Six months ago Atlanta emerged from a more than two-decade slumber when the Braves defeated Dusty Baker’s Astros in the 2021 World Series. A dream had risen in Atlanta. Max Fried’s lights-out pitching performance and Jorge Soler’s timely hits in the series finale sparked a monumental party inside Truist Park and in the streets of downtown Atlanta like it was 1995 at the old Fulton County Stadium, better known as the “House that Aaron Built,” after 25-time All-Star Henry Aaron.
Atlanta released the hex, bringing only the city’s second major title (outside of MLS) since the Braves’ previous World Series championship trophy in 1995. “Teams here played well enough to get your hopes up and would then let you down when it really matters,” one lifelong Atlanta fan says. It was like leaving the house 45 minutes before a weekend brunch—with the GPS predicting an early arrival—only to sit an additional 20 minutes in a car at the exit with traffic like the Spaghetti Junction between I-85 and I-285 bumper-to-bumper in northeast Atlanta. Two words: brutal heartache. “The Braves had finally gotten over the hump,” the fan says.
When the city tasted its first championship, only four of the Dream’s current players were above the age of 2. Atlanta newest stars, Kentucky standout Rhyne Howard and Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, were two of seven on this year’s squad who had not been born yet.
Overlooking Interstate 75 and 85 South—known as the Downtown Connector in Atlanta—a billboard features the 6’2” guard and reads, “It’s Rhyne Time.” In her first preseason game, Howard dropped 15 points in the Dream’s 88–69 win over the Mystics. But as the rookie prepares to kick off the 2022 regular season with Atlanta on Saturday against the Wings, Howard will start a new basketball chapter with a franchise she hopes to restore after three difficult seasons.
The start to the Dream’s restoration came in 2020 with a flicker of hope and a flame of resilience along with a nationwide audience’s outcry for racial justice and change at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the ’22 season begins, the Dream seek to embark a path that puts them back within the league’s crème de la crème. Currently, according to FiveThirtyEight, Atlanta has a 39% chance of making the playoffs and is projected to post a 14–22 record. While the metrics indicate the team is rebuilding, anything can happen on the court.
Two years ago, there were no practices and no training camps. Players opted out in light of skyrocketing cases and a death toll that left many with daily fear of their lives. Play resumed in late July 2020, in the tightly restricted Wubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The Dream’s Renee Montgomery opted out to focus her efforts on social justice reform on June 18, nearly a month after the death of George Floyd and several months after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Floyd’s death lit a cosmic match, sparking immense dialogue around Black Lives Matter, police brutality and racism in communities of color. The WNBA announced it would dedicate the season to the BLM movement and Say Her Name, a campaign bringing attention to Black women killed by the police. Former Dream co-owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) sent a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert disagreeing with the league’s message, saying it “undermined the potential” of the sport. Loeffler also made matters worse when she introduced a bill that would outlaw trans girls and women from playing publicly funded sports. The WNBA, which is composed of 80% Black athletes and a substantial number of athletes who are LGBTQ, stood united.
That same year, Loeffler, who had been appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat, faced competition in a special election for one of Georgia’s senatorial seats. WNBA stars called for her to be removed as the team’s co-owner. They also began wearing shirts saying “Vote Warnock,” in support of Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of Loeffler’s opponents in the election, who serves as a senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The work of Montgomery, the WNBA and the guidance of lawyer and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams aided Warnock’s path to defeating Loeffler for Georgia’s senatorial seat in the special general runoff election. Loeffler was ousted when the league approved the sale of the Dream to a three-member ownership group: Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of Northland, a national real estate firm; Northland president and COO Suzanne Abair; and Montgomery, who is the first WNBA player to become an owner and executive of a team, after 11 years in the league.
Montgomery’s dream came true, and she said the franchise was “building momentum in Atlanta” heading into 2021. However, like the ownership, the team’s leadership went through a reboot. Nearly a month before the start of last season, the Dream fired president and general manager Chris Sienko, who oversaw the team that made one semifinals appearance in the ’18 playoffs before going a combined 15–41 in the ’19 and ’20 seasons. After Sienko, another domino fell, in coach Nicki Collen’s leaving the franchise to return to the collegiate ranks as Baylor women’s basketball coach. The team cruised to its third consecutive losing season with two interim coaches, Mike Petersen and Darius Taylor.
The foundation in ownership was set with a chance to rebuild the team’s leadership. However, a dream is not fulfilled the same day its vision is secured. Nearly six years ago, Morgan Shaw Parker moved her family to Atlanta to work with the Falcons and Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment after previously working in communications and marketing with Nike and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Eight months ago, after conversations with the Dream’s ownership, Parker made the decision to leave the NFL to become the Dream’s new team president and chief operations officer. It was a decision she questioned initially, mainly because she never sought to lead an organization solely for making money. “If it was about writing revenue and getting butts in seats, then I wasn’t the right person,” Parker says. But after understanding Gottesdiener, Abair and Montgomery’s vision of building a new model for the Dream’s success that centered on being competitive on the court, bringing new facilities and resources to the franchise and elevating social justice initiatives, Parker was on board, calling it a “breath of fresh air.”
“The women’s sports landscape is changing,” Parker says. “Our players want a voice at the table. This is a long-term vision; we’re not looking for quick fixes. From infrastructure to coaches to athletes, Atlanta should be the first place to put women’s basketball and women’s sports on the map.”
In early October, the Dream hired former Aces assistant and a defensive specialist, Tanisha Wright, to become Atlanta’s next coach, bringing in 14 years of league experience, including on the playing side. Less than two weeks later, Dan Padover—the final piece in the trio of new leadership—was named the team’s general manager after stints as vice president and general manager of basketball operations with the Liberty and Aces. In conjunction with ownership’s vision, the duo wasted no time in orchestrating a roster of players that Padover calls “the earliest phase of a build” he has been part of.
This offseason, Marcus Crenshaw, the agent for Courtney Williams—Atlanta’s leading scorer in 2021—and Crystal Bradford, appeared on Instagram Live with GirlTalkSports TV, sharing that Atlanta would not bring back the two players in the ’22 season. The decision stemmed from their roles in a fight outside of an Atlanta club in May ’21. Williams and Bradford, who both received suspensions from games in the ’22 season despite being unrestricted free agents, displayed behavior in a video that was “unacceptable” and did not “align with the values” of the Dream’s organization, according to a team statement released Oct. 4. The departures, according to Padover, aided the franchise going forward. “It put us in a clean salary cap to look at what we wanted to do,” he adds.
Chennedy Carter, the No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft and the team’s third-leading scorer last season, had initially been suspended July 5 for “conduct detrimental to the team.” On Feb. 5, the Dream traded Carter along with the rights to center Li Yueru to the Sparks in exchange for veteran guard Erica Wheeler, the No. 15 pick in the ’22 draft and a ’23 first-round selection. In a matter of months, two of the Dream’s three double-digit scorers were playing in new cities, leaving many across the league to ponder the direction the franchise was headed. But Atlanta was not done.
Scroll to Continue
The Dream were slated to have three picks in the first round of the 2022 draft. Five days before, Atlanta traded its No. 3 and No. 14 selections to the Mystics to acquire the No. 1 pick and a first-round pick swap in the ’23 draft. That allowed Atlanta the opportunity to draft Howard, and then Hillmon at No. 15. Wright, who knew Howard would be a No. 1 pick after watching her play in a game during her time as an assistant at UNC-Charlotte, says Howard has “special player” potential in the league based on her IQ for the game. “Scoring comes naturally, but she doesn’t get enough credit for understanding the game,” Wright says. “She makes it look effortless.”
Through training camp, Howard and Hillmon have had the opportunity to learn from young players and seasoned veterans like Tiffany Hayes (the Dream’s second-leading scorer in ’21), plus second-year point guard Aari McDonald. Other veteran leadership consists of Nia Coffey and Kia Vaughn (acquired in free agency) and Monique Billings, who holds a unique spot in the franchise as one of two players remaining—along with Hayes—who were on Atlanta’s team when it last made the playoffs, in ’18.
Last season, per HerHoopStats, Atlanta ranked second in the league in lowest turnover rate, fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio, first in steals rate, block rate and second in two-pointers made. However, the Dream finished second to last in the standings, ahead of the Fever; ninth in points scored per game; ninth in offensive rating; and 10th in defensive rating.
Vaughn, who has been a defensive-minded player her entire career, knows it’s no secret that the key to success will be defense. “In this league, everybody can score, but defense will be our foundation,” Vaughn says.
McDonald, who ranked in the top 10 among WNBA players in free throw and two-point percentages and top 15 in steal percentage as a rookie, feels like it is her first campaign all over again. “It’s a learning season for me,” McDonald says. Not only is she getting veteran tips from Wheeler, but she’s also adjusting to playing for a coach like Wright and the attention to detail she requires. “She’s tough and scrappy like me. She’s nitpicking and wants things to be perfect … but she always reminds us that everything we want is on the other side of heart,” she says.
For McDonald and others, success in Atlanta is not just about wins and losses. With the WNBA entering its 26th season Friday with increased ratings, fundraising efforts from outside sponsors and a platform that allows players to be a voice in the culture, McDonald wants to see more of that in Atlanta. The team has practiced in CORE4 Atlanta, a state-of-the-art facility owned by former Hawks player Paul Millsap and his brothers. The Dream’s ownership is seeking to build a new facility for the franchise instead of playing at the Gateway Center near College Park. “It’s not in a great location that provides easy access for fans to get to,” Parker says.
The franchise also advocates for protecting women and other marginalized people. A day after Politico reported on a draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights, the Dream released a statement that it “fundamentally supports the right for a woman to make decisions” over her body. “If Roe v. Wade is overturned it will harm women and, disproportionally, marginalized communities,” the statement read. “We vow to continue to uplift the voices of women and girls, as well as members of the Atlanta community.”
The Dream’s history in creating change and its involvement in challenging societal views is what McDonald feels will lead to the change in narrative surrounding the team.
Near the end of December 2021, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Braves made a strong recovery in attendance and a payroll increase following the pandemic season. Likewise, the Hawks finished 19th in overall average attendance during home games and 20th for the ’22 season. Meanwhile, Atlanta United, which shares Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the Falcons, held every single MLS attendance record before the new Charlotte FC emerged as a team this season. The Falcons finished with the ninth-best average overall attendance mark in the league and ranked 15th among home games.
The Dream’s highest average attendance and highest all-time attendance marks came within the first two seasons of the franchise’s existence, which began in 2008. But with new leadership and ownership in place, the seeds for creating a new model for the Dream and better narrative around women’s basketball has begun. “When I first got drafted to Atlanta, I instantly thought Atlanta was Black Hollywood,” McDonald says. “The new ownership sees the franchise as an investment. With the right resources, which we are getting, the city will come along.”
Everything starts and ends with a dream. It is also common, like the words in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” for them to be deferred. Before the Braves’ recent crown, Atlanta won three NL pennants but appeared in only two World Series. The Hawks made it to two Eastern Conference finals since the team moved to Atlanta in 1968. Two years after the ’96 Olympics, former Falcons coach Dan Reeves guided Atlanta to Super Bowl XXXIII, losing to the Broncos. Then, 18 years later, the Dan Quinn–led debacle resulted in Atlanta losing Super Bowl LI in the 2016 season, giving Tom Brady and the Patriots the largest comeback win in Super Bowl history.
The Dream’s embrace of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson’s vision of the city “being a gateway to a new time and new era” perfectly resonates with Padover’s plan in Year 1. “We are not going to go into any game with the most overwhelming talent, but we will play hard,” Padover says. “Our dream is to make this franchise a perennial WNBA contender on the court and a marquee franchise off the court.”
While their 2022 record might not end up reflecting it just yet, the Dream are on the rise.
More WNBA Coverage: