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Love & Basketball

The amazing love story behind one of the women taking over the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream

It was a Wednesday night in Atlanta two years ago. 

The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks were hosting the San Antonio Spurs for a run-of-the-mill regular season game on March 6, 2019. The Spurs would defeat the Hawks, leaving them with a 22-44 record — with twice as many losses than wins — near the end of yet another overall terrible season out of many. A young rookie named Trae Young led the Hawks in minutes played and points made.

While the actual exhibition wasn’t exceptional, you can say that something special happened on the court that night — even if it was before the first tip took place. 27 year-old Sirena Grace was invited to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” prior to the game. It wasn’t her first time taking on the ceremonial gig; she had sung the national anthem at Braves games before, leading her to catch the Hawks staff’s attention.

But it was her first time in front of Renee Montgomery, a 10-year WNBA star veteran, in her second season playing for the Atlanta Dream.

“She came up to me after the game and we were just talking and we basically connected there,” Grace told me in an interview, just two years and a few weeks after that game.

Now, she’s still a professional singer, but she’s also a recently graduated writer and media specialist. Oh, and the fiancée (and PR rep) of Renee Montgomery, now the Co-Owner and Vice President of the Dream.

“It’s been a crazy two years. It’s nothing that we would have ever imagined, not even one year ago,” Grace reflected. “You know for us to be in this position… It’s been crazy, but it’s been a blessing.”

INTO spoke to Sirena just weeks after the news broke in February that Renee was going to become one of the three new co-owners of the Dream. At 34, not only is Renee the first former WNBA player to become both an owner and executive in a WNBA team, she is one of the youngest, and one of the few, out people in the front office of an American professional sports team.

It’s the latest turn in Renee’s meteoric career as an athlete, entrepreneur, and media personality. It’s as if everything has just magically came together for her, although there was surely a lot she had to sacrifice to get to this point. For example, in between her WNBA seasons, Renee spent eight consecutive winters playing overseas to supplement her income. That took her to Russia, Israel, Poland and Australia, among other countries, just to make a living during the eight month WNBA offseason.

At 34, not only is Renee the first former WNBA player to become both an owner and executive in a WNBA team, she is one of the youngest, and one of the few, out people in the front office of an American professional sports team.

That seems even more ridiculous when you consider the incredible accolades she already had. She’s won two WNBA championships and a NCAA championship, worked as an actress, NBA analyst, on-air commentator and personality, and her current bio leads with the fact that she won “three Girls State Basketball Championships” in high school in South Charleston, West Virginia.

So becoming one of the few pro athletes to go from the court to the ownership box, especially when she was still very capable of playing, is exceptional considering what she had to do to survive before. It’s also notable who Renee was going to be taking the helm of the team from: Mary Brock, the husband of Coca-Cola CEO John F. Brock, and former Senator Kelly Loeffler.

But we’ll get to that part.

 


After meeting at that game two years ago alongside Angel McCoughtry, an out then-star of the Dream, Sirena and Renee became friends.

At the time, things were much simpler than they would get later on. Most could go outside to large events without caution, for example. The Dream were a playoff team that had reached the Eastern Conference Finals the season before.

Sirena was in awe of WNBA women. “They’re all hardworking, athletes just have a different mindset, and, I’ve just been able to sit and talk and share with them and just how they think and… they’re on another level. Like this literally like the one-percenters of the world. Only one percent of the women in college get to the WNBA. So their mindset is different, you know what I mean? And, I love talking to them.”

Before meeting Renee and others, she wasn’t aware of the stark differences WNBA athletes face compared to the NBA, and the lengths they have to go to to make their salaries work. “I wasn’t necessarily aware,” she recalled, “that there were such big differences like wage and salaries, perks, even hotels and things like that. It blew my mind, the things that we don’t think about.”

Renee “was just starting to venture out into media, doing Fox Sports South, NBA TV and NBA on TNT, things like that,” she remembered.

Sirena was still balancing school at Kennesaw State University, studying music and entertainment business, and being a mother to her son Angel, who she gave birth to at the age of 16. (Angel attended Lindley Sixth Grade Academy, in Mableton, Georgia, where I also went to Lindley Sixth Grade Academy, funnily enough, and Sirena attended eighth grade at the separate but nearby Lindley Middle School.)

In Atlanta, “The only Hispanic people that [people] saw were Mexican people for the most part,” Sirena recalled. “So everybody didn’t really know how to categorize me, they were like ‘so are you Mexican? Are you mixed?’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m Dominican,’ and they’re like, ‘well what part of Mexico is that?’ [Everybody] didn’t understand there were other types of Spanish people that weren’t Mexican.”

She recalls, as I do, that “coming over here was kinda like a culture shock, and seeing how the diversity wasn’t like how it was back in New York.”

That’s similar to how I remember my 6th grade days (which, trust me, I don’t choose to.) I didn’t formally recognize I was queer back then, but I was different, and that meant I was on the receiving end of a lot of bullying, unbridled anger, and frequent active (but also passive) apathy as a Black boy who was different. Even in the metropolitan area known as the “Black LGBTQ Capital of the South,” being different was the worst thing you could be.

Of course, we now know how quickly things began to change.

Take for example, the fact the prior to dating Renee, Sirena had “actually never been with another woman before.”

By September, they were dating, and by October, the two were dressing up as the Addams family for Halloween.

“My friends didn’t really understand, I didn’t even understand because they were like, ‘So are you gay now? Are you lesbian now?’ and I’m like I don’t know, I just love Renee.”

It’s fitting, funnily enough, that the Addams family characters were designed to be antithetical to the on-screen image of the atypical American family.

Renee, Sirena, and Angel, who is now 13, are definitely not molded in the image we most often see of families in media — they’re a glimpse into what underrepresented families across the country have looked like for years, and will undoubtedly look like in the future. Yet, Sirena was far from expecting it.

“It’s interesting that Renee has been my first relationship with a woman. I didn’t even really think about that question before Renee,” she told me. “My friends didn’t really understand, I didn’t even understand because they were like, ‘So are you gay now? Are you lesbian now?’ and I’m like I don’t know, I just love Renee, I’m in love with Renee.”

That same fall, the couple became engaged. Both have generally kept the details of their relationship close to the vest, but have not hesitated to show their affection for one another publicly.

Sirena hadn’t really decided on a label for her sexuality (not that she needs to), but said it’s accurate to say “I guess it’s safe to say bi,” although she’s not sure if she’ll ever feel how she does about Renee with another woman.

“Renee and I, we’re about to get married, and I can honestly say that… I’ve never even thought about another woman before Renee,” Sirena said.

Renee has openly dated women for some time, although what’s she’s said about her personal life isn’t often reported on, if she’s said much at all.

“The WNBA has a large number of LGBTQ women and I don’t think it’s talked about enough,” Sirena said when I share my difficulties in obtaining clear information about Renee online. She expressed that she had the same struggle when she researched the WNBA for college courses. “So that’s part of the reason why you didn’t find any information out there, is because they don’t necessarily talk about WNBA players in general a lot anyway.”

They have social media accounts, of their own and by fans, dedicated to their careers and even their new family. But the most heartwarming evidence of their love is probably the video for Sirena’s single “This Holiday” released this past December. “I remember last November when you got down on one knee,” she sung over footage of Renee’s actual proposal from 2019.

Similarly to Niecy Nash’s “coming out” story when she announced her marriage to Jessica Betts, people are being more open about the fact that queer sexuality isn’t instantly apparent to everyone from the instant they start developing romantic feelings. It also speaks to the fact that our society at present, largely assumes that sexual attractions, romantic attractions, and gender identity are all definitively determined and intertwined. More and more people are beginning to recognize that isn’t always the case.

Life isn’t completely made of a simple binary of options or rules. But I’m sure we’ve figured that out on our own with the last two years.

Sirena and Renee’s story speaks to the fact that our society at present, largely assumes that sexual attractions, romantic attractions, and gender identity are all definitively determined and intertwined.

 


 

When Georgia Governor Brian Kemp entered office in 2019, he immediately began pushing an agenda that was even further to the right than most Georgia conservatives are known to be.

Like many Republicans across the country, he wanted to stay in the good graces of Donald Trump. So he appointed Kelly Loeffler, who had no political experience beyond signing donation checks, to the U.S. Senate seat of Johnny Isakson, who retired early due to health. The remainder of the term would still go to a winner of the special election, but making the Loeffler the incumbent would almost certainly make her the favorite to retain the seat.

Loeffler was just known as a finance executive to most people two years ago, but she quickly quickly became one of the most conservative (and richest) Senators when she took office in January 2020. She also was arguably the most consistent supporter of then-President Donald Trump and his agenda, proudly proclaiming she supported him 100%.

Her new seat also put Loeffler (who through her and her husband’s business, owns and operates the New York Stock Exchange), right in briefings that dealt with confidential, sensitive information only for members of Congress. In January, that included information about COVID-19, the viral infection that has begun to ravage through China and, unbeknownst to many, the rest of the world.

The stock decisions she and her husband made right after those meetings made her, and her allegiance to Trump, front page news. It only made the stakes clearer to Georgians what was on the line at the ballot box that fall.

At the time, Renee was preparing to play her third season on the Dream. While her first year had a promising start under head coach Nicki Collen, the 2019 season would end with the Dream posting their worst record since their first season in the league.

She had founded the Renee Montgomery Foundation, which “strives to promote love, positivity, and equality to all” in its work with the Atlanta community and promotes participation in elections and political involvement. She was beginning to learn firsthand how voter suppression ran rampant in the state where Kemp, up until becoming governor, had ran elections as the secretary of state.

Sirena was still in school. “When I met Renee, it was all about music,” she said. “She was actually helping me get connected with the Atlanta Dream to perform with them. I did some halftime shows with them and some preshows with them as well.

“So, it wasn’t until the progression of her career [and our relationship], where I saw she didn’t really have anyone working for her – as far as writing press releases, taking her phone calls and things like that. And I’m like ‘Well, I know how to write press releases, I’m learning how to do all of that in school right now so I could help you out, I guess.’ So it kind of became a gradual thing.”

Over a year after meeting there, Sirena performed at the State Farm Arena for a Hawks game on March 11, 2020, with Renee cheering her on. It was at one of the last NBA games before things began shutting down.

The WNBA season wasn’t scheduled to start until July, but with the parent NBA thrusted into an unprecedented scenario and unsure of how to complete the nearly-done season, the WNBA was also in as much uncertainty.

By the time the WNBA had figured out how it was going to put on its next campaign (by playing in a “bubble” staying and playing games at or around IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, as the NBA had did at Walt Disney Resorts), Renee and Sirena had seen what was happening to the city they called home.

And in May, the murder of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd by police officers sparked protests around the country. Two days later, Tony McDade, a Black trans man in Tallahassee, Florida, was also shot and killed by police who allegedly didn’t identify themselves when confronting him.

The deaths of Floyd, McDade, and many others – and the visceral response to protests objecting to the constant taking of lives at the hands of law enforcement – began to compel change everywhere. The NBA and WNBA was no different.

So in June, Renee opted out of the season just weeks before it began. She decided to focus on activism and social justice.

“There’s an obvious start point for me: in Atlanta, we’ve got voter suppression problems,” Montgomery said according to Forbes, “and we’ve got an election coming up in November. So for me, there’s a timeline, there’s a set date, there’s a goal.”

“The whole experience of opting out for Renee came as such a shocker, even for her,” Sirena said, “because she’s used to them not getting all this attention… but when she opted out, it got so much attention. It was so surprising and so beautiful to her because it was like, ‘wow, people never talk about the WNBA but now they are, which is really crazy.’”

Just days after Renee opted out, Loeffler blasted her own players and the WNBA as a whole for showing support and advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Renee offered to meet with Loeffler last year and have a discussion with her “boss,” technically, of the last two years. Loeffler would pass on the offer, and apparently never took her up on it. At the time, she was running in a special election to keep her Senate seat. Up until that time, a Republican in most of the state of Georgia seemed almost invincible in elections, especially those that are statewide.

But Renee’s WNBA peers had something to say about that.

Several Dream players, and stars across the WNBA like Sue Bird, the girlfriend of similarly-outspoken soccer star Megan Rapinoe, wore shirts that read “Vote Warnock.” That referred to Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of the two Democratic candidate running in the open race, polling as low as 9 percent at the time.

Social media teams and staff around the league did not shy away from highlighting their players’ voices.

Not only did their simple message get attention, it completely changed the tide of Warnock’s campaign. He was already heading towards being the favorite, but not only did Warnock become the preferred Democrat for the race, he actually received more votes than Loeffler and 18 other candidates  — but just under the necessary threshold to win, and thus the two went to a run-off.

Warnock would clearly win in January 2021 and unseat Loeffler, who whimpered out of office by withdrawing her support for Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.

It also changed the landscape of Loeffler’s role as a WNBA owner. While conservative team owners are more than common and most other businesses would fear alienating someone worth more than $500 million dollars, the leadership around the WNBA league largely consolidated around the players. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbart did not retract the league’s clear support for Black Lives Matter and protests happening around the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

Once the players showed that they were willing to stand up to her, and the league didn’t signal any objection to them expressing their view, Loeffler was clearly a sore thumb that stuck out of one of the most diverse, progressive, and queer sports leagues in the world.

So unsurprisingly, the woman who made her wallet by working at large investment firms and banks like Citigroup and the Intercontinental Exchange and worshipped the supposed “master of the deal” Donald Trump, decided to sell.


As WNBA players who took part in the public rebuke of Loeffler, Renee was getting recognition for what she was doing in communities off the court.

Renee was already amongst the WNBA’s well-recognized talent, but the publicity around her decision suddenly made her a household name for anyone discussing basketball and activism, amongst the likes of NBA stars like LeBron James — one of her biggest supporters.

It might not have been clear at the time, but it seems now that what she did what not only the right thing to do, but the decision to go against what most people would’ve done paid off for her.

“Now look, the WNBPA just won an NAACP Image Award… Nas presented Renee with an Image Award,” Sirena remarked. “We’re getting the recognition that we’ve always wanted and it’s really beautiful.”

As righteously inspiring as the turn of events has been, it’s honestly not that important in Renee and Sirena’s eyes. They are far from ashamed of the journey, but they are moving on. It’s time to pick up the ball and move on to the next play.

Renee, alongside Suzanne Abair, are the two gay women taking over the Dream, one of the most prominent franchises in the growing WNBA. They bought the team alongside Larry Gottesdiener, Chairman of the Northland Investment Group. (Abair is also COO and President at Northland. Terms of their purchase from Brock and Loeffler, who had a 49 percent stake, have not been publicly disclosed.)

For Renee and Sirena, it’s time to pick up the ball and move on to the next play.

“They’re amazing! I just wanted to say that,” Sirena couldn’t help but blurt as soon as I mention them. “Sorry, they’re amazing.”

Gottesdiener will have a “passive” role and Abair, serving as Team President, is expected to be in control of the day-to-day operations.

“She’s amazing,” she said of Suzanne, “we talked and Renee talks with her though Zoom all the time. She really understands what the Atlanta Dream is about. She’s like, ‘we want to connect the Atlanta Dream to the Atlanta community, so we need to have black-owned businesses, black sponsors…’ she’s about that life, she gets it, she gets it. She’s amazing, and so is Larry.”

Renee, as Vice President, is expecting to manage external operations like marketing and promotions, based on Sirena’s understanding of Renee’s role when we spoke in April, which was right before the current WNBA season got underway.

“She has always been in leadership roles. On the teams that she’s played for, she’s usually been the team captain,” Sirena said of her wife-to-be. “So, she’s been communicating with people at a high level for all of her basketball career. I feel like her communication skills and her leadership skills from basketball are what’s gonna transfer over into the ownership.”

Right after her co-ownership was announced, it was also announced that Renee would co-host the podcast Takeline with former Ringer host (and Twitter king) Jason Concepcion, “that’s a fast-paced exploration of the NBA and world of sports and culture.” That’s in addition to Renee’s own podcast, Remotely Renee, and her current duties as a Fox Sports Southeast NBA studio analyst.

So you can imagine why Renee and Sirena haven’t had a chance to finalize a date for their pending wedding yet.

“We had a date, but we had to reschedule it because of COVID,” Sirena shared. “We really wanted our families to be there, so people from the Dominican Republic couldn’t come and New York and West Virginia, which is where Renee’s from. So we actually don’t have a date right now.”

Currently, they’re waiting for “a safe time” to at least have their vaccinated parents and close friends together for the ceremony.

Sirena is in the midst of a busy time as well. In addition to representing Renee (“She was running everything herself, her and Paul Guarino, her manager… so it all just happened that way because I was already learning the skills I needed to become her publicist”), Sirena is going full swing into her music career now that she’s graduated, has done some acting of her own, and is hoping to eventually land work creating (or writing about) media.

“But right now” though, she’s not taking on any new clients for PR.

“Right now, I’m kinda playing a Kris Jenner role,” she jokes, “like I’m only managing my people… everything with Renee has me very busy.”

The family currently lives in Buckhead in Atlanta, a growing cultural mecca that is thriving as the heart and soul of Georgia, which can no longer be written off as a Republican stronghold, but something more.

Loeffler has only made sparse returns to the public eye since her disgraceful descent from prominence in the Republican Party, although she has relaunched a PAC in support of the claims that last fall’s elections were “rigged,” just like Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Kemp and other Georgia Republicans, now firmly in the Trump doghouse for recognizing that the “Big Lie” conspiracy jig is up, have moved on to passing laws that aim to limit the ability for people to vote.

“I can’t help but to take it personally—I kind of see it as an attack. Not on just us, but an attack on democracy, basically, ya know?” Sirena said. “I kind of wanna say that I’m surprised, but I’m not surprised, because I knew people were going to be mad at what we did, to turn this state blue.”

Atlanta’s not only making noise in the political realm, but in sports, too. The Atlanta Hawks are currently in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The team’s leading scorer is, now in his third season, Trae Young.

“It’s crazy that everything is boiling down to Georgia, specifically Atlanta. You know, we’re making some big national noise. And it’s just crazy because when I was coming here as a teenager, that was my dream,” Sirena said. “I wanted it to become more diverse and I wanted more representation and I feel Atlanta is definitely moving towards that.”

They’re still relying on their basketball community, including many current and former Atlanta Dream players. “They’re all cool as hell, all of them. Tiffany Hayes, Elizabeth Williams, Courtney [Williams]. They’re all really, really good women,” Sirena said. “They still have that relationship, so even though the dynamic has changed, I don’t think that the relationships have changed much” with Renee, she adds.

As an owner, Renee is “still is in that player mindset, so she feels like she can be a voice for them, and they all really respect her.”

Just as fast as all of this happen, things can change even more in what feels like no time at all. No matter what, Sirena said she’ll stick by a mantra she’s said to herself for a while: “Don’t be scared to be all in.”

It’s the same mantra she had to stick to when she “came out” about her relationship to her family.

“It was very scary for me to come out. It was very from a conservative family, they’re a Latino family, so they’ve very traditional. So it was very scary to just jump all in. But when you’re pursuing something new, you’ve got to be a little fearless,” she said, “especially when it’s something for yourself. So if it’s something that you’re pursuing for you, be fearless and jump all in and indulge it. Just be 100% in.”

What new heights Renee, Sirena, and the Dream could possibly reach remain to be seen, but all’s fair in love and basketball, right? ♦

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