By Niki D’Andrea, October 2020 issue.

Black Lives Matter. Say Her Name.

These words were on the minds — and the backs — of Phoenix Mercury players every time they took the court inside the WNBA bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, during a season marked by coronavirus, injuries, and social injustice.

Every Mercury player (in fact, every player in the WNBA) wore the name Breonna Taylor on the back of her jersey in every game this season, in tribute to the 26-year-old African American EMT who was shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13, as they executed a “no-knock” search warrant at her apartment. The words “Black Lives Matter” were visible in big black letters on the court at every game. Players advocated for social justice at every opportunity — wearing T-shirts proclaiming, “Say Her Name” and “Vote,” talking to media, and refusing to play two games in August (see sidebar) in protest of the police shooting in Wisconsin of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African American man now paralyzed from the waist down.

It was an unusual setting for the season to begin with: All 12 WNBA teams in a bubble (or “wubble,” as it was commonly called) at IMG Academy to guard against coronavirus. As the season wore on, the Mercury roster got thinner: in August, center Brittney Griner left the wubble for undisclosed “personal reasons,” guard Bria Hartley sustained a season-ending injury, and players Sophie Cunningham and Nia Coffey were questionable for most games with a hip and hand injury, respectively. The Mercury, often down to just seven available players, still made the playoffs, and continued to speak out about social injustice. 

If the Phoenix Mercury had not been on the basketball court this season, they would have been in the streets. Some were, before undergoing coronavirus quarantine protocols to travel to Florida for the WNBA season. Diana Taurasi was one of them. She attended a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in Phoenix on June 5, marching in a mask and later posting black and white photos to her Instagram account (@dianataurasi) with the caption “no justice | no peace.”

Being inside the WNBA bubble to guard against coronavirus while BLM protests took place in cities across the country sometimes made it a challenge to focus on basketball, even as the playoffs approached in September. “I was trying to be out in the streets, protest and try and do whatever I can, and donate to different funds,” Mercury guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said via Zoom. “I want to be active. I can’t do that here. So, it’s hard to see some of my friends out. I would have been at the March on Washington. I wasn’t able to do that. But I made a decision to come down here. I made a commitment to be here. I try to be locked in as much as I can, but it’s hard because of what’s going on. I try to stay focused. It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to do. It’s just crazy what we’re seeing, and I wish I could do more.”

In a Phoenix Mercury news article titled “From the Sidelines” that was published to the team’s website (mercury.wnba.com) on September 1, center Kia Vaughn said, “A lot of us wish we could be out there marching and helping and volunteering for voting organizations. When we are all using our platforms together, it becomes bigger. It says a lot. I hope we continue to stand with each other and get our point across.”

Balancing basketball with social justice advocacy seemed a seamless act for most Mercury players, as they continued to bring up Black Lives Matter in on-court and post-game interviews, in-between answering questions about who’s stepping up on defense with Griner out and how deep their bench talent is. Speaking via Zoom after a game day shootaround in early September, Taurasi emphasized the importance of advocacy and achieving change. “This is the issue of our lifetime. This is something we’re not going to put up with. It’s simple as black lives matter,” she said. “The things that you see on TV, the discrimination, the injustice that black and brown communities face every single day — we’re not going to put up with it.”

Brittney Griner grew up wanting to be a police officer like her father. She said in an interview with CBS Sports Network this summer that she was sad her father told her not to follow in his footsteps in the current climate.

Forward Brianna Turner, whose parents are both police officers, said in an article on espn.com that “there is some confusing space for me, things I’m still trying to navigate. I look at some of my friends’ stories and protests, and the NWA song ‘F--- tha Police’ is just blasting in the background. And I’m like, ‘My parents are police. I can’t support blasting a song like that.’”

But at the same time, Turner says, reform is needed and “people should not be afraid to interact with police officers … maybe there are ways the WNBA could work more closely with law enforcement. I’m not sure what that would look like, but it could be a positive thing. If people come to games and see their favorite players having positive interaction with law enforcement, it could be a way to bridge the gap between police and the community. I believe sports can help with that.”

The spotlight on the WNBA this season was bigger than usual, as league games began before almost any other team sport. Being one of the only sports on TV for a brief time expanded players’ platform and amplified their voices. Speaking via Zoom in September, Turner said, “We’re athletes. We’re not in a position of political power like politicians, but we do have a voice. We have a platform. We got to use our platform this season to shed light on a lot of these issues … it’s definitely an ongoing conversation throughout our season.”

Taurasi says it’s time for elected officials to “step up.”

“It’s almost incredible in this time and age that it’s up to athletes to speak up,” she said during a Zoom call. “Where are the elected officials? We work our whole lives to play basketball. They worked their whole lives to be politicians. This is the time to step up. You’re either going to be on the right side of history or on the side of history that’s ashamed of you. Step up.”


Phoenix Mercury Statement

Released August 26, 2020

“We will not play tonight. Find a way to understand why. We are people we are concerned citizens. We are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives. We are free Americans who didn’t forfeit our right to free speech and protest when we accepted these jobs. You ask, well what does that do? What else will you do? We’re raising awareness with the name on our jersey, the names on our shoes, the moments of reflection to start each week of games, telling the stories of victims who deserve at least that. We’re raising money for organizations doing vital work on the frontlines. We’re focused on voter registration and participation, partnering with When We All Vote and the Office of the Secretary of State of the state of Arizona. In our down time, we’re learning, hearing directly from victims’ families, organizers, elected officials. We are doing the work – and we have much more to do. Don’t ask us what else we will do. What else will you do? Tonight, we won’t play. Find a way to understand why. And find a way to be alongside us seeking a solution. Because enough is enough. Because BLACK LIVES MATTER.”


Photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein.

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I think it’s fair to say we all want that #fitlife, especially with Spring around the corner — as well as Gaypril on the way. Whether it’s pool season yet or not, everyone would choose to look fit over not looking fit, if they could have it with a snap of their fingers. OK, the vast majority of us would.

If you’ve met me, or have been reading my articles, you know that I live, sleep, eat and breathe fitness; it’s my heart and soul. That being said, I’m here to tell you that the concept of “fitness” is oftentimes tragically misunderstood.

Before you get too aggressive with your goal for pool season, let’s dive a bit deeper into what fitness means on the inside versus what it looks like on the outside, and common misconceptions around this concept.

1. Beware of the cultural pitfalls and misleading information around fitness.

Most of the bodies you see in the media are probably not real, they just look very convincing. As a trainer who also moonlights as a photographer and Photoshop wizard, I’m telling you that it is incredibly easy to alter pictures in materially misleading ways. Once you know the tricks of the trade, the imposters are easily spotted. But that’s not what this is about.

The point is: to the untrained eye, it can be devastatingly defeating to see such impossible standards. It seems as though the cultural pressure to look a certain way, to look perfect, has spread all the way from runway models to fitness novices with the help of smartphone apps.

The truth is that we fitness models look that cut, and that lean for only a couple days at a time. That’s it! In many cases, months or even close to a year of training, dieting and programming all go into looking like that for ONE day. Let that sink in for a second. Day to day, I am less cut, less tan and much flatter muscularly than what you see in some of my pictures. That’s just the nature of the beast. So, when you have a bad day on the scale, in the mirror or in any other scenario, remember that we’re all human and that the most legitimate photos you’re comparing yourself against were from someone’s very best day. That should help to keep things in perspective.

2. Most people want the results, without actually doing the work.

Fitness is not six pack abs, it’s not superficial, it is not temporary and it’s not an isolated phase in your life. Further, fitness is not something you do for someone else, do to spite someone else or even to impress someone else.

Fitness is confidence, toughness, dedication, coordination, power, balance, speed, strength (both literally and figuratively) and persistence in the face of all obstacles. This includes control over your attitude, your mood, your sleep, your schedule, your diet and other aspects of your life. This means getting that workout in when you least feel like it.

It’s not easy, and it’s definitely a grind that has good and bad days. You must show up and keep working on the days you’re tired, stressed, rushed, defeated, doubtful, afraid and so on. The days you actually have to overcome something instead of just checking your workout off your to-do list are the days you have the greatest opportunity to really make progress, push your body and see the most improvement.

3. Fitness is really an internal mindset. The external physique is the fringe benefit.

I’ve said this time and time again, and it might sound strange coming from such an aesthetic-focused trainer, but you are not your body. Your body is a tool, it’s a means to an end, to express your internal mindset, belief system, discipline and dedication to your workout program. Your physique will come and go. Your strength will come and go. Your abilities will wax and wane depending on what you’re training for at the time.

The outside will, and should, be always changing, but the inside is what we’re really after here. Good trainers want to train you to believe in yourself when sh*t gets hard. We want to train you to be resilient in the face of injury, obstacles and other setbacks. We want you to set ambitious goals and shoot for the moon because you can get there with smart programming and relentless will (do yourself a favor and ditch the crash diets and the photo editing software).

So, as you make your spring preparations for swimsuit season, try focusing on developing a sterling, unshakeable internal character and the muscles will come along the way, this I promise you.

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