An exclusive club: What it means to be a WNBA MVP

The Connecticut Sun's Jonquel Jones and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert pose with Jones' 2020 WNBA MVP trophy
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On Tuesday, the Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones was named 2021 WNBA MVP.

Jones, a 6-6 forward who grew up in the Bahamas, began her acceptance speech by thanking the people who helped her reach this point, starting with Diane Richardson, her high school basketball coach at Riverdale Baptist in Maryland who later became her legal guardian.

“She sponsored a little girl from the Bahamas, who wasn’t even good enough to make the varsity team at the time,” Jones said. “Without her, none of this would be possible.”

As league MVP, Jones is now a member of an elite club, something she was reminded of by 10-year-old sports reporter Pepper Persley during Tuesday evening’s award ceremony press conference.

“Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Lauren Jackson, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles,” Persley began. “Just some of the greatest people to ever play this game, people who have also won WNBA MVP. Have you had a moment to think about being among these incredible legends?”

“That’s a great question,” Jones said, laughing. “It’s a great group of women to be apart of… It’s definitely an honor, it’s definitely a privilege. It’s something I’ll be proud to carry with me for the rest of my career.”

The WNBA MVPs: “We’re an exclusive club”

With the addition of Jones, WNBA MVP club now includes 16 members, including six women who won the award multiple times.

Season

Player

Team

1997 Cynthia Cooper Houston Comets
1998 Cynthia Cooper (2) Houston Comets
1999 Yolanda Griffith Sacramento Monarchs
2000 Sheryl Swoopes Houston Comets
2001 Lisa Leslie Los Angeles Sparks
2002 Sheryl Swoopes (2) Houston Comets
2003 Lauren Jackson Seattle Storm
2004 Lisa Leslie (2) Los Angeles Sparks
2005 Sheryl Swoopes (3) Houston Comets
2006 Lisa Leslie (3) Los Angeles Sparks
2007 Lauren Jackson (2) Seattle Storm
2008 Candace Parker Los Angeles Sparks
2009 Diana Taurasi Phoenix Mercury
2010 Lauren Jackson (3) Seattle Storm
2011 Tamika Catchings Indiana Fever
2012 Tina Charles Connecticut Sun
2013 Candace Parker (2) Los Angeles Sparks
2014 Maya Moore Minnesota Lynx
2015 Elena Delle Donne Chicago Sky
2016 Nneka Ogwumike Los Angeles Sparks
2017 Sylvia Fowles Minnesota Lynx
2018 Breanna Stewart Seattle Storm
2019 Elena Delle Donne (2) Washington Mystics
2020 A’ja Wilson Las Vegas Aces
2021 Jonquel Jones Connecticut Sun

The inaugural member was Cynthia Cooper, who won back-to-back MVP trophies during the league’s first two seasons.

“I would say we’re an exclusive club,” Cooper said in a phone interview last week.

When Cooper got the call in 1997 that she was the league’s first MVP, she says she teared up. “It was a testament to the sacrifices that I had made and the success that my team was having.”

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Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles – who was named MVP in 2017, her tenth season in the WNBA – feels similarly.

“Mine was a long time coming,” Fowles said on Tuesday. “It was a lot of built-up emotions. I felt like I put so much work in and I was finally getting the recognition and having the season probably of my career.”

Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, who was named league MVP last season, said receiving the award helped her realize her own greatness.

“It’s something that no one can ever take away from you,” Wilson explained. “Your name is always going to be alongside many other great women that played the game.”

A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces is presented with the 2020 WNBA MVP award by WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
September 17, 2020 – A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces is presented with the 2020 WNBA MVP award by WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Granted, while Wilson’s name is in the record books, it isn’t on her trophy.

When she was given the award during the 2020 Wubble season, it didn’t have a plaque on it – the result of a basketball season played during a pandemic. Given the logistical challenges, Wilson wasn’t initially bothered by the lack of engraving. But now?

“It’s been a year and it doesn’t even say ‘A’ja Wilson, 2020 MVP,” she said. “I need the league to send me a plaque with my name on it.”

The literal weight of the WNBA MVP trophy

Cooper keeps her two MVP awards in a trophy case. “I enjoy the conversations that the MVP trophy garners, especially with guys,” she laughed. “They see it and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, you were pretty good, back in the day.'”

The MVP trophy – which Cooper says is more like a statue – is heavy.

Really heavy.

“You don’t want to pick that up to show nobody. You have to set it down,” Fowles said.

Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx receives the 2017 WNBA MVP Trophy from then WNBA President Lisa Borders
September 14, 2017 – Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx receives the 2017 WNBA MVP Trophy from then WNBA President Lisa Borders. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Even without the added weight of an engraved plaque, Wilson said she was surprised by the trophy’s weight when it was handed to her last year.

“I was crying, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is really heavy,'” she said. “I had to put some umph into it.”

What’s better than being named WNBA MVP?

“The only thing better than the MVP award is, obviously, the championship,” Cooper said. “I never dreamed of being an MVP. I only dreamed of being a champion.”

During her career, Cooper was named regular season MVP twice and won four WNBA titles while playing for the Houston Comets.

“My number one goal was always to win the championship. And I think that translated into MVP awards,” Cooper said.

Houston Comets Cynthia Cooper 1997 MVP Portraits
August 30, 1997 – Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets was the inaugural WNBA MVP. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

Jones is on the same page. “I’m super excited about this MVP, but I can’t really enjoy it until we get that ring,” she said on Tuesday night.

Jones is aiming to lead the Connecticut Sun to the franchise’s first ever WNBA title. Her job got a little tougher on Tuesday as the Sun lost its first semifinal game to the Chicago Sky in double overtime, 101-95.

The best-of-five semifinal series continues on Thursday (full schedule and TV channel details here).

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC