Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP, and guard Epiphanny Prince entered the league's health and safety protocols, missing Wednesday's 97-77 loss at the Phoenix Mercury.
Guard Sue Bird said the Storm were told about both players being out as the team was headed to the game at Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix. They were aware earlier in the day about Prince's situation, but Stewart's took them by surprise. The Storm were already without veteran center Mercedes Russell, out indefinitely with a non-basketball injury.
"We didn't find out about Stewie at all until we were getting on the bus," Bird said. "We really were just kind of on the fly out there. At one point we had essentially five guards. There are times in my career where I'm like, 'I think I've seen it all,' and then this happens, where the scratches were literally right before the game.
"It was ugly for us. Just feeling out of sorts at times. The plus we can take is we didn't give up, we stayed together."
It was the second day in a row a WNBA player was sidelined by COVID-19. Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud missed Tuesday's victory over the Las Vegas Aces.
Players seem to be connecting travel with their positive COVID-19 tests. On social media Tuesday, Cloud criticized the league for "flying us commercial during a pandemic. (And no mask mandates)." Stewart had a similar comment on social media Wednesday: "Fly commercial they say ..."
The league uses commercial flights for virtually all travel because of the prohibitive expense of charter flights. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert estimated that it would cost $20 million per season to use charters for all league travel. The WNBA has allowed their use sparingly during the playoffs.
Bird said the WNBA can look at how the NBA handled situations with losing players temporarily to COVID-19 during the season. However, she pointed out that the NBA had G League players as potential temporary replacements. G Leaguers made up a significant portion of the 111 players who got COVID-19 hardship deals in the NBA this season.
"We travel commercial," Bird said. "When we're on the road we're in public places in order to eat, the hotels we stay at. With the new [COVID-19] variants, and the fact that we don't have a G League to pull from, one would imagine that this might happen a lot. I don't hope that for anyone. But who knows ... given that the season has just started, and we are already starting to see it."
Cloud and the Mystics traveled to the Minnesota Lynx for a game Sunday, and the Storm had games Sunday at Las Vegas and Wednesday at Phoenix.
"They were on the road, we are on the road ... is there a connection there? I don't know," Bird said. "COVID seems to be a pretty tricky virus."
Under the WNBA's current rules for COVID-19, players are tested only if they are symptomatic. Their return to play is symptom-specific, but generally speaking, players will be cleared to return to play after two negative tests that are at least 24 hours apart. Players who are out because of positive COVID-19 tests can be temporarily replaced.
Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said Wednesday she is uncertain if the Storm will bring in a temporary player (or players) before Saturday's rematch with Phoenix at 3 p.m. ET on ABC. The Mercury, after losing their opener to Las Vegas on May 6 got their first win for new coach Vanessa Nygaard on Wednesday.