WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.
It’s a little after 8 a.m. and the morning rush is full-on at Bria Hartley’s apartment in Westchester County.
The Liberty guard from North Babylon has been up with her 3 1⁄2-month-old son, Bryson, for almost an hour. She has fed him, burped him and changed his diaper. She’s dressed him in tiny Air Jordans and a favorite onesie. She’s managed to get dressed for work herself. And she’s done it all in that soupy-headed, sleep-deprived state that is a constant for most new parents whose babies do not yet sleep through the night.
“I eat breakfast at the training facility, so I save a little time there,” says Hartley, who played her first regular-season game for the Liberty on Saturday at Madison Square Garden despite having given birth less than four months ago.
A former star at North Babylon High School and the University of Connecticut, Hartley, 24, was traded to the Liberty by the Washington Mystics on Jan. 30, two weeks after Bryson’s birth. The 5-8 guard is the first player with an infant to play for the Liberty and is thought to be among 10 current WNBA players who have children.
Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer is no stranger to coaching players who are new mothers. When Laimbeer was the coach of the Detroit Shock, Astou Ndiaye-Diatta came back a little more than three months after giving birth to triplets via C-section in 2003. Laimbeer’s wife once told ESPN that she knew her husband had gone all-in on his job when she overheard him ordering a breast pump and three infant car seats for a road trip.
“Being a new mom can take a toll on the player because of all the work you have to now put in off the court. But it’s really no different in sports than it is in the other workplaces,” Laimbeer said. “You have to learn how to balance two lives. For a mom early on in the process with the feeding and everything, it’s a grind and it wears you down, especially the physical part in professional sports. But at the end of the day, many millions of women have balanced this.”
WNBA athletes have been negotiating the challenges of pregnancy and motherhood for two decades. In 1997, the league’s inaugural season, Sheryl Swoopes challenged the way many in the public viewed childbirth and athletics when she returned to the court six weeks after giving birth and led the Houston Comets to the WNBA title.
Just because having a child in the WNBA isn’t out of the ordinary doesn’t make it easy, though. Having a baby during one’s playing career can be emotionally, physically and financially taxing.
“I always wanted to be a mom and I always wanted to play professional basketball,” Hartley said. “I didn’t know exactly that this was going to be the timing. But life isn’t always what you plan. This is exactly what I always wanted.”
One of the first tough decisions Hartley had to make after finding out that she and her boyfriend, Shakim Phillips, were going to be parents was deciding when to tell Mystics coach Mike Thibault. Hartley played 24 games last season and was 4 ½ months pregnant when she left the team after her Olympic break. She said she had been cleared medically to play into her sixth month — basically until the end of the regular season — but decided to leave earlier because she didn’t think it would be fair to the team if it made the playoffs and she then had to leave.
KEEPING IN SHAPE
Hartley knew from talking to other players who had had babies that keeping herself in the best possible condition during pregnancy would make it easier for her to come back. After leaving Washington, she moved back to her parents’ home in North Babylon and began working out with Britton Kelley, her longtime trainer.
“There’s a lot of different opinions of what you can and cannot do when you’re pregnant,” Kelley said. “There are women out there who have run marathons two days before having a baby and then there’s people out there who don’t do anything and get completely deconditioned.
“I used a worth-to-risk ratio. I didn’t want to do anything that could put her at risk where she could fall. I tried to keep her heart rate under 125 and stayed off the leg press. We worked right up until two days before she had the baby. With Bria, she’s used to working so hard that a lot of what I had to do was hold her back.”
Hartley, who gained a mere 17 pounds during her pregnancy, gave birth at Huntington Hospital on Jan. 14. Two weeks later, the Mystics gave her the baby present to end all baby presents: They announced she was being traded to the Liberty. Hartley was coming home.
WNBA players who are pregnant get paid 50 percent of their salary until they start playing again and continue to have full medical benefits, according to a league spokesman. The minimum base salary for a player such as Hartley with at least three years of experience is $55,825 for a 34-game regular season with the potential of bonuses for the playoffs.
IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY
For many, hiring a full-time nanny can be a severe financial strain. Hartley has a tight-knit support group that has eased her transition back onto the court.
For the first couple of months, she lived on Long Island. Since training camp started, she has been living with Bryson and her father, Dennis Hartley, in an apartment complex that houses many of the Liberty players. A former professional boxer who is taking a break from work, Dennis takes care of Bryson in the mornings when Hartley is at practice.
“It’s funny, because I didn’t change any diapers when my kids were growing up,” Dennis said with a laugh. “I was working all the time. Right now, the timing is good. He’s a good baby.”
Hartley’s mother, Simone Hartley, works full-time at a credit union on Long Island but helps out on weekends. In a couple of weeks, a cousin who is graduating from high school will come to help and likely will travel with Bryson and Hartley when the team goes on long road trips.
Phillips, a wide receiver who was on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad in 2015 but was waived last season, also is around quite a bit. Lately, their visits have been limited to videochat as he flies around the country working out for different NFL teams.
The two met as students at UConn and lived in the same building. Phillips said he was more of a Bria fan than a women’s basketball fan when the two met but now is crazy about the game and the fact that she is playing it at the highest level.
“What she’s doing I hope is giving out positivity to all women in the sport,” Phillips said. “When you’re in the WNBA, you’re allowed to have a family, just like any other professional athlete. I’m glad she’s able to do it and stay positive. If you want to have a family, you don’t have to stop chasing your dreams. You can do both.”
You can. But it takes a unique sort of determination to make it work, a determination that those who know Hartley say she has.
Teresa Weatherspoon, the Liberty’s director of player and franchise development, began working with Hartley six weeks after she gave birth. Hartley said she quickly got back to her playing weight of 143, but it had been a while since her body had been on the court dealing with the physical aspects of the game.
“We started three times a week and I was very careful about contact,” Weatherspoon said. “When it got closer to camp, I wanted to be physical with her and she handled it well. She’s mentally strong and very intelligent. I tested her will and she came out on top.”
Her will was tested, and she came out on top. That’s something that could happen again and again to Hartley this season as she does that mad juggling act with which most new parents are familiar.
Since the moment she was traded to the Liberty, Hartley has been thinking about what it was going to be like to play at Madison Square Garden for the first time this year. On Saturday, she got to find out, recording four rebounds and three assists in 18:27 as the Liberty beat San Antonio, 73-64.
Her parents were there. Friends, too. And of course Bryson was there, watching his mother do what she loves.
Said Hartley: “It was awesome.”
THE BRIA HARTLEY
High school: North Babylon
+Newsday All-Long Island team — 2008, 2009
+Newsday Player of the Year — 2010
+McDonald’s All-American — 2010
+Parade All-American — 2010
College: UConn, 2010-14
+Big East Rookie of the Year — 2011
+NCAA champion — 2013, 2014
+1,994 career points, 13.0 ppg average
+No. 1 pick (seventh overall) of Seattle Storm, who traded her to Washington Mystics — 2014
+2014-2016 — Averaged 7.1 ppg in three seasons with Mystics
+2017 — Traded to Liberty