as long as the league keeps operating costs low.

“Athletes Unlimited definitely does a lot to save money,” Berri said, citing his focus on television and social media rather than in-person audiences. And by centering individual players on teams, Berri said, UA could build an audience faster than the traditional league model allows.

At the start of the AU season, Sheryl Swoopes, who provides color commentary for games, spoke to the players about her Hall of Fame career in professional basketball. His words resonated with Manis. “I think playing basketball for a living is really hard because you never know when it’s going to end suddenly,” Manis said. “And she had some really crazy things to say about being able to manage your money and having a plan to fall back on.”

Swoopes said in an interview that if AU had existed during her playing days, she would have embraced the opportunity to play.

“Some players love going abroad, some don’t,” she said. “It’s not for everyone.”

Manis, who dazzled with his gritty play on both sides of the ball, became one of the stars of this season and caught the eye of Swoopes on broadcasts. His redemption seems to be in progress.

“It’s unreal,” Manis said. “It’s great to hear people praising your game and loving watching it, but when it comes from someone as influential as Sheryl Swoopes, it’s a big deal.”

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