Column: With breakups in life and in sports, ‘it’s not what you do but how you do it’

12 July 2023

Breakups happen to the best of us. Different kinds of ‘ships — relationships, situationships, friendships, championship teams — eventually come to an end. But when that end catches us off guard, we’re left with a lot of questions.

Saturday, James Wade left the Chicago Sky for another opportunity. The announcement came on the heels of the Sky ending a six-game skid. A team in the middle of a rebuild with Wade at the helm was suddenly without its captain.

My elders used to say, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” And in this case we can add, “It’s not what you do but how you do it.”

With Wade’s departure, the team isn’t searching to fill just one role — it has to fill two. The 2022 WNBA Executive of the Year was the head coach and general manager, the last such dual role remaining in either the NBA or WNBA. Emre Vatansever, an assistant with the Sky since 2017, will serve as head coach and GM for the remainder of the season.

The core of the 2021 championship team was already gone, but expectations around Skytown were heavy. Many wanted to know what Wade planned to do after Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Azurá Stevens decided not to return. They definitely wanted to know what he was planning after he gave up much-needed draft capital in a four-team trade for guard Marina Mabrey in the offseason.

For a refresher, the Sky traded the rights to Leonie Fiebich and a 2024 second-round pick to the New York Liberty, a 2024 third-round pick and a 2025 second-rounder to the Phoenix Mercury and first-round picks in 2023 (No. 5 overall) and 2024 to the Dallas Wings. The Wings also received the rights to swap 2025 first-round picks with the Sky, who also got a 2024 second-rounder from the Mercury.

“When you’re running a franchise, you aren’t really thinking about yourself that much during the process,” Wade said this past spring. “You’re thinking about what it takes to win. You want everybody to have that feeling. It’s like a drug, so I won’t stop. These things that we do in January and February are just a part of it. It’s tough, but it’s so worth it.”

But at some point between then and now, that feeling must have stopped for Wade. He left the Sky for an assistant coaching position with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors under new head coach Darko Rajaković. Wade told the Chicago Sun-Times he left to further himself as a coach, which is completely a personal decision, and even though Sky players and ownership wished him well, I can’t help but wonder if the entire situation has left a bitter taste.

By most accounts, despite Wade receiving permission to interview with the Raptors, his exit came as a surprise.

“It was relatively fast,” Operating Chairman and co-owner Nadia Rawlinson told the Tribune. “This was an unexpected opportunity.”

Wade arrived in November 2018 and helped turn the Sky into a championship team. They went from often playing in front of a few faithful fans to playing in front of thousands. They became Chicago’s shining star in a professional sports landscape in which winning it all is expected but hard to come by.

But only temporarily. Wade’s tenure with the Sky is deserving of both praise and criticism. The team failed to run it back in 2022 and now is left in a situation where it might be stuck for a while.

After all the talk at the start of this season of culture and building relationships with his players off the court, Wade didn’t seem to break up with them the “right way.” Sure, he didn’t send an impersonal text message to a girl he used to see, sayin’ that he chose this cutie pie with whom he wants to be. And he didn’t leave an empty sentiment on a Post-it note for players to find after practice. But most Sky players found out just before the team sent out its announcement Saturday afternoon.

Wade seemingly moved on before even breaking the news, the future of his new relationship already taking shape.

The Sky were left to deal with the information and impact of his exit the day before a road game in Indiana, their feelings left hanging in the balance. The three-hour bus ride to Indianapolis to take on Aliyah Boston and the Fever was plenty of time to think about the severed bond.

These players were brought together by Wade, they believed in what he sold and now they have to complete the mission without him. Sometimes in business, it’s personal. The communication that their time together had ended should’ve been delivered with the care and respect one expects from those we’ve spent so much time with.

The timing — before the halfway point of the WNBA season and months before the NBA season starts — is also a sticking point. Why did he leave now? Is he expected to be with his new team at the NBA Summer League? Maybe he and the Sky front office thought it was best to separate immediately. In breakups, the no-contact rule can be helpful, but without specific knowledge of his situation in Toronto, it looks like he just … left.

After spending four-plus seasons with the team and signing a four-year extension that would’ve kept him there through 2025, Wade left. It was a successful relationship that became marred with uncertainty. He left the team in a tailspin that will need time to right itself. Isn’t that what the infamous “they” say when it’s over? Time heals all wounds.

Some of the worst in-the-moment advice during a breakup can end up being the best. Perhaps Wade’s departure will open the door to something even better for the Sky. Maybe a Mr./Ms./Mx. Right or two — because hopefully the organization separates the roles to be on par with the rest of the league with a GM who can focus solely on running the franchise — will walk through the door and rejection will become redirection.

The departure of the Sky’s coach and general manager may have knocked the vase off the stand, but instead of throwing away the pieces, what’s left can be turned into something beautiful. Still, the way it came to be broken always will be part of the story.

It’s not always what you do. It’s how you do it.


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