Mothers in the WNBA shine a light on their unique circumstances
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Editor's Note: This story is part of FOX Sports' series celebrating Women's History Month.
At the giant shipping center inside the NBA bubble in Florida, players would receive thousands of items a day, including expensive wines, fine spirits and video game consoles.
Just 105 miles away in the WNBA bubble, package deliveries looked very different. There were dozens of coloring books, stuffed animals and toys.
While NBA players weren't allowed to have family members join them in the bubble until the second round of the playoffs, WNBA players were permitted to bring their children and a caregiver from the jump as they completed their season and crowned a champion.
WNBA players are used to the disparities between men's and women's professional basketball. While the WNBA's new collective bargaining agreement raised the average salary to $130,000, it falls dramatically short of the NBA's average salary of $7.7 million.
The differences between the two leagues were on full display in their respective bubbles, particularly the views on gender roles and parenting.
Six WNBA players brought their children into the "Wubble." Some of those women said they would've been hesitant to play if they weren't allowed to bring their kids, while others acknowledged that having them there was a tough balancing act at times.
"Honestly, it's tough, but if it's something you want to do, then I think you can do it," said Bria Hartley, a point guard for the Phoenix Mercury. "There's a stigma that you need to wait until you're done playing to have kids, but I think it's kind of cool that my son gets to watch me play and sees me as an example on the court, rather than me telling him about when I used to play."
Hartley, a single mother to her 3-year-old son, Bryson, was a bit concerned when plans for the 2020 WNBA season were finalized: Who would watch him during practices and games?
"Am I gonna find someone who wants to be in a bubble quarantined, getting tested every day, not able to leave for two months or three months or whatever?" Hartley asked.
Hartley's boyfriend, Jordan Taylor, agreed to come for part of the season but had to leave early to play basketball overseas. After he was gone, she turned to her good friend, Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby, who brought her mother, Carla Hamby, into the bubble to help watch her 3-year-old daughter, Amaya.
Hartley asked if Carla would be willing to watch her son, too. Carla happily agreed. But Hartley said at times she was worried that she was imposing.
After 10 p.m. games, with her adrenaline still pumping, Hartley often wouldn't be able to fall asleep until 4 or 5 a.m. As a professional athlete, she desperately needed her sleep. But she also didn't want to burden Carla, so she'd offer to pick up Bryson first thing in the morning.
Carla, however, would insist that she rest.
"It was definitely very generous," Hartley said.
Hartley became pregnant with Bryson in 2016 while playing for the Washington Mystics. At that time, players received as little as half of their salaries while on maternity leave, something that was changed in the new collective-bargaining agreement, which now guarantees full salaries during that time.
Worried about her pay and her status on the team, Hartley kept her pregnancy a secret.
She played until she was four-and-a-half months along. During that time, when she'd go out for drinks with her teammates, she'd tell them she was abstaining from alcohol because she was on a cleanse. Once, the night before a game in Los Angeles, she threw up in front of a teammate in their hotel room, but she explained that away.
She was too scared to let people know the truth.
"If I'm pregnant, maybe they'll cut me instead of that other girl that they're supposed to cut," Hartley said. "I didn't really know how all of that was going to work. So I kind of kept it quiet until I had to."
She finally caved with 10 games remaining in the regular season and told Mystics coach Mike Thibault that she was pregnant. She would've hidden it longer, but she didn't feel right springing the news on the team right before the playoffs.
After the team assured Hartley that she was entitled to her full salary because of how many games she had already played, she decided to go on maternity leave.
Hartley gained only 16 pounds during her pregnancy. When she returned to the court after a trade sent her to the New York Liberty, her issue wasn't losing weight — it was gaining muscle.
After so much time away from the game, her leg muscles had weakened, and her timing was a bit off. It took her six months to feel like herself again.
Pregnancy impacts every woman differently.
For the Aces' Hamby, gaining back her conditioning after having Amaya in 2017 was never an issue. She gave birth in 30 minutes without any pain medication.
"It was like a game almost," Hamby said. "I had a goal, and I was going to do it."
Meanwhile, Bria Holmes of the Los Angeles Sparks, who missed the 2018 WNBA season while pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter, Diona, acknowledged that recovery was a bit of a journey.
"I don't regret it at all," Holmes said. "It was one of the best decisions of my life. And I just feel like now, I feel like I'm back to my normal self after two years. That alone just says a lot."
Holmes said Diona kept her sane in the bubble in what was an otherwise tedious, monotonous situation, with players confined to a campus without many of their loved ones or creature comforts.
As for Hamby, who won her second straight Sixth Woman of the Year award in 2020, balancing basketball and motherhood was challenging at times.
She had to keep her precocious 3-year-old entertained while trying to be mentally and physically sharp for the Aces, who reached the WNBA Finals against the Seattle Storm.
"It's easier when you're outside of the bubble," Hamby said. "I mean, I could take her to do this, or we could go to a show, or we could play with this person. And so you kind of can have resources and access to do other things. It felt like I came back home from practice, and I would just go into my room and sleep because I would be tired."
Hartley also had some ups and downs in the bubble.
While watching Bryson, she sacrificed sleep. Even during games, she always had a watchful eye on her son. Once, Hartley saw him jumping up and down with a lollipop in his mouth during a game. She immediately signaled to her boyfriend to intervene.
Hartley said she never considered not bringing Bryson to the bubble. After all, she had just spent an extended time away from him while playing overseas in Turkey.
For many WNBA players, professional basketball is a year-round sport. Unlike NBA players, who have a distinct offseason, women's basketball players often choose to play overseas between WNBA seasons to supplement their income.
For mothers, that poses unique issues. They often have to hire nannies to accompany them abroad for eight months.
Hartley left her son at home in the United States with her parents, wanting to save a bit of money. Her mother, who planned to retire last February, had agreed to meet her in Turkey with Bryson at that time. But the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with their plans.
Being away from her son for so long was an incredible sacrifice. But at the same time, she acknowledged that it definitely made it easier to focus on basketball.
"I'm a single mom, so I do a lot of this stuff all on my own," Hartley said. "So it was a little refreshing to take a little break. I was able to really focus on basketball and get some extra work in when I needed to, whereas, prior, I would always be like, 'Oh, I need to rush back and get home to him.'"
That said, Hartley wasn't willing to spend any more time apart from her child. In the bubble, on lazy afternoons, she'd lounge by the pool while Bryson ran around wearing his floaties.
He didn't always love the food served on campus, so she made sure to order some of his favorite groceries, including chicken nuggets and chocolate-chip Eggo Waffles.
During a game against the Mystics on Aug. 31, it was Bryson's turn to be there for his mom. Hartley suffered a torn right ACL, an injury she's still working her way back from.
It was painful. And she knew she'd have a long recovery ahead. But in that lonely bubble, the sight of her son reminded her that everything was going to be OK.
Whenever she felt down, he let her know just how much he loves her.
"He'd always try to empathize with me and be like, 'Mommy, my knee hurts, too,’" she said.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.