It’s Tuesday afternoon at the Madison Square Garden Training Center, situated in an industrial park in the Town of Greenburgh. The New York Liberty, who are beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the WNBA’s Eastern Conference, are running a group of men ragged in a scrimmage. Shoni Schimmel, a two-time WNBA all-star and former All-Star Game MVP who was traded this year to the Liberty, watches from the end of the bench as her teammates torch the former Division II college players. They make good practice partners for the Liberty, who are plotting their strategy for their next opponent.
Across from Schimmel is Liberty Team President Isiah Thomas, an NBA Hall of Famer and 12-time all-star in his own right. As play stops with the Liberty up 38-24, Thomas calls over one of the male players, smiles, shakes his hand, and laughs, “They’re beating y’all’s ass.”
Then again, the Liberty—many of whom, including Schimmel, live among us in White Plains—have beaten a lot of teams this year, and seem destined to sit atop their conference when the regular season ends on September 18 (the team’s final prolonged homestand kicks off this Saturday). For Schimmel, her goal is clear: help the organization win its first-ever league championship.
“Whatever I can and need to do for this team, I’ll just do it,” she says as the scrimmage winds down, having exemplified her unique athleticism by leading two fast breaks and delivering a flashy no-look dish to one of her teammates, who promptly drains a three-pointer.
Photo courtesy of MSG Photo Services
Schimmel, who previously played for two years with the Atlanta Dream, has a history of flashy play, earning her the nickname “Shotime.” YouTube videos show the 24-year-old guard firing bullet passes to teammates, weaving her 5’9” frame around helpless defenders, and drilling long-range shots. This instinctual, fluid approach is better known as “Rez Ball,” originating from the courts of Native American reservations throughout the country. And Schimmel, who left the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon to become the University of Louisville’s No. 2 all-time female scorer, is arguably the most popular Native American basketball player ever.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” she admits about representing her heritage. “There’s a lot of people watching you. But being a role model, I already have that in my book, so I just gotta keep doing it.”
To that end, she speaks to tribes across the country and welcomes them to Liberty games. Earlier this season, a group of Seneca kids traveled from their Western New York nation to watch Schimmel play at Madison Square Garden. It’s this kind of ambassadorship, along with her one-of-a-kind talent, that makes her jersey the fifth-highest-selling of all current WNBA players.
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Still, Schimmel’s not so different from any young professional trying to decode what it means to be 24 and pursuing success. She’s been known to dance playfully at practice between sinking free throws and taking pointers from associate head coach Katie Smith, the all-time leading scorer in women’s pro basketball history. In her downtime, she goes to the movies—she recently saw Suicide Squad twice—and hangs at a nearby Uno Chicago Grill for dinner with her teammates.
Despite NYC’s proximity, not to mention playing home games at MSG, Westchester’s relatively manageable pace suits the native Oregonian best, especially as she adjusts to residing across the country from her tight-knit Native community and family, which includes seven brothers and sisters. After one experience driving into the city, Schimmel laughs that she quickly decided, “Never again.” Now, she hops the Harlem Metro-North line for tip-off instead. “The city is almost overwhelming,” she reasons. “But [in Westchester], it’s kind of laid back and you can relax. I couldn’t imagine living in the city.”
As Schimmel makes clear, a more hectic lifestyle would only distract her from absorbing knowledge via the likes of head coach and former Detroit Piston Bill Laimbeer and teammate Tina Charles, who helped Team USA win women’s basketball gold at this summer’s Rio Olympics. A true student of the game, Schimmel says she’s always observing her peers to better understand the work ethic of the game’s elite players.â€‹
Photo courtesy of MSG Photo Services
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“You can always learn,” she confirms. “Especially watching players like [Phoenix Mercrury guard] Diana Taurasi and [Minnesota Lynx forward] Maya Moore, and especially when you’re playing against them. It’s all preparation.”
Fittingly, Schimmel and the Liberty may have to go through Moore’s Minnesota Lynx if they want to emerge as lone survivors of the upcoming postseason, which kicks off September 21. Or, as Liberty fans might call it, Shotime.