‘I feel like people who are actually really fans of the game, respect my game’ — The Undefeated

After the WNBA released its “W25” on Sept. 5, a “collection of the 25 greatest and most influential players in WNBA history,” many fans and basketball entities alike took to social media to voice their opinions on key players they felt deserved to be included on the list.

One of the omitted names mentioned by most: Rebekkah Brunson.

During her 15-year career in the WNBA with the Sacramento Monarchs and Minnesota Lynx, Brunson carved an identity on the court as a staunch defender who could create extra opportunities for her teammates by pulling down offensive rebounds, impacting a game in multiple ways and never giving less than 100%. It’s a style of play that may not be flashy, but was integral to a Lynx dynasty that would win four championships in seven years.

Brunson ended her career as the league’s all-time leader in rebounds (a record broken by former teammate Sylvia Fowles in 2020 and Tina Charles this season), played in a whopping 34 WNBA finals games and eight WNBA Finals. She was also a five-time All-Star and seven-time All-Defensive team selection.

A few days after the release of the list, Brunson posted a Thanos-inspired image on social media in which each of her WNBA championship rings resembled infinity stones. It was a gentle reminder not to forget who the only five-time champ in league history is.

Brunson doesn’t necessarily believe her contributions during her career have been underlooked, adding that many place a larger value in areas such as scoring when evaluating performance.

“I feel like people who are actually really fans of the game, respect my game. I think the people that I played against, respect my game or respect what I brought to it,” Brunson said. “I wasn’t somebody that you didn’t have to prepare for — I’ll tell you that much.”

Brunson’s contributions to the league can also be felt off the court. She was a central figure on the Lynx team that took a stand during a news conference in response to the police shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the ambush shooting of members of the Dallas Police Department in July 2016. The actions taken by Lynx players were the foundation for the league’s current social justice advocacy.

Brunson remains a strong presence on both the Minnesota basketball scene and the Minneapolis community, a place she’s called home for 10-plus years. She is an assistant coach with the Lynx and a Minnesota Timberwolves broadcast analyst for Fox Sports North. She also owns a waffle truck business in Minneapolis, which she founded with her wife in 2017.

Before the start of the WNBA playoffs, Brunson spoke to The Undefeated about her transition to coaching, being a part of and contributing to social change happening in Minnesota, and why she believes she was left off the “W25.”

You’re in your second year as an assistant coach with the Lynx. What has this season been like for you as a coach as you build off last year’s bubble experience?

Well, last year was so different. Really, this is my first year coaching in a ‘normal’ season. I really enjoy being able to be a little bit more hands-on. Being able to be at home in the gym and get your players in the gym. I feel like now being a part of coaching and the everyday normalcy of the grind, I have a great appreciation for it and I’m really enjoying it.

What’s been the biggest challenge in this transition from player to coach?

I just think as a player you don’t understand everything that goes into it. The time and the effort and the details that go into preparing your team for games. Also not just being their coaches, but now you turn into their player development as people, too.

It’s taking into account how much work goes into making sure that our players know everything as far as scouting is concerned, know everything about their game and fine-tuning certain things. On the coaching side, we have so much information and you only really give the player CliffNotes. So it’s just making sure you dig into all the details to prepare your team.

You mentioned the player development aspect of coaching. Is that the most fulfilling part of being a coach?

I love having my group of women that I really try to break down their games and figure out how we can maximize the potential that they have. I think that’s probably my favorite part of coaching is the player development part, the one-on-one time, the video sessions, the getting on court, they’re working on things. I absolutely love that part of it.

You’ve got this incredible staff in Minnesota with Katie Smith, Plenette Pierson and yourself under Coach [Cheryl] Reeve. How has it been being a part of that staff in particular?

I think Cheryl was really detail-oriented in the staff that she wanted to put together. This thing didn’t happen by accident, right? She wanted to have women, she wanted to have former players. She wanted to have minorities and really high-level athletes to bring on and be coaches. When you look around the league, this is really what you want to see. You want representation on all levels, right? Not just with the players, you want it on the bench, on the sideline, you want it in the front office, you want it with the referees. You always want to see that. That’s what this league is about. I think that Cheryl really embraced that and understands that.

I think there’s been a domino effect from it, too. If you look around, you start seeing more former athlete hires, which are giving more opportunities for minority women to be on coaching staffs and start to build towards whatever it is they want to do, wherever it is they want to coach, but having that opportunity.

We have something really special, but I don’t think that it will be that way for long. Hopefully, other teams start to take notice of the success that you can have and owners get a little less fearful of continuing to hire the same type of people that they used to hire because they feel like that’s the way to win. We’re going to let everybody know that this is a way that you can win. This is a way to be able to not just win on the court, but win off the court as well.

You’ve been in Minnesota now for 10-plus years. When you look at the significance Minnesota has had on your own journey, what kind of place does it hold for you?

Basketball was a huge part of my career and everything that I’ve accomplished from a basketball perspective. But I think the really cool thing about Minnesota, especially right now, is being at this turning point of trying to figure out what the city is going to become.

I’m really excited to be here during this time for that. Basketball definitely brought representation to the state and really opened people’s eyes to really be able to respect different perspectives and to start to have conversations about different perspectives and different people. That’s what the Lynx did for the state when they had the team brought here. But right now we’re at a different type of pivotal turning point from everything that happened with George Floyd and talking about police reform and talking about school equity, female equity and all of those things. So, Minnesota has the opportunity right now to kind of transform itself.

What has it been like to be in a city that has become one of the epicenters when it comes to the conversation about police reform and social justice advocacy? 

I think it’s mixed emotions. First of all, you don’t want to be in a city where you have to go through that and you have to deal with that type of reform, right? You want to be in a place where there’s already the respect and the equality that you feel is necessary. So, it’s kind of a Catch-22. Yeah, it’s exciting to be here and to feel like reform can happen, but at the same time, it’s unfortunate that you call home a place where you have to have those battles. So it’s difficult some days, but then you feel like you have a little bit of an opportunity to help make the state that you love and call home a little bit better.

From left to right: Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota Lynx attend a news conference before a game against the Dallas Wings on July 9, 2016, at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

How do you reflect on the ‘Change Starts With Us’ demonstration with the Lynx now five years later?

I think we can be — myself and my teammates — we can be pretty proud about what we did in that moment, because it wasn’t accepted. It’s not like it is right now when people kind of understand and see the views, and you have the league standing behind what you’re doing. We were really the outlier for that. But, this organization has always been built on a people-first mentality. Cheryl was going to embrace what we wanted to say either way, even if the league wasn’t behind it. So we definitely set the tone for what other teams did that year. And I feel like we kind of created a team atmosphere that other teams could look at and say, ‘OK, we can maybe make a stance together instead of it being like this individual thing.’ Superproud of what we were able to do. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to a place where we wanted to.

But I think that the really cool thing about sports is, first of all, there are people that aren’t necessarily from the same place as you, or have the same experiences as you. They start to respect you as a player, and then they start to respect you as a person. And then they’re able to listen to your stories and empathize with them in a way that they may not empathize with the stories of someone that they have a disconnection to. Do you know what I mean? So, having that connection with fans, with ownership, with organizations, with marketing companies, all of those things, having that connection allows you to share your stories to somebody that’s listening. And hopefully, they can start to empathize and then that’s when the change happens. It’s a really cool thing with sports, and I was so excited to be able to be at the front of that, sharing our own Black experiences with people who didn’t have those same types of experiences and allowing them to be able to empathize with that.

Your son was born in 2018. With the recent events that have taken place, how does now being a mother impact your advocacy and your view of living in a city that is dealing with these issues?

It’s tough. When you’re a parent, everything that you do is really for your child. I’m from Maryland. I’m from a community that was predominantly Black. I’m from a city where you call D.C. ‘Chocolate City.’ So there isn’t this big difference between the amount of Black people you encounter and the amount of white people you encounter, right? So it’s very different to be in the city now, raising a child where you don’t have that same amount of representation. It’s not only that the representation isn’t there, but the equity isn’t there, the equality isn’t there. People get harassed by police all the time, right? But you can only hope that you’re in a place where police have enough experience with someone that looks like you that the interaction that you have, won’t be so harsh.

So, to be in a city where you don’t see a lot of Black people outside of downtown Minneapolis, outside of the inner city of Minneapolis. I think it’s so much more important for me to try to have some type of rules or laws or some type of empathy in place that when I’m raising my son, he feels safe in his environment. I mean, I’ve always been someone who wanted to fight for injustice. That’s how my mom was, that’s how my dad was, my grandmother, everybody in my family was that same way. They had that same mindset that right is right and wrong is wrong. I always carried that with me, but it definitely has a little bit more weight now that I’m trying to raise a young Black boy in a city that is in desperate need of some type of political empathy and some type of police reform.

A few weeks ago, the WNBA released the ‘W25,’ its list of the greatest players in the league’s 25-year history. Did you feel some type of way not being included on that list?

You always look at situations like, all right, who am I replacing? I think that there are a lot of great people on that list. I do feel like I’ve had a solid impact on this league since I’ve been in it, but people who make those lists value things a different way. Obviously, if you look through the list, you see a lot of MVPs and you see a lot of people who won scoring titles. That is generally how people view sports. Basketball, particularly, is how much can you score. And that doesn’t always put everything else, the full package, into perspective when looking at those things. So, no, I think there are a lot of great players on that list. I think there are a lot of other players that have been amazing to this league and weren’t on that list. It is what it is. I don’t think that in any way it takes away from anything that I’ve done for this league or anybody who really looks at the game feels the same way.

Whether you want to put on your analyst hat or your assistant coach’s hat, what about this current Lynx team makes you think this team can win a championship?

I think as the season went on and we kind of figured out who we are as a team, we’re good on both sides of the basketball. We have one of the best centers in the game, if not the best centers in the game. We have one of the better cerebral point guards in the game with Layshia [Clarendon] — and we do it on both ends. When you’re looking at a championship team, you’re looking for a team that’s going to defend at a high level and people that put the basketball in the hole, and we do both of those. We might not have the name and the image that some other teams have, but as far as the work that we put in, we’re right there at the top of the league. Nobody expected us to end up third, and that’s where we are. I think we’re in prime position. If we just bring that energy every night, we look good.

Sean Hurd is an associate editor for The Undefeated. He believes the “flying V” is the most important formation in sports history.

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