SATOU SABALLY STOOD on the court at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, listening to the sideline reporter’s first question of their postgame interview, when she was ambushed. She had just recorded a career-high 40 points — hitting 7 of 10 3-pointers — to help the Dallas Wings secure a postseason berth. Teammates Arike Ogunbowale, Odyssey Sims and Veronica Burton snuck up from behind and emptied water bottles over her, screaming in celebration.
Sabally tried to escape, holding up her braids to prevent them from getting wet. The floor was slick with water, but she couldn’t help herself. Sabally started to moonwalk, garnering oohs from teammates. It was her first game back after missing the previous two with an ankle injury, and she had extra juice that night.
“Once you’re out for a week,” Sabally said in the interview, “you just want to play ball again.” As for the moonwalk? “I felt like I just had to hit it.”
The performance, even the display of joy, wasn’t a given a year or two ago, though not because Sabally lacked the potential. Some analysts thought the former Oregon star and No. 2 overall pick had the highest ceiling of anyone in the 2020 draft class, including former Ducks teammate Sabrina Ionescu.
— espnW (@espnW) September 2, 2023
As soon as she entered the league, Sabally entrenched herself with the WNBA players’ association as one of the league’s most vocal advocates on social and political issues. But on the court, she was hindered by injuries, particularly last season, when she appeared in just 11 regular-season games. The past two years were so trying mentally and physically that Sabally got to the point where she didn’t want to touch a basketball.
“I associated basketball with pain,” Sabally said in June. “It was a really sad thing, and I promised myself to never go through that again.”
After a transformative offseason, the Wings’ unicorn took the leap into superstardom, rediscovering her joy for the game and transforming No. 4 seed Dallas into a long-shot championship contender that will tip off the WNBA postseason Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) at home against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Dream.
In Sabally’s eyes, this is just the start, and whatever she does on the court will be only part of her story.
“The world is her oyster,” younger sister Nyara Sabally, a forward for the New York Liberty, told ESPN. “Whatever she wants to do, she can achieve because of her mindset and personality.”
THE FIRST TIME Latricia Trammell met with Sabally after taking over as Wings head coach in November, Sabally made clear what she wanted out of the 2023 campaign.
“The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I want this to be my year,'” Trammell recalled.
Sabally had committed herself to a mental and physical reset, putting behind her what she called “the hardest time of my life.”
It was a two-year buildup from being stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of injuries: a back issue and concussion in 2020 limited her to 16 of 22 regular-season games; nagging Achilles soreness in 2021 saw her on the court for 17 of 32 games; and knee and ankle injuries sidelined her for 25 of 36 contests last season, although she returned for the playoffs. It didn’t help that she was playing year-round to supplement her WNBA income.
“Nothing was ever because of her skill, which was probably the most annoying part,” Ogunbowale said. “She definitely went through a hard time with that.”
Intrusive thoughts and negative doubts consumed her. “Every time I thought I would be on the court, I would get hurt and that was the whole conversation every time,” Sabally said. “And I was just sick of it.”
Volunteering, social justice and equality advocacy remained important to Sabally, but she was “so dedicated to working for the greater good I was forgetting myself or even neglecting myself within that process.”
“It’s because of who she is: She doesn’t want to say no to different opportunities to help,” said Mark Campbell, who was the associate head coach at Oregon when he recruited the Sabally sisters. “That’s what makes Satou so special. She’s this incredible player, but her heart, she just wants to give back and help in as many ways as possible. … In college, it was the same.”
The physical and mental toll came to a head in the middle of last season when Sabally suffered an anxiety attack for the first time, crying and hyperventilating when she got to practice because she “knew” she wouldn’t be able to make it through.
As an athlete, Sabally had always been taught to fight through adversity. But she knew at that moment she’d pushed herself too far and never wanted to experience anything close to an anxiety attack ever again.
After the Wings’ season ended in a first-round playoff loss to the Connecticut Sun in late August, Sabally delayed reporting to her Turkish club, Fenerbahce, and took a break from basketball.
This is my career, this is my money, this is my life now, so I really need to take care of myself. I saw the seriousness of it, and it’s showing.”
She swam, did Pilates and lifted but avoided heavy weights. When she felt compelled to shoot again, around mid-November, she went into the gym for an hour a day, working her way up from there. This wouldn’t be a “grind” offseason, and it was OK to not constantly push her limits.
After working together sporadically in the past, Sabally went all-in with Susan King Borchardt, a renowned trainer whose clients have included Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. King Borchardt said consistency is the key to her work, and Sabally embraced it this past offseason, even going to King Borchardt’s home in Oregon for a 10-day mini “training camp.”
King Borchardt helped Sabally understand “the athlete schedule” and how much time she needed to dedicate toward activation and recovery. They worked together to create individualized schedules for each day that zero in on the activities that make Sabally play her best: good sleep, being off her feet and in the water, doing self-myofascial work (such as using a foam roller or massage gun), receiving treatment from the Wings staff. She’s one of King Borchardt’s biggest yoga practitioners.
That all meant dialing back off-court activities, volunteering just once or twice a week in Dallas, even though, as King Borchardt recognizes, Sabally is “absolutely someone who thrives off of being around other people.”
Sabally went to therapy to work on replacing doubts and negative thoughts with positive self-talk. She leaned into things that fulfilled her, like cooking, and veered away from what didn’t, like spending too much time on social media. King Borchardt includes meditation and breathwork in Sabally’s schedules, as well as escapes into nature.
Sabally’s work with King Borchardt won’t just pay dividends now — “When you’re playing every other day, the winner is going to be the one who’s most recovered, period,” King Borchardt said. The hope is that taking care of her body in these ways will help prolong her career, as Bird said it did for her.
By the time Sabally arrived in Turkey in January, she’d reclaimed such an intense hunger and seriousness toward basketball that her Fenerbahce coach had to remind her to enjoy herself on the floor. But Sabally’s sights were set on making a splash in the WNBA. She didn’t receive the contract extension she was hoping for in the offseason, another moment where things clicked.
This is my career, this is my money, this is my life now, so I really need to take care of myself,” Sabally said. “I saw the seriousness of it, and it’s showing.”
Still, her big-picture goal was simple, and as she began to trust her work in the offseason, it became easier to achieve.
“I know how it feels when it’s taken away, and I love basketball,” Sabally said about her preseason goals. “I just want to be on a court and have fun, and the results will come by themselves.”
SABALLY OFTEN DISCUSSES how much fun she’s having and how much she loves her team. It’s a common theme among her Dallas teammates, who credit the new culture instilled by Trammell. It helps to be winning, too, as the Wings secured their best regular-season finish since the franchise moved to Dallas. Sabally is a major reason for their improvement.
“Mentally and physically, she was in the best spot she’s ever been heading into the W season this year,” said Campbell, who recently took the head-coaching job at nearby TCU. “This season was the perfect storm.”
Among her achievements this summer: averaging career highs across the board, appearing in 38 of 40 games, being voted an All-Star starter for the first time and recording the first triple-double in Wings history. Her 14 double-doubles rank fifth in the league, and in addition to being the front-runner for Most Improved Player, she’s expected to earn votes on MVP ballots.
“We’re not in this position we are right now without her. She has been the glue for this team,” Trammell said. “I could coach her the rest of my career. She’s just that type of player.”
Sabally hopes to help the Wings win their first playoff series since 2009, but this season has already witnessed progress toward her deeper aspirations.
“I feel like I’m slowly stepping into a circle of greatness that I’ve always wanted to be in,” she said, “but I think I’m now setting the foundation for my legacy in the pros.”
Her vision for that legacy? Winning championships and being the best player in the league. She takes pride in representing basketball on an international stage — born in the United States, she grew up in Gambia and Germany before going to Oregon for college — and aspires to follow German basketball icon Dirk Nowitzki into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The legacy will also be built around what she does off the court. Sabally has long idolized Maya Moore for her basketball greatness and dedication to criminal justice reform.
Sabally’s societal concerns boil down to “Why not respect humans?” A conversation with her can span solving police brutality in America, abolishing the disenfranchisement of former felons and making the healthcare system more affordable. She says Dallas-Fort Worth’s lack of a robust public transportation system hurts workers’ ability to get to different parts of the city, and calls Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border policies “absolutely horrendous.”
“I think it’s kind of ironic that the most liberal feminist landed in Texas,” she said, laughing.
There’s work to be done within the WNBA, too. After serving on the WNBA’s Social Justice Council her rookie season, Sabally was voted a vice president on the WNBPA executive committee, of which she’s the youngest member. King Borchardt sees the similarities between Sabally and another client of hers, Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBPA president.
“Satou is the perfect person to be mentored and underneath her,” she said. “She could be one of these next people to carry that [work] on whenever Nneka’s done.”
Using her voice in those spaces will be increasingly important as players seek their next collective bargaining agreement. Chiefly, Sabally is against prioritization rules that, as of next season, will disqualify players from the WNBA season if they don’t arrive on time to training camp due to overseas commitments. She sees the policy as a “slap in the face” to international players as well as younger players seeking to gain financial freedom (Sabally revealed her bonus for winning EuroLeague with Fenerbahce this past season was more than her current $86,701 rookie-scale salary). If these rules don’t change, Sabally said she could decide to not play in the WNBA in the future.
Moore also taught Sabally she can have an exceptional career on the court and then a whole other chapter off it. Sabally might enroll in law school down the line, perhaps studying international law. Maybe even becoming a GM.
More immediately, Sabally will most likely not play overseas in the WNBA offseason, and is set for an internship with the Dallas Mavericks, working in both operations and marketing. The offseason will allow her more time to double down on community initiatives, too: She hosted a mentors dinner at Cafe Momentum, a Dallas restaurant that helps reintegrate youth who’ve been through the justice system, and hopes to expand her work with the organization. With Texas enacting more laws restricting abortion access, she’d like to get more involved with abortion rights through the legal side.
After the season she’s having, Sabally will be highly sought as a restricted free agent in 2024. Now that she has found the right approach for her physical and mental health, she has left no doubts that, at 25, the prime of her career is still ahead of her, and it could change the trajectory of a franchise.
And back enjoying the game she loves, she might even have more postgame moonwalks to go along with it.
“I’m already looking forward to next season,” she said.