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One of the 144

23 Sep 2019
Presented By
Napheesa Collier
Minnesota Lynx
23 Sep 2019
T

here’s honestly nothing better than that feeling of being in the zone.

Just the sensation of time passing but not really noticing because you’re absolutely focused and absorbed in what you’re doing.

I love that feeling. I live for it. And it’s why I really, really love reading.

I get asked all the time, “What would your job be if you weren’t an athlete?” I’m never sure exactly how to answer that. I’ve known I wanted to play professional basketball since I got my first scholarship offer in eighth grade. Being in the WNBA? On the Lynx?! I can’t imagine anything being better than that.

Buuut….

If there was a way to get paid to just constantly consume mystery novels for a living? Yeah, that would be pretty sweet, too. My favorite author is Ruth Ware. I’ve read all her books. (Those in the know have already probably read The Woman in Cabin 10 and In a Dark, Dark Wood, but if you haven’t and you’re into the genre, move those to the top of your list ASAP.) 

Everyone in the W has their own way of getting focused before a game. For me, I’ve always gotten myself in the zone with a great book. That doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype that most people might have for athletes, but I’ve never been a stereotype. My entire life, I was seen as kind of a girly-girl, but I was also really athletic. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. (It’s wild, I know.) 

Growing up, I played basically every sport, and I loved it. But as far as watching sports? I wasn’t as into it.

My dad is from West Africa and he loves both kinds of football. He was obsessed with the New York Giants, and also with Manchester United. But even though I loved playing soccer, if he was ever watching Premier League I always found another room to watch Disney Channel.

My parents always got that about me. But they also recognized that I had a natural talent for most sports. I have a brother named Kai who’s 15 months younger than me and we competed at pretty much everything growing up. And we were also always pretty evenly matched because he was stronger, but I was taller and faster. 

We used to play football in the backyard with my dad all the time. Like I said, he’s really into football, so his favorite part was always drawing up these wild plays for us to run. When my brother was on offense, him and my dad would always be super focused and locked in, coming up with elaborate routes and tricks — all kinds of junk. The part my dad always laughs about was how, whenever I was on offense, he would always try to draw up plays and my eyes would just gloss over. Then he’d snap the ball, and I’d just always run in a straight line past my brother and jump up and catch the ball over him like I was grabbing something off a shelf. It was never really a challenge, to be honest. (Sorry to put you on blast, Kai.)

When I first started really getting into basketball, I wanted to try out for the only AAU team they had in Jefferson City, where I’m from in Missouri. It’s a pretty small town, so there weren’t a lot of options when it came to finding competitive teams to play on. My parents reached out, but the team wasn’t interested. They wouldn’t even let me try out. It was just a, No, we’re full. Sorry ’bout it.

For plenty of young girls, that might have been where basketball ended. There just weren’t many other options to grow as a player where I was from. But my parents? They weren’t having it. 

Instead, we just started on our own damn team.


Mary Mathis/The Players’ TribuneWe were called the Lady Warriors. Fierce name, right? Well, to be accurate, first we were the Red Storm, then we switched to the Lady Warriors. Whatever, doesn’t matter. We had a team!

 My parents even ordered custom uniforms online. And once they gave me that opportunity, I was off and running. The Lady Warriors would ultimately become a huge part of my childhood. We found other girls from surrounding towns to join, and they all became like family to me.

Before long, we were competing at national AAU tournaments and making a name for ourselves. And remember that first team? The one I asked to try out for? Well, they even offered me a spot.

But nah … I was good. 

I had to stay loyal to my squad. 

Looking back on that time, it really amazes me how much love and a belief my parents must have had in me to do all of that. All the planning and work and money they put into giving me this thing that became so special to me. Through basketball, they gave me something that made me feel powerful and in control. I got to experience that zone of just knowing where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do all the time. 

During high school, I got scholarship offers from all around the country. It was pretty overwhelming, honestly. I wasn’t sure about where I wanted to go, but I did know one thing for certain: It wouldn’t be UConn.

The reason was pretty simple —I knew they were the best team. But rather than join them, I had made up my mind that I wanted to try to beat them.

They were on a streak of three straight national championships and God only knows how many straight Final Fours. 

Like I said at the top, I like suspense. UConn seemed predictable. Like a lot of people, I almost took their success as a program for granted. 

When they offered me a scholarship, I decided to go on a visit out of curiosity as much as anything. I’m serious! 

But then…. 

I got to Storrs — and that was it. It was a wrap. I had to be part of it.

Of course, from a basketball perspective, it was unbelievable — the players were all so good. But the way they played together really elevated their talents. If I wanted to go as far as possible with this game, I knew I needed to be on their level.

But I think what drew me in as much as anything was how the girls on the team interacted with each other. On that official visit, we went to one of their apartments one night and just hung out, laughed, and played board games. The girls on the team seemed more like sisters than friends, and right away they made me feel like I was part of their family.

After that visit, I knew I owed it to myself, my parents, my coaches — really everyone who had helped me push myself to a level where I would have an opportunity to part of a program like to UConn — to give it a shot. 

I made my commitment. Took a bunch of pictures with all my family and friends at my signing ceremony. Then I packed up my things and moved to Connecticut, full of hope, dreams and excitement. 

And then … well, I discovered playing at UConn is way, way harder than I had imagined.

Mary Mathis/The Players’ Tribune

I’d come to Storrs expecting a challenge — expecting to be pushed — and right out of the gate that’s exactly what happened.

 UConn wins a lot. At this point, that’s something that gets taken for granted — almost like grass growing or the sun rising. 

But what most people don’t understand about it, and what I certainly didn’t, is that it’s not something that just happens. Not at all.  It’s easy to assume UConn’s edge is strictly a talent thing — and no doubt, there’s a lot of talent — but the consistency comes from the grind. 

The Every. Single. Day. Grind.  

I won’t say that I was cocky when I arrived. I knew I was coming to a team with players like Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Moriah Jefferson. And I knew no matter how many stars had been by your name as a recruit, you were not a star when you were a freshman. 

But man, I had no idea. The expectation level was literally 100 steps up from anything I’d experienced. Right away I was given everything I could handle physically and mentally, and I was expected to pick it up quick. And when I didn’t, I heard about it. Again and again. Over and over. Until I got it right … and then inevitably screwed it up again, and the process would start over.

In high school, basketball just wasn’t like that for me. We would run a play, I’d go where I was supposed to go, and usually we’d score. But at UConn it wasn’t about running plays so much as learning an entire language — a really complicated language that everyone on the floor was supposed to speak with one another perfectly. There was a natural flow to it that just didn’t come intuitively to me at all.

And because I’m just generally not a super fiery person, some people thought I was passive or timid. But all I wanted more than anything was for it to just click and to prove I belonged. 

What I didn’t appreciate until years later, was that I needed my confidence to be broken down like that. Because it’s not enough to just have a talent for something — not if you actually want to be the best. What I learned at UConn was really how to learn. Throughout all my years there, the thing that coach Geno repeated the most during practices and games was that we had to be smarter.

Smarter, smarter, smarter, smarter, smarter. 

We heard that word a million times.  

You have to be smarter with the ball. You have to be smarter on defense. You have to be smarter on switches.

Coach Geno preached on the mental aspect of the game over and over until we understood that it truly was our preparation and mindset — not our physical talent or anything else — that would lead us to success. And once that clicked, and I really got it, all the other talent I brought with me when I got to the program was actually unlocked.

All the frustration, all the hard work, all became worth it. And since then, man, it’s been a ride.

Mary Mathis/The Players' Tribune

This first year playing in the WNBA has probably been the craziest of my life. Just sharing the court with the very best in the world — being able to say I’m one of the 144 who are part of this sisterhood that is that WNBA — is something that means more than I can really express. 

In the end, I can look back at my time at UConn and say that I’m kind of glad my freshman year was so difficult. In fact, it’s probably a big reason why my transition to the W as a rookie has been pretty natural. Yeah, there’s definitely been a ton of learning experiences, no question. But I’ve been ready for everything that’s come at me because I’ve been preparing to play at this level every day for the past four years.

I’m trying to stay in the moment, but I’m also really excited about what’s ahead. And even though so much about me and my life has changed since that first year of college, when I’m not on the court I still really am the same person. 

So to all my book readers out there, and to all my athletes out there, and to all my multidimensional people out there, I’ll say it loud and proud for you…. 

Yes, I am a woman who gets in the zone by reading mystery novels.

Ruth Ware! Lock in! Let’s go! 

Napheesa Collier
Minnesota Lynx