Say ‘Kia’ Around the Liberty, and Many Heads Turn

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So far 2018 has been a middling season for the Liberty, currently 4-9 and in 11th place in the W.N.B.A. standings.

But at least they have made some history: By playing Kia Vaughn, Kiah Stokes and Kia Nurse, the Liberty have set a league record for most Kias on a team.

In fact, according to the W.N.B.A., this is just the third time a team has deployed three players with the same name. The 2007 Phoenix Mercury had Kelly Mazzante, Kelly Miller and Kelly Schumacher, and in 2000, the Mercury added Michele Timms to a group that included Michelle Brogan and Michelle Cleary.

The possibilities for confusion run rampant around the Liberty.

“Today we had drug testing, and they mixed up the names of who had to come for drug testing,” Vaughn said in a recent interview. “They had Kiah’s spelling of her first name with my last name, so I was like, ‘Well, which one is it?’”

Vaughn, 31, who has had a Kia tattoo since her 18th birthday, began her career with the Liberty, playing in New York from 2009 to 2012. After four seasons with the Washington Mystics, Vaughn returned to the Liberty.

By that time, the team had hired Keia Clarke, now the team’s chief operating officer. Clarke insisted that her promotion to director of marketing in 2015 had no bearing on the Liberty’s decision to start collecting Kias.

“I don’t think it was anybody’s plan from an organizational standpoint,” she said, adding “I definitely had nothing to do with it, but I have been accused of that.”

Intentional or not, the pattern is unmistakable. In 2015, Stokes was selected with the 11th pick in the W.N.B.A. draft. In 2016, the Liberty participated in a six-player, three-team trade that brought back Vaughn. And with the 10th pick in this year’s draft, the Liberty selected Nurse, the lone Kia picked the entire night.

Coach Katie Smith said she had played with only one other Smith “and possibly a Katie.” She has adopted the tactic of her predecessor, Bill Laimbeer, and tries to call all her players by their last names.

Occasionally, she forgets, as do opposing teams on defensive switches. Even when Smith lets out a Kia, she is not troubled by having three heads turn her way.

“I’m glad they’re attentive and listening,” she said with a smile.

For Stokes, whose name is spelled differently from her teammates’, even technology struggles with the overload.

“I’m just ‘Kia’ on a lot of group texts,” Stokes said. “And the iPhone just corrects it. The autocorrect takes the ‘h’ off. Eventually you just get used to it and you just live with your last name.”

Within the Kias, a pecking order and means of organizing has sprung up. They refer to themselves as Kia 1, Kia 2 and Kia 3: Vaughn, Stokes and Nurse, from oldest to youngest. All three expressed satisfaction with this strategy, even when it was pointed out to Nurse that, as the leading scorer of the Kias, she might deserve a higher ranking.

“Kia Nurse doesn’t have a choice, she’s a rookie, so you can quote that, print it!” Stokes said.

Surprisingly, Kia Motors has never made a commercial featuring the three Liberty players. After serving as a Liberty sponsor through 2017, the company dropped the team this year, at its moment of peak Kia.

James Bell, a Kia spokesman, said in an email that the partnership between Kia and the team was through Madison Square Garden Company, which has put the Liberty up for sale.

The three Kias said they had never been approached by the car company, but Vaughn is ready with an ad idea she has been workshopping with her teammates during shoot-arounds.

“Whatever the car has, the strength of the car, we would pinpoint that to a strength of us,” Vaughn said. “Like the speed of Kia Nurse.”

Stokes could represent strength, Vaughn added, and she herself would stand for durability, reflecting her decade-long tenure in the league.

Clarke shot down other marketing ideas like urging the front office to elevate Kia Fisker of Stephen F. Austin on the 2019 draft board or trying to persuade forward Tina Charles to change her name to Kia.

For now, it seems, the Liberty have reached their Kia limit.

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