My mom used to put me in dresses.
You might follow me on IG and not even be able to picture that.
But, yeah … she used to doll me up. I come from a small town in North Carolina. You know — house on a long dirt road in a town with one stoplight where everybody knows everybody. Super country. So my mom is real southern. Real traditional. And I was one of her little girls. So whenever she had the chance, she put me in a dress.
But then it’s like — there are … times, right? Pivotal times in your life when you start to evolve and figure out who you really are. You get released out into the world, and it’s new and exciting and liberating, and you sort of discover yourself. You get to define who you are, whatever that is, however you want to define it.
Courtesy of Ty Young
One of those times for me was when I got my first job. I was in high school, 14 years old working as a waitress at my auntie’s catering company. And for the first time in my life, I had my own money and I could buy my own clothes. That’s when I started getting away from the dresses and traditional stuff my mom used to buy and began experimenting, trying to create my own unique style.
That’s also when I started really loving tattoos. But my mom wasn’t for it. She’s still not. And it was one of those, “As long as you live under my roof….” type of situations, you know? So when I went to play basketball at James Madison, and I was away from home for the first time, all grown up and out on my own, I started getting tattoos. Small ones in places I could hide — from my mom, mostly, but also from everybody else, because I was still getting comfortable with this new “me” I was creating. I was still finding myself.
Basketball was a big part of that process. I was balling, and that gave me a lot of confidence.
I remember when I was in high school and my mom asked me what I wanted to major in when I went to college.
I said, “Basketball.”
She was like, “You can’t major in basketball!”
And it’s not like she wasn’t being supportive. She has always supported me. She was just … being a mom, right? She was trying to be real. But to me, that was my reality. That was my major. That was what I was preparing to go pro in. Basketball. And a lot of other people told me, “Oh, you’re not gonna make it to the WNBA playing at James Madison.” But I went there anyway. Because I had confidence. My mindset was, Look, if I’m good enough, people in the WNBA will take notice.
And they did.
But I’ll be honest: My transition from college to the WNBA was tough. In high school and college, I was a superstar. I broke a lot of scoring records at James Madison and left as the CAA’s all-time scoring leader. I was the go-to player. Then the Atlanta Dream drafted me with the eighth pick in the 2008 draft, and I went into the league trying to play the same way I had played in college — dominating the ball and scoring. Because that’s the only way I knew how to play.
I learned pretty quickly that … this was the W. The pros. Everybody I was playing with had also been the go-to at their college. So my team didn’t necessarily need me to score all the time. They needed me to contribute in other ways.
I spent a lot of time on the bench toward the end of my first year in Atlanta and early in my second season, which was tough. Then, when I got traded to Chicago, I was hoping for a new start. Maybe they’d let me go back to being me. But it was more of the same. My coach was like, “You rebound and play defense, or you don’t play.” And I vividly remember one game where I had like 10 points in the first quarter. I was playing my game, feelin’ myself, and then coach pulled me out and said, “I told you: I want you to rebound and play defense.”
And he sat me on the bench for the rest of the game.
That was a really confusing time for me. I just felt like I couldn’t play as free as I always had. I couldn’t do the thing that came most natural to me — scoring. I felt lost, like I had to find myself all over again. So I really had to look in the mirror and ask myself if I could swallow my pride and accept being a role player.
I decided that I could. Because whether I was a superstar or a role player — whether I was scoring or not — I was still in the WNBA.
I was still living my dream.
I also decided that if I wasn’t able to express myself on the court the way I always had, then I would do it off the court. That’s when I stepped my tattoo game up, and when I really took my style to the next level.
Photos by Kevin Liles for The Players' Tribune; Videos by Conrad Golovac for The Players' Tribune
I’ve always been kind of a tomboy. Ever since I started buying my own clothes in high school, I shopped in the men’s department. At first, it was out of necessity. I was so slim and tall that it was tough for me to find girls’ jeans that fit. But the clothes in the men’s department also really fit my personality. They were more swaggy than anything I could find in the women’s department. And eventually, I sort of developed my own style. I call it tomboy chic. I wear boy clothes because I love the way they fit and because they give me that swag, but I also always make sure to put my own feminine spin on them and make them pop with jewelry, shoes and other accessories. Even when I wear men’s suits, I get them tailored so they have a nice feminine fit.
Because I’m a woman. And I love being a woman. The fact that I like to wear boy clothes doesn’t change that.
It’s just … me being me.
No matter what I wear or what part of the store it comes from, I’m still going to put my T.Y. swag on it.
One thing that really helped me develop my style was starting my own clothing line.
I never set out to start a business. But when I was in Chicago, I developed a pretty good fan base, and I would get DMs from fans asking where they could buy my jersey. But since I wasn’t a superstar player, you couldn’t buy my jersey anywhere. They weren’t selling them. So I started making T-shirts with my name on the back so my fans could support me. And from there, things started happening really fast. I couldn’t keep up with demand. I was selling out of T-shirts like crazy. So I applied for a trademark and set up my LLC. Expanded into hoodies, hats and socks.
Next thing I knew, I had a small, successful business.
I had a brand.
It’s crazy because now, 12 years after getting drafted and going through some tough years, first in Atlanta, and then early on in Chicago … I’m still here, living my dream. Playing pro basketball. Ballin’. And I’m a business owner — CEO at TY1 Gear. I’m blessed in so many ways.
And one thing that I’m blessed with that I didn’t expect is that … I’m somewhat of a role model. It’s not something I set out to be, you know? It just comes with the territory. I know that young people out there are inspired by professional athletes. They try to emulate us on the court, the same way I did when I was coming up, modeling my game after Teresa Weatherspoon and trying to ball like MJ. But now, with social media and with all the access young people have to athletes, they try to emulate us off the court, too. And I look at that as a big responsibility. I want to be an example to not just young girls, but to women everywhere.
That’s another reason why my personal style is so important to me. Because I know young girls are out there watching me. And when they see me, I want them to really see me. Whether it’s through my tattoos, the way I dress, the jewelry I wear, how I play the game, how I treat other people — I want to be an example that they can aspire to.
I don’t try to be perfect, and I don’t pretend to be perfect. We’re all human. We all cry. We all have failures and we all make mistakes. I’m no exception. So I don’t shy away from talking about the struggles I go through, like having to swallow my pride and be more of a role player instead of the go-to scorer I set out to be. That was one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my basketball career.
But that’s life.
I’m still living my dream.
It all comes back to the things I live by. Being confident. Being authentic. Being real. Believing in myself. Because if you don’t believe in yourself … how do you expect anybody else to believe in you? You can’t. So no matter what, I’m gonna be free. I’m gonna be me.
Just don’t try to put me in a dress. 😊