The Way In

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I grew up playing a game called “33.”

The rules are like this: there are none. It’s every man for himself. One person against however many people are on the court. You got 12 people who want to play? It’s you versus 11 defenders. You have to find a way to score. If you score, you take it again. You miss, and you have to find a way to get the ball back in your hands. No rules. No mercy.

The first person to score 33 points, wins. And the only way to win is to body and battle.

I was just a kid, born in Brooklyn, but living in the projects outside of Pittsburgh. “33” might has well have been a metaphor for my life. Me and the other kids — mostly guys — spent hours playing that game. It was, at its best, improv; no rules meant the game could play out on simple choice and grit. There were no fouls unless you got mugged.

That’s what life is in the projects.

I played against older guys, too. That made me tough. I was fast, and what I lacked in size, I made up for in tenacity. No one took it easy on me because I was a girl. They didn’t want to lose to me any more than I wanted to lose to them. That made me fight.

I lived with my grandmother. If she couldn’t find me, I was on the court. In middle school, we lived within a circle, just a block over from the basketball court. Every morning, my friends and I would run over with our books in hand, and get a game in. We could see when the school bus was coming. We’d play until it pulled up to our stop, and grab our books and sprint to the bus. And when the bus dropped us off at the end of the day, we sprinted back to the court. We didn’t waste a second. We played in every element: rain, snow and thick summer heat. It didn’t matter. Basketball is what kept us out of trouble.

NY Liberty return to New York City after an away game in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Annie Flanagan/The Players Tribune)

I often felt like an only child. My friends were really all I had. In the summers, I’d travel back to New York City or down South, and spend time with my cousins. We’d put milk crates up on house gates that lined the city streets, and use those as our baskets. Those streets — the projects — taught me everything. They are inextricable from me. People spend their lives running from places like mine. Thing is, you can’t run from the place that made you because it is you.

Basketball carried me away but I was never the type to be homesick. I’d traveled the world playing AAU. I played college ball at Penn State, just three hours from home. I didn’t visit often, and if I did, it wasn’t because I longed to. When I left home, that was it — I just left. Everything I knew and considered familiar — my family, my friends — were all in my backyard. I knew my role with them, and knew my role on the court — a two guard with a quick shot and even quicker hands on defense.

Those streets — the projects — taught me everything. People spend their lives running from places like mine. Thing is, you can’t run from the place that made you because it is you.

I never had to question much. I just played.

The WNBA’s Seattle Storm drafted me 12th overall in 2005, though initially, I really wanted to go to Minnesota. They had the 11th pick that year. I’d met a lot of people who considered Minnesota their base, including some of the players, and it felt like another kind of home.

They didn’t select me.

Seattle was looking for some defensive help and some support for point guard Sue Bird. This East Coast girl, was moving West.

Tanisha Wright goes in for the kill while the NY Liberty go against the Chicago Sky at Madison Square Garden on September 3, 2015. The Liberty lost 62 to 80.  (Photo by Annie Flanagan for The Players Tribune)

Most of our lives are spent trying to understand ourselves — our needs, our wants, our values, which shape-shift with age and experiences. We’re stretched by newness. That’s what Seattle was. I didn’t know my life was going to be this whirlwind of basketball, and everything I did know — everything that grounded me — was 3,000 miles away.

Nothing can really prepare you for the transition from college to the WNBA. At school, you have built-in discipline; everything is scheduled and planned for you. The WNBA is freedom. Freedom is choice and individualism. You care for yourself how you see fit. And a spot on the team is not guaranteed. Everyone is vying for the same spot you are. You come in having been the best — the best in AAU, the best in college. You’re not the best in the WNBA. Everyone is just as good or better. This is a job, and you alone are responsible for your success.

At first, I felt shaky and unstable in Seattle. I didn’t know where I fit in, or how my skill set was best used. That’s not to say I wasn’t excited. They were coming off a championship, and I knew I’d learn from players like Sue and Lauren Jackson. Still, while talent had gotten me by, this was work. They tried to transition me from a two guard to a point guard, but I wasn’t good in that role. I wasn’t comfortable. I knew I was effective with the ball in my hands but beyond that, my purpose was still not in focus. I had to find my identity.

When you’re fulfilled spiritually, personally and professionally, you play with freedom. When you play with freedom, you win. And we did.

You’re a kid when you come into the league. When you’re a professional, so many different things are thrown at you. You listen to all of the noise — the fans, the media. When they write on the blogs that you’re trash, you listen to that. And because you’re not yet experienced enough — in the league or in life — to know yourself or your worth, you believe it.

That’s where faith comes in. When I grew in my faith, I grew into myself and my role on the team. Each season, I became more confident. I played with a purpose bigger than winning. It wasn’t just about getting through each game; I’d spent my life doing that, though not without reward. It led me here.

The 2010 season was focused unlike any other. We knew we had a good team and all of the pieces — talent, veterans, leadership. Swin Cash. Camille Little. Sue. The groundwork for a championship run was there. We were spiritually in tune; a small group of us would meet faithfully together. We were mentally in tune, as well. Nothing fazed us on the court. We had a quiet confidence that guided our games, growing louder with each win. Our coach, Brian Alger, was equally focused on the court, but he balanced that with a gentle ease about him. He allowed for small but important details that made our quality of life better, like allowing family to travel with us. When you’re fulfilled spiritually, personally and professionally, you play with freedom. When you play with freedom, you win. And we did.

Seattle Storm's Sue Bird, right, is mobbed by teammates Swin Cash, left, Camille Little, Tanisha Wright, center front, and Ashley Robinson after Bird's game winning shot and the final buzzer against the Connecticut Sun in a WNBA basketball game Friday, Aug. 5, 2011, in Seattle. The Storm won 81-79, (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

I was like a kid in a candy store when we won the championship that year. “I just watched you,” Sue told me. “You were so happy.” She’d been through it once before, and, maybe, she was seeing it through my eyes as if it were the first time. That championship brought with it a sense of possibility for more — that this feeling was something to be experienced, and earned, time and again. It was happiness in absolute, and remains the happiest I’ve ever been.

I’ve since come full circle. I signed as a free agent with the New York Liberty, ahead of the 2015 season. I’m a veteran, back on the East Coast, with my family and friends looking on. I grew up a diehard Knicks fan. I wanted to be John Starks. And now my home court is Madison Square Garden.

Life isn’t linear — it’s a series of loops, where we circle back to places we’ve been and people we know, having grown a little and learned a lot. It’s easy to hold on to the past because it’s what you know; I did that for much of my life, while stepping outside of myself and building new relationships over time. But my past is my present, and this season, I felt rejuvenated.

NY Liberty versus theWashington Mystics  on September 11, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Liberty lost 55 to 82.  (Photo by Annie Flanagan for The Players Tribune)

I didn’t know what to expect coming in as a veteran on a new, relatively young team. I was playing alongside Swin again, which anchored me in many ways. We wanted to bring a championship to New York — what would be the team’s first-ever. There was a youthful energy surrounding the team, and that gave us a different kind of freedom and focus. We fell short in the Eastern Conference finals but we still achieved a franchise first: the best record in the WNBA.

That gives us further purpose for next year.

What I feel when I play now — and certainly how I feel — is different from 10 years ago; I still fight and body and battle like the girl from the projects. That’s the place that built me. But it’s not every man for himself anymore. My role is to serve my team. And what I fight for now isn’t just to win; it’s for them to experience the same happiness I once did.

People say that for kids like me — a kid from the projects — that basketball was a way out. But for me, it was always my way in.

I Do This for a Living (Video)

New York Liberty players and WNBA veterans Swin Cash, Tanisha Wright and Essence Carson speak personally on race, gender and the visibility of all professional female athletes.

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