Y ou should’ve seen my grandma when I told her that I wasn’t going to play in the WNBA last year.
It was like she’d just found out that her favorite television show had been canceled.
Actually, no, it wasn’t like that — that’s what it was.
Ever since I started playing basketball, my grandma has been obsessed with watching me hoop. I’m talking obsessed, like you wouldn’t believe. Like — even back when I was in high school, that woman would show up to my games hollering and screaming. And she kept on at it through college and into the pros — whether it was in person, or on TV, or even just catching highlights. For over 15 years, I’m telling you: If I was hooping, Grams was watching.
So when it came time to confide in her that I was taking last season off … I was nervous. Nervous that I was about to let down my biggest fan.
I braced for the disappointment in her voice.
Instead, all I got was understanding. “Angel,” she said, “leaving … it’s going to be good for you.”
And I think that was when I really knew for sure.
Because like I said — through every twist and turn my career has taken, my grandma has been along for the ride. So if she was agreeing that it was time to take my foot off the gas pedal for a minute?
Then I knew my instinct was right. I knew it was time.
I’d played eight years of professional basketball, and lived the dream: All-Star games, Olympic gold medals, world championships, a EuroLeague championship trophy….
But now I needed a break.
I want to take a second and give you some insight into why I needed a break in the first place.
The way that women’s professional basketball in America is set up … well, how else can I say it? It’s hell on your body. The average WNBA salary is about $75,000. Which sounds great — until you realize that you can earn up to 15 times more, hooping in Europe. When I learned that … it became hard for me to pass up the chance to play overseas. And so that’s how my year would go: I’d play for five months in the WNBA, and then fly over and play for seven months in Europe.
The upside of this schedule was that I was able to earn a pretty good living and play ball in some pretty cool places. I mean — as a girl from the Baltimore suburbs, I’d never imagined that basketball would allow me to experience the castles and stone ruins of the Košice region. Are you kidding me? I’ve gotten to play in Slovakia, Hungary, Istanbul, Turkey, Lebanon … even now, I look at that list, and I’m in awe.
But that life also had a downside, which was the wear and tear — both physically and mentally. Playing professional ball for 12 months straight, on repeat, without any time to recuperate? That starts to take its toll.
Man … towards the end of the 2016 season, I remember waking up every day, just aching all over. I’d developed plantar fasciitis in both feet, and I’d feel this stabbing pain in my heel the moment I stepped out of bed. My knees creaked. My hips were tight. My quads were sore. And no amount of ice baths, or knee sleeves or fancy massages could make those aches and pains go away.
After so many years of that life, I felt like a straight-up zombie.
So when I say I needed a break, that’s what I mean. I needed to bring myself — bring my body and mind — back to life.
At first, everything was wonderful.
Taking last year off opened up a whole new world for me. All of a sudden, I had all of this time. Time to travel and do other projects. Time to fly off to Africa with my fiancé. Time to open my own ice cream shop in Atlanta. Even time to take up boxing. But for the most part, honestly, I was content just resting up and enjoying life.
Then, this past fall, I found myself thinking more and more about my future in basketball.
I started to get that itch again, you know what I mean?
I signed a contract with Dynamo, based in Kursk, Russia — and have been playing for them since October. And it’s been good. We’ve gone undefeated, which has been fun. The city is quiet, with all of these beautiful 18th-century cathedrals and old universities. Plus, after the rest I got, my body was feeling good.
But I still hadn’t made the big decision. I still hadn’t decided if I was ready to be fully back. Back for that year-round grind, that seven-month/five-month loop.
I still hadn’t decided if I was coming back to the WNBA.
I remember waking up every day, just aching all over…. My knees creaked. My hips were tight. My quads were sore. And no amount of ice baths, or knee sleeves or fancy massages could make those aches and pains go away.
I had offers from a lot of organizations, which was flattering. And it was cool to imagine playing for all those different teams, in all those different cities. I also began imagining myself going after that WNBA championship ring that I haven’t yet been able to grab — and of course that’s a goal that really drives me. But the thing that I found myself thinking about most? It was my grandma.
I kept seeing this image of her, sitting in front of the TV … watching the games that were on … and just waiting patiently for the moment when she could see me in action again.
No one wants to disappoint their grandma, right?
So I decided that it was time to come back. And then one night, as I was mulling over my offers in my apartment in Kursk, I decided to pray before I went to bed.
God, which team should I commit to?
I waited in silence … and then I heard a voice.
I smiled. God was telling me to go back to the Dream.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
So that’s my story of these last couple of years, you know?
I’m so excited to be coming back to the WNBA this season — and I’m even more excited to be coming back to the Dream.
I’m finally feeling good again.
There’s so much that I’ve missed about playing in this league — about being part of the greatest women’s basketball league on the planet. I’ve missed rubbing shoulders with my teammates and friends. I’ve missed chasing that ring.
And man, I’ve missed being out there for all the young girls who look up to us.
The longer I’ve been away, the more that’s become clear to me.
The fact is, I’ve always kind of been in awe of the WNBA. Back when I was a kid growing up around Baltimore, I always used to play with the boys on the courts a few blocks away from my house. And one afternoon when I was about 13, I’ll never forget it — one of the guys on the playground asked me a question.
“You heard of this WNBA thing?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
The league had just started, and more and more people were beginning to talk about it. I went home that day and told my parents that I wanted to — had to — know more about this “women’s basketball league.” And that I had to see it for myself. Later that summer, my dad and I made the hour drive down I-95 to D.C. to see the Mystics play. Pretty soon, it became this tradition of ours. And I mean … it was amazing! Chamique Holdsclaw … Sheryl Swoopes … Lisa Leslie … all these living legends, some of the best ever to do it, playing right in front of me. I was starstruck. Those were some of the best days of my life.
And in 2009, when the Atlanta Dream drafted me No. 1 … I have to admit: Even then, I was starstruck. Even as the league’s top pick I still felt more like a fan of the league, in a lot of ways, than a player.
And the truth is — part of me will probably always feel that way. Part of me will probably always be that same starstruck teenage girl about this league. That’s just a credit to how much it meant to me growing up, and to how much it still means to me now.
That’s how deep it goes between me and the W.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
And that’s why it’s so important to me that, as long as I have world-class basketball left in me, I want to be playing it in the league that inspired me to be a world-class basketball player to begin with.
So all I can say, for now, is — I’m ready.
I’m ready to be back. I’m ready to do everything in my power to help deliver a championship to the city of Atlanta. And I’m ready to continue to support, and develop, and build up this league that I love so much.
To me, to be in the W in 2018, it’s an exciting time. We might not make as much money as Steph and LeBron yet. But the girls who eventually will make that much? Maybe we’re the players that those girls are growing up watching. Maybe the girl who will go on to become the female LeBron … she’s just falling in love with hoops right now. And maybe she’ll beg her parents this season to make that drive, however long it is, to take her to see me and the rest of these great women play.
Who knows, maybe she’ll even start rooting for the Dream. She can be my No. 2 fan.
What — you thought I was gonna knock my own grandma from No. 1???
Come on, you know I’ve got you, Grams!