The WNBA’s necessary but unfortunate cutdowns without camp competition swallowed many casualties, perhaps none more tragic than the New York Liberty’s Reshanda Gray.
The ongoing quest to salvage the 2020 WNBA season took a heartbreaking but necessary turn earlier this spring in the form of required roster cutdowns to allow for player payments on June 1st. The cutdown required before training camp was feasible made the concept of earning one of the coveted roster spots, maxed out at a dozen, null and void.
The lack of domestic professional opportunities is one of the systemic obstacles that female basketball players face. Whereas an NBA castaway could find an opportunity with one of seemingly countless squads elsewhere (boasting 30 teams compared to the WNBA’s 12) or latch on to a G League affiliate, the next best chance for professional basketball glory for women perhaps lies overseas.
“It is the worst part of this job,” New York Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. “These are dreams that are suddenly altered and you’re a large part of that. These are human beings, not just basketball players.”
A good portion of the victims were late-round draft picks, college sensations who never got a chance to test their mettle in camp. And then there was the curious, tragic case of Reshanda Gray.
Technically speaking, Gray was the one, true New York departure. Sophomore fan favorites Marine Johannes and Han Xu opted to remain overseas and will be suspended, allowing the Liberty to keep the entirety of their draft night surplus. Gray, however, is left at the mercy of the waiver wire as the quest to reopen continues.
Ultimately, bidding Gray farewell syncs with the current New York plan of building on youth capital. The six rookies, headlined by top-pick sensation Sabrina Ionescu, are set to be the main protagonists of the Liberty’s first post-Tina Charles chapter. Third-year All-Star Kia Nurse and Asia Durr (forced into an abbreviated rookie season due to injury) are also set to play major roles. Combine that with the return of rare veteran interior presences Amanda Zahui B and Kiah Stokes and the case for Gray truly reaching the 2020 roster seemed small to the naked eye.
But in an era where training camp was wiped out, Gray did something few, if any, of her fellow departures ever could. Her release personified the pain behind an essential, yet harrowing, endeavor.
Odds were stacked against Gray from the start. She fell to Minnesota as the 16th overall pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft, despite earning the Pac-12 Player of the Year award in her senior year at Cal. She made the initial roster but was dealt to Atlanta after 10 games. Gray managed to spend the entirety of the 2016 season with the Dream, but basketball purgatory awaited her.
Camp invites and international endeavors defined the next few years of her career. That period included a 2018 late spring excursion with the Liberty, but Gray failed to make the final roster.
But the Liberty afforded her another chance in 2019. One of the driving forces behind that was then-assistant coach Charmin Smith, who previously supervised Gray and her Liberty teammate Brittany Boyd at Cal as a part of Lindsay Gottlieb’s staff.
Smith went back to Cal midway through the 2019 season to take over for the NBA-bound Gottlieb. Reintroducing New York to Gray remains one of Smith’s best moves. Gray eventually made the New York roster and was later described by then-head coach Katie Smith as capable of “guarding anyone in the gym”.
The Los Angeles native Gray was described as the last woman to make the roster. Many felt she would be made expendable by the time several interior threats completed their international duties. Instead, she would be one of two Liberty players, alongside the All-Star Kia Nurse, to partake in all 34 contests. Gray played many of those games while donning sneakers depicting the likeness of the late Don Brown, an assistant coach from her high school days at Washington Prep in her native Los Angeles.
Gray began the year by reaching double-figures in each of her first three contests, her first since the Atlanta excursions in 2016. The ultimate demonstration of her power came in a late June win over Dallas, one that sent Charmin Smith off in style. She would tally a double-double in the form of 13 points and 11 rebounds, sinking crucial baskets from the field and foul line to take the narrow victory. The win set off a four-game winning streak for the Liberty, one that saw Gray immediately break her career-best in rebounds in a road victory against her former team, the Atlanta Dream.
All the while, the forward/center brought her infectious personality and attitude with her to New York. Often adorned in bright-colored hairstyles (Gray referred to herself as a “purple unicorn” at one point last season), her positive antics were adored by her teammates.
Had the Liberty won a few more games, Gray could have easily been on the shortlist for Most Improved Player. Even without such a nomination or an All-Star invite, Gray still managed to make an impact when the WNBA’s finest hit up Las Vegas last summer. Liberty aficionados were perhaps seeing double during the All-Star festivities, as Gray was adorned in a Charles jersey while seated courtside, cheering on the latter’s seventh nomination.
Players and staff alike were all aware, however, Gray was capable of conducting business and more once the ball was tipped. Returning overseas to South Korea during the WNBA offseason, Gray further made a name for herself with an invite to the WKBL’s All-Star Game as a member of Asan Woori Bank Wibee. It came of little surprise to those who witnessed her American breakout. Her WNBA season ended with matching career-best averages of 5.2 points and rebounds.
“Her defense has been really really solid,” Katie Smith noted. “She’s able to make moves, make contact and finish. She’s been able to guard Kalani Brown, Brittney Griner, folks that are taller than her but she’s able to position herself.”
“What she brings is the work. She does all the dirty work and could care less. People know she’s there.”
That’s what makes Gray’s forced departure all the more heartbreaking: many of the departees had little chance to prove their WNBA worthiness. Ever the symbol of perseverance, Gray more than proved she belonged.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags