Masks On


Most guys in the league, you ask them who their basketball hero was growing up, or who their biggest influence was as a basketball player, or who their first exposure was to the game, and it’s going to be a list of some of the all-time greats: MJ. Kobe. AI. KG. Duncan. T-Mac. D-Wade. LeBron. All those dudes.

But for me it was a little different. For me, coming up, the first I had ever heard of basketball?

It was from my mom.

She was a really good player back in her day, and even played college ball at Kentucky State. And then she went on to become a coach and an AD after that — so she always stayed real close to the game, and kept it a part of her life. And she passed that down to her five boys, myself included.

So when people ask me how I developed my jumper? It’s an easy answer: Mama Beal taught me. We had one of those Fisher Price hoops, you know — and I would practice on that thing all day long. And what my mom would do is, she’d watch me get my shots in, and then she’d put up all these little sticky notes, all around the house. No, for real: sticky notes. And I’m talking everywhere — on the walls, on the mirrors, on the floors, on the dressers, on the nightstand, on the bed, on the TV….. everywhere. And each note, it would be something different about my shooting stroke. It would be like this piece of advice.

Hold your follow through. Locate the rim. Bend your knees. Use your legs. Be confident.

When people ask me how I developed my jumper? It’s an easy answer: Mama Beal taught me.

And it was just constant reminders all throughout the day. I’d wake up….. I’d see a note! I’d go to the bathroom….. see a note! I’d sit down for breakfast….. see a note! Until pretty soon, it’s crazy — my shooting stroke really just became these notes. To this day, man, I still think it’s true: My game is like the sum total of those lessons from my mom.

And I say all of that up front, right at the top, because I don’t want anyone to get it twisted: I’m not out here supporting the WNBA because it’s trendy. I’m not out here riding for the Mystics because it’s some partnership between our two organizations. And I’m definitely not out here writing this article because it’s good p.r. or whatever.

I’m out here because I was raised a certain way: on the idea that basketball is basketball.

You know what I’m saying? Basketball is basketball. And whether it’s male, or female, or has any other label attached to it….. that really doesn’t matter to me. It really doesn’t matter who’s playing. Hoop is hoop. Game is game. If you have it, I’ll recognize it. Period.

That was just the world I grew up in. And yeah, of course, five boys in the house — we watched all the NBA we could. Making it to the league, that was my dream. But my mom saw to it that we watched our share of the WNBA too. Greatness is greatness, right?? And as much as I learned about that from seeing Kobe win his rings….. I also learned about it from seeing Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie win theirs.

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So when I landed in D.C. in the draft — man, it wasn’t even a question. I knew I was destined to become a Mystics fan. I got to know a couple of their players, Ivory Latta and Monique Currie, just from our teams sharing a facility. I was doing my workouts in the summer while they were in-season. Then in the fall, I started to notice them coming to our home games to support us. So I started going to their home games in the summer to support them. And that was really it. The Stics have been my team ever since.

And then fast-forward to a bunch of years later, and we got Elena…..

Man. Looking back on that trade — it really shows you how much the league has grown, even in just these last few years. Because now, of course, in 2019? Everyone knows Elena Delle Donne. MVP, 50-40-90, best player alive, one of the best ever to do it. But when the news first broke that we’d traded for her? I mean, it was definitely news. But I don’t think it was seen by most people in D.C. as the game-changer that real WNBA heads knew it was. The real fans, like myself — we knew: Elena was the missing piece we’d been waiting for. The Mystics were about to be a problem.

Elena was the missing piece we’d been waiting for. The Mystics were about to be a problem.

And it’s been amazing to watch. She’s just one of the greats of the greats. The thing about Elena is — she’s a mismatch every night. Because she’s a legit big, with natural size and length, but she also straight up has the skills of a guard. And I don’t mean she has “guard skills” like she can do 70% of what a guard can do, or 80%….. I mean, she literally has all the skills that an elite guard has. Not just the jumper, which is lights out. Or the free throws, which — Elena is probably the best free throw shooter in the world, WNBA or NBA or wherever. But she also has this low-key craftiness with the ball that I think a lot of people don’t realize. She uses the angles on the floor to see outcomes before they happen, like very few players are able to do. She gets to her spots right on time, she knows how to draw the perfect foul, she knows how to finish through contact — all those little things, they really just come down to spotting angles. And Elena does that at a genius level.

Also, 50-40-90?! Is she kidding with those numbers?! What I love about the 50-40-90 Club is that it’s an accomplishment where you’re just like….. what can the haters even say?? You know what I mean? It’s 50-40-90. It’s facts. There’s no “argument” against that. You either can make those shots or you can’t. You either did that or you didn’t. And Elena DID that. Legendary.

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Seeing Elena dealing with her back problems in these Finals, though….. man, it’s been hard to watch. I hate that she had to leave the last game. I’m sure she was crushed not being out there. But if you know anything about these Mystics, you know it’s never going to be over because of just one player — even a player as All-World as EDD.

You know it’s never going to be over with a squad as deep and as tough as this one.

You’ve got Natasha Cloud, who is a straight up playmaker, all the way. You watch her play, and she’s always poised. Always poised. Never rattled. And I love how she’s gotten better every year — to me, that’s the sign of a player you want on your team for the long run. And I guess I’m not the only one thinking it, because she just got that new contract, which is big-time for her, and I also think a really smart move by the Mystics.

You’ve got Ariel Atkins, who — oh, man, I just love her game. LEFTY. I love it. In all seriousness, I don’t think AA gets enough credit. She’s a great defender, and takes on a tough challenge every night at that end, which is such a key role on a team like this. And she’s an underrated shooter, too, the type of player where I think you’ll see her percentages go up in the years to come. Ariel is a beast.

You’ve got Emma Meesseman, who I like to compare to Kelly Olynyk — and I hope both of them take that as a compliment. Big fan of their games. Emma is just impactful. She has the best fake dribble handoff in the league. She can shoot the three, and she’ll put them on you in bunches. To me, if I had to choose an X-factor on these Stics, I’d say it’s Emma. She’s the player who, when it’s going, takes this team’s ceiling from “great” to “all-time.” And she’s had it going lately, that’s for sure. Playoff Emma!!

You’ve got Aerial Powers, who is this amazing energy-bringer. She’s locked in every moment of every game, I swear — which is tough to do, believe me. She can get to the cup, but you have to respect the three. Really good free-throw shooter. Rebounds her position well. Aerial is talented. Like, that’s a type of boost off the bench that not many teams get to have.

You know it’s never going to be over with a squad as deep and as tough as this one.

You’ve got LaToya Sanders, who has this really unique style that I love. Plays her absolute tail off, crashes the boards so well, does all those nitty-gritty things you want from a player of her size and length — but then at the same time, she also has these amazing hands. So it’s like this power game, but then with that nice soft finish. And LaToya also brings an important veteran presence to this team. She takes control of the tempo when it needs controlling….. which, on a team this talented, sometimes that’s the case.

You’ve got Tianna Hawkins, who is pretty much the ideal modern stretch four. Shoots like a wing, but can also switch on demand and defend her position. Like, when you hear announcers talk about stretch fours, and how they’re evolving the game? Don’t even worry about an NBA comp. Tianna is it. She’s the prototype.

You’ve got Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who — you know, I’ll tell you what: I wish Shatori played more!! She’s right there, man. She’s close. Love her defense and her spark. I’m looking forward to seeing what she’s able to do down the road when she’s more of a focal point.

And then last but not least, you’ve got Kristi Toliver — and I won’t pretend I’m not very biased here. If you don’t know, KT spends her off-seasons with the Wizards, as an assistant coach on our staff. And I could go on about her forever, but what I’ll just say is this: KT has one of the sharpest basketball minds I’ve been around. And it’s been an amazing asset for me, especially because our games and our dispositions are so alike. We’re both naturally quiet people — but we’re hard workers who badly want to win. We can both shoot it, but we also take pride in getting after it on D. So just to bounce things off of her, when we have so much in common in so many ways….. it’s been invaluable.

She’s always challenging me to be a better player — always peppering me with tactical questions, working with me to fine-tune my game. What do you think about this set, as far as how they’re guarding you? What could you do from this spot to get your teammates going? What are some things you could be doing to lead more? And she’ll also call me out in a lot of ways when I need it: You have to shoot in that situation. You have to make that extra pass. You have to be extra vocal there. I’m a much better player for having gotten to work with Kristi, no doubt.

It’s funny — people will ask me these days, as we’re seeing a lot more female coaches get hired in the NBA as assistants, if I’d be “open” to there being female head coaches in the league. And to me, it’s like….. I wouldn’t just be open to it. I’d welcome it. Because I know from working with KT, and also from watching the W in general, that there’s a huge pool of women out there who are thinking about the game of basketball at an elite level. And then I just think about how obvious it is — like, if we claim to be the best league in the world, don’t we need to be hiring from the biggest talent pool possible? So yeah, female head coaches, I’m definitely all for it.

And I hope that when the time comes, KT is right there at the top of people’s lists.

Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

And then there’s one more big thing that I really wanted to say here — and to me it’s bigger than these Finals, and in a lot of ways it’s bigger than basketball.

It’s that these women need to get paid.

These women need to get paid, and they need to get treated like the stars that they are.

A lot of people talk about the “Player Empowerment Era” right now, and I’m proud of that — it’s an important thing, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s been this great moment of players in the NBA standing their ground and knowing their worth. It’s been an era of players no longer accepting the status quo. But one thing that I think has gotten lost in the shuffle of all that, or at least not stressed enough, is the idea that true player empowerment means fighting for the empowerment of all players — not just NBA players. Not just male players. Otherwise, what are we actually accomplishing?

So for me, one thing that I’m really trying to focus on, going forward, is that I don’t want to be one of these guys who’s riding a movement for his own gain, without putting anything back into it. Like I said….. I wasn’t raised like that. I’m a fan of the WNBA because I respect it, straight up — because I appreciate these women and their games. And in this era, if you’re really going to be about that, and really going to show your support, then I think you can’t do it halfway. You can’t tell someone, “Hey, I support you — but I don’t support the issues you care about.” What good is that?

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’m an economics professor, or that I know the ins and outs of the W’s CBA, or that I have all the answers. But from my personal perspective — just as an NBA player? I know a few things for sure:

One, investing more money in our best women’s hoops players — it’s the right thing to do. It’s as simple as that. Like, put all these other arguments aside. This is about setting an example for our future generations. Because when we force WNBA players to treat the league like it’s a part-time job, what we’re actually doing is we’re telling young girls, “Becoming great at basketball isn’t worth your time.” And that’s a terrible message to send. It’s wrong.

These women need to get paid, and they need to get treated like the stars that they are.

Two, you have to spend money to make money. Like I said, I’m not an economics professor. But come on, man. That’s a principle that almost everyone understands. Just think about how much money over the years was poured into the NBA, or the NFL, or any of these other major leagues — and look at where they are now. But it didn’t happen overnight. First, they had to have people investing in them. And then eventually, given some time, they showed growth. Why would the W be any different?

And then my third big thing is, you need to understand the issue before you speak on it. You really do. You see people out there acting like these women are being greedy, or trying to make $30 million a year. But that’s not the case. All they’re doing is asking for a more equal piece of their league’s pie. A term we use when we talk about the pie in our NBA negotiations is “BRI,” or Basketball Related Income — and I think that’s a helpful way of explaining what these women are after. In the NBA, we as players get 50% of our league’s total BRI. In the WNBA? I think they get less than 25% of theirs. How is it being greedy to ask for more equality?

And then even besides that: It’s not just about the money!! You talk to players in the W, and you see there’s all these little things that teams could do, and that the league could do, that aren’t even about writing checks. Travel is a good example. It’s great how the W chartered planes for the teams in this year’s semifinals. You love to see that. But it’s also just one time. The rest of the year, these women — with their crazy schedules, and long legs, and bodies beat up from months of intense hooping — are having to fly cramped-up in coach, all across the country, just to get from game to game.

Anyway, it’s like I said….. I wanted to write this article to support my Mystics while they’re doing their thing in these Finals. And I wanted to shine a light on the WNBA as a league, which I think is the best it’s ever been. But I also know that the way I can most help, as a male player with a platform….. it isn’t just to speak on how great things are. It’s to support my female colleagues, 100%, as they’re out here trying to make things even better. It’s to be real.

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John and I, a couple of weeks ago, we went to Game 2 of Mystics-Aces and we had on our Elena masks.

And man, it was just crazy….. the response we got from wearing those. It was almost like an energy that they gave off. This magic energy. I didn’t really know how else to describe it.

But then as I thought about it some more, and as we’ve made it further through the playoffs, I think I’ve started to understand it better. I think it’s like, the masks — they aren’t just an EDD trademark. They’re a whole squad trademark. As a matter of fact, they’re a whole city trademark. They’re like this symbol that tells people, you know, Yeah, we’ve been through it….. but we’re still standing. And we don’t care how it looks. And we don’t care what happened — last season, or last series, or last game, or last shot. We’ve just got these masks now….. and we’re going to put them on. And we’re going to battle until our opponents don’t want to battle anymore.

And that’s these Mystics, man.

That’s this moment.

That’s this team: They’ve reached back-to-back Finals. They have a coach who gets it. They have the MVP — plus 11 other players you don’t want to mess with. And I believe they’re on the verge of winning their first WNBA title.

D.C., I love you. Mystics, I rock with you.

Let’s take this next step all together now.

It’s masks on.

It’s time to be great.