- Sarah Spain, Contributor, espnW.com
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"THIS IS OUR MOMENT" is splashed across the landing page of the Chicago Sky website, the letters in bright white, glowing as if illuminated on a marquee. Below them is a link to buy tickets for the team's opening-round playoff series against the Dream, which begins Friday in Atlanta.
The 2013 postseason might have been memorable for its historical significance -- the Sky made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season -- but the team's unlikely berth in these playoffs proves it to be a true contender.
See, last year came too easy. Elena Delle Donne, the second overall pick in the draft, earned All-WNBA second team and rookie of the year honors. Epiphanny Prince and Sylvia Fowles joined Delle Donne on the All-Star team, and Fowles was the defensive player of the year and All-WNBA first team. The team went 24-10 and finished first in the East for the conference's top seed in the playoffs. But just as soon as their postseason journey began, it came to an end. The Fever swept the Sky out of the first round.
It was a surprising and disappointing end to an incredible season. And yet, anyone who has ever seen a sports movie knows the stacked team that cruises through the year with nary a worry rarely comes out on top in the end. This year's Sky team, plagued by injury and illness, has faced enough unbelievable plot twists to make for the perfect come-from-behind story.
The challenges came early and often for Pokey Chatman's squad. Prince missed training camp and sat out the team's first seven games due to a personal matter. Fowles missed the first 13 games of the season after undergoing arthroscopic hip surgery in the offseason. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot was sidelined 16 games due to a knee injury, returning for the team's final two regular-season games. Delle Donne sat out 16 games with a flare-up of Lyme disease, an illness she continues to battle as the playoffs approach.
Delle Donne believes the team's tough regular season will actually help in the coming weeks. "It's kind of crazy all the adversity we've had to face," she said. "Not many teams have to face this. But now it's almost sweeter [to be back in the playoffs]. Last year, the first time we faced adversity was that first loss in the playoffs, and we weren't able to overcome it. Obviously this season has been nothing but adversity, so I think we're ready for anything that's thrown our way."
Despite never playing with a full squad, the team managed to find its way back into the postseason, a feat Fowles attributes to focus and teamwork. "We've just been going out and playing as a unit," Fowles said. "We haven't really had our full capabilities as a team, but we just focused on what we had in the moment."
Chatman credits her players.
"You can't even prepare for the different angles and areas that changed things," she said. "Injuries, personal stuff, a disease, a lot of things that didn't have an endgame. The players really bought in and stayed the course. We were in the midst of a six-game losing streak at one point, and they just trusted us and just kept balling."
No matter the circumstances, it would've been tough for Delle Donne to follow up last year's fairy-tale rookie campaign, but having to miss so much time to illness has made her second season all the more difficult.
"It's definitely frustrating," she said. "When I wasn't playing, that was the hardest to get through that, especially thinking about how great last year was and then think about how rough this year is and all the adversity that this team has to face.
"Usually when you're injured, you're still with the team, you still kinda feel like you're a part of it, but I was kind of on a little desert island out in Delaware. They were phenomenal, they reached out literally every day with texts and phone calls, so they really helped out keeping me involved."
Chatman learned a bit about Lyme disease before the team drafted Delle Donne, but this season has been a crash course in understanding the illness that has sidelined her best player.
"The uniqueness of it is that Lyme disease has so many different courses with different people," Chatman said. "You just never really know a timetable on it. When it initially happened, people thought I was trying to be coy about giving information. No! We go three days, we check the blood, we check the infection levels, and that will start the next course of treatment. So in this whole process, I had to educate Joe Public about the disease."
Delle Donne said fighting Lyme Disease is much different than suffering an injury.
"With an injury it's like, 'OK, you'll be healed in six weeks and then you're done with it,'" she explained. "With me, it's this lingering thing where some days I feel good and other days I feel like crap. I'm in contact with my doctor every day, so she listens to my symptoms and tells me different things to do to try to help. Luckily I've been doing pretty well. Flying really kinda sucks and adds to the inflammation, causing flu-like symptoms like body aches."
Chatman trusts that Delle Donne will tell her when she can go and when she needs a rest.
"The very first game she came back, she was out there about 2½ minutes and then she came out and said, 'It's my lungs, not Lyme,'" Chatman said. "She's taking her meds, she's taking her vitamins and supplements and getting IVs. Now it's just a matter of her conditioning."
This particular bout with Lyme disease has been tougher physically than the last big flare-up for Delle Donne, but she's getting more support than she did when the illness sidelined her during her senior season at Delaware. Back then, a lot of the people around her hadn't even heard of the disease. Raising awareness and educating others is as much a part of Delle Donne's life as her treatments.
"I just try to talk about it as much as I can so people have knowledge about it," she said. "There are so many sick people out there who are doing way worse than I am. They need to get the correct care and treatment and diagnosis, so it's definitely something that I'm just drawn to speak out about."
For Chatman, it was important to always be up-front and honest with her team, whether it was during Prince's absence or Delle Donne's time away. "The thing that they can appreciate even when things are going crazy is, if you're real, you can deal with stuff," Chatman said. "Let's just be real about our situation, let's not try to sugarcoat it. Not a lot of coach-speak. We just zeroed in on the basketball elements. The court's still 94-by-50, the basket's still 10 feet. You guys got drafted here; no one made me take you. We believe in you, and let's go do this."
Fowles thinks the Sky are ready for anything.
"We've dealt with so much this year I wouldn't even be surprised if something else gets thrown at us," she said. "Last year we pretty much just breezed our way through the conference and once we got to the playoffs we didn't even know what hit us. We didn't know how to bounce back from that. But this year we've overcome a lot, and I think any adversity we come across, we'll be successful."
The Sky's first test is a Dream team that finished with the best record in the East and has made it to the WNBA Finals three of the past four years.
Fowles says Chatman won't need to say or do anything to get the Sky motivated come Friday night. "Even though the group we have is pretty young, everyone pretty much knows their job and what's needed of them within that moment. Pokey doesn't really have to say much, just put the right people on the floor and let them click as a unit."
The right people could be any combination of players, including regular starters and bench players who have stepped up big-time this season. Tamera Young, who was forced into a starting spot and played the 2, 3 and 4 positions at different times this season. Third-round draft pick Jamierra Faulkner, who made big contributions when Vandersloot went out. Sharpshooter Allie Quigley, who was often forced to run the point but never lost her ability to score.
Having a whole bench full of players who tallied significant minutes will be huge for Chatman in the postseason. She feels confident that her players really are ready for their moment.
"Here's the deal," Chatman said. "You got steamrolled as a team. You had people missing 11 games, seven games, 15 games, four games, and you're here. You're still standing. So whatever you're gonna face now will pale in comparison to that. Thank God that script can turn around and really be beneficial to us."
In Hollywood, the only way to end this script would be with the Sky winning it all. A real underdog story for the ages. A feel-good story with a feel-good title: "This Is Our Moment."
12dBonnie D. Ford