PHOENIX – A video tribute played on the jumbotron before the game amid applause and a standing ovation from the Footprint Center crowd.
Sandy Brondello called Phoenix home for eight years and even though she still lives in the Valley, the warm welcome she received made the arena feel like home when she returned Thursday as the coach of the New York Liberty.
“It felt good to sleep in my own bed last night,” Brondello said. “Phoenix is still home. I just coach a different team now. I had a great eight years here, but now I’m with the New York Liberty and just really focused on that.”
Last December, Brondello and the Mercury “mutually agreed to part ways,” the team announced, after the expiration of her contract. While the verbiage suggests a reciprocal split, the move left many Mercury fans muddled.
The Mercury and general manager Jim Pitman released a statement suggesting it was the Mercury who moved on from Brondello. In eight seasons, Brondello coached the Mercury to eight playoff appearances, including a championship and a separate finals appearance. Just last year the Mercury lost to the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Finals.
“We understand that an eight-year tenure for a head coach is an exception in any professional sport, and we are confident a new voice is necessary for our team at this time,” Pitman said in the statement. “Our expectation is to compete for championships now and in the future, and the search to find the head coach who can help lead us there has already begun.”
Parting ways with Brondello wasn’t the only offseason move the Mercury made. The team also signed former league MVP and last year’s scoring champion Tina Charles, traded for former All-Star Diamond DeShields and retained the sharpshooting Sophie Cunningham.
On Jan. 21, the Mercury hired Vanessa Nygaard to replace Brondello and coach what was expected to be a superteam. Nygaard joined the Mercury with no NCAA or WNBA head-coaching experience, and while Brittney Griner’s Russian detainment is an unexpected obstacle for Nygaard, some fans have wondered if things would be different for the 10-14 Mercury if Brondello still steered the ship.
“It has been so emotionally taxing,” Nygaard said after the Mercury beat the Liberty 84-81. “One hundred and forty days now with BG gone, and we had a big rally yesterday that was emotional for our team and everybody involved. We have had divorces, we’ve had emojis, we’ve had all these different things, it’s just been a lot.”
Just months after adding the former league MVP and last year’s scoring champion, Charles and the Mercury agreed to a “contract divorce” in June. Charles grew discontent in Phoenix, averaging only 14.8 shots per game, her fewest since her rookie season with the Connecticut Sun in 2010.
“I have a small window, and there’s a way that I want to play with the time I have left,” Charles said in her introductory media conference after signing with Seattle. “There’s a way I want to be coached. Knowing about the culture here, having a good relationship with Sue Bird … it just made sense to me.”
Questions of more locker room turmoil arose when Cunnigham appeared to yell, “F— Tina Charles,” while dancing in celebration with her teammates after the Mercury’s first game without Charles — a win in Dallas on June 25.
Sophie Cunningham is the Phoenix Mercury player who screamed “Fuck Tina Charles!” following the game against Dallas Wings. You can see hear it and see me next to it. #4theValley #AllForTexas #WNBATwitter pic.twitter.com/vzi9EBn117
— Landon Thomas (@sixfivelando) June 26, 2022
Just days later, Mercury All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith turned to Twitter on July 1 and tweeted a clown emoji that many believed was directed at Nygaard after the first-year Mercury coach spoke on Taurasi’s behalf before a game. To only add to the drama, Diggins-Smith is now involved in trade rumors, as the Mercury may look to move on from the six-time WNBA All-Star.
“Wish nothing but the best for Sandy, and it’s nice to see her here again,” Cunningham, who played three years under Brondello, said. “Every coach has different ways of coaching and different systems. Vanessa’s is a completely different system and not one is better than the other. It’s just kinda fun to learn from all the greats. Vanessa is new so we’re still trying to figure out the system a little bit, but I think it’s only good things ahead.”
Brondello was named coach of the Liberty on Jan. 7, taking over a team that went 12-20 in 2021.
Despite Brondello’s current group not having as much star-power as Phoenix, the Mercury (10-14 ) and Liberty (9-13) sit beside each other in the league standings.
“You gotta give credit where it’s due,” Cunningham said about Brondello. “She’s had a great career and now she’s doing great at New York with her husband.”
Olaf Lange, Brondello’s husand, joined New York after the Liberty hired Brondello and was an assistant on the Chicago Sky team that beat the Mercury in the Finals last season.
“Every time you get the opportunity to play against former coaches or players, there’s always a little bit extra, but I personally love Sandy and had a great time with her as a coach,” said Kia Nurse, who played under Brondello last season. “She did a really good job of just helping me feel confident in whatever positions it was for me to help the team be successful and so just willing to sit down and having those conversations for a young player like myself was really grateful.”
Despite Brondello’s coaching success and the basketball bond she shared with her players, it’s also Brondello the person that some of her former players remembered fondly.
“I have had 10 years with Sandy,” Diana Taurasi said. “Eight years here and two more years in Russia. When someone is in your life for that long, not only on the basketball court but off the court you have a lot of memories. Today just to look over there, and we saw Brody (Brondello). He is like a grown man now, and we knew him when he was three years old and playing with dinosaurs.
“All of my memories are off the court with Sandy. She is the most giving, humble coach I have ever been around. The one thing I appreciate the most about her is she treated everyone the same. I think that goes a long way for humanity, and Sandy does that every single day to everyone.”
Brondello said she was able to connect with some of the Mercury players in Los Angeles earlier this week. The Liberty played the Sparks Sunday and the Mercury visited the Sparks Monday.
“These are people I’ve made lifelong friends here – and that’s not gonna change … I still get to catch up with those people and have a lot of special moments. I had great relationships with the players and obviously I coach with a different team, but I’m always rooting for them and wishing the best for them.”
Shey Peddy played under Brondello for two seasons and shared that her favorite memory was in the Finals.
“She was so excited and I think after the game we just hugged and I’ve never seen her that excited,” Peddy said. “It just felt good because we worked hard that season last year. It was a grind, and for us to make that accomplishment, it felt amazing. For me, I appreciate Sandy. She was the first coach to actually really give me a chance and give me some minutes. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would still be in the league right now. So thank you Sandy.”
While Brondello was able to sleep in her bed the night before the game, the Liberty didn’t arrive in Phoenix until early Thursday morning. The team traveled by bus after its victory in Las Vegas Wednesday.
Down by as many as 16, and during the second night of a back-to-back, Brondello showed her coaching experience and led a Liberty surge that cut the deficit to one with 13.6 seconds remaining in the game. Diggins-Smith then sank a pair of free throws with 3.1 seconds left to put the Mercury back up by three for good after the Liberty failed to get a shot off on the final possession. The Mercury celebrated the victory, a scene that hasn’t been a constant this season but was routine when Brondello was in charge.