Courtney Vandersloot hesitated to join New York Liberty due to mom's cancer diagnosis
Courtney Vandersloot wasn't sure whether she wanted to sign with New York as a free agent, knowing if she didn't she would be passing up a chance to be part of a Liberty team that was shaping up to be a championship contender.
However, the move would mean the WNBA All-Star guard would be on one coast and her mom, Jan, who lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, and was diagnosed with advanced multiple myeloma last July, would be on the other.
On the eve of Mother's Day, Vandersloot reflected on the tough decision.
The point guard has been on an emotional and very private rollercoaster since she first got the call from her mom about the cancer diagnosis right after the Chicago lost to Las Vegas in the WNBA's Commissioner’s Cup final last summer.
“I found out at the end of July, that’s when the diagnosis came through and you know it was obviously completely out of the blue,” Vandersloot said. “I was shocked. There was every emotion you can imagine and just the unknown. I’ve been fortunate with the people around me, I’ve never experienced something like this.”
Vandersloot, 34, struggled with the news. It helped that Jan, who declined to be interviewed for this story but has always been Courtney's rock, was in a good mindset.
“You try to be strong,” Vandersloot said. “It was heart-wrenching to hear that from your person. She was ridiculously positive and strong and that helped me a lot.”
There is currently no cure for the cancer Jan Vandersloot has, but medical advancements have helped people live with it.
“The more I talked about it and learned about it, I realized this affects people you know,” Vandersloot said. “She was in the hospital right away and we didn’t get a chance to game plan. It came so fast. It felt like we were always playing catch-up. There were so many unknowns that was the hardest part.”
Vandersloot decided to wait until the Sky played their last seven games of the regular season to return to Washington to visit her mom. After the finale in Phoenix, Vandersloot flew home.
Once she arrived, Vandersloot had to sneak into her mom's hospital room due to COVID protocols, which restricted visitation to one visitor at a time, and her dad was constantly by his wife's side.
“I saw her for a little bit. I needed that, she needed that,” Vandersloot said. “The look on her face when I walked in, she had no idea I was going to be there. That was a big thing. It gave me perspective.”
On the court, Vandersloot turned to mom for more career advice — at home and abroad.
Vandersloot, who had played overseas in Russia during the WNBA offseason, wasn't sure what she would do last winter. She wasn't going to go back to Russia because of the detainment of Brittney Griner and the country's war against Ukraine. Vandersloot wasn't sure she even wanted to play abroad because of her mom's illness.
She went home and spent five months in Washington with her family, helping her dad care for her mom by making sure Jan did her exercises and taking her to cancer treatment appointments.
Vandersloot had planned to play during the offseason in Hungary, signing before her mom's diagnosis. Another opportunity arose in Turkey, where she spent the early years of her overseas career. Fenerbahce, a Euroleague powerhouse, understood the guard's personal situation and that gave her the confidence to commit to going. She arrived in Istanbul in February.
While mulling over her overseas decision, Vandersloot was weighing her WNBA options — which led to another talk with her mom.
She had spent her entire WNBA career in Chicago since the team drafted her third in 2011, but knew it was time for a change. The only question was where.
“I can’t move to New York. Are you kidding me?” Vandersloot said, rewinding the conversation with Jan before signing with the Liberty on Feb. 2. “My mom is my biggest fan. She’s the biggest basketball junkie. She loves it. She understood what the opportunity was that was being placed in front of me.
"She wants this for me. To have her blessing, she understood.”
Last season, Vandersloot only shared her family situation with a few people in the Chicago organization, but was more open about her personal challenges with the Liberty front office and her potential future teammates.
“I was aware of Sloot's mom's cancer during the free agency process,” Liberty teammate Breanna Stewart said. “For her and her family that's what made this process even harder. For so long she spent her time away from her family in Chicago or overseas. Ultimately it was going to have to come down to her decision with her family and what she thought was best. I really wanted her to come to New York, but didn't want to be that pushy friend. I wanted to be the friend supporting her no matter what.”
The Liberty will dedicate their annual Women's Health Game on Aug. 6 to cancer awareness, a nod to Jan Vandersloot and others coping with the disease. The new Liberty point guard also raised money for cancer research when her wife Allie Quigley rode in a New York bike event last weekend. Vandersloot was set to participate, but is still recovering from a concussion sustained early in training camp.
It's all part of a new chapter for the Vandersloots.
Courtney said Jan is doing better and that they're set to face the long journey ahead together.