If you were to describe Courtney Vandersloot as the backbone of the Sky, you’d only be partially correct. The word “backbone” means support or foundation. While Vandersloot is certainly resolute, her impact on the franchise goes far beyond that.
Vandersloot isn’t just the bedrock, she’s also the oxygen, the heartbeat and the engine that keeps the Sky moving.
Her 9,253 minutes, 324 games and 11 seasons are the most in Sky franchise history. In that time, she has set WNBA records, broken them, and set them again.
She became the first player in league history to average double digits (10) in assists in 2020.
Her passes — dump-offs, behind-the-back, no-look and ones through defenders — have her fourth on the WNBA’s career assists leaderboard. Her 5-8, 137-pound frame has taken her to the rim enough times that she’s second on the Sky’s career scoring list with 3,288 career points. Allie Quigley, her wife, is first with 3,318.
But none of this is new. Vandersloot has been leaving fans speechless, coaches awestruck and teammates with knocks to the head from passes they weren’t expecting since her days growing up in Kent, Washington.
Back then, much like now, Vandersloot was being overlooked.
“She’s a featherweight,” said Jodie Berry, now an assistant coach at Oregon, “but is so gritty and tough, and she had that even back then. She wanted the ball and sought out contact.”
Berry was a young assistant coach on Kelly Graves’ Gonzaga staff when Vandersloot was a junior in high school. After seeing her play, Berry went all-in on the kid from Kent. Vandersloot was the first recruit in Berry’s green coaching career in whom she had that kind of confidence.
Vandersloot had three offers: Montana State, Colorado State and Gonzaga.
She was sold on the Bulldogs almost instantly after meeting Graves and Berry. She said the decision undoubtedly changed the trajectory of her career.
While at Gonzaga, Vandersloot set all kinds of records. She broke Gonzaga’s season assist record as a sophomore (239), and again as a junior (321). When she broke it a third time as a senior (367), it wasn’t just the school record, it was an NCAA record.
And her most notable college record: She became the first player in NCAA history to score more than 2,000 points and total more than 1,000 assists.
While at Gonzaga, Courtney Vandersloot became the first player in NCAA history to score more than 2,000 points and total more than 1,000 assists.Elaine Thompson/AP
Only one player has done it since, the New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, who was coached by Graves and Berry at Oregon.
It happened on a simple play in a big game. In the second round of the NCAA Tournament against UCLA in her senior year, Vandersloot only needed 10 points to reach the milestone. So, of course, she recorded 10 assists first. With less than 15 minutes left in the game, Vandersloot got a steal for a fast-break layup.
She jogged back down the court with a subtle grin on her face to chants of “Courtney.” Vandersloot never has been one to boast, so even a grin was memorable to her teammates and coaches.
And like Ionescu, Graves said that Vandersloot helped establish a buzz around women’s basketball on campus.
While at Gonzaga, Graves said that the number of fans at “The Kennel” grew game after game and year after year when Vandersloot was on the court.
Her senior year, Spokane Coliseum sold out to watch the women’s team in the NCAA Tournament. There was an undeniable hype around campus and the scrappy, gritty, record-setting point guard.
“She is the female John Stockton,” former teammate Katelan Redmon said. “That’s how Spokane sees Courtney.”
That may be how Spokane sees Vandersloot, but you’d be hard-pressed to hear any acknowledgment of her own greatness from Vandersloot herself. Even in the age of social media, Vandersloot doesn’t share highlights or All-Star nods.
You can forget about her campaigning for postseason awards.
Vandersloot’s pages are filled with photos of family and initiatives she’s passionate about. There are a couple of EuroLeague championship posts. It’s warranted when you’re a part of two of UMMC Ekaterinburg’s three consecutive titles.
Vandersloot capped her senior year at Gonzaga with a run to the Elite Eight, and then came the 2011 WNBA Draft, where once again a young coach didn’t think twice about investing in Vandersloot.
Pokey Chatman was a first-time coach in the WNBA. After leading Spartak to a 16-0 Euroleague record and their fourth straight Euroleague Championship, Chatman was hired as general manager and coach of the Sky.
At that time players weren’t talking to teams ahead of the draft so Vandersloot went into it blind. She had no idea that Chatman was already sold on taking her with the Sky’s pick at No. 3 overall.
“When the court shrinks most people panic,” Chatman said. “[Vandersloot] becomes really calm and a mess to deal with in terms of penetrating the lanes. [When I drafted her] I was thinking along those lines and having that position solidified for years to come.”
Vandersloot was a wide-eyed rookie starting on a team with Sylvia Fowles, Epiphany Prince and Tamera Young.
Vandersloot was named an All-Star her rookie year and made the all-rookie team. But Berry remembers a call from her former player after the season questioning if she had the chops for the WNBA. Chatman recalls developmentally, they had to remind her of her scoring capabilities.
Her second year in the league Ticha Penicheiro signed a one-year contract with the Sky. Penicheiro’s career is one of constant evolution and for that reason, Chatman knew she could mentor Vandersloot. Chatman’s hope was that bringing in Penicheiro would show Vandersloot the confidence they had in her as the future of the organization.
Chatman also wanted Penicheiro to help Vandersloot increase her scoring.
From 2011 to 2012 her scoring average went from 6.5 points to 8.9. In 2015 she averaged 11.4. Her career-high of 13.6 came during the 2020 season.
“Sometimes she passes a little too much,” UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate Brittney Griner said. “I always tell her overseas she should shoot more.”
In 2020 Vandersloot broke the WNBA record for most assists in a game (18), set twice by Penichiero.
A screen from Ruthy Hebard freed Vandersloot up at the top of the key to find Quigley for an open three on the wing with less than a minute left in the game.
This season, for the sixth time in her career, she’s leading the league in assists per game with an 8.8 average.
“She has an innate ability to deliver passes on time and on target,” Diamond DeShields said. “We go through drills in practice where the players’ goal is to deflect passes. It’s challenging for everyone and then Sloot will go and she makes the pass. We all just look at each other like, ‘Damn, she pisses me off.’ “
Everyone who has played with Vandersloot has a career highlight that includes an incredible pass and a subtle look that follows the made basket. For DeShields, it came her rookie year.
They were running a play and DeShields looped up to the top of the key from the corner, flashed down the lane and caught a lob pass from Vandersloot. It wasn’t the play then-coach Amber Stocks had called for, but the two of them coordinated it coming out of the timeout.
The two shared a glance and kept it moving.
There are a lot of qualities of Vandersloot’s game that separate her from other point guards in the league, past and present. Her court vision, her passing and her basketball IQ are a few of them.
Graves, Chatman and current Sky coach and general manager James Wade all have said it’s like having a coach on the floor.
Wade still can recall the first time he saw Vandersloot play and telling his overseas teammate, a Gonzaga alum, about the dynamite point guard he saw in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
“There’s nobody else on our entire team I want to have the ball in their hand in big moments,” Quigley said.
In 2019, Vandersloot finished the season with the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio (3.13) in the league.
In every Marvel movie, even the most untouchable superheroes prove they are all human and for Vandersloot that moment came at the end of a career-best year.
The game is infamous now. It marked the beginning of a rivalry between the Las Vegas Aces and the Sky. Nearly two years ago to the day, on Sept. 15, both teams were playing for a trip to the WNBA semifinals.
The momentum behind the Sky was like a freight train. After beating the Phoenix Mercury in the first-round single-elimination matchup, they flew to Las Vegas with the confidence that they would earn a trip to the semifinals.
In the waning moments of the game, the Sky had a two-point lead before Vandersloot’s lob pass was intercepted by Dearica Hamby, who then sank the winning three.
“To this day I have never watched [that game],” Vandersloot said. “When I see the highlight I turn my head, close my eyes or change the channel. Not one time have I watched it because it would just break me.”
Wade looks back on that game and faults the officials for not seeing that Hamby had stepped out of bounds.
DeShields has watched the game only twice and faults herself for multiple missteps before that moment.
Vandersloot owns all the responsibility.
The fact is, the Sky aren’t playing for a shot at their first WNBA semifinals appearance since 2016 without Vandersloot. They aren’t in the championship conversation if she isn’t there. The franchise doesn’t remain relevant over the course of its 15-year history if Vandersloot isn’t in a Sky jersey.
Vandersloot recovered from that career moment the only way she knows how, by working harder. She left Chicago and flew overseas to play for EMMC Ekaterinburg. It helped, she said, that Quigley and Wade were there with her.
This year has not gone according to expectations following the signing of Candace Parker in the offseason. The Sky are locked in as the No. 6 seed in the playoffs with one game remaining in the season.
Vandersloot has been here before though. In her fourth season, the Sky took a 15-19 regular-season record all the way to the WNBA Finals, where they were swept by the Phoenix Mercury.
Only two pieces remain from that team, Vandersloot and Quigley.
“We had a very up-and-down regular season that year,” Vandersloot said. “We just turned it on. We won games when we needed to.”
Despite the All-Stars who have been drafted by and signed with the Sky, Vandersloot is the only one who has remained. She’s the constant, and the face the franchise has always seemed to be searching for.
Following this season, Vandersloot will become an unrestricted free agent and loyalty is as much a part of her character as working hard in silence is. If it’s up to Wade, Vandersloot will be back in a Sky uniform in 2022.
Vandersloot is locked in on the remaining 2021 season, but said she never has been much of a free agent. Her first free-agency conversation following her rookie contract lasted no more than two minutes.
“If I’m being completely honest, I think it’s special to win a championship with the team that you’re drafted by,” Vandersloot said.