When you’re an eight-year-old black girl living in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the one thing you want more than anything else in the entire world is a head full of pretty braids, it can be … a problem.
I know this firsthand.
Before I was a top 10 pick in the WNBA draft and an All-America at Oregon, before I was a five-star recruit, and before I even really knew how to play basketball, I was just a little girl in Fairbanks who desperately wanted to switch up from her ’fro and have long, pretty braids like she saw other African-American women wearing in the movies.
And, I mean … my poor mom. Can you imagine?
I was born in Chicago, and getting those braids would’ve been no problem down there. But after being adopted when I was only a couple of days old and moving to Alaska?
So, my mom … I truly believe that she was put on this earth for me. She’s one of the most amazing moms in the world. She sees how much I want these braids, and how I keep going on and on about them. But she doesn’t know of anywhere in town where she can take me to get them, and knows that she definitely can’t do them herself. They’re complicated. It’s not something you just sit down and do, you know what I mean?
So what does my mom do? She jumps on YouTube and starts learning.
She’s really going in and studying those videos. She’s super serious about it. And at the same time, she’s also asking around town to see if anyone knows how to do those braids.
Somehow she tracks down a person near us who could do them, and then next thing I know she’s going over to that lady’s house and basically being trained. Almost like school or something. She’s getting lessons!
Just so I can have those braids, which as an eight-year old made me feel special.
My mom learned how to style my hair. She got … goooooood. And she kept at it, kept advancing. Pretty soon she was learning how to do different weaves in my hair. After a while, no braid or hairstyle was too complicated for her. She’d just pull up YouTube and get to studying.
All for me.
It was like having my own personal hairstylist. But, like, the best, most careful and passionate and dedicated and skilled hairstylist imaginable.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, my mom … she’s white.
Courtesy of Ruthy Hebard
I was adopted in 1998, when I was four-days old, by John and Dorothy Hebard.
They are two of the most special people on the planet.
My mom and dad also adopted two other African-American children — my brother Jacob, who is three years older than me, and my other brother Isaiah, who is three years younger — all of us from different families. The love and support our parents have shown us over the years is something that has been nothing short of a blessing.
They always encouraged me to pursue my interests and to dream big, and they never pushed me to do anything that I didn’t want to do. When people ask me to describe them, sometimes I honestly feel like the best way to do that is just to say that they are….
They’re both just super, super nice people. Caring people.
And they gave us a childhood that was like something out of a movie, because of how cool it was. We have a huge extended family, so we’d get together with our aunts and uncles and cousins all the time, and there’d be like 10 or 15 kids running around playing capture the flag every weekend, or jet skiing, or tubing — just anything kids love to do, that’s pretty much what we did. And our neighborhood had lots of kids, so my brothers and I would always be out riding bikes and having fun.
During the winters, my dad would take me to Alaska Nanook hockey games, and during the first intermission between periods he’d always get me a Push Pop. Every time. It was awesome! Little experiences like that are things that I’ll always remember.
Basically my entire childhood was just constant fun.
Courtesy of Ruthy Hebard
When I was really little, my parents told me that I was adopted, and that I had been born in Chicago and had four siblings there. But it honestly wasn’t something that I focused on all that much. Everyone in our family is white, but no one ever treated me differently or looked at me as different. I actually never even realized anything was unique or special about my family until I was in fourth or fifth grade and other kids started focusing on it.
“Those aren’t your parents,” I remember kids saying.
And that was confusing to me. It was like….
“What are you talking about? Yeah they are. That’s my mom and dad!”
I just honestly wasn’t getting it. I didn’t see it.
They actually had to point it out to me.
“But, THEY’RE WHITE!!!!”
And, as crazy as it might sound, that was the first time I really noticed the difference.
It was like, “Oh, wow, yeah … they are white.” That right there is when I realized that my parents didn’t look like me. I honestly never thought anything of it before then. I had never really noticed, like, Oh wow, my whole family except me and my brothers are white. All my cousins and everyone else was white except for us. But I never really saw that because they never talked about it like that.
Then, when kids started saying, “You know, Isaiah isn’t really your brother,” or, “Jacob isn’t actually your family,” it would be very upsetting.
I’d hear these things from other people and then just try to kind of internally process and work through it in real time. And that wasn’t always easy.
After those differences became more front and center, it sometimes seemed like it was impossible to fully escape or move beyond them.
All of a sudden I found myself noticing that I was the only black person at a family gathering. Or that I was much taller than everyone else in my family. I’d walk into a room and there would be all these little white people and then … me. A big black girl.
And it made me uncomfortable.
Courtesy of Ruthy Hebard
Sometimes our family would go out to dinner and the servers would try to seat my brothers and me at a different table than my parents because they didn’t think we were all one family. Or they’d ask if we wanted to split the checks. Then there would be times when other African-American grownups in our community would seem like they were trying to get close to my brothers and me, to the extent that it was almost like they were trying to raise us themselves in a way. They assumed that our parents couldn’t possibly raise us correctly because they weren’t black. So people would try to act like our parents, or try to point out the “right way” to bring us up.
Stuff like that would get to me back then. It really did upset me.
In another way, though, it actually made things simpler for my brothers and me because we could easily tell who our real friends were, and we could also build strong relationships with the people who didn’t make a huge deal of everything or judge any of us in any way. Those were the people who ended up forming our core group of friends.
They’re the people who we’re still tight with to this day. They’re truly special.
But even with those people showing their love and support, there have still been some tough moments. Over the years there have definitely been times when my mind veered off into some sad places. Out of nowhere I’d start thinking like, Dang, I wonder why my birth parents put me up for adoption, but not my other biological siblings. I would find myself asking if there might be something wrong with me, like as a person. I specifically remember being pretty young and thinking, Maybe there’s something I could do that could make those parents want me again.
But then I’d spend time with my family, the only family I’ve ever known, and realize all over again just how special it is.Over the years there have definitely been times when my mind veered off into some sad places.
When I started getting better and better at basketball, my family was all in.
People ask me all the time about what high school basketball was like in Alaska, and, to be honest with you, it’s pretty much the same as everywhere else. Except for one tiny difference.
There’s this rule that says if the temperature hits 40 below zero, games are to be canceled. Other than that, it’s basically the same. Thirty-eight below? You’re cool. You can play. Forty below … that was the limit.
My parents wouldn’t have cared if it was 50 below, though. They both came to every one of my games. And they were into it. My dad was always the one who would be fired up and get on the refs for missed calls. And my mom? She wasn’t as intense, but her thing was always about me having fun. She’d always be checking in with me to make sure I was enjoying myself. Every time I’d look up into the stands, I’d always see her clapping and cheering. And any time I fell, or rolled my ankle and went down, by the time I gathered myself and looked up, she’d be on the court standing right above me.
It was always amazing to me — like she was a superhero or something. Like that was her thing. Her superpower was racing to help me if I needed her. And you know what, I was never embarrassed by that. Not even a little bit.
It always just reminded me of what a wonderful person she is, and just how much she loves me.Her superpower was racing to help me if I needed her.
My family was so happy for me when I signed with Oregon and went off to show the rest of the country what I was made of. There were so many things that were special about my time in Eugene, but I honestly think the coolest part of that whole experience was just being able to make my family proud.
And one thing you should definitely know about everyone in my family is this: You’re not gonna have to wonder if they’re proud of you. You’re gonna hear it. Every day. Several times a day. The love and support … honestly, it just never stops.
So, in a lot of ways, as different as this year’s WNBA draft was because of the coronavirus crisis, it was actually almost cooler for it to be virtual and to have everyone in my family there when I got the news that I’d been selected eighth by the Sky. And I have to say, when my name got called, and it turned out that I’d be going to Chicago? All of us sitting there in our living room immediately knew what that meant.
It went way beyond basketball.
John Locher/AP Photo
So are you going to try to reach out to your biological siblings there?
What about your birth parents?
If they get in touch with you, what will you do?
I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot to think about. And what everything’s going to be like for me in Chicago is something that’s been on my mind constantly ever since that night.
Shortly after the draft, my mom talked to me and told me that she has no idea what’s going to happen when I get to Chicago, but that some of my biological family members might be reaching out to me.
“I’ll help you in whatever way you’d like, and support you 100% in whatever you decide to do,” she told me.
And, man, to be quite honest with you … I actually don’t know what I’m going to do. At this point I’m kind of just taking things as they come. This isn’t one of those situations that’s cut and dried.
It’s not black and white.
There are some days when I wake up and I’m like, Man, yeah, I’d really love to track them down and see what they’re like. I think about what it might be like, and how it could potentially be really special if they were cool and wanted to start up relationships that might end up being extremely positive. But other days, I’m the exact opposite and have no desire to do anything but love my family in Alaska as much as I possibly can.
I’m a human being, you know? I go back and forth on it.
And yeah, I’m not going to lie, there is definitely a part of me that’s hoping they reach out — that they decide that I’m someone who they would like to get to know. Sometimes I even have this thought that, you know, what if it ends up being like something out of the movies? What if I’m walking down the street in Chicago and I look up and I just randomly see another young woman who looks almost exactly like me? And that turns out to be my sister? Or what if I look up in the stands one game and see a guy or girl who looks like me?
I guess we’re just going to have to wait and see what happens.
If nothing else, it’s going to be really interesting to explore and get to know the city, and to kind of think about what might have been for me, or how differently my life might have gone if I had been raised in Chicago.
But make no mistake about it: My family is the one I have in Alaska. I couldn’t be more proud to say that, and I am truly blessed to have them in my life. They are all I’ve ever known, and they’ve been there for me — in big and little ways — each and every day of my life. I love them with all my heart.
Courtesy of Ruthy Hebard
To this day, when I’m with my mom, I won’t let anyone other than her do my hair. And no matter where I go, or what I do, or how much money I do or don’t have, I’m always going to have her be the one to do my hair, no matter what.
She’s the best there is. No one could ever be better.
That’s a special bond that I will always have with her.
And before I get out of here, I just want to share one last story about my mom, if that’s cool.
Draft day. Back home. Fairbanks.
Early in the afternoon I get back from running an errand, and I find out that I need to get some pictures done before the draft. Then, without any hesitation, almost as a reflex, I find myself yelling….
“Mommmmmmm … can you help me with my hair?”
And from there it was like time flashed back a decade or so in the blink of an eye.
Before I knew it, my mom sat me down in a chair in my bedroom and she was back there above me with the comb and the lotion. It was just like when I was little. And it was such an absolutely cool thing to get to experience on such a big day. I could’ve closed my eyes in that moment and it would’ve been 2010 all over again, with the two of us sitting on the couch watching TV while my mom did her thing and made my hair look beautiful.
I’ll never forget that draft-day moment as long as I live.
It wasn’t about professional sports, or media availability, or the draft, or basketball, or anything really beyond just … us.
It was a mom — my mom — doing her daughter’s hair, just like old times.
And her daughter absolutely loving every second of it.