- Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus series
- Formerly a consultant with the Indiana Pacers
- Developed WARP rating and SCHOENE system
As her Seattle Storm teammates celebrated sweeping the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday night in Bradenton, Florida, to win their second championship in the last three years, it was midday Wednesday in Sydney, Australia, where backup guard Sami Whitcomb was joining in via a Zoom call that the WNBA projected on a screen overlooking the court.
The hotel room where she was yelling and screaming by herself after Seattle’s 92-59 win, some 9,000-plus miles and 15 time zones away from the Wubble, is Whitcomb’s temporary home as she completes the first of two mandatory two-week quarantines before she can rejoin her wife Kate — hopefully in time for the birth of their first child.
“It’s so special to be a part of this team and see them close out what’s been a really emotional and difficult season the way they did,” Whitcomb said postgame. “They’re superstars. They deserve to be on top and they deserve to have won, so [I’m] super excited for them and happy that I was able to be a part of that.
“Obviously bittersweet that I’m not there now with all of them, but it’s still just a really special moment.”
After playing all 22 regular-season games for the Storm off the bench and in the team’s three wins in the WNBA semifinals over the Minnesota Lynx, Whitcomb left the team to head home to her eventual destination of Perth on Australia’s West Coast.
Whitcomb’s original plan was to stay through the end of the season. When she first arrived in Bradenton in July, she anticipated an easier return. Back then, Australia had beaten an original outbreak of COVID-19 that began ramping up about the same time as it did in the United States. By the time Whitcomb — a dual citizen of both countries who helped the Australian Opals to a runner-up finish in the 2018 FIBA World Cup — headed to Florida, Perth had reopened.
A second wave in Australia in July and August changed those plans. Suddenly, Whitcomb was staring at the prospect of facing a pair of quarantines — one upon her arrival from the U.S. in Sydney, and a second when she was subsequently able to travel from Sydney home to Perth. That complicated the timing of assuring she’d be home for the birth. While Kate isn’t due until mid-November, Whitcomb said Kate has a higher chance for an early delivery because she underwent in vitro fertilization.
Before the playoffs, Whitcomb and assistant GM Talisa Rhea, who’d been helping book her flight home, took the idea of possibly leaving early to Storm CEO & GM Alisha Valavanis and the team’s ownership group.
“They were all incredibly supportive straight away,” said Whitcomb, who averaged 8.1 points and 16.5 minutes over 25 games this season. “There was zero hesitation on their end. … They understood the nature of the situation, that there were things that were out of all of our control in terms of flights and the ability to leave when I wanted to.
“That made it, obviously, a little bit easier because I knew they did have my back. They knew that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be there but family was most important.”
Already, Whitcomb had missed much of Kate’s pregnancy. She was there for the first ultrasound, getting to hear their baby’s heartbeat and learning they would have a boy. But for more than three months, Whitcomb had to settle for FaceTiming Kate for updates while navigating the time difference between Perth and Florida. All the while, Whitcomb realized this was much more difficult for her pregnant wife, who had supported her playing both from a basketball standpoint and because of the league’s season-long focus on social justice.
“For me, as much as I wish I didn’t have to choose, I’m also very happy that I’m able to make a sacrifice for her because she’s made such a huge one for me during this whole pregnancy,” Whitcomb said. “Doing this alone was an incredible sacrifice on her end, so for me there really wasn’t a choice at the end of the day. I’m grateful that I was able to do this for as long as I could in the bubble but that I now have the opportunity to say, ‘You guys come first and I’m going to do this for you guys.'”
So shortly after the Storm dispatched the Lynx to earn their second WNBA Finals appearances in Whitcomb’s four years with the team, she was on a flight to Sydney. Upon arrival, she was set up in a nearby hotel for the first two weeks of her quarantine. (Perth recently switched to allowing new arrivals to quarantine at home if possible, so Whitcomb is hopeful her next two weeks won’t be in another hotel room.)
That’s where Whitcomb watched her teammates sweep the Aces, choosing to stream the games live on WNBA League Pass in the morning (Game 2 tipped off at 6 a.m. in Sydney) instead of waiting for the tape-delayed broadcast on cable in the afternoon.
“It’s not like I have anything else to do,” Whitcomb said. It’s better for me because I’m antsy over here waiting for it. I can’t wait. I’m confident and comfortable in my decision coming home and there’s no regrets, but it doesn’t make it easier knowing that I was just there with them, competing with them, and how much I want them to do well still. On the bench it’s hard because you don’t feel like you’re in control, but this is a whole different anxiety watching.”
While she wasn’t around her teammates, as she was nearly around the clock in the Wubble, Whitcomb has stayed connected as part of their group chats. The Storm posted on Twitter a video Whitcomb sent the team of her participating in the team’s post-shootaround halfcourt shooting competitions — using a ball for exercise and her laundry hamper as a basket — and she introduced the team’s starting lineup on video before Game 3.
“I still very much feel a part of the group,” Whitcomb said. “You obviously want to be there to do whatever you can to help. I’m trying to do my part from here.”
In many ways, Whitcomb’s is a story fit for 2020: finding a way to balance work and family while staying connected from far away. Even by those standards, the 9,000-plus miles separating her from her teammates during the Finals were a lot of distance. The remaining Storm players made sure her story had a championship ending.
“This is 2020,” Whitcomb said. “You’re trying to make the best of it. For me getting a chance to participate in the bubble, get all the way to the semis with this group and still — fingers crossed — be there for my wife and baby, that’s as good as it’s going to get in these kinds of situations.”
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