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

2022 Rivalry Series: USA extends lead to 3-0 over Canada in women’s hockey showcase

Hilary Knight #21 of Team United States reacts after scoring a shorthanded goal in the second period during the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match.
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Hilary Knight had two goals and one assist to lead the U.S. women’s hockey team to a 4-2 win over Canada on Sunday, extending Team USA’s series lead to 3-0 in the seven-game 2022-23 Rivalry Series.

Savannah Harmon and Abby Roque also scored for the U.S., which has notched three consecutive wins against Canada for the first time since 2019. Goalie Nicole Hensley made 22 saves in front of a record-setting crown at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, where fan attendance totaled 14,551.

Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Nurse scored for Canada, which captured gold \at both the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September and the Beijing Olympics in February.

Knight has enjoyed a standout 2022-23 Rivalry Series to date, registering six points (three goals, three assists) in the first three games including the game-winning goal in a shootout victory in Game 1 of the series on Tuesday and the game-winning assist in Game 2 on Thursday. Prior to the puck drop in Seattle on Sunday, Knight was presented with a golden stick to commemorate her record-breaking 87th career point in world championship play. Knight became the all-time points leader at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September, when the eight-time world champion recorded one goal and one assist in Team USA’s 12-1 quarterfinal win over Hungary.

Sunday’s matchup between the U.S. and Canada marked the third game of the 2022-23 Rivalry Series and was the third matchup between the two teams in five days. The U.S. came in with a 2-0 series lead following a 2-1 victory on Thursday in Kamloops, B.C., and a 4-3 shootout victory — the first shootout in Rivalry Series history — in Kelowna, B.C., on Tuesday. It also was the first game for the U.S. national team on home soil since Dec. 17, 2021, when the team hosted Canada in St. Louis (Canada won 3-2 in overtime).

The 2022-23 Rivalry Series continues next month with two games in the U.S., set to be played in Las Vegas on Dec. 17 and Los Angeles on Dec. 19.


2022-23 Rivalry Series schedule, results

DATE TIME/RESULT LOCATION NETWORK
Tuesday, Nov. 15 USA 4, CAN 3 (SO) Kelowna, British Columbia NHL Network
Thursday, Nov. 17 USA 2, CAN 1 Kamloops, British Columbia NHL Network
Sunday, Nov. 20 USA 4, CAN 2 Seattle, Washington NHL Network
Thursday, Dec. 15 10 p.m. ET Henderson, Nevada NHL Network
Monday, Dec. 19 10 p.m. ET Los Angeles, California NHL Network
TBD TBD TBD NHL Network
TBD TBD TBD NHL Network

What is the Rivalry Series?

The Rivalry Series was introduced by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada during the 2018-19 season and designed as an annual showcase of the highest level of women’s hockey at various locations in the United States and Canada. The first series comprised three games between the two national teams, with Canada winning 2-1. Team USA took 2019-20 title, winning the expanded five-game series 4-1 and wrapping with an overtime win in the finale in front of a then-record-breaking total of 13,320 fans in Anaheim, California.

Following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic and preparation for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Rivalry Series resumed this season with seven games over three months: three in November, two in December and two in February.

The U.S. and Canada have battled in the gold-medal game of six of seven Winter Olympics and 20 of 21 IIHF Women’s World Championship, with the two exceptions being the 2019 World Championship and 2006 Olympics. The Canadian women are the reigning Olympic and world champions.


2022-23 Rivalry Series rewind: USA takes Games 1-2

Game 1 recap: USA 4, CAN 3, SO (Nov. 15): The series kicked off Tuesday with Team USA grabbing a 2-0 lead off goals from Hannah Brandt and Hilary Knight. But Canada battled back with three unanswered goals and held a 3-2 lead with 13 minutes to go in the third. With just 1:29 remaining in regulation, Alex Carpenter tied it for the Americans, sending the game to overtime. The U.S. ultimately won in a shootout, with Knight and Carpenter scoring while U.S. goalie Nicole Hensley made two key saves.

Game 2 recap: USA 2, CAN 1 (Nov. 17): Canada was first to get on the board Thursday when Marie-Philip Poulin capitalized off a penalty shot opportunity in the second period, but USA’s Kendall Coyne Schofield knotted the score just 1:12 later. Alex Carpenter scored the go-ahead tally with 6:36 remaining in the third to give the U.S. a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead. U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney recorded 19 saves in net.


Who’s playing in the 2022-23 Rivalry Series?

Team USA’s roster — led by coach John Wroblewski — for the November Rivalry Series games features 23 players, 16 of whom were part of the silver medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship in August:

  • Hannah Brandt (Vadnais Heights, Minn.)
  • Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.)
  • Kendall Coyne Schofield (Palos Heights, Ill.)
  • Jincy Dunne (O’Fallon, Mo.)
  • Aerin Frankel(Chappaqua, N.Y.)
  • Rory Guilday (Minnetonka, Minn.)
  • Savannah Harmon (Downers Grove, Ill.)
  • Nicole Hensley (Lakewood, Colo.)
  • Megan Keller (Farmington Hills, Mich.)
  • Amanda Kessel (Madison, Wis.)
  • Hilary Knight (Sun Valley, Idaho)
  • Kelly Pannek (Plymouth, Minn.)
  • Abby Roque (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.)
  • Hayley Scamurra (Getzville, N.Y.)
  • Maddie Rooney (Andover, Minn.)
  • Lee Stecklein (Roseville, Minn.).

Team Canada’s 23-player roster, selected by coach Troy Ryan and director of hockey operations Gina Kingsbury, features 16 players who were on the gold medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship and the 2022 Beijing Olympics (Canada beat , including:

  • Erin Ambrose
  • Kristen Campbell
  • Emily Clark
  • Ann-Renée Desbiens
  • Renata Fast
  • Brianne Jenner
  • Jocelyne Larocque
  • Emma Maltais
  • Emerance Maschmeyer
  • Sarah Nurse
  • Marie-Philip Poulin
  • Jamie Lee Rattray
  • Ella Shelton
  • Laura Stacey
  • Blayre Turnbull
  • Micah Zandee-Hart

Rivalry Series history

Following Sunday’s victory, the U.S. holds a 6-2-1-2 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record over Canada all time in the Rivalry Series. Canada won the 2018-19 Rivalry Series with a 2-0-0-1 record, while the U.S. won the 2019-20 Rivalry Series with a 3-1-1-0 record.

2019-20 Rivalry Series results

DATE RESULT LOCATION U.S. PLAYER OF THE GAME
Dec. 14, 2019 USA 4, CAN 1 Hartford, Connecticut Alex Cavallini
Dec. 17, 2019 USA 2, CAN 1 Moncton, N.B. Alex Carpenter
Feb. 3, 2020 CAN 3, USA 2 (OT) Victoria, B.C. Hilary Knight
Feb. 5, 2020 USA 3, CAN 1 Vancouver, B.C. Katie Burt
Feb. 8, 2020 USA 4, CAN 3 (OT) Anaheim, California Megan Bozek

2018-19 Rivalry Series results

DATE RESULT LOCATION
Feb. 12 USA 1, CAN 0 London, Ontario
Feb. 14 CAN 4, USA 3 Toronto, Ontario
Feb. 17 CAN 2, USA 0 Detroit Michigan

Atthaya Thitikul takes LPGA rookie-of-year honors in stride ahead of Tour Championship

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand smiles after the birdie on the 6th green during the second round of the TOTO Japan Classic.
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To say that Atthaya Thitikul has enjoyed a breakout rookie LPGA season is a bit of an understatement, but keeping things low-key is exactly how 19-year-old “Jeeno” likes it.

As the 2022 season concludes this week at the CME Group Tour Championship, Thitikul has already captured two LPGA titles, held the No. 1 spot in the world rankings and collected the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year honors. But the current world No. 2 displays a wise-beyond-her-years ethos when she says what she’s most proud of this season is her mindset.

“[I’m]19 years old — I think I’m still young to handle all the things that I have now,” Thitikul told On Her Turf ahead of this week’s season finale in Naples, Fla. “I didn’t say that I handled it well, but I’ve just said that I think I can handle it. I can do it. And yeah, it’s turned out to be pretty good this year.”

To keep herself in check, the Thailand native keeps her philosophy posted on her Instagram profile, which reads, “Be you, be happy and everything will be fine.” Thitikul, who on Oct. 31 joined 18-time LPGA winner Lydia Ko as the only players in tour history to reach No. 1 before their 20th birthday, said she took stock of poor performances on the golf course and found they all had one thing in common: She wasn’t being herself.

“I didn’t have fun,” she says of those unsatisfactory rounds. “I was expecting a lot of results on the golf course, not really talking, not really enjoying it. So I think being myself, have fun, keep smiling, keep laughing and talking with other players or talking with my caddie, joking around — I think it’s the best that I can do.”

Golf has always been fun for Thitikul, who grew up in northeast Thailand and was introduced to the sport at age 6 through her father and grandfather, both of whom were not golfers themselves but recognized the opportunity that golf might provide. Thitikul teases that her grandfather was enamored with Tiger Woods, but after her first golf experience with a professional in Bangkok, she was hooked, too.

“They asked me when I finished practicing, do I like it? And I say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Because [there were] a lot of friends and when I practice, it seemed fun and it seemed not like other sports that I have been watching on TV,” she recalls.

Thitikul’s ascent to the top of her sport was swift: In February 2017, just three days after her 14th birthday, she made her first LPGA tournament appearance at the Honda LPGA Thailand and finished 37th out of 66 players. Just five months later, Thitikul made headlines when she became the youngest person ever to win a professional golf tour event at age 14 years, 4 months and 19 days old, winning the Ladies European Thailand Championship on the Ladies European Tour (LET).

RELATED: 2022 CME Group Tour Championship — How to watch, who’s playing in LPGA’s season finale

For three more years, Thitikul resisted turning professional, racking up multiple international amateur victories and plenty of tour experience, notching her first LPGA top-10 finish in March 2018 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship (T-8) and earning low amateur honors that same year at two majors, the ANA Inspiration (T-30) and Women’s British Open (T-64). The following year, she won the Ladies European Thailand Championship for the second time in three years, earned low amateur honors at the British Open (finishing T-29) for the second straight year and was No. 1 on the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.

In her first year as a pro, during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, Thitikul broke through for her first professional win in July at the Thai LPGA Championship. She finished the season with five Thai LPGA wins and topped the money list.

Thitikul moved to the LET in 2021, winning the Czech Ladies Open in June, and just a month later she moved into the top 100 on the world rankings for the first time at No. 89. She finished 2021 with two wins, three runner-ups and nine additional top-10 finishes, securing the LET Order of Merit and Rookie of the Year titles and becoming just the fourth player to win both awards in the same season.

After finishing third at LPGA Qualifying School to earn her card for 2022, Thitikul didn’t miss a beat in her meteoric rise this season. She posted two top-10s in her first four starts before striking a staff deal with Callaway, which she followed up by winning her first LPGA title in March at the JTBC Classic. She carded an 8-under 64 in the final round to force a playoff and Nanna Koerstz Madsen on the second extra hole. She earned her second LPGA title in September at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, tying the tournament record of 61 in the second round and beating Danielle Kang in a playoff.

As for the pressure of being a teen phenom, Thitikul admits she can’t ignore it but has figured out how to turn it around to her advantage: “It’s still so hard because I think as players want to be on top and we put the pressure on ourselves, and there’s a lot of eyes on us. … But at the same time, it’s kind of like you couldn’t win every week, you couldn’t have a good day every day. It’s golf. I like to think of pressure as a challenge. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think of it as challenging.”

Away from the golf course, Thitikul enjoys spending time with friends, watching Korean television dramas and indulging in Asian food (Chinese and Korean are favorites). Although she doesn’t have a pet, she says she’s a dog person, and prefers the mountains to the beach, as she loves to hike.

But don’t expect too much lounging, hiking or other non-golf activities on Thitikul’s itinerary after this season wraps on Sunday.

“This offseason, we have a lot of work to do,” she says.” There are a lot of things I still have to learn – not just for next year but for [beyond.] … But hopefully next year, it’s going to be nice and good for me as well. I really want to have a major win in my career. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year, but hopefully.”