‘I’ll run through a wall for y’all’: Phoenix Mercury lure talent, strengthen reputation as destination team

Owner Mat Ishbia’s commitment to the Phoenix Mercury, which will soon see a new $100 million-plus practice facility, has helped make the organization a destination for free agents. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Mercury are coming off their second-worst season in franchise history, but recent struggles have not damaged the notion of the team as an attractive destination.

Phoenix, the fifth most populated city in the U.S., has long been on the rise. The weather is beautiful in the winter when other places are freezing over. The scenic views of the red rocks in the distance beckon hikers and tourists. It’s easy to see why people flock to the Valley, and professional athletes are no strangers to the city’s charm.

Despite posting a dismal 9-31 record in 2023, the Mercury are remaking themselves as one of the top destinations in the WNBA.

The Mercury are one of the most accomplished teams in the league with three titles to their name, but a new regime has reestablished the organization as one of the premier spots to play. A big reason for this resurgence is the $100 million-plus invested by new owner Mat Ishbia in a new practice facility.

Ishbia clearly has a vision for the Mercury, and he hired general manager Nick U’Ren in July 2023 to help fulfill that prophecy. The big investment may seem progressive to people on the outside, but it’s just the expectation for U’Ren and Ishbia within the front office.

“I don’t know how much we’re forcing (the status quo to change) as much as we just think there is a standard of how things should be done and how these athletes should be treated,” said U’Ren, who spent the previous decade as an executive with the Golden State Warriors before joining the Mercury.

“We want to conduct ourselves so that we’re proud of the way this organization runs. We’re proud of the way we treat players and we’re proud of the resources we provide. Hopefully, that moves the league forward. Hopefully players recognize that and want to be here. It’s just the standard that everyone – from Mat (Ishbia) down – believes in.”

The change hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players, including 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper. Phoenix clearly values its new acquisition as the Mercury traded the No. 3 pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft and a slew of players to get the three-time All-Star from the Chicago Sky. The guard insinuated that she did not have this type of treatment when she was with the Sky, so moving west is going to be a new experience for her.

“I’m super excited,” Copper said. “Something I’ve never experienced. I think it’s important to invest in women and you see the results that come out of it. People want to play there. People want to come and be a part of something like that.”

Something else that excites Copper about Phoenix is the X-Factor, the term the Mercury call their loyal fans. The former Sky player experienced the X-Factor up close when she played in the 2021 WNBA Finals between Chicago and Phoenix, a chippy series with the Finals MVP in the middle of it all.

The animosity between Copper and the X-Factor is destined to flip when the season begins May 14. The Rutgers standout acknowledged that there was just an added competitive edge that is inherent with a championship on the line. Now that she is on the X-Factor’s side, one of the Mercury’s big offseason additions has the utmost respect for her new fans.

“I think the fans, for sure. Number one, the fans,” Copper said, referring to a prominent reason the Mercury remain a destination team for players in the WNBA. “Every experience I’ve had with the fans (chuckles) has been very interesting. I think that crowd, what it does for the players and just for women’s basketball in general is one of the biggest things for me of what I like about the organization.”

The other major addition the Mercury made this offseason occurred when they signed 2019 WNBA champion guard Natasha Cloud on the first day of free agency. The former Washington Mystic had a different experience with the X-Factor: She always felt love when she came to town for a game.

Cloud smiled when discussing how excited she is to join the Mercury, but free agency is not as fun of a process as some people might think. The 2022 WNBA assists leader said it was stressful to determine where to move her family, but there was a sense of familiarity when she joined the Mercury.

It certainly helped when Phoenix hired Cloud’s former teammate Kristi Toliver to be the associate head coach in December 2023, but even before that addition, there was something about the city that made the St. Joseph’s product feel comfortable about the new situation.

“Kristi was a huge piece,” Cloud said. “To be honest with you, Phoenix always had a calming feel to it. I was looking at Phoenix even before Kristi got mentioned to be on the staff. … I remember at one point last year I was like ‘I would play for you any day,’ so now that we get to a full-circle moment and go to Phoenix together. To start a new chapter, it’s really comforting to me. I needed some bit of comfort with this big of a move.”

Unlike Copper, who was shipped to the Valley in a trade, Cloud chose Phoenix. Even though Copper had no say in the swap, she implied that she feels valued and respected by her new home based on how the Mercury front office has invested in the team. Cloud is in a similar situation, but she mentioned that she hasn’t been valued in years past, so she has a message for fans about what they are receiving in return.

“I just want them to know, y’all are getting a dog,” Cloud said. “A dog that has had to prove herself year after year after year and still hasn’t really gotten the respect she deserves. I use that as fuel. I’m going to run through a wall for y’all.

“I’m so excited to be a part of this organization, but more so, I’m excited to meet y’all. To have more of an intimate relationship with y’all because fans mean the world to me.”

Justin de Haas(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Justin de Haas expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. de Haas has interned as a reporter for the Walnut Creek Crawdads of the California Collegiate League and reported on the Arizona State women’s soccer and lacrosse teams for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.