It's a time full of upheaval and acclimation in the WNBA: The truncated 22-game regular season will be played in a "bubble" at IMG Academy when it tips off July 25 and won't feature a slew of players who are sitting out due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic or to focus on social justice activism.
But if there's a team relatively insulated from this disruption -- at least in terms of roster composition -- it's the Seattle Storm, who have only three new players and welcome back 2018 league MVP Breanna Stewart as well as 11-time All-Star Sue Bird after both missed last season with injuries.
That continuity from 2018, when Seattle won its third WNBA title, gives the Storm a bit of a head start, Bird admits. But she isn't under any illusions about how tough it'll be for her and Stewart to transition back to WNBA play and for the team to re-establish its groove after their long absences.
"I've missed seasons before, and I'm telling you, when you don't play in the WNBA for close to two years, it's a shock to the system. I've experienced it," said Bird, who also missed the 2013 season with a knee injury. "I'm fully aware of that, so I know what to expect. It doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to be prepared for it.
"I think there's this balance of, we're in training camp and there were groups out there where it felt like it was clicking pretty quick. But there's still elements where we have to make sure we're playing at a high level."
With Bird sitting out of the 2019 WNBA season with a knee injury and Stewart recovering from a ruptured Achilles, the former Huskies eventually got back on the court in USA Basketball competition. Stewart also played overseas in Russia. When it came to deciding whether to opt into the season in Bradenton, Fla., both were motivated to not further delay their return to WNBA play.
"I wanted to be back in the WNBA, I want to play basketball, I want to be able to get back on the court. And also know that hopefully we're never going to have another opportunity like this where all the WNBA teams are in one place," said Stewart, who is also a member of the WNBA's newly formed played-led council that'll inform the league's implementation of its social justice platform. "So continuing to get back with the WNBA as a basketball player and then be here in solidarity with the rest of the players and use our platform (were factors)."
With a behind-the-scenes perspective on return-to-play negotiations as a member of the WNBPA executive committee, Bird felt confident in the league's plan to hold the season at IMG -- and recognized that "if I didn't play basketball this summer, I might have been done" (with her playing career).
"(The possibility that) I wouldn't play basketball for, like, three years? I don't know guys, that's tough, and to just be constantly training for never playing," Bird said. "I don't think that clouded my judgment in terms of my outlook on the virus and whatnot. And I'm also excited to be here with the rest of the players. From a social justice standpoint, it's very exciting and almost invigorating to be surrounded by people where we believe in the same things, we're kind of on this mission and we want to use this moment to continue it and push it forward."
The physical demands of what was asked of them in USA Basketball and, in Stewart's case, Russia don't compare to what they're gearing up to undergo this summer. With a 22-game schedule spanning roughly seven weeks, teams will mostly be playing every other day.