NEW YORK (AP) — Becky Hammon sent Sandy Brondello a text before the WNBA season started with a simple few words: “This is about to be fun.”
It has been for Hammon’s defending champion Las Vegas Aces and Brondello and the New York Liberty. Now when the two preseason favorites to win it all meet in the WNBA Finals they will be the first former players to meet as head coaches for the championship.
With New York building a formidable team in the offseason through free agency and trades with the additions of Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot, Hammon knew A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and the rest of the Aces were going to have a new threat to their title defense led by her former coach in San Antonio.
She wasn’t wrong. The first-place Aces and the second-seeded Liberty Sunday will tip off the highly anticipated showdown in the best-of-five WNBA Finals.
“We have a lot of mutual respect. I coached Becky and she was one of the smartest players around,” Brondello said. “Let’s have a fun time and see where it goes. We’ll compete but have great sportsmanship, hopefully it’s great basketball.”
Both Hammon and Brondello have already won titles as coaches but there is much at stake in this one: Las Vegas is looking to become the first team to repeat as champions since Los Angeles did it in 2001-02; New York is trying to win its first championship ever.
Hammon and Brondello competed against each other as players and tried to win a championship together in San Antonio.
The former point guards squared off before Brondello retired and got her start as an assistant coach with the then-Silver Stars in 2005. Hammon joined San Antonio as a player in 2007 after a stellar career with the Liberty.
Hammon has a lot of respect for Brondello and her husband Olaf — who is an assistant with the Liberty. He was also in San Antonio when Hammon was there and spent countless hours working with her to hone her skills as a player.
“I think Sandy’s a very much big-picture kind of head coach and Olaf is this behind-the-scenes tactician, so they work really well,” Hammon said. “They’re still running some plays that we did at San Antonio. Hopefully, those ones don’t sneak up on us and we’ll be ready.”
Former San Antonio coach Dan Hughes, who hired Brondello as an assistant and coached Hammon, is thrilled that his two proteges are in the Finals.
“I’m very excited for them. I’m very happy for them,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “I know the reality is that someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. I’ve been swept in the finals and swept to win the finals, I know the elation and I know the depression. when it doesn’t happen for you.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert says the Hammon-Brondello is a reflection of the league’s growth.
“As we witness Sandy Brondello and Becky Hammon guide their teams to the WNBA Finals, their journey from the court to the coaching sidelines is an inspiring testament to the enduring legacy of the WNBA,” Engelbert said. “Since 2019, we have tripled the number of former players who are head coaches and significantly increased those in the assistant coaching ranks and I am so pleased to see all their successes and contributions to growing the game.”
Hughes is not surprised at the coaching success Hammon and Brondello have had, or that their teams were 1-2 in scoring this past season.
“What I remember the most was Sandy had — especially as a young coach — a brilliant offensive mind,” Hughes recalled. “So did Becky. I leaned on Becky in a lot of ways too from an offensive standpoint on the court.”
Hughes plans to be at Game 3 in New York but does not have a favorite, saying he “definitely will sit right in the middle and root for both of them.”
AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this story.
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