By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The chance to stay home this winter and work on her craft and get paid was appealing to Indiana Fever center Jantel Lavender.
The fifth pick in the 2011 draft is one of five WNBA players who are joining the newly formed Athletes Unlimited basketball league that’s starting this winter. Lavender usually goes overseas after her WNBA season ends.
“I have played 18 straight seasons with one week in between,” Lavender said in a phone interview. “It was taxing on my body. Being home this winter and working out, I have time to do recovery and do a lot of things that will help for the next WNBA season. In Athletes Unlimited, you can see what you worked on and feel our bodies.”
The league also announced on Monday that it signed Courtney Williams, Odyssey Sims and Tianna Hawkins, who played in the WNBA last season. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan missed the 2021 season because she was pregnant.
Williams is a WNBA free agent this offseason after she scored a career-high 16.5 points last season for Atlanta. The Dream have said they won’t re-sign her after video surfaced last month on social media that showed Williams and Atlanta teammate Crystal Bradford throwing punches in a confrontation with a number of women in late May near a food truck in the Atlanta area.
Lavender said she was reached out to by Natasha Cloud, who is on the Athletes Unlimited players’ executive committee to join the league.
“We talked about how WNBA players don’t always want to go overseas since we miss everything with our families,” Lavender said.
She also said that the Fever front office had encouraged her to join the new league that will feature 44 players, including Cloud and former WNBA players Sydney Colson and Ty Young.
The season will be played in Las Vegas running from Jan. 29 through Feb. 28. Players will earn points each week based on their team’s results, as well as some individual stats. At the end of the week, the leading four players will draft the teams for the next week’s games.
The rules will be similar to the WNBA. There will be over $1 million for the 44 players to earn with the winner receiving roughly $50,000.
Athletes Unlimited started in 2020 and has softball, volleyball and lacrosse leagues in which there are no team owners and players share directly in league profits. Basketball is the first one that has an already well-established pro domestic league with the WNBA.
Choosing Las Vegas as the city was a no-brainer to Athletes Unlimited Co-Founder/CEO Jon Patricof.
“Having it in Las Vegas is terrific,” he said. “It will create a great athlete experience. It’s a global city that has a rich basketball history and support women’s basketball.”
Patricof said that the venue the league will run in is close to the airport and players will stay in apartments nearby.
“It’s the same thing we’ve done always for the other leagues,” he said. “I know we have at least three moms playing in the league already. We expect them to be bringing their kids. We want to be accommodating to players and their families and whoever they bring with them. Part of the experience is games, but also creating a great training environment for players off the court.”
Athletes Unlimited already has 13 players signed, including former WNBA player Essence Carson.
“I think we’re ahead of where we expected to be in my opinion,” Patricof said. “The fact we’re finding 10 high caliber players off the bat and announcing Las Vegas. We’re ahead of pace at this time.”
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