ESM EXCLUSIVE: Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney on NYC, charity, and the future

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ESM sat down with New York Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney, a metropolitan basketball star in more ways than one.

An All-Star’s work is never done, especially in New York. Fortunately, Betnijah Laney wouldn’t have it any other way.

Few WNBA stars have opened the 2020s on a higher note than Laney, a Rutgers alumna who’s back in the tri-state area to make an impact both on and off the court. The former endeavors have netted her the league’s Most Improved Player Award with the Atlanta Dream during the Association’s historic season in the Bradenton bubble. After going from the bubble to Brooklyn, Laney earned her first career All-Star appearance and helped push the Liberty to its first playoff appearance since 2017. She ended the year as the team’s leading scorer (16.8 points per game, 10th-best in the league) and also set a new career-best average in assists (5.2).

Laney, a Delaware native, has remained in the New York area with the WNBA offseason fully underway. She’s taken the time to further immerse herself in the Brooklyn community. Last week, Laney repped the Liberty in a battle against food insecurity, uniting with Empire BlueCross BlueShield, iHeartMedia, and Heart of America to open a custom-built food pantry at Walter Weaver Elementary School (P.S. 398).

Following the ceremony, Laney sat down with ESM to discuss her time in the city, her life on and off the court, and what lies ahead of the bearers of seafoam…

Q: What drew you to a project like this here, to be willing the represent the team on such an endeavor?

A: Just knowing that we, as a team, will be able to help the community, to be able to give back, to underserved communities, it just really means a lot to me. Coming up, it was something that my mother always instilled in me: to give back where I can. She’s been doing that for as long as I can remember, since before I was born, just giving back to the community. She’s always made sure that I put in the same thing, the same work and effort. So when I was afforded the opportunity to do this, I was all-in, all on board. So I’m just really happy.

Q: With the team back in the proper New York City area, having moved to Brooklyn from Westchester County, what does it mean to reconnect with the city and potentially inspire new fans in the process?

A: I think it’s just more about serving our community. Being back in Brooklyn, that makes it r really easy for us. It’s great for our new community to see us and know that we’re not just athletes, we’re not just basketball players, we’re not just here to do that. We’re here to help and to give back and make a difference, to continue to inspire people, continue to help people grow in a positive direction. I think it’s more so about that.

Q: You’ve remained in the NYC area since the Liberty’s season ended. Without the burdens of practices and games, it appears you’ve taken advantage of what the city has to offer. What are your impressions of the city and how comfortable are you with NYC as your new home both as an athlete and activist?

A: I love it. I grew up coming to Brooklyn in particular, I had a great aunt who lived here, we would come up here for the holidays and everything. Although she’s she’s not around to see me I know that she’d be really proud of me and what I’m doing.

This offseason just really presents me with the opportunity to be able to give back to this community. Without the pressure of having practice and games, there’s no time to put in that off-court work.

Q: As a league, the WNBA reach unprecedented heights in popularity and viewership this year. As one of the faces of the New York franchise, what’s going to be the key to establishing a larger Liberty footprint in a city that truly appreciates basketball?

A: I think just us continuing to grow, continuing to stay true to who we are, just taking on that Brooklyn, that New York identity, and get some wins. That’s what people want to see and that’s our goal. I think that that with this time, with a few players that are in market who are continuing to work to get better, and then the players that are overseas playing their game, I just truly believe that, when we all come back and reconvene, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with. I think that that’s what the city wants us to be.

Q: Do you have any international plans for the WNBA offseason? If not, what do you want to work on at home?

A: I don’t have an international plans. But, on the court, I just want to continue to grow, to continue to get better in every area of my game. I want to continue to increase my percentages, do different things to continue to grow, to help myself along with my team to get to that ultimate goal.

Off the court, I’d love to continue my community work. This is what I’m here for: to just continue to give back, to make an impact in the community, to just be a positive role model for people to look up to inspire others.

Q: This city is know for its diversity and its causes. Is there any particular cause or off-court endeavor that stands out to you, a place or issue where you’d like to and truly believe you can make a positive impact?

A: My passion has always been kids. Once I finish playing, maybe even while I’m playing, I’d like to apply myself and work with them, particularly those in underserved communities, because those that’s where you need the most building, the strongest foundation. Anything that’s dealing with kids, where I can help kids, continue to foster them into growing, healthy adults being that someone that they can look up to. That’s what drives me.

Q: The arrival of you, Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, and others, as well as the move to Barclays Center, was meant to provide this team some stability. Yet, you overcame several obstacles, including weather and NBA playoff reschedulings to make a playoff push. What can you say about the resiliency of the 2021 Liberty?

A: I think it just shows just how strong we are, that we are capable of weathering storms, and coming out better for it. Exceeding expectations. I think that we did that this year, especially coming off the 2-20 season (in 2020). To be able to do that, and turn it around and make it to the playoffs, I don’t think a lot of people foresaw that coming. We just want to keep pushing, we want to just continue to get better. That’s our goal, and our focus going in going into these next year is to just be better than we were last year.

Q: You recently celebrated your 28th birthday. It was a year of change, a year of triumph. What did you learn about yourself, both as a ball player and as a human being?

A: Through everything that I’ve been through, I think that I’m stronger. Whatever I put my mind to, I can I can do. I’m just going to continue to get better, continue to want to be better in just every facet of my life.

Q: What have the conversations been like amongst the Liberty this offseason and what can fans expect on the road ahead?

A: We’re really excited. We’ve already talked about different things that we want to do for next year. We were excited seeing the results of the WNBA finals and talking about how that’s our goal, that’s where we want to be. This offseason, we have to make sure that we’re all doing everything that we can to get there.

We’ve had our players do really, really well overseas. Jocelyn (Willoughby) is coming back, she just started jogging, which is really good to see. The people that are here, still in the market are continuing to work to get better. As long as everyone’s doing their part, and we come back and we really are exhibiting everything that we’ve worked on, I think we’re in really good shape.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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