Through nonprofit work, showing up in their community and not being afraid to use their voices, the Liberty define what it means to be #LibertyLoud
In a narrow hallway in the Children’s wing of Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), a race was taking place. On a bunch of spectrum scooters, point guard Brittany Boyd and her new friend Aiden were about to take off. Aiden was lying stomach flat like a penguin ready to go, while Boyd was sitting upright with her hands on the ground, ready to pull herself through the narrow hall.
When they got to the middle of the hallway, Aiden pulled a move on his new friend Boyd. They might as well have been on the hardwood. He pushed off Boyd so he could get the advantage, which was akin to a push-off from any other wing or guard driving to the rim. He’s slid ahead. “Ahhhh,” Boyd sighed after the push-off.
On the next floor, accompanied by Han Xu and Marine Johannès (or “Jo-Jo” which is what the team calls the 24-year-old from France), Boyd and the rookies engaged in some freestyle play with a six-foot hoop.
“Where’s a ball; do you have a ball?” Boyd said. The children who were receiving their physical therapy treatment experienced a rare sight: a 5’9 Boyd attempting a dunk on a 6’9 Han. MJ joined the fun as well, dribbling behind her back and testing the waters to see if she could attempt a block on Han.
For Boyd, Han and Johannès and the entirety of New York Liberty, there is more to existence than just basketball. Even if there were little traces of it in the children’s wing of HSS.
Before New York’s regular-season Barclays debut on Sunday August 11, head coach Katie Smith reflected on what has inspired her in this league all of these years as a player and now as a coach. Smith couldn’t just pick a singular moment as there are simply too many— she’s encouraged every day.
“So it’s like on a day-to-day that people inspire you to do more and to be able to use your voice and to do your part in your own way,” she said. “Some people raise a ton of money and have foundations, other people do it on grassroots and interactions. So it’s just valuing that you have a voice and you can impact people on a small number or a large number.”
While Tina Charles has donated profound portions of her salary to her nonprofit Hopey’s Heart Foundation, which has placed under 400 AEDs across America, New York first-year Reshanda Gray also has a foundation of her own, No Gray Areas. Her California based nonprofit has provided academic, social and athletic support to girls all over the country. “So when you are undecided about something, you’re in that gray area, so my job is to get you from undecided to decided,” Gray said about the mission of her organization.
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Teresa Weatherspoon, former WNBA player and now New York’s Director of Player & Franchise Development echoed Smith’s sentiment relaying the expectations she has for women and franchises involved in this league. “When you have a stage, you have to have a voice for the voiceless.” And on Thursday, August 8, the New York Liberty had their stage.
Unity remains the heart of the Liberty
Tina Charles and Tanisha Wright addressed an audience in Brooklyn following a hard-fought loss in Chicago the evening before. They were tired, but they knew why they had to be there. The two New York veterans reminded a crowd sitting in Booklyn’s Roulette Theater why the Liberty’s third annual Unity Day panel was a reality in the first place.
Some forget, but the summer of 2016 proved to be a major turning point for the WNBA and the New York Liberty especially. Charles explained that the inception of Unity Day (a themed game accompanied with programing surrounding social justice issues) came from the dissatisfaction that she and her teammates felt in 2016. She explained that Wright, Brittany Boyd, and Kiah Stokes, along with former teammates Swin Cash and Carolyn Swords were all “tired of seeing black and brown individuals being killed by police.”
Along with the Minnesota Lynx, the Liberty set a precedent for professional sports, wearing shirts to warm up emblazoned with the words: “Black Lives Matter” and “Change Starts with Us.” Since 2016’s call to action, the Liberty organization decided to harness the grassroots energy from its players, taking a step forward. And In 2019, Liberty fans had the opportunity to join the movement. During the official Unity Day Game on Sunday August 11 at Barclays Center, fans were spotted wearing black t-shirts adorned with the words UNITY in all caps followed by a giant torch below it with the text “Louder Together” on either side of the torch.
“We as an organization decided that instead of ignoring the protests when the  anniversary came up in the second year, we were sort of flipping it on its head and making it more about inclusion,” New York Liberty COO Keia Clarke said. “And make it more about diversity and really celebrating what brings us together. Because that’s what fans do every time they walk on the court and that’s what teammates do when they play the game.”
Clarke mentioned that the themes over the years have stemmed from the fans’ reactions, as last year’s panel focused on allyship. This year’s theme, however, emanated from alarming statistics that the Liberty organization found on incarcerated women. This year’s panel marked an opportunity for the players in addition to Charles and Wright to speak up and be present. Charles had mentioned that the two previous panels were held right before tipoff and this made it close to impossible for there to be any player representation or involvement.
This year’s panel “Forgotten Behind Bars: Women’s Health Care, Family, and Representation” focused on how the criminal justice system affects incarcerated women and what society can do to aid these women. In addition to the opening remarks from Charles and Wright, the panel featured formerly incarcerated women and activists including filmmakers and members of academia. “It was great for us to just hear the different voices collectively,” Charles said after the discussion. “And what they are doing and the transformation of each of those individuals on the panel, so it was great for Tanisha and I, just being New Yorkers to see it come full circle.”
While Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd weren’t slotted to speak, both were fixated on the panel. “It is our American responsibility to give people second chances,” Topeka K. Sam one of the panelists and Founder of Ladies of Hope Ministries said. Both Boyd and Gray bobbed their heads.
The two former Cal Bears have dedicated attention off the court to the world around them. In addition to Gray’s non-profit No Gray Areas, Boyd has remained outspoken since 2016 on racial inequalities, relaying to Lohud in 2017 that she’s been “pulled over while driving” and “handcuffed” without a reason because of the color of her skin.
But what inspired them to get involved and use their platforms? Flashback to the University of California Berkley circa 2011 when both Gray and Boyd were freshmen about to play their first season for Lindsay Gottlieb. According to Boyd, she first became interested in social justice after taking African Studies courses at Cal. She decided to join her first UC Berkley protest to support her classmates. She ended up bringing her teammate Gray with her.
"Gray: “Oh Brittany, you told her about the protest? She dragged me from studying to go protest. Brittany, what was it for?”Boyd: “It was multiple ones, we did multiple ones.”Gray: “Remember the time when you dragged me out of the library.”Boyd: “Yeah there was one time when I dragged [Gray] out and we were walking down the street protesting.”High Post Hoops: “Did she really drag you out there?”Gray: “No she was like ‘let’s go, let’s go.’ Let’s go support our fellow students. A lot of the students who were a part of the protests were our classmates.”"
Boyd became hooked. She continued joining protests with the intent on gaining more insight and knowledge. Her main takeaway: to use what she’d learned to make an impact on her own community. She is not only a point guard, but also is a social justice sponge.
“After I joined that first [protest], I did more and more and more,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about my community. And understand, not just listen to what’s on TV, but have a clear understanding of what’s going on, but actually, learn for myself.”
Gray not only learned from Thursday, but felt the stories and discourse presented in the panel personally. She could relate. Gray grew up in South Central Los Angeles and remembers “screaming and kicking” when she was separated from her parents who were struggling with alcoholism and drug use. “I can feel the people on the panel because I can relate to them,” she said. “I was taken away from my parents just how some of the parents were taken away from their children.”
In addition to the panel on Thursday, on Sunday the Liberty sponsored a basketball clinic for children of incarcerated families, a workshop with WOWsdom, an advice book for girls and a performance of the basketball-themed opera BOUNCE, which focuses on the trauma caused by gun violence. During one of the timeouts against the Storm on Sunday, Kia Nurse flashed on the jumbotron explaining to fans young and old what Unity Day means to her. “I get to learn about each other’s experiences, our background and it only helps us grow as humans and basketball players,” she said.
I asked Gray about how she personally represents the idea of unity. Her response was something that we must all strive for. “Every day,” she said. “I greet people. I tell people hello. I never judge. I hope your day is okay. Even if I don’t know you, I’m still going to say a prayer to you. So that’s my thing. You need to spread peace and love.”
This was a concept that Jamilla T. Davis an author, motivational speaker and co-founder of the advocacy group WomenOverIncarcerated stressed during Thursday’s panel. “You can fix anything that is broken through the transformative power of love,” she said. “I would just urge each and every one of you out there to be open-minded. Let people know that people aren’t necessarily bad people who make mistakes, they are just people who need love.”
New York uses their platform to be more than Liberty Loud
In addition to people needing support and love, players on the Liberty have made sure to give ideas and conflicts plaguing society similar attention. “There’s plenty who really use their platform and use it well,” Weatherspoon said. “And they don’t use it for any type of publicity. They use it for the right cause. And when you use your platform for the right cause and are doing all the right things, you can walk away knowing that you’re doing something positive for someone else, but also for yourself as well.”
Amanda Zahui B. uses social media platforms, specifically Instagram and Twitter to speak openly with fans and followers about the issues that she finds society is hesitant to speak loudly into open discussion and action, including conflicts surrounding civil rights, the environment, and mental health awareness.
When the news broke in early June regarding a slaughter of protestors and an internet blackout in Sudan, Zahui B. hopped over to Twitter and Instagram. She retweeted a post that pointed a finger blaming Western media for underreporting on the injustice and carnage. Also, she changed her profile on Instagram to a blue background, which honors Mohamed Hashim Mattar, a civilian who was killed by the Sudanese military in an attempt to silence the protests for a civilian-led government.
After a home game against the Chicago Sky on June 19, Zahui B. did not hold back when I asked her about why she finds it imperative to speak openly about the conflict in Sudan. As a biracial person with a father from the Côte d’Ivoire, the Swedish native holds the opinion that the lack of care given to black Africans by the media has become detrimental as it’s become deadly. “I’m getting heated, I’m sweating,” she said just talking about the conflict.
Zahui B. encourages everyone who follows her on social media to do their own research, which in turn will make a collective difference. “Speak up and do your own research because your school and the media around you are not going to give you the knowledge,” she said. “They are not going to tell you the truth. They are not going to tell you the real history. They are going to hide anything.”
But in addition to using social media platforms to engage with an audience, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher engages in activism via her fashion choices. Coming off a concussion from New York’s August 7 matchup against Chicago, Zahui B. wasn’t unavailable Tuesday August 13 against the Lynx at home. But on the bench and on the internet, Zahui B. was omnipresent.
She sat on the Liberty sidelines wearing a message on her back. “No human is illegal on stolen land,” her shirt read. Her support to immigrants and to those seeking asylum into the United States is clear. Her frustration with country she’s played basketball in for almost ten years is clear.
Players on the Liberty are well aware that the work is not done. While New York has taken enormous leaps, awareness is an idea that is on a continuum. The New York Liberty organization will not stop assisting others and raising silenced voices and ideas. This spirit was instilled in Charles from a young age as it was her mother’s influence and motivation that encouraged the 7X All-Star to stand up for herself and others whenever necessary. “As far as me being vocal and using my voice, it’s just the person I am.”
An assist is more than a statistic
Han Xu had never visited a hospital as a public figure. This wasn’t something done in China. Just her presence and the smile on her face touched a mother and son from China who were visiting a sick loved one. The 19-year-old was surprised by the effect she had.
“It’s exciting to kind of make them happy,” she said. “I think she does not speak English, so I speak Chinese for her and she understands. I’m surprised that she comes from China too. So yeah, I’m happppyyyyy.”
It was T-Spoon herself who told me that the work the New York Liberty engage in off the court is more important than basketball itself. She sees the game as a metaphor for our responsibility as humans. “You can take the word assist,” she said. “How can we assist each other? How can we assist in this situation that’s going on?”
Hopey’s Heart is an assist. No Gray Areas is an assist. Amanda Zahui B.’s twitter account is an assist. Brittany Boyd’s race with Aiden is an assist.
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