Hindsight in 2020

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
Presented by
American Family Insurance

So here’s how my 2020 started out.

January 14. Live, network television. Good Morning America. Millions watching.

Lights, camera, action … pretty much.

Go time.

I’m in Manhattan to help announce our league’s new collective bargaining agreement. The previous day I’d flown across the country, and then I spent that rest of the day at the WNBA offices helping negotiate the final deal as head of the players’ association. So I’ve only gotten a few hours of sleep. It’s pitch black out. But I’m up at 4 a.m., alongside my sister, Chiney, going through potential GMA outfits over FaceTime with our mom.

Once we make our final selection, I do my hair and then have my makeup done at five. (I woke up extra early to get ready and make sure I was happy with how I looked. It’s GMA, after all, and I’m about to announce a historic CBA. So the only option was to show out.) Then we jump in a cab at six and race over to the league offices to finalize everything before heading to Times Square for the broadcast.

Thirty minutes later, Commissioner Engelbert and I are in the GMA studios, and it’s like….

Hey, there’s Michael Strahan.

Was that Keke Palmer who just walked past?

It almost doesn’t seem real.

But I’m totally energized and laser-focused on the moment. Somehow, I’m not even tired — I’d reserved every ounce of energy and enthusiasm for the big day. I’m running on a combination of the adrenaline from the negotiations and the understanding that what we were doing really was historic.

Before I know it, we’re live on the air with the absolute legend, Robin Roberts.

The television appearance goes off without a hitch, and afterward we actually get a few moments to chill and hang out back in the dressing room. (Keke took the time to come over and say hello, which was so cool of her!) Then it’s like, boom … we’re out the door at GMA and doing about a zillion media hits and a big press conference, and just on and on and on. To be honest with you, at that point it all kind of becomes a blur.

But without a doubt that whole 48-hour whirlwind was one of the best moments of my life. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to experience something that monumental again.

The women of our league — all of us, in collaboration — we accomplished something significant and substantial. It took a ton of work and sweat and dedication from our players over the course of many many months. But I could not be more proud of where we ended up. It really was a dream deal: a dramatic increase in max salary, robust league marketing agreements, guaranteed paid maternity leave, travel upgrades, and more.

No one can ever take that away. The players came together and worked and pushed and made it happen.

We did that.

It was truly an amazing accomplishment.

The players came together and worked and pushed and made it happen. We did that. It was truly an amazing accomplishment.

Nneka Ogwumike

And yeah, sure, for me personally, looking back on it now….

It was also completely crazy. And chaotic. And mile-a-minute.

Even before those couple of days in the middle of January, there were months of pretty much nonstop text messages and group chats, FaceTime calls and meetings.

And, I gotta be honest: I figured that morning in Manhattan would be the craziest, most unpredictable and surreal experience I’d have all year. It was like, Well, that was a lotttttt … now we can get back to some normalcy.

I had no idea what I — what we, us, the world — would be in for over the remainder of the year.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I had no idea.

I’m a news nerd, always have been. So I was very much keyed into the COVID-19 situation even before it was all over the headlines. A few months earlier, I’d actually signed a deal to play ball over in China during our off-season. So before the virus hit, I was all ready for that trip to be part of my 2020 story. But then the news just kept getting worse and worse.

Things quickly became a bit more, shall we say … up in the air.

And, just like everyone else, I had to kind of wing it and do my best.

Once quarantine hit, though … it was gonna be a problem for me. I knew that I wasn’t someone who could just sit at home and watch Grey’s episodes all day. But at first I kind of felt like maybe I could just freestyle it some — wake up whenever I wanted, work out, maybe take a walk, just do whatever felt right.

That lasted maybe a week. Two max.

I’m a morning person, and someone who really does like structure. So I basically ended up doing a 360 in the other direction and scheduled out everything. I was training six days a week ... in my garage home gym.

Even with my regimented nature: It gradually got old.

By the time summer rolled around and it was time for our season to start in that bubble, I was definitely ready for a change of scenery.

I was training six days a week ... in my garage home gym.

Nneka Ogwumike

I was a part of the discussions on what the bubble experience was going to look like, how it would all work. I was on those phone calls. So I had somewhat of an idea of what to expect. Much of it remained a mystery, though. And even for me, it really was one of those “who really knows what this will look like” kind of deals.

Everything was up for grabs. No one knew for sure if it was going to work.

Initially, at the end of June, when players were finally allowed to get together in our team cities, and I was able to meet up with my teammates in L.A., that was one of the best moments of the year for me. It was like reuniting with family. Just pure joy.

But, 2020 being what it is, that moment was also totally, totally weird because….

WE COULDN’T HUG ONE ANOTHER!

It was like: Hey, awesome news: You get to meet up with all your friends after not seeing them for a long time. It’s going to be so wonderful. How exciting! Oh, just one thing, though … you can’t hug them. And you’re all going to be wearing masks. And also please try not to sneeze or breathe on anyone.

One for the books, for sure.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

So we fly down to Bradenton, and it’s like, lemme see … what’s the best way to describe it? It was basically like summer camp for grown-ups.

We really just had to try to take everything with a grain of salt, find a silver lining in everything, make it work.

And, in the end, you know what? We did!

I’m so proud of what our league accomplished in Bradenton. Even beyond completing an exciting, much-watched (have you seen those ratings numbers?!?!?), and safe season in the middle of a pandemic, we also actually … managed to have some fun.

I mean, where do I start?

We had taco nights at Chelsea’s place, and I hosted some pretty competitive Mario Kart tournaments at my apartment. Like I said, the bubble really did have a summer camp vibe to it. In some ways it was like it took us all back to our childhoods. We were doing double Dutch at one point. We had an egg-toss competition in the parking lot. It was like, What can we think of next?

The night of that Brandy-against-Monica Verzuz battle, we were actually playing a game. But from what I’ve heard that was another pretty incredible bubble moment — with a bunch of players just sitting around talking smack and dancing and reacting every time a new song dropped. It was the closest thing we could get to a concert, and people let loose.

But yeah, we definitely found ways to entertain ourselves. And we made due with what we had available.

There was a hair salon in the hotel where you’d see everyone at one point or another. And when you went to the pool, it’d be, like: players from six different teams, four refs, two trainers, and a handful of coaches … all just trying to catch some rays and chill.

So much about the entire experience was unique. And I think it’s safe to say we all came away from the bubble with enough stories and memories to last us for a good long while.

We had taco nights at Chelsea’s place, and I hosted some pretty competitive Mario Kart tournaments at my apartment

Nneka Ogwukine

The thing I’ll remember most from the bubble, though, is probably those few days at the end of August when we all got together for a roundtable on social justice and police brutality, and then held our candlelight vigil following the shooting of Jacob Blake.

It was just an exceptionally powerful and moving moment. We came together to discuss issues that were very important and personal to us all, and then it just morphed into a really emotional vigil. That was another one of those times where you’re like, Oh man, there’s some actual history taking place right now.

I’ll always remember those moments. And, overall, I’m just so grateful for the things I was able to be a part of and experience in that bubble.

It wasn’t always easy, though.

There were definitely points where I struggled during my time in Bradenton.

You were playing every other day. And then if you weren’t practicing, you were getting tested. If you weren’t getting tested, you were going to a shootaround. If you weren’t going to shootaround, you were at a game. And it was just rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, all with the exact same people every single day. I mean….

Yeah, not easy.

It got to me.

I’m thrilled, of course, that we were able to do everything safely, and provide some type of reprieve for our fans, and pull off such a fun, exciting season….

But it was tough at times.

There was a ton of stress involved in the bubble experience. And by the time our season was winding down, I really wasn’t my same old self.

Stress manifests for people in different ways. Some people get headaches, others lose sleep. For me, it shows up in my back. And all the stress of 2020 definitely ended up hitting my body all at once after I got to the bubble. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it now … it couldn’t be more clear to me.

I’d gone from negotiating nonstop on our CBA, to us having to figure out a virtual draft, to then trying to help plan out how to have a safe and successful season in an environment that no one had ever experienced. It was like one thing after the next, and I realize now that the stress of all that — coming back to back to back — it really wore me down.

My back just basically checked out on me.

So I wasn’t able to be at my best in the bubble. And if you know how much I love to compete, you understand how heartbreaking that was. But even with that disappointment, and with the season ultimately ending for us without a championship, I’m proud that I was able to grind it out and see things through this season.

In some ways, it really reflects the theme that, more than any other, is what I’ll remember most about 2020. And why I’m actually optimistic about where we go from here.

Resilience.

In spite of everything we’ve all been through….

Resilience has been the real MVP this year.

People all over the country — all over the world — have shown incredible courage and determination and grit this year. Goodwill is everywhere you look. People are helping people. And we’re all doing everything we can to get through this unprecedented time.

It’s inspiring.

In so many ways, it’s like a mirror is being held up, and we’re having to take a hard look at ourselves and figure out, Hey, what can I change in a world that is just constantly changing beyond our control. What can I contribute? How can I be better? How do I make sure that I’m living my life to the fullest and doing the most good?

And if more people than ever before are thinking about those things, well … that has me believing we’re headed in a positive direction.

I’m hopeful. I really am. And at this point I’m doing the best I can to exude that optimism to everyone I meet. The way I see it, if you don’t live your life that way, you’re probably bringing people down rather than lifting them up. So I’m all about hope right now.

In spite of everything we’ve all been through…. Resilience has been the real MVP this year.

Nneka Ogwumike

What happened in this year, as bad as it has been — on so many different levels, and in so many different ways — I truly believe that it really is going to mold us into something stronger and better than we’ve ever been before.

That resilience we’re all showing, it’s just so palpable. Now it’s up to all of us to make sure that the future is better than anything we could’ve ever imagined.

And on my end, I mean ... I rested up for a day or so after I got home from the bubble. Got in a really solid nap. I’m good. The back feels great. Totally refreshed.

I’m ready for whatever comes next.