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How a tumultuous summer and a partner’s encouraging words inspired Renee Montgomery to become an Atlanta Dream owner

Renee MontgomeryWandaVision is a slow burn. Unlike other series in the Marvel canon, this Elizabeth Olsen vehicle only works its way to a thundering crescendo over the final few episodes. Renee Montgomery’s 13-year-old son, Angel, prefers action and wasn’t overly impressed with the pacing. Montgomery, on the other hand, loved it.

WandaVision had me,” says Montgomery, who proudly proclaims that her family’s superpower is ordering takeout and binge-watching TV all day. “I’m a person who likes to be surprised. I like the plot twists.”

Montgomery’s own origin story almost feels like something from a comic book: A young woman from West Virginia takes her otherworldly basketball skills to the University of Connecticut. There, she puts up ridiculous numbers (1,990 career points) and, in 2009, leads the Huskies to a 39-0 season and the NCAA title. She’s then drafted by the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, wins the Sixth Woman of the Year award in ’12 with the Connecticut Sun, and twice becomes a WNBA champ during her second stint with the Lynx in ’15 and ’17.

Montgomery moved on to the Atlanta Dream the following season. She started all 68 games over the next two years, leading the team in assists in ’18. The scenes were seemingly writing themselves.

But, as with any good script, obstacles were right around the bend. The pandemic forced the WNBA to reconfigure its 2020 season inside a bubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. And, after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Montgomery feared staying inside the “Wubble” would keep her too silent. On June 18, she announced she was sitting out the season. “My heart was in the community, not in playing basketball, and if my heart is not 100 percent in, then I’m out,” she says.

She’d seen the backlash when Kyrie Irving threatened an NBA strike over social justice and feared how the public would react, but felt the moment was bigger than basketball and worth the risk and financial sacrifice.

So, there she was, screaming “Say her name” along with her WNBA sisters. She was on CNN. She participated in voting initiatives.

Last July, then Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler wrote the WNBA commissioner opposing the league’s support of Black Lives Matter. Loeffler stated there is “no place for racism in our country” but claimed BLM “has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country.”

The WNBA players union responded with a tweet: “E-N-O-U-G-H! O-U-T!” And Montgomery posted a letter to the senator on Medium, writing: “Your comments hurt deeply because it was a veiled ‘All Lives Matter’ response. It’s not that you’re tone deaf to the cry for justice, but you seemingly oppose it.”

While all this was going on, Montgomery’s fiancee, Sirena Grace, couldn’t help but think that her partner could be doing even more for the cause. “I wanted the world to see what I saw, which is a great leader and a great speaker,” says Grace, a musician who doubles as Montgomery’s publicist. “She has a way of speaking to people that gets through.”

As whispers of Loeffler’s departure from the league grew louder, so too did Grace’s nudging. “I said [to Renee], Just hear me out. What if, in a crazy world, you bought the Dream? She was like, Oh my God. That’s crazy. I was like, I don’t know. Reach out to a couple of your NBA friends or something. I think it could be possible. She listened to me. If there’s one thing Renee does, she takes an idea and she brings it to life.”

Less than seven months after that conversation, Loeffler sold her stake in the Dream. Montgomery joined forces with Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of the real-estate firm Northland, and Suzanne Abair, Northland president and COO, to become Atlanta’s new owners. The move makes Montgomery the team vice president and the first former WNBA player to own part of a franchise.

Renee Montgomery
Representing her foundation, Montgomery meets with Jr. NBA players at the FedExForum in Memphis.

Photograph courtesy of Jr. NBA

This is the WNBA’s 25th season, making 2021 a pivotal moment. Amazon recently bought exclusive, multiyear streaming rights to 16 regular season matchups and the new Commissioner’s Cup game, which awards $500,000 to a midseason champion. Last month, Sports Illustrated recognized the league anniversary with a cover story.

On the other hand, there are still massive pay discrepancies between players and their NBA counterparts—the highest-paid WNBA pro will make $221,450 this season, roughly $6.3 million less than the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young.

“I’d like to see more improvement from corporate sponsorship—not just buying into the WNBA but women’s sports in general,” says Montgomery, who also serves as a basketball analyst for Bally Sports Southeast and ESPN. “Companies pump a lot of money into sports, but [why] not women’s sports?”

Yes, there’s plenty of work still to be done. But much has already been accomplished. In addition to leading the Dream, Montgomery is a new co-owner of a team in Duluth’s startup Fan-Controlled Football league, where spectators call the plays for indoor matchups. She also started the Renee Montgomery Foundation, which supports underserved Atlanta communities, so far backing events like a school supply drive and a Juneteenth celebration.

Interim Dream head coach Mike Petersen appreciates Montgomery’s new leadership role. “Her energy for this organization is great. She’s so focused on her players, the organization, telling their stories, promoting our organization, and trying to build the best organization from top to bottom in the league.”

This article appears in our July 2021 issue.

60 Voices: Dominique Wilkins and Trae Young on leading the Atlanta Hawks

Dominique Wilkins
Dominique Wilkins

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Dominique Wilkins is an Atlanta Hawks legend and a 2006 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

Trae Young 2021 playoffs
Trae Young drives to the basket against the New York Knicks during Round 1, Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

Photograph by Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

Trae Young is the Hawks’ star point guard and the quickest player to make 400 three-pointers in NBA history.

Atlanta magazine: Dominique, you were the face of the Hawks franchise in the ’80s and ’90s. Trae, you’re currently the face. What’s it like to have that weight on your shoulders every night?

TY: For me, I’m still learning. Obviously, I’ve got good role models that I can look up to. Playing with Vince [Carter for two seasons]. Playing with Danilo [Gallinari] now. I know I can learn so much. I just embrace it. This city is so unique and so cool, and they’re looking for excitement.

You look back in the day, and you see the excitement that ’Nique brought to the city. And I just try to do the same thing and, at the same time, win. I know I’m still learning, and there are things I have to get better at as far as being a franchise guy. I mean, ’Nique is a vet at being a leader and a franchise guy. He’s been through it, so I want to hear how it felt for him.

DW: Well, you know, Trae, I agree with a lot of things that you just said because that’s what it takes to be a leader. But when you’re a competitor like we are, it’s not a burden to carry a team. It’s not a burden to take some of the heroics or the criticism, because that’s what we signed up for. That’s who we are. And watching you every night, I see the strength that I played with and the confidence—never letting anyone tell you what you can’t do. That’s what makes it worthwhile, when you can have all that pressure—what other people see as pressure; we don’t see it as pressure—and embrace it. That’s what keeps us alive and vibrant out there on the floor. When I’m watching you, [I see] a lot of stuff [like] back when I was playing. You’re still learning, but you’ve learned so much in a short period of time. It never ceases to amaze me each time you go through a tough spot, you’re able to prevail later.

AM: ’Nique, you stopped playing in Atlanta in 1993. What kept you here?

DW: You know what? I went through a tough time coming out of North Carolina because I made a decision to further my education at Georgia. The state of North Carolina basically ran my whole family out of town in 1979 [because I chose to play elsewhere]. Atlanta embraced me. The University of Georgia embraced me. It was the first time I actually felt like I had a home.

We traveled all over the place. My dad was in the military. It never felt like we had a home. It wasn’t until I came to Georgia that I really realized that I had a home. It was a very depressing time when I came to Georgia. But when I got here, the city just treated me like I was their native son. I never left, after all this time. It’s just a special city for me because of the way it treated me. Even to this day, the things that the city still does—I can never, ever fill that void with another city.

AM: Trae, in your short time in the city, what have you loved most about it?

TY: For me, I’m just very, very thankful for the city of Atlanta embracing me the way they have. Coming in, 19 years old, it was just a culture shock. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. I grew up in Oklahoma City. Everything was Oklahoma for me. And getting drafted and coming to Atlanta is like the first time living away from my family. First time being in a big city. It was a culture shock, but also it was fun. It was me. I walked into Atlanta, and everybody I met [embraced me]. Quavo and all the [rap] artists reached out. The way they embraced me was very welcoming. I can never thank them enough. We have a lot of memories so far, just being in Atlanta these couple years. I don’t plan on stopping for a while.

DW: I can tell you this, Trae, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a star player here, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you in this city. To pass that torch on and say, Hey, this is the guy. You’ve proven time and time again that you are worthy of all the stuff that you get and so much more to come. I am glad I’m here to be a part of that.

AM: Talk about the day-to-day mental and physical stress of the pandemic.

TY: Obviously, there are a lot worse things going on. But for me, it’s been the same thing since the beginning of the season with the testing. We test twice a day. On game days, it’s early in the mornings, between 8 and 8:30, sometimes 9. On back-to-back [game days]—we just finished one—it’s testing in the mornings, come back in the afternoon, test. So, you’re constantly, even on game days, trying to figure out times to get naps in; if you end up not getting enough sleep the night before, you have to find a way to get your rest and things like that. I think, for us, we’ve all had this mentality that everybody’s going through this—it’s not just us. It’s not just a couple teams. For us, we’re not going to let that be an excuse.

DW: I think [the NBA has] done a tremendous job. Your back is against the wall, so to speak. And to be able to come up with different ways to bring people joy from this great sport has been nothing short of a miracle and amazing to me. I’ll tell you, I applaud these guys because I don’t know how they stay in the rooms every day and you can’t go anywhere. It would be hard for me, man. I know a lot of guys like to move around, like me. And for them to be as disciplined as they’ve been is amazing. The league has really put great measures in place to ensure that the players are safe and the fans are safe.

AM: What are you looking forward to when we get back to some sort of normalcy?

TY: My main thing is that I’m looking forward to the fans being in the arena. This team has been looking for excitement for a long time, since the ’Nique days. I’m just looking forward to getting everybody back in the arena.

DW: For me, I’m just looking forward to going to a really nice restaurant with the family. But to be back on the floor and locker room around these guys—I love being around these guys, even when we are traveling and on the road.

TY: I know you miss those road trips. I went from seeing you every day to not seeing you at all anymore. It’s crazy.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

If the Braves want to win it all, they’ll need Austin Riley’s thunderous bat and cannon arm locked and loaded

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Austin Riley Atlanta Braves
Austin Riley

Austin Riley is always on the go. Show the gifted Atlanta Braves third baseman/outfielder an open four-hour window on the schedule and he’ll find a golf course or some dense woods for a bit of hunting. In fact, when we caught up with the 23-year-old star in the making for this interview, he was on the road, driving home from a Texas trip.

But the dawn of a new Major League Baseball season is upon us. No time for tracking turkeys right now. “I was in Dallas,” says Riley, with just a touch of Mississippi twang. “My hitting guy is there. Came down and saw him for a couple of days before I head to Florida [for spring training].”

The Los Angeles Dodgers, an apex predator on the MLB food chain, eliminated Atlanta on their way to a World Series title a season ago. L.A.’s only gotten better. Riley’s National League East-winning Braves must do the same to keep pace. Below, the young slugger speaks on the team’s new look on the mound, the late Hank Aaron’s legacy, and his fresh approach to hunting down opposing pitchers’ fastballs.

You all were so close to the promised land last year. How does it feel to finally get back out there and give it another shot?
It’s exciting. For me, I’ve got more of a sense of urgency, getting my prep work done. Like you said, the way it ended last year kind of leaves a sour taste in your mouth. I’m excited for spring. Looks like we’re going to have a full season—hopefully. I’m pumped. A lot of guys have a sense of urgency and are ready to get to work and handle some business.

What kind of mental and physical toll has the past year taken on you?
I think the biggest thing of going into an unknown season like last year, you just try to [see] it like it is a 162 [-game season] because that’s all you know. That’s kind of the way we took it. Not having fans wasn’t ideal. I’m hopeful that we’ll have fans this year. They kinda spark that adrenaline rush and keep you in the game, especially as you get deep into the season. I think the biggest thing going forward is to just prepare for 162. I think that’s all you can do, and I think that’s all we know how to do.

Austin Riley Atlanta BravesUnfortunately, the early 2021 news hasn’t been great surrounding the Braves, with so many franchise legends passing away. Did you have a relationship with Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, or Hank Aaron?
Yeah, I met them all. It’s a terrible thing. You hate to see that many [former players] go. I got a signed ball from Phil Niekro, which was cool. Topps did a deal where me and Hank were on the same baseball card. We both signed it. Just to be able to see your name next to a guy like Hank Aaron on a baseball card is something I’ll be able to talk about for the rest of my life. The impact that he had, not only on the Braves but the world in general, is unreal. He’s a guy that you try to model yourself after. Inside and out, I think he had a great heart. And obviously, what he did on the baseball field was unbelievable.

You play in the outfield and third base. If Braves manager Brian Snitker said that you could choose your position, which would you go with?
If he were to ask, I’d probably stick to my roots and go with third base, just because I’ve been there my whole career just about. That’s my home position. I feel comfortable there. Working with [third base coach Ron] Washington is unbelievable. If you ask me, he’s the best of the best. I just feel comfortable there. I’m not saying I don’t feel comfortable in left field—I do. But [third] is all I’ve known my whole life, growing up and playing the infield.

Another Braves legend, Chipper Jones, is going to play a more integral role with the club this season as a hitting consultant. How do you envision him helping your game?
I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to approach this. For me, personally, I think I’m going to ask him more about the mental side of the game. The in-game planning. How do I attack certain pitchers? When he wasn’t feeling good that day, what helped him through? That kind of aspect of the game is the thought process I have with him coming on board.

Where do you want to see your game improve?
Consistently, I want to be a tougher out at the plate. Putting up more consistent at-bats is what I’m shooting for. The same with my defense. Just being more consistent. I think that’s the name of the game and I think that’s an area I need to improve. On a daily basis, just be more consistent. [I want to be] more trustworthy of my manager and coaches for putting me in the lineup and they know I’m going to give them a professional at-bat.

The L.A. Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals have only gotten better. Do you think the Braves are good enough to put up a fight in the National League?
Absolutely. I think adding the two arms (Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly) that we did are going to help us be even better. And, hopefully, we’ll have [rehabbing pitcher] Mike Soroka back out there. I think our lineup is pretty stacked up and down to compete every day with the best of the best. I have no doubt in mind that we’ll be able to compete.

What do you like most about Atlanta?
I don’t make it up there anymore a whole lot, but I like Lake Lanier. I love that little area. You just get out on the water. I get out there whenever I get the chance. And obviously, the golf courses are not bad at all either, when we get some down time to get out there and swing it a little bit.

Do you play a lot of golf?
I play quite a bit of golf, when I can. And during the offseason, I hunt. I deer hunt and duck hunt. Those are my two go-to’s whenever I’m not playing baseball.

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