As head coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty and the Australian Opals, Sandy Brondello says culture is key to a team’s success. It’s a philosophy she hopes to build on all the way to Paris 2024. By Peter Mitchell.
Opals coach Sandy Brondello on building success
Sandy Brondello might speak with a strong Aussie accent but she exudes New York attitude. The coach of Australia’s national women’s basketball team, the Opals, is direct with her words, her skin thickened by more than a decade of leading teams in the pressure cooker of the WNBA.
Brondello thrives in the chaotic streets of Brooklyn, near Barclays Center where her New York Liberty squad has dominated this season, but it’s a long way from the sugarcane farm in Mackay, where she grew up shooting hoops on a grass basketball court her father, Dino, created on their property.
“I love Brooklyn,” Brondello, 55, tells The Saturday Paper. “I live right near Barclays. I enjoy the energy of the city and the enthusiasm of the fans.”
It also helps that she has become a fan of Broadway shows. The fandom is not one-sided, though. Brooklynites have embraced the Queenslander as the Liberty, who appointed her head coach in January 2022, continue this season’s run through the playoffs, with the hope of winning its first WNBA championship.
Just like the Statue of Liberty standing defiantly in New York Harbor (the iconic landmark’s torch is featured on her team’s jerseys), Brondello’s squad is a solitary shining light in a sad New York sporting landscape. The New York Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Rangers, Islanders and Brooklyn Nets this year have all failed to live up to the hype of their star-laden squads. The New York Jets were expected to finally be a serious Super Bowl contender, but the team appears doomed after star recruit and quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles just four plays into his season.
A city’s hopes rest with the Liberty.
The team took a major step forward in their pursuit of the WNBA championship this week when they eliminated the Washington Mystics in the first round of the playoffs. The Liberty swept the series 2-0, but both games were dogged fights. In a nailbiting game two on Wednesday morning, Australian time, Brondello’s team trailed late in the fourth quarter before forcing overtime and outlasting the Mystics 90-85. In honour of the win, the Empire State Building was lit up in Liberty green.
“We’re battle-tested,” Brondello said after the match. “Washington was a really hard match-up … it has prepared us for the rest of the playoffs.”
It’s been a long road to get this far. Since the team was founded 26 years ago, Liberty has underachieved, with each WNBA season ending in disappointment and without a championship. The franchise looked to Brondello’s leadership to turn their fortunes around, but in her inaugural year the team was knocked out of the first round of the playoffs and forced to watch their nemesis, the Las Vegas Aces, win their first championship.
In the off-season, Brondello and the Liberty responded by creating what has been dubbed a “super team”. It is arguably the most talented and formidable squad in WNBA history. The Liberty already had two All-Stars, shooting guard Sabrina Ionescu and forward Betnijah Laney, and signed three more: centre Jonquel Jones, forward Breanna Stewart and point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Jones and Stewart are former WNBA Most Valuable Player Award winners and Vandersloot is closing in on the great Sue Bird’s all-time WNBA assists record.
The pressure was on Brondello to immediately mould the team of superstars into a unit that could defeat the Las Vegas Aces’ squad of All-Stars, led by the reigning league MVP, A’ja Wilson. With the brashness of a born-and-bred New Yorker, Brondello confidently shrugged off the doubters.
“I’ve been around a while,” Brondello says with a laugh. “I coached in Phoenix for a long time with great players and you realise it just takes time for the team to connect and become a cohesive group.”
Brondello spent seven years as head coach of the Phoenix Mercury team that won the championship in 2014 and featured All-Star guard Diana Taurasi, one of the most dominant centres, Brittney Griner, and Australians Penny Taylor and Erin Phillips.
“When you put a whole new team together, you have to have a little bit of patience, but this year with the Liberty there was urgency, because when this season started the Aces looked even better than what they were last year,” Brondello says.
According to Brondello, the key to building a successful team, whether it’s Liberty or the Opals, is culture. It’s not just any culture. Brondello points to the Australian culture of mateship that was the backbone of the Opals squads she played in during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, with teammates including Taylor, Lauren Jackson, Michele Timms, Kristi Harrower and Robyn Maher.
In 2017, when Brondello took over as head coach of the Opals, building that culture was paramount. It’s why she made the decision to cut Liz Cambage from her squad. Cambage stands 206-centimetres tall and, when focused, is a force to be reckoned with. But after a tumultuous lead-up to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics that culminated in Cambage being accused of directing racial slurs at Nigerian players in a warm-up game – an allegation she denies – Brondello decided the controversial centre was not a good “fit” for the Opals because she wasn’t meshing with the team’s culture.
According to Brondello, Cambage “was too much hard work near the end, and we don’t need that. We have a short time together and one player can’t overrule the team.”
“Whether it’s the Opals or Liberty, we work hard on our culture,” she says. “It’s about getting to know each other on a deeper level, being vulnerable, honest and having the hard conversations while knowing we are a family.”
Another key to Brondello’s success as a coach is inclusivity. She’s all about including family. If players have children, they’re welcome on road trips, at training and team events.
“Anyone on our teams can travel with their kids,” Brondello says. “We’re women and mums and it’s hard being away. And we are away a bit.”
If you are watching a Liberty or Opals game, you will likely see Brondello’s family. Her husband, Olaf Lange, is an assistant coach on both teams and has almost three decades of experience coaching in Europe and the WNBA. They met in the 1990s when Brondello was playing in Germany.
The couple’s children, Brody, 16, and Jayda, 13, have clocked up plenty of frequent flyer miles travelling from one city to another with their parents. It’s common to see Brody taking shots on the court with Liberty players after team training and Jayda giving her mum and dad high fives as they walk off the court to the locker room following a Liberty game.
“When they are able to come with us, they come, because I take being a mum seriously too. It’s a great experience for them,” Brondello said.
The family splits the year between New York and Phoenix, where they have their family home. They will head back to Phoenix in October when the WNBA season ends but, with the Paris Olympics in July, their offseason will be short.
Brondello and Lange will be prepping the Opals for February’s Olympic qualifying tournament. It’s expected to be a much smoother path than their 2021 Tokyo Olympics campaign that included the Cambage controversy and the threats and barriers the Covid-19 pandemic created.
Asked to name an Opal she’s excited to take to Paris, Brondello points to Seattle Storm centre Ezi Magbegor. The 193-centimetre Magbegor was one of the WNBA’s most improved players this season and earned her first All-Star selection.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” the coach says. “Obviously, Covid didn’t help us very much at the last Olympics because we couldn’t practise in Australia and had just 10 days together under our belt, which wasn’t ideal. It’s all about confidence, experience and growing together as a team.”
This inspiring basketball story that began among the sugarcane fields continues to be written across the globe as Brondello leads the greatest players in the world’s elite leagues.
If all goes to plan, she’ll be celebrating New York’s first WNBA title with a parade down Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue and, later, a gold medal with the Opals on the Boulevard de Bercy in Paris.
“I can’t wait to see what the future holds,” Brondello says. “It’s an exciting time for me.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "In the land of Liberty".
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