Satou Sabally will tell you that her second season in WNBA has been tougher than her first. And that has nothing to do what has happened on the court.
Opponents still haven’t figured out how to play the No. 2 overall pick of the 2020 draft. Good luck with that. One of the most versatile bigs in the league, the 6-foot-4 forward has been deemed a “unicorn” due to her rare skill set, and she probably deserves the compliment more than any other professional basketball player in Dallas. She can shoot threes, she can play in the post, she can pass, she can block shots, she can rebound. Her ballet-like footwork is reminiscent of a certain German expat with whom Dallas basketball fans are familiar. She was actually named to her first All-Star team this year, and she almost doubled her three-point percentage.
It’s just that her rookie season was played in the WNBA bubble, referred to colloquially as the “Wubble.” That certainly presented a challenge. Sabally spent 97 consecutive days at IMG Academy in Florida, where she helped lead the youngest team in the WNBA, only for the Wings to miss the playoffs on the final game of the regular season. The Wubble season coincided with a racial tipping point in America, one that WNBA players met head on in 2020 better than athletes in any other professional sports league, despite getting less credit for their unflinching reminders of how Black Americans were getting killed by police. Just 22 at the time, Sabally was the youngest player named to the league’s inaugural Social Justice Council.
So yes, last year was tough. But the Wubble kept her contained.
“Everything was put on hold due to COVID [last year], so I was really able to focus on Black Lives Matter and just the Black struggle in America,” Sabally says.
Now she’s out. And there’s so much more to do. She’s still focused on BLM; as a biracial woman in America, she doesn’t exactly have a choice. But Sabally has lived a worldly life, one that has taken her from her birthplace in New York City to her father’s native Gambia to her mother’s native Germany, where she lived from the age of 9 until her college years at the University of Oregon. She has seen enough to have developed a layered worldview on what’s important, what’s unjust, and what role she can play in all of it.
Satou Sabally doesn’t belong in a bubble, and when you take her out of one, you open up so much more for her to do and see and learn and reckon with and advocate for. Honestly, it sounds exhausting. On the day we spoke, Sabally had just finished receiving treatment for a nagging Achilles injury. The next day, she would drive to Cafe Momentum in Dallas to speak to teenagers who had gone through the criminal justice system, an event to which media were not invited. “They’re what’s important, so I want to let them drive the conversation,” she says. “I just want them to feel listened to and treated like people.” The day after that, she participated in a panel with the Okay to Say organization about destigmatizing mental health issues in sports.
“I’m a social person, and I have an internal drive to talk about these things,” Sabally told me, before we discussed women’s rights, education reform, and advocating for social justice. “Inequality and things that aren’t fair to me, I want to address. I’m always going to be driven to do that. I always will. But I think professional athletes who don’t have that internal drive for these issues should still have to learn about them and understand the change their platform can make.”
She doesn’t just want to help her teammates be better; she wants to help them be better people. Not many athletes think that way. Maybe none are better equipped than Sabally to do it.
Three busy off days around North Texas are nothing compared to what Sabally’s basketball schedule has been like this year. Like many WNBA players, she plays overseas during the W’s offseason. She signed with Fenerbahçe Öznur Kablo in 2021 and won the Turkish Super League championship on May 11, forcing her to miss much of Wings’ training camp, which she then reported to before missing the first six games of the WNBA season to play for Germany along with her sister, Nyara, in the FIBA 3X3 Olympic qualifying games in Austria.
Going into the final stretch of her second season, she has barely been able to catch her breath here, but the region has nevertheless managed to upend her expectations of it. She laughs when asked if she had a preconceived notion of Texas, which might be as different from Oregon as it is Europe.
“I think a lot of it stems closer from being European and thinking, OK, Texas: cowboy hats everywhere, cowboy boots,” Sabally says. “That’s really what I thought.”
But any prolonged success for the Dallas Wings franchise — it has yet to make it past the first round of the playoffs and has more often than not missed the postseason altogether since relocating from Tulsa in 2016 — will hinge on keeping the duo of Sabally and third-year guard Arike Ogunbowale in North Texas. So far, the area has managed to win Sabally over with, among other things, the cuisine. She claims to eat Vietnamese food four times a week; Pho 95, not far from College Park Center, where the Wings play at UTA’s campus, is a favorite. The West African restaurants she’s tried, like Lola’s in Irving, have not disappointed with their execution of jollof rice and fufu.
“The food places are amazing,” Sabally says. “There’s a lot of ethnic food, even more than in Germany, or in Oregon, and that’s the biggest contrast for me, which I love. And I like the people. I don’t think I was super excited to live in Texas, but now I could totally imagine staying here because it’s really great.”
She has also made a connection with the man here she calls “a basketball god.” Sabally has Dirk Nowitzki’s number and says she can text or call him with any questions. “He was a great help, especially last year,” she says. “Things can be overwhelming when you join the league, and he went through that as well.”
She can learn from Nowitzki’s perspective and life experiences, but they can help only so much. There are two Germanys, just like there are two Americas. Although a proud German citizen, Sabally has addressed the subtle discrimination she and her family endured there, an unspoken racism that creates a sense of otherness. Sabally has learned that in America, racism isn’t as unspoken. Along with being the youngest player on last year’s Social Justice Council, she was the only international player. She did a lot of listening: to her fellow players; to social justice advocates; to Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer.
“At least America is open about it and talks about it,” Sabally says. “I thought that was very refreshing.”
Openness isn’t a pass, though. She has more than 100,000 Instagram followers and a sponsorship deal with the Jordan Brand, and she doesn’t just use her platform to listen. She has been committed to speaking out since her time at the University of Oregon. Sabally doesn’t go anywhere with her eyes closed. When you talk to her about something important, you’d better be ready to actually talk about it.
Exactly two weeks after Sabally and I spoke, the state of Texas passed legislation on an abortion ban that effectively puts bounties on anyone who even remotely assists or gives advice to a woman seeking an abortion. So we didn’t talk specifically about that law. But I think I know where she stands on it.
When I ask her about the admittedly broad topic of “women’s rights,” Sabally lets out a near laugh — half exasperated, half good-natured — that is mostly stifled but still perceptible through the way it affects her tone. Athletes can sometimes be asked less-than-probing questions about serious issues with an implication that they don’t actually have intelligent answers but know more or less what to say to make it look like both parties have done their jobs. And for female athletes, that can mean some type of nod to being a #GirlBoss or the fact that Ladies Can Hoop Too!, which is all fine and good — ladies can, in fact, hoop — but it is a bit reductive for someone who spends a lot of her energy thinking about the inequality that women (particularly women of color) face and the machinations perpetuating it. In short, it’s a condescending way to interview someone.
“We can talk about a lot in regard to women’s rights,” she says after that near laugh, with an implied question of her own about whether I really want to hear what she has to say.
“I just think about women’s rights to their bodies and think about, What if things were reversed?” she says. “What kind of freedoms would be given to men’s bodies? What kind of money would be put towards protecting those freedoms, or what kind of money goes into research for the health of their bodies?”
She goes on to discuss the financial support the NCAA gives to men’s programs compared to women’s — Sabally and Sabrina Ionescu’s Oregon team was arguably the most exciting team in all of college basketball, and yet in 2019, the year before they were drafted with the first and second overall picks in the WNBA draft, the women’s basketball program’s budget at Oregon was less than half of the men’s.
“We could talk about the pay gap and women being denied seats of power,” Sabally says.
Sabally is friendly both over the phone and in person, rarely taking herself as seriously as the topic at hand. She’s patient and enthusiastic and good at pretending to care what some male reporter has to say about his hometown of Fort Worth or the A/C in the new Globe Life Park in Arlington. But when she speaks to young women, she warns them that they are going to have to go get things in their life that men will try to deny them.
“They’re going to have to be assertive to get equal access to things,” she says.
Nothing about how inequality is perpetuated is simple, but Sabally is smart enough to know that the basic tools people use to thrive are withheld from certain people in America. “I believe education should be free,” she says. “That’s how it is in Germany. I don’t believe that someone should be tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get the knowledge to be successful or to help the world.”
She has talked to enough children in Dallas-Fort Worth to know that neighborhoods and districts determine the quality of education a child receives. “Education is unequal here,” she says. “Black and Brown people don’t have the same access to quality education. Here, if you want continued access to education, you have to perform exceptionally even if you receive a lower quality of education, or you have to be amazing at sports, or you have to be rich.”
The horrors of the not-so-distant past are a crucial part of German education, and the contrast in the United States is not lost on Sabally. “There is legislation here in Texas to not teach racism and its history,” Sabally says of the pushback against critical race theory. “The history of slavery and what was done to Native and Indigenous people, erasing it from children’s education is like denying it. That would be like us not teaching or recognizing the Holocaust in Germany.”
No place Sabally has lived is perfect or immune to the marginalization of certain people, and that’s the point. There are stark issues in America that seem obvious to her. But the way dialogue comes about in the United States is meaningful. She says that the idea of mental health being taken as seriously as a physical injury didn’t occur to her until she came to America and heard people championing its legitimacy. She knows Germany in a way Nowitzki never could. She cherishes the prioritization of community in Gambia, but her parents relocated to her mother’s native Germany so their children could receive a better education.
She has partnered with the United Nations Children’s Fund to help kids around the world, and they put her to use recording videos for children to watch with one message that more or less sums up her mantra: when you see something unfair, say that it’s unfair.
“The magical thing about each and every one of us,” Sabally says to the camera, enunciating every word and emoting for the children, “is that we have a voice. And when people use their voice, there is potential to make change happen.”
It’s hard to do at any age what Sabally does at 23 years old: actively consider what is wrong with the world without letting it prevent her from enjoying her time in it. A few hours after we spoke, she attended her first baseball game (a classic American tradition) and watched the Rangers lose (a classic Texas tradition).
Sabally’s “day-to-day” Achilles injury dragged on for almost a month, and her absence was noticeable on the court. Her rebounding and defense were missed, and she might be the team’s best facilitator of ball movement on offense. If you went to a game during this period, you’d have seen her playing the role of patient mentor to the team’s three rookies on the bench while being something of a sounding board to third-year players Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, who are sick of using youth as an excuse for failure. Catch her when her teammates aren’t looking, though, and you’d see her frustration as she watched her team lose.
The Unicorn finally returned with just three games left in the regular season, in a matchup against Ionescu and the New York Liberty. Sabally came off the bench and scored 13 points to go with three rebounds and three assists. Her playing time was supposed to be limited, but she played 22 minutes because coach Vickie Johnson said Sabally wanted to be on the court. Immediately after being subbed out with 38 seconds remaining, Sabally vomited, later chalking it up to nerves and exhaustion, with an embarrassed laugh. The Wings won 77-76, clinching a playoff spot that had nearly slipped away in her absence.
Things just click better for the Wings when Sabally’s playing. The game is smoother. The team is more fun to watch. There’s something promising about watching young players like that. You get the sense that their best performances are going to make everyone better.
That sounds like what Sabally’s trying to do in Dallas, at least. And whatever form that takes, she won’t be shy about it.