SAN ANTONIO—There were no smiles. The locker room was silent. Everyone was trying to wrap their head around what had just happened on court, how the San Antonio Stars, finally with a full roster, could play their best basketball of the season for three quarters and then see it all fall apart in the fourth. Leading 69-61 going into the fourth quarter at home against the Dallas Wings, they lost Thursday afternoon, 94-82.
This was not how the postgame atmosphere of Kelsey Plum’s WNBA debut was supposed to feel, not how player or team envisioned it when Plum went first overall in the 2017 draft, not how Plum visualized it as she worked her way back from an ankle injury that cost her the first three games of her season.
Thursday was the moment for which everyone in San Antonio was waiting. All twelve of the team’s players were back and healthy enough to take the court. Moriah Jefferson, who had also missed the first three games of the season due to injury (hers, a sore knee), was cleared to play. Even the arena floor, which had the Spurs logo on it for the home opener, was dressed in its finest Stars decor and the WNBA logo had taken her rightful place throughout the AT&T Center for the first time this season.
During pregame warmups, Plum was loose, hitting shots and moving easily around the court, her thick black braid swinging behind her as she went. She looked as at ease as one can before they make their professional debut. Before heading into the locker room for final preparations before the game, she stood near half court with Monique Currie, and the two were talking and laughing. Plum’s big smile, the one that seems to start at one ear and end at the other, made multiple appearances.
It was the annual School Day Game so it started bright and early at 11 am, and the arena was full of thousands of young students from around the area. Some of the school groups were color-coded in their outfits, a sea of blue and red filling one corner or a rectangle of yellow in an upper section. They danced as the songs blared over the PA system, some hamming it up when the arena camera put them up on the big screen, others hiding their faces.
More than anything, though, the kids were spectacular at cheering on the team. When the Stars came out to do their final warmups before the game began, the kids screamed so loudly it physically hurt. It was the combination of that high-pitched edge their voices have and the sheer volume of it. Throughout the game, they always took up the announcer’s challenge to make noise and they were hanging on every play until the bitter end.
Before the game, Plum was excited to get on court, to touch the ball, and to play in this atmosphere, surrounded by these kid fans. But she was also careful about setting expectations too high. “I don’t think I expect to play a lot because I’m not ready,” Plum told The Summitt prior to the game, standing on the court just after warmups. “With that being said, I’m just excited.”
Plum didn’t start, nor did Jefferson. Kayla McBride, playing in only her second game of the season, and Sydney Colson were the guards head coach Vickie Johnson chose for that honor. Jefferson would enter the game first and then finally, late into the first quarter, Plum got her chance. When asked after the game how she felt standing at the scorer’s table, waiting to go in for the first time, Plum didn’t hesitate: “It’s about time.”
But when she finally made it on court, Plum played like, well, a rookie coming off an injury. She wound up playing a total of 12 minutes and scoring four points on five attempts. Perhaps most telling, she had five turnovers. Johnson put her in late in the game, when there was about a minute and half left in play. The Stars had been struggling all quarter, with Dallas beating them down the lane and destroying them in transition. On her first possession back in the game, Plum traveled.
After the game, Johnson told reporters that she’s happy to have Plum back but that her player and her team needs time to find a rhythm. McBride put it in perspective: “[Plum and Jefferson] are still figuring it out. Everybody is still figuring out. It’s only the fourth game, it’s only my second game since I’ve been here. We’re still trying to fit in those pieces. And that’s part of the process. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the journey. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Plum’s biggest critic was Plum. As she walked up to the small post-game media scrum, she looked as if she was reluctantly ready to face the music. She had her shoulders back and eyes up, but she took a deep breath as she joined the gathered reporters and camera people waiting to hear from her.
“Obviously I didn’t play well,” Plum said. “But it’s a learning experience and I have to take it and just get better in the next game.” When asked what she learned, she responded that she needs to take care of the ball, be more alert, and on the defensive side, “you got to wreck havoc on, put more pressure on those guards and then just be more aggressive.”
Plum said she’s a competitor, that she holds herself to a certain standard, but also that she was in a tough situation and she did the best she could given the little prep time she had. The resignation of it all was clear in her answers. “It’s been a long, almost a month now, seeing all my friends that are rookies debut and everything. I’ve just been wanting to get out there and, like I said, it’s not the ideal situation. But it is what it is.”
Later, inside that quiet, somber locker room, Plum told The Summitt that her goals going into the game were “to try to keep the fluidity of the game going. Be a great teammate, be aggressive, try to not be a liability on defense.” Did she think she met them? “No,” was her entire reply.
The Stars’ next game is in Minnesota on Sunday. They’ll be going up against the formidable Lynx, who sit atop the current WNBA standings, their perfect 4-0 record the reverse of San Antonio’s. By then, Plum will have had a few more days rest and a few more days of practice under her belt.
Maybe she will focus on what she told The Summitt before yesterday’s game. She said knew she wasn’t quite at 100% when it comes to her recovery, and she was okay with that. “It’s going to take some time,” she said. “Hopefully people are just kind of patient with me.”