SEATTLE — When Seattle Storm starters Sue Bird and Ezi Magbegor joined reserve Stephanie Talbot in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols early Friday, the team scrambles to sign Kiana Williams as a backup and the guard of her home in San Antonio to Seattle that night is 7:00 p.m. tip.
The WNBA’s hardship rules allow teams to sign a last-minute supplement at any time if the roster falls below 10 active players. As such, substitutes are the order of the day as teams typically only keep 11 on their roster instead of a maximum of 12.
However, this season’s troubles with 10 WNBA players already enrolled in health and safety protocols have introduced a new class of hardship surrogates to fill in for players who are enrolled in protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 will. Because health and safety absences are more difficult to predict, this means expeditious processing to sign for a replacement, often based on logistics.
Seattle alone added three different players – including twice Kaela Davis – as protocols called for tough replacements. On May 14, The Storm signed Raina Perez as Epiphanny Prince and Breanna Stewart entered transcripts hours before the team’s Mercury game in Perez’s hometown of Phoenix.
After Friday’s 79-71 overtime win over the New York Liberty, Stewart and teammate Jewell Loyd lamented the difficulty of replacing players in health and safety protocols.
“As a team, we’ve really tried to navigate the health and safety protocols and try to be safe and do the right thing,” Stewart told reporters. “Especially to find that out on game day and then still be like, ‘We’re going to keep playing the game, just find a tough player.’ And Seattle is the furthest city in the country you can travel to.”
Loyd added: “If we had a G League it would help. If we had some practice players in our system and you could draw from it. (Where) they are actually here in the market, they don’t travel and then a game has to be played. I mean it’s ridiculous.
Though Seattle has been the team hit hardest by health and safety protocols so far this season, and COVID-19 rates have stagnated at much higher levels than last summer, it’s clear the storm won’t be the last becomes. And that means more players like Williams will be asked to find their way from home to a WNBA spot in the same day.
So what’s life like for WNBA tough players as the league deals with COVID-19 in new ways this season? Nobody had a trip to join a team quite like Williams, who guided ESPN.com through a busy 15 hours between getting the call from her agent and checking into her hotel after Friday’s game.
From home in San Antonio to playing in Seattle
10:20 a.m. CT: Williams first hears about the Storm opportunity from her agent.
“He told me to pack a bag and that I was going to play a game in Seattle tonight,” Williams said. “I spoke to him on the phone and started packing.”
Unsure of how long she’ll be with the Storm – which depends on how quickly players test the protocols – Williams tosses as many clothing items as she can into the only suitcase she brought with a backpack. Despite the rush, Williams didn’t forget anything.
“I have my toothbrush, body wash, I have everything I need,” she said. “At the end of the day, when I need some clothes, going shopping isn’t for me. I love shopping.”
11 a.m. CT: Williams drives to the airport – in Austin.
“Unfortunately, San Antonio is a smaller airport so there weren’t any flights that would get me to the game on time,” she said. “So I had to drive an hour to Austin and got on a direct flight.”
Because she spends the winter playing internationally – she spent last season with the Adelaide Lightning of Australia’s WNBL – and hopes to spend her summer in the WNBA (she was with the Phoenix Mercury before being fired during training camp) , Williams lives with her parents. Her mother had Friday off and was able to drive Williams to the airport.
“She brought my car back, so hopefully she’s taking care of my baby,” Williams said, referring to the car.
12 a.m. CT: Williams deals with what she described as the most difficult part of her journey: getting through TSA security at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“Austin’s airport is terrible in the sense that there is no TSA PreCheck (line),” she said. “I have all of that and they don’t have those lines available so I waited in line for maybe 30 minutes. Not even joking.”
1 p.m. CT: Williams grabs a sandwich — her only meal of the trip — before boarding the four-hour Alaska Airlines flight. She also had some snacks in the arena, she said: “But I really lost the adrenaline on Friday night.”
4:30 p.m. PZ: Williams’ flight arrives at the gates of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport approximately two and a half hours before departure.
5:00 p.m. local time: Williams gets her bag from baggage claim. Storm general manager Talisa Rhea is there to pick her up for the 16-mile drive to the Climate Pledge Arena in rush hour traffic, perhaps a little subdued by people leaving early ahead of the three-day weekend.
5:30 p.m. PZ: Williams arrives at the arena, takes a shower and goes onto the court to warm up.
19:00 local time: Williams was one of eight active Seattle players, playing four minutes off the bench and giving two assists in the team’s 79-71 overtime win over New York.
With Williams unable to do any practice or shootaround before the game, it helped that she spent part of last season with the Storm, who drafted her out of Stanford in the second round. Williams was active in 10 games as a rookie. Aside from changing some terms, trainer Noelle Quinn found the system easy to find again.
11:30pm PT: After going out to dinner with some other players, Williams checks into her Seattle hotel room.
“It’s been a pretty long day for me,” she said — a massive understatement.
As the NBA dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks at the height of the Omicron wave over the winter, the league changed its hardship rules to already allow for much larger rosters — NBA teams can have up to 17 players, including two with two- Way Contracts, to the WNBA max of 12 – to expand quickly.
Notably, the NBA exempted hardship contracts from counting toward team pay, meaning teams didn’t have to choose between administering luxury tax payments and adding needed players. While the financial factor isn’t as important with the WNBA’s tough salary cap, there are implications. The salary paid to players on hardship contracts could ultimately push the Storm above the cap and prevent the team from adding a 12th player late in the season.
Williams played 14 minutes and had five points, three assists and two rebounds as part of Storm’s nine-man rotation in Sunday’s 92-61 win over New York. And she enjoyed the experience.
“To be honest, it wasn’t difficult,” Williams said of Friday’s trip. “I love Seattle. They drafted me. This will always be my home.”