The WNBA was embroiled in controversy this week. The 2018 top-10 pick is determined to find her footing, and in turn, help the W fulfill its potential.
Lexie Brown was “in shock” but not surprised when she saw Sports Illustrated‘s report that the WNBA had imposed a league-record $500,000 fine on the New York Liberty for a team trip to Napa and charter flights during the second half of the 2021 season, provided by Liberty owners Joe and Clara Tsai.
The private flights “vastly exceeded the allowable compensation to players” and violated the competitive balance rules in the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
“We laughed because we were like, ‘Well, damn, must be nice,'” Brown tells Boardroom, describing her and other players’ reactions to the news. “Meanwhile, we’re eating McDonald’s in the terminal because our flight got delayed.”
“I understand that we put it in the CBA, so [the WNBA] was following the rules,” the 27-year-old free agent adds. “I was just a rookie when the new CBA was being negotiated, and I really wish I knew what we were agreeing to.”
Brown’s WNBA journey began as the No. 9 overall pick to the Connecticut Sun in the 2018 WNBA draft. She spent her rookie season in Connecticut, and then the Sun traded her to the Minnesota Lynx in April 2019. The former Duke and Maryland star stayed in Minnesota for two seasons before signing with the Chicago Sky last June.
The Sky’s subsequent championship run — the franchise’s first — marked the first time Brown flew private as a WNBA player. The league provided charter flights to the Sky and the runner-up Phoenix Mercury between Games 2 and 3 of the 2021 WNBA Finals.
Brown recalls travel days as “super long” during her Sun tenure, filled with endless delays and hours stranded in airports.
“As pros, there’s a way we have to carry ourselves, take care of our bodies and put out a good product,” she said. “The fact that we are able to do that with the way we travel is commendable. And imagine how much better things would be if we didn’t have to travel that way.”
Brown says she’s been blessed to play for the Lynx and Sun, which she says have “owners that cared for us deeply.”
“You get caught up in the nonsense of people talking about how we’re just a loss or tax write-off or a charity case for owners,” she explains. “Really, I think some of them want better for us. [That] is so refreshing to know, but [I’m] definitely disappointed in how the WNBA chose to handle this.”
Brown’s opinion is widely shared by players across the league.
Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu called the punishment “a joke.” Newly signed Los Angeles Sparks All-Star Liz Cambage tweeted three upside-down smiley emojis. In early February, Cambage criticized the WNBA’s stark pay contrasts, tweeting her plan to “spend another season upgrading my seat on a flight to get to games out of my own pocket.”
Brown knows how it looks from the outside. She is constantly reminded that it appears as if she and her peers are “complaining just to complain.” As unfair as that assumption is, Brown wants to back her chatter with impactful action. Her plan is to become a player representative and join the group of players who work with the WNBPA because “then I think I’ll actually be able to help.”
“There are some amazing things about the league, but we would be doing each other a disservice for not calling out where they need to be better,” she says, later noting, “I just love this game and this league so much. I want so much better for it.”
But before Brown can have a hand in the WNBA soaring, she must find her footing.
Just Keep Dribbling
The Sky don’t have enough cap space to re-sign Brown for the upcoming season, tipping off May 6.
After fulfilling a dream and earning a WNBA crown alongside Diamond DeShields, her best friend since they were 13 years old, Brown was jarred back into understanding the cutthroat nature of being a professional athlete.
“Front offices and coaches should be more transparent about why players come and go,” Brown says. “Sometimes, it’s just business. More times than not, it’s business.”
Basketball has been the Brown family business since before Lexie was born.
Her dad is Dee Brown. The formerNBA point guard was selected by the Boston Celtics at No. 19 overall in 1990, and he remained a Celtic until the infamous 1998 trade that sent him to Toronto. Dee finished his playing career with the Raptors (1998-00) and Orlando Magic (2000-02).
“When it comes to this, he talks about how much better the new guys have it,” Lexie Brown says about the perks of being an NBA player relative to a WNBA player. “But it took time and work and lockouts for them to get to this point. The NBA today doesn’t look like it did 10 years ago. And it shouldn’t. But again, there’s way more money in the NBA, so it’s hard to compare.”
Lexie doesn’t compare her career to her dad’s, but there are some parallels. After retiring from the NBA, Dee became the head coach of the Orlando Miracle for the 2002 season.
“I loved [the WNBA],” Lexie remembers. “The women were amazing. I always wanted to be a pro. I was young, so I don’t remember [Dee’s coaching days], but he said it was tough.”
Dee’s year with the Miracle was the franchise’s last in Orlando before relocating and rebranding as the Connecticut Sun.
Roughly 16 years later, the Sun drafted his daughter.
And Lexie immediately got a first-hand taste of how tough things could be.
“I think they don’t want us — Black women — to truly feel empowered,” she says of her experience thus far. “Even the fans, when we walk in with our nice outfits. Designer shoes and bags. People always have something weird to say — like we don’t deserve it. I know that doesn’t have anything to do with ownership, but there’s a collective feeling that [we] can’t move past that we are changing and evolving. Basketball is what we do, not who we are.”
During offseasons past, Brown has played overseas in France, Hungary, and Israel. The working conditions on those teams were considerably worse than in the WNBA. There isn’t an airplane controversy overseas because instead teams endure “lots of bus rides.”
This offseason, Brown reframed her mindset around what she can and cannot control as she searches for her next WNBA home.
The groundbreaking league aims to establish itself as the go-to WNBA offseason destination, and already, it helped Brown re-establish her confidence as an accomplished talent.
“I have had a lot of negative conversation about me as to why I can’t really find my footing — or so I’ve been told,” she says. “No one can ever really tell me any specific details. Playing in AU allowed me to change my narrative and take control.”
AU Basketball took an especially empowered and innovative storytelling approach that markets players’ unique personalities. (“Everyone has a story to tell. And some of them aren’t full of trauma and drama. And that should be OK.”)
Throughout her playing career, Brown has been labeled as un-coachable.
“My college experience was incredible, even with the transfer [from Maryland to Duke],” she said. “But I did get a taste of a coach trying to tear down your character because I made a personal change. It didn’t affect me as bad as it has as a pro, but I saw how quickly things change if you just simply stand up for yourself.”
Brown has consistently prioritized her individuality over conformity, which has led to misconceptions.
“I was never problematic,” she said. “I really ended up just staying out of the way, which then was seen as ‘misunderstood’ or ‘antisocial.’ And I rolled with it. [That] was a mistake on my part because I am neither one of those things. I’m coachable [and] a positive person.”
Brown’s confidence received a much-needed boost by winning the WNBA championship in Chicago and balling out in France before the holidays.
“I just knew I needed [AU] to really show how much I’ve grown as a person and player,” she said.
AU is a players’ league in the most literal sense, as teams change from week to week, but Brown can’t wait to join a WNBA team. She believes the best is yet to come for both herself and the league.
“I want the league to see that people do care and want better for us,” she said. “It’s like we’re trapped in this space where we think everyone is hating when it’s not like that at all. I was trapped there and finally got out. I’ve been so happy ever since.”
“I think my time is coming,” Brown added. “I’m just looking forward to the future. I love seeing conversations about the W, even if it’s [controversial]. It’s better than no conversation at all.”