Lessons learned, on and off the court
CHICAGO -- Another season, another missed opportunity for the Sky, who have yet to reach the WNBA playoffs. And yet, despite a sixth straight year coming up empty, the Sky reported the largest gains in attendance of any team, with crowd size increasing by 29 percent in 2011.
One major reason for the surge in support is up-and-coming rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot. The Gonzaga product scored 18 points in her first WNBA start, proving early on that she'd be worth the price of admission. Over the course of the season, she won over the fans in Chicago with unselfish play, incredible court vision and a confidence that belied her first-year status.
Despite an impressive rookie campaign that included a trip to the All-Star Game, Vandersloot said she still has a lot to work on before she takes the court again next year for the Sky.
"I definitely need to improve my leadership on the floor," she told me. "Being more vocal. My consistency. Being able to score a little bit more to be more of a threat."
The sometimes-shy 22-year-old had a big year, living outside her home state of Washington for the first time and facing off against superstars like her idol, Sue Bird. Vandersloot promises, with a year under her belt, that next season will be different. A sub-.500 record and an early end to the season may feel familiar to Chicago's veterans after six seasons on the outside looking in, but Vandersloot isn't willing to accept that as the status quo.
"We need to be able to finish games," she said, looking ahead to next year. "The majority of the games that we lost we were in at one point. We'd be at a point where we'd think we had the game won and we'd let up. That happened to us way too many times this year. We need to be able to finish.
"... One year of experience really does help a lot. I think I'll expect a lot more from myself [next season] because I'm already thinking about it, and the season just ended a few days ago."
Getting the Sky to the next level, Vandersloot said, isn't a matter of skill, but rather of heart.
"Willingness to win is what it takes," she said earnestly. "I think it's a special characteristic that you have to find and it's tough 'cause it has to come from everybody and not just one player. It comes down to team chemistry and leadership."
While eight teams are in the playoffs, battling for the WNBA title, Vandersloot and her Sky teammates are already packing up or heading to play winter ball in Europe.
Chemistry will have to wait, as Vandersloot and her teammates will be spread out across the globe. After about a month at home in Washington, Vandersloot will head to Istanbul, Turkey, for her first season as a professional overseas. As a point guard, she's a little worried about running the court with teammates who may not speak English.
"It's a little bit nerve-racking. I have a hard enough time speaking English!" she said with a laugh. "I think it'll help me a lot, though, because being vocal is something I need to work on, and if I can do it in Turkey, I can definitely do it here."
Though she'll be learning a new language, soaking up Turkish culture and playing with a whole new team, Vandersloot won't be completely without thoughts of the Sky. She and her teammates were given plenty to think about in the offseason.
"The biggest thing was just that we can't blame anybody else but ourselves," Vandersloot said of their send-off message. "To really focus on this offseason and be honest with yourself and be sure that you're doing everything that this team needs. We can't change [the 2011 season] but we can look forward to next season."
As much as Vandersloot is pumped about her second season in the WNBA, she's also excited to return to her new summer home.
"At first I was like, 'Chicago's OK,' but I love it now!" she said. "I love the weather and I love the beach. I feel like I was such a tourist in Chicago [this year], but next summer I'll be used to it and won't do as much of the touristy things."
While the traffic in the Second City still gives her headaches, she's come to appreciate big-city living.
"I definitely blend in a lot more here," she explained. "There aren't as many people in Spokane, so pretty much wherever I went there I was recognized. That's definitely not the case here. I really like blending in."
She may not like being the center of attention, but it looks like she'll have to get used to it. Sports fans in Chicago are as zealous as any, and a rising star like Vandersloot won't fly under the radar for long. The 5-foot-8 point guard already sees No. 21 signs dotting the crowd at Allstate Arena, and has even been the inspiration for a song.
"It's funny," she said of "Hey Courtney," the tribute song written by her big fan on Twitter, @SuperHeroJeremy. "It's kind of goofy," she said, laughing. "But it really does mean a lot."
If Vandersloot is able to lead the Sky to their first postseason berth next season, there will no doubt be more tributes in her honor. By then she may have conquered her shyness and learned to face the music with a smile.