Growing Up

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“Why don’t you talk?”

Swin Cash was at the next locker, staring at me. I was frozen.

It was my first day with the Liberty and my locker was between Swin and Tanisha Wright. It felt like I had stumbled into a class in a grade above me on the first day of school. Playing for the Liberty, it’s pretty hard not to be next to a veteran or two at all times. They didn’t wait long to start in on me.

Tanisha was staring at this quiet girl next to her. “Come here girl, give me a hug.” And so Tanisha gave me a hug. Tanisha’s a hugger.

When I went to say something, nothing came out. I was just smiling awkwardly and sitting there. It was all really overwhelming. This was my first week in the WNBA.

When I first meet people or go to a new place, I stay low. I try to get a good feel about the people and things around me before I jump in. When I first came to New York, I didn’t talk much. More like, I didn’t talk at all.

I like to observe things. Or maybe I’m just shy.

Just a few months ago, I was still in college, playing college ball and hanging around college kids. I don’t think I realized what the transition to the pros was going to be like. As a senior at Cal, I was fortunate enough to have the ball in my hands almost every possession. I played 35-40 minutes a game and ran the offense. I was a point guard, but I contributed in scoring, passing and rebounding categories.

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I was okay with not getting big minutes in the WNBA. I’m confident on the court, but I know I have a lot to learn. I know I’m only a rookie. Maybe I didn’t know just how much I had to learn. The WNBA game is so much stronger.

There was a game in Tulsa this year that was probably my low point. I came off the bench and had a couple quick turnovers. Then I picked up four quick fouls — three within basically a minute. I was out of position on defense, which is extra bad because we pride ourselves as being a great defensive team. I didn’t make any shots. I wasn’t running the offense well. I just wasn’t there mentally.

Everyone could tell I was shook. After the game, Coach Laimbeer was really direct with me.

Like I said, I’m not a big talking person. But I’m a good observer, I think.

“I believe in you, but for the sake of the team, we need you to grow up.”

Grow up.

Damn.

I’m a confident player and I believe in myself, but in that moment I questioned whether I could step up.

For a few days, I played his words over and over in my head, trying to figure out what exactly he meant. He wasn’t saying, “I don’t think you’re good enough.” But he was challenging me to think about how I approached my game. Did I want to stay the same player I was in college or was I willing to adapt and grow?

Midway through the season I still wasn’t talking much. Like I said, I’m not a big talking person. But I’m a good observer, I think. On the Liberty, these veteran players keep us together and it’s always a teaching moment if you listen.

NY Liberty versus the Connecticut Sun on September 10, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Liberty won 74 to 64.  (Photo by Annie Flanagan for The Players Tribune)

That’s when I started hitting the gym with T-Spoon and Isiah Thomas, working on my game with them before and after practice.

The person I talk to most about the meaning of “growing up” in basketball has been Tina Charles. Tina has made me a better guard, which is ironic because we play opposite positions. When you have Tina in the post, your job is easier: you want to get her the ball, you want to run the lane to feed her, you want to figure out how to make sure she’s involved in every play. But Tina’s also the person who will get in my face if I mess up because she says she doesn’t want me to waste my potential. Tina will cuss me out in a second, and put her arm around me the next. I know it’s coming from a good place.

Tina’s role in my life is bigger than the game. She’s also a spiritual leader for me.

Tina’s role in my life is bigger than the game. She’s also a spiritual leader for me. As a rookie coming into this league, it’s easy to lose sight of God and family and what’s most important to me. There are so many distractions. But Tina has always been there. I know she’s there if I need someone to pray with and we constantly talk about the Bible together.

I see Swin as a mother figure on the team. She has that motherly touch, that motherly voice, that motherly heart. But her game is tough. “Never let them see you put your head down,” she’ll repeat over and over. That’s something my real mom has always told me growing up, too, so when I got here to New York, Swin made me feel at home.

If I ever mess up or make a mistake, Swin is there to tell me, “Head up, chin up. Don’t drop your head.” I love that about her. She helps me maintain my confidence even if I’m still learning.

I watch Epiphanny when I want to understand what it’s like to be calm and competitive at the same time. Piph is just that calm person, always saying to me, “You got it, don’t worry.” I shoot with her after practice, and it’s fun because I get to watch a great shooter do her thing. Her shot is just so consistent. Always on point. She’ll take 100 shots and on the 101th shot, her work ethic and form is just as good as on the first shot. I’m like, That’s what a professional looks like at practice.

What I’m learning right now in my career is that my role on the team is not to score, but to do the little things, on offense and defense, that will help get us easier points. Maybe that’s part of the “growing up” thing. The points, the rebounds, the steals. I think that all of that is going to come as I’m in the league longer. That was my college playing style. Now, the way I judge a good game is, Did I do the little things to help the team win? Was I on help side? Was I in the slot that Bill yells at me about in every practice? Did I box out every time? Did I call the right play for the right person? Did I get the ball to Piph on time on the break? Did I step in to take a charge? (I never did that before coming to the WNBA.)

Tanisha, in particular, took me under her wing this year, and I tried to follow after her. One thing that she says to me before every game, and I think she tells everybody this, but she goes down the line each and every game and says, “Be ready. Be ready. Be ready.” Just those words. For me as a rookie and a bench player, those two little words stick with me.

NY Liberty versus the Connecticut Sun on September 10, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Liberty won 74 to 64.  (Photo by Annie Flanagan for The Players Tribune)

You never know what’s going to happen. I never knew my season would end right before the playoffs.

Three weeks ago, bad news hit. When I landed awkwardly on my wrist in one of our last games of the season, I just thought it was a sprain. I left the game but didn’t think much of it. The next day I was in a room full of doctors and trainers and they were saying, “We’d like to go into surgery today.”

It hit me this week: this team may not be here next year. Good teams aren’t forever.

A part of me still couldn’t really process it fully. When the doctor finally said it straight — “Your season will be over if you get the surgery” — it sank in. I wanted to cry. I wanted to break down. But the room was full of three different doctors and our athletic trainers, so I kept it in.

In my head, there was another option: to play with a fractured wrist until the end of the playoffs and then have the surgery. I struggled a lot with the decision. This can’t be how my rookie year is going to end, I thought.

The doctors said waiting wasn’t an option. When I first got out of surgery the next day, that’s when I cracked. I threw a full-blown pity party for a few days. I wasn’t crying, I was just really gloomy and down, and that’s really not who I am as a person. It was probably partly due to the medicine they had me taking, but I was really emotional and down on myself.

I thought of what Coach Bill said earlier this year about growing up. People sometimes say, “What’s the Liberty’s secret?”

It’s not that much of a mystery: you see it in the way everyone on the team supported me after my injury. There are a lot of good teams in the league, but I think the strength of the relationships we have off the court makes us so good on the court.

Watching from the bench during the playoffs is definitely hard. But it hit me this week: this team may not be here next year. Good teams aren’t forever. You never know if you’re going to have the same people next season. Now is our time and this team is so special.

In my rookie year, I’ve played a lot less, in terms of minutes, than ever before in my basketball life. But I’ve done more observing of great veteran players than ever before, too. I feel lucky to be able to watch them, and learn from them, all the time.

I’ve even been trying to talk more. I’ve been yelling from the bench, trying to keep everyone motivated. I’m still working on the talking thing, but that’ll come.

1440: New York Liberty (Episode Three)

In the third episode of <i>1440</i>, the New York Liberty wrap up their record-setting regular season in Indiana with a road game against the Fever following an upsetting loss to the Washington Mystics. Planes. Buses. Hotels. Practice. This is the true life of a professional athlete. But they've reached one end and a new beginning: a championship run.

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