Renee Montgomery: The basketball star partially responsible for Raphael Warnock's Senate success

Renee Montgomery opted out of the 2020 WNBA season to work for social justice reform

In basketball, nothing is more important than the championship series.

But seven months ago, Renee Montgomery realised some things are bigger than basketball. In fact, there are things for which she would even give up her championship medals.

Montgomery is part of a social justice movement gaining momentum in the United States’ WNBA and, a month after George Floyd died while in police custody, added her name to the list of players pausing their careers in the pursuit of other causes.

The 34-year-old two-time WNBA champion’s most recent win goes right to the top of American politics. She is partially responsible for Raphael Warnock’s successful and decisive Senate campaign in Georgia. Warnock, a Baptist pastor, becomes the first black senator for Georgia – a slavery state in the US Civil War – and only the 11th black member of the Senate in US history.

Republican incumbent senator Kelly Loeffler, whose defeat by Democrat Warnock was confirmed on Thursday, is co-owner of Montgomery’s former side Atlanta Dream.

When Loeffler called for the league to reject “divisive political movements” like Black Lives Matter, some players decided to take action.

They wanted her removed as team owner, then they wanted her removed from the Senate.

Players wore “Vote Warnock” jerseys at games and, according to his campaign, raised more than $200,000 (£150,000) in just three days for the candidate, while polls indicated a rising support for the politician.

Sue Bird wearing a 'Vote Warnock' t-shirt
WNBA players, like Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird, wore T-shirts showing support for Senate candidate Raphael Warnock

Warnock’s defeat of Loeffler, alongside fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff’s win, gave president-elect Joe Biden’s party control of the Senate.

With such far-reaching consequences, it is no wonder Montgomery sees her work as more important than Championship medals. If she had to choose between her sporting success and helping to achieve political change, which would it be?

“What’s happening now is so much bigger than sports that it’s hard to even compare because what’s happening right now will be in history books,” she told BBC Sport.

“I think I’m going to take the history books. I think people will forget about this championship ball.

“I think they will forget about everything behind me but I don’t think the world will forget about what’s happening right now.”

Publicly turning on your boss is a scary prospect for any employee and Montgomery admits such rebellion did not come naturally.

The former WNBA all-star added that politics is not somewhere she is “comfortable” and that she was “reading and studying” to educate herself on the topic, but the desire to make her mark on history superseded anything else.

“When there are such moments of this magnitude happening you don’t really care about ruffling feathers,” she explained.

“It was scary, I’m not going to lie. It was uneasy. I like everything to be smooth.

“I like everything to go according to plan and easy, so for me it was hard causing a lot of fuss.

“I like to be a part of positivity and things of that nature but sometimes you have to get in good trouble.”

She has faced opposition to her support for Black Lives Matter, but says she is happy to talk to those who “want to listen”.

“I like when people want to know and those uncomfortable conversations are necessary sometimes,” she said.

“If somebody wants to have it, you can’t force anything on anyone.”

Montgomery’s activism has been mirrored in the NBA, prompting President Trump to rescind the White House invitation for championship teams during his presidency.

And basketball legend LeBron James showed his support for Montgomery’s work, tweeting on Tuesday that he was thinking of putting together “an ownership group”external-link for the team.

Comedian Kevin Hart is also on board with James’ idea and Montgomery said the backing of male stars gave her hope for the future of women’s basketball.

“We’re a growing league,” she said. “And we’re growing at a rapid rate. Viewership is up.

“I think about what names like that could do for our league. I would love to see it, not just for the Atlanta Dream but I would love to see it for the WNBA.

“You know there’s plenty of people that invest in men’s sports, I would love to see people do the same for women’s sports.”

Despite Wednesday’s riots on Capitol Hill, Montgomery remains hopeful for the future because, she says, “democracy won”.

She knows that things are “not going to be changed overnight” but believes the election result, particularly Kamala Harris becoming the first woman, and the first black and Asian American, to be vice-president-elect, can bring “a different perspective”.

Montgomery is proud of all that she has achieved and it remains unclear whether she will return to the basketball court for the 2021 WNBA season.

After playing such a pivotal role in the history of her state and, in turn her country, can she go back to a life where the highest stakes are the outcome of a championship game?

With the Senate win still so fresh, Montgomery has not had much time to think about it and, understandably, says she is “still figuring things out”.

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