Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) is part owner of the Atlanta Dream. Her politics have made her the nemesis of her own team. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Before she became the archenemy of her own basketball team, Kelly Loeffler, Republican senator and co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, loved talking about zone defense.

It started early in Michael Cooper’s first season as head coach of the Dream, in 2014. Loeffler, a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company, traveled often, but she would plan her work trips around the Dream’s schedule, a former team CEO said, locking it into her calendar to avoid missing a single game.

During home games, she sat at center court and devoured the minutiae of basketball. She noted how Cooper countered an opponent’s 2-3 zone, quietly catalogued the times her center got hacked in the paint and studied the halftime stat sheet. When the buzzer sounded, she congratulated or consoled a player with a hug before heading to the locker room to find Cooper. There they sat, tucked away in an office beyond the whiteboard and the shower stalls, breaking down the X’s and O’s from the game they both loved.

Loeffler’s focus on basketball was hardly singular. She and her husband had donated a small fortune to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and she had explored running for Senate in 2014 as a pro-business Republican who could appeal to suburban women. But to Cooper and others in WNBA circles, she was just another hoop head like them.

Then in December, Loeffler, 49, was appointed to fill Georgia’s vacant seat in the Senate, and she immediately branded herself “pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.” It made political sense: She would be up for reelection within a year and, in an open special election, would have to fend off challenges from the right. But it also opened an uncomfortable gap between Loeffler’s two roles: investor in a predominantly Black basketball league that promotes itself as a coalition of progressive activists and politician seeking reelection in President Trump’s GOP.

This chasm only widened in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, when the WNBA, like the NBA, committed to amplifying social justice causes, wearing Breonna Taylor’s name on jerseys and displaying “Black Lives Matter” on the court in its Florida bubble.

In the aftermath of Jacob Blake's shooting by police in Kenosha, Wis., teams in the WNBA, NBA, MLB and other sports decided not to play games in protest. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ashley Landis/AP Photo via Pool/The Washington Post)

In the players’ activism, Trump’s supporters found an opening to renew their call for athletes to “stick to sports,” a favorite culture-war battle cry. Loeffler joined the fight, sending a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert objecting to what she deemed the politicization of the game. Racism has no place in the United States, Loeffler wrote, but the “Black Lives Matter political movement” does not align with the league or her team.

Now, as Loeffler is locked in a close race with Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), a fervent always-Trumper, she is not backing down.

“I’m disappointed at the league’s decision, and that’s why I spoke up because I have a small business that leaguewide decision impacted,” Loeffler said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I wanted to be able to express myself as so many folks across the country do and have.”

But the pushback from WNBA players, even from her own team, has been fierce. Though players have advocated for Say Her Name, a movement that supports forgotten women of color who were victims of police violence, they refuse to say Loeffler’s, referring to her only as “the owner of the Dream.” They have called for her removal from the league, citing how Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banished from the NBA in 2014 after being caught on tape making racist comments.

And that was all before the players refused to play — an unprecedented athlete work stoppage staged this week in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. When the women needed someone to deliver their statement, demanding “action for change,” they chose Elizabeth Williams, who plays for the Dream. Two days later, Loeffler told reporters that “walking away from problems and walking away from a dialogue is not the right approach.”

For Cooper — and for many who once worked and played for the Dream and throughout the WNBA — her political rise has been painful to watch.

“I never, never saw what is coming out now,” said Cooper, whose contract was not renewed after the 2017 season. “I am very hurt and upset and disheartened that, with the Black Lives movement going on, she would let her political views spill over into that.”

Building up strength

She had a nickname.

When she was a freshman, Loeffler sprouted to 5-foot-10, making her one of the taller players at her high school in rural Illinois. But Loeffler lacked strength; as a child, she has said, she wore braces on her legs. Some of her teammates, watching as she hustled but stumbled all over the court, called her “NBC” — short for “newborn calf.” Loeffler only learned what the initialism meant years later, she said.

“She could maybe get a rebound, but she couldn’t always hang on to it,” recalled Beth Smith Uphoff, who coached Loeffler’s junior varsity team. “She weighed next to nothing, so she’d get knocked down pretty easily.”

Still, she kept at it. After she and her brother battered the rim at their family corn and soybean farm, she spent the summer practicing in gyms with no air conditioning. She found inspiration in the origin story of Michael Jordan, whose battles with his older brother couldn’t keep him from getting cut from his high school team — a slight that fueled Jordan’s rise to NBA stardom. By her senior year, Loeffler had switched her jersey number from 34 to 23.

Her skills never quite matched the number, but her confidence did. Loeffler was the smart kid who would tutor a classmate with a reading disability. She joined the math and science club and student council, played in the marching band and ran cross-country and track. Though each activity presented its own adolescent ecosystem, friends said, Loeffler flourished in them all by listening before sharing her own carefully chosen words.

‘Strike’? ‘Boycott’? When athletes stopped playing, the arguments over wording began.

After earning her MBA, Loeffler became the spokeswoman for Intercontinental Exchange, a financial start-up that in time would acquire the New York Stock Exchange. She met her husband, CEO Jeff Sprecher, there, and she was eventually named CEO of an ICE subsidiary. Together, she and Sprecher are now worth more than $520 million, making Loeffler the richest member of the Senate.

In 2010, Loeffler had money to spend and a love for basketball that was still burning hot. She attended a Dream game at the invitation of team officials who hoped she might invest in the cratering franchise, perhaps by convincing her company to become a sponsor. Loeffler — who liked to quote Madeleine Albright’s famous line about “a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” — went a step further and joined the ownership group.

She knew the Dream would not make money, but that wasn’t the point. She could afford it, she told NPR in 2011, when the Dream lost in the WNBA Finals. What mattered more was the “importance of [being] a woman owner.” Ten years in, she still believes in the power of her ownership. “This is a business that was built to support women,” she told The Post.

After that season, Loeffler and Mary Brock — the wife of John Brock, the former chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. — bought out the previous owner. Together, they invested directly in their players, putting them up in a Midtown apartment complex and providing them cars during their summers in Atlanta.

“When I was there, she was pro-players all the way,” former Dream coach Marynell Meadors said. “She wanted the team to be front-runners for women.”

Before every season, Loeffler invited the players to her estate, in Atlanta’s tony Tuxedo Park neighborhood, for a team dinner. Former Dream player Meighan Simmons remembers getting a tour of Sprecher’s Porsches before entering the indoor basketball court, where a long dining table was set up for the catered Maggiano’s. At some point during the pasta feast, Loeffler stood up at the head of the table, welcomed the women and shared her excitement for the upcoming season.

“I think it was important for her that we won a championship. She wanted us to,” Simmons said. But she recalled Loeffler expressing little else. “Kelly was a woman of few words.”

‘Not the Kelly we know’

It wasn’t that she didn’t have opinions. If Loeffler thought a referee made a bad call, one former colleague said, she kept mental notes and threatened to write letters to the WNBA. If the Dream had organizational news to report, Loeffler took the lead in drafting the release, composing almost every paragraph. And when the team held its Inspiring Women programs, celebrating successful leaders from the community, Loeffler wanted a briefing on who would be honored.

In 2018, the Dream made in-game salutes to several Black women, including Emma Foulkes and Petrina Bloodworth, the first same-sex couple legally married in Georgia, and Stacey Abrams, who helped bring the franchise to Atlanta but was in a heated race for governor with Republican Brian Kemp at the time.

“She was involved in who some of those women were and was particular as to who they could or could not be,” said Rene Chatfield, the team’s former director of community engagement and special projects. “That’s not a secret to our organization, that Kelly had a say so on Inspiring Women, because essentially she’s getting up there and taking photos with them.”

Her support of those women was not passive. At center court, Loeffler smiled and presented Abrams with a boxed trinket. According to people who knew her, this matched what they perceived to be her moderate side.

Loeffler’s husband had donated to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and over a span of several years, they gave $10,200 to David Scott, a Democratic congressman who represented an Atlanta district, according to Mostly they backed Romney, donating at least $750,000 to the super PAC supporting his bid for the presidency. They were such Romney Republicans, colleagues said, that they hosted fundraisers and the candidate often called their home. On Loeffler’s cellphone, the wallpaper used to be a photo of her and Romney, a colleague recalled.

By 2019, however, ambitious Republicans had little room for moderation, and Loeffler appeared comfortable being allied with the party’s new standard-bearer. That summer, Trump dispatched her to France as part of an all-female delegation he sent to the Women’s World Cup.

Athletes have the power to help America get it right, and they’re using it

Not long after, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) announced his retirement. Gov. Kemp opened an online portal for interested candidates, and Loeffler applied. So did Collins, who had shown allegiance to Trump as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, challenging special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and others as they testified about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Despite Trump’s backing of Collins, Kemp picked Loeffler. In her introduction, after Loeffler declared herself “pro-wall,” someone yelled, “Woo,” and Loeffler let a nervous chuckle escape. But her support for Trump’s agenda was unwavering. She vowed to support a ban on abortions at 20 weeks and described Democrats as socialists threatening to dismantle everything that makes America great. In one of her first TV ads, rock music plays in the background as she wears a hunting vest, a shotgun resting on her shoulder.

“I don’t recognize the person who is speaking and the words she’s using and the stance that she’s taking since she got appointed senator,” said Ashley Preisinger, the Dream’s former CEO. “That’s not the Kelly we know.”

Polls show Loeffler leading Collins slightly, with neither candidate close to 50 percent, meaning they are likely to face off in a January runoff. As Election Day nears, Loeffler has dug deeper into the Trump playbook. She picks Twitter fights with its founder, Jack Dorsey, and weighs in on violent protests in Portland, Ore. She has even veered away from an issue particularly significant to the WNBA and its fan base.

In 2018, when the league pushed to celebrate Pride Month throughout June, Loeffler did not speak out during Board of Governors meetings, according to four people with knowledge of her conduct during those sessions. That summer, the Dream hosted Pride Night and announced partial proceeds from the game would be donated to an LGBTQ youth organization.

But when asked about the Dream’s support of an LGBTQ cause, her campaign spokesman, Stephen Lawson, insisted the team never gave money to the group. As a candidate, Loeffler now supports “religious liberty” laws; critics say this sort of legislation allows religious institutions to discriminate against women and the LGBTQ community.

She has no choice, one longtime GOP operative in Georgia said. Subtlety isn’t an option, and with her tranquil tones, Loeffler must speak directly to the president’s base.

“To win Republicans, you have to be ‘X’ in this climate. She has always been ‘Y.’ And she has had to fake being ‘X,’ ” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing ties to several Georgia politicians. “She’s got to go out there and be hardcore on abortion. She’s got to be hardcore on guns. In this atmosphere, this is a new thing. She’s got to be hardcore on antifa and BLM and take a firm, decisive and militant stand on these cultural war issues, which she is doing.”

In the process, she has lost the WNBA.

“We don’t need you, and that’s that,” Chicago Sky all-star Courtney Vandersloot said after Loeffler spoke out against Black Lives Matter. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association tweeted: “E-N-O-U-G-H! O-U-T!” After watching her former boss take on the league, Simmons can’t stop second-guessing her time in Atlanta.

“You have to think in your mind: ‘What? Was I blind when I first met her? Was I just happy with the fact I made the WNBA team, and was I not paying attention as to who was owning [the team]?’ ” Simmons said. “It was like: ‘Wow! Where in the world is this coming from?’ I never saw this coming. I never expected that from her because she showed us something completely different when we first met her.”

Pushing for new ownership

Since Loeffler sent the letter to the WNBA, neither Loeffler nor Brock has communicated with the players on their payroll, the Dream’s Williams said. Loeffler told The Post that her work in the Senate keeps her from being involved in day-to-day operations of the team; Brock did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

In the aftermath, Engelbert, the league commissioner, said “interest piqued” from possible buyers of the Dream. But she also said Loeffler has a right to respectfully express her politics and that the league will not push her out.

One owner, at least privately, disagreed.

“I would hope that someone can’t get away with something like this with the league being powerless,” the owner told The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss league business. “I thoroughly disagree with an owner usurping the platform and taking it away from what these women stand for and making it personal. I think that’s just wrong. … It’s just crazy to me.”

Loeffler insisted she’s not going anywhere.

“I am an owner, and I will continue to be,” she said. “Look, the idea that I should walk away from it because I have a different view, I say to the contrary. We need to have conservative voices in sports. We need to have room and tolerance for all views in sports and not make people feel excluded.”

She doesn’t catch much basketball anymore, though. Before she was a senator, she tried to watch every Dream game, even flying on a private plane to road games or at least streaming them on her laptop late into the night, Preisinger said. This year, Loeffler said she watched most of the Dream’s season opener but hasn’t seen a game since. She just doesn’t have the time, she said, while she’s focused on “serving Georgians.”

That means she didn’t watch Aug. 4, when the Dream played the Phoenix Mercury. Her team — and players around the league — showed up at the arena wearing black T-shirts with a message about one of Loeffler’s Democratic opponents, Raphael Warnock. “Vote Warnock,” the shirts read.

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