To anybody walking around the mall at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, I must’ve seemed crazy.
I’m sorry. You were trying to walk to the buffet or whatever. I was in my feelings.
I mean, let me be clear, I was In. My. Feelings.
I was crying one of those cries where there’s no sound even coming out — the river was just flowing.
And not just me. Me and my mom.
I’m saying, picture two grown women standing outside the Nike store, staring up at this random billboard, just sobbing for 15 minutes straight.
But the billboard wasn’t random to us. It was our whole story in two pictures. They kept flipping back and forth, back and forth.
An old grainy image of me, 14 years old, in my basketball uniform. Fresh off the plane from the Bahamas to Maryland. The new kid. Totally out of my element. Everybody telling me, “Say that word again. You say it funny.”
Then cut to a super-high-def image of me in my Connecticut Sun uniform, shooting a turn-around J over some helpless defender in the damn WNBA.
Picture two grown women standing outside the Nike store, staring up at this random billboard, just sobbing for 15 minutes straight.
Ohhhhhh, we were sobbing, man.
It was a long road to that moment, and I’m not talking about just basketball. Yes, I’m from the Bahamas, and that’s a long way from the WNBA, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
How real do you want me to get here? Are we doing the cliché thing, or are we doing the real thing? If we’re doing the real thing, will you really hear me out?
Here’s the deal. This thing happened when I was 12 years old that changed my whole life. And I still don’t like to talk about it, because it’s still pretty raw to me, even today.
See, basketball wasn’t my first love. I mean, I liked it. My big Christmas present when I was six years old was this triple-pack set with a basketball, soccer ball, and a football. And they were GLOW-IN-THE-DARK. I used to always be out in the street late-night with all my friends and cousins, shooting this glow’d-up basketball into a milkcrate that we’d nailed to a light pole. Good times. But soccer was really my thing. I was actually on the Bahamian youth national team.
I was good, and I would let you know about it!
One day, when I was like eight, my dad wasn’t letting me stay up late or something, and I let him know the deal.
I said, “Daddy, you better be nice to me, or you’re gonna be sad when I grow up.”
He said, “What? Why am I gonna be sad?”
I said, “I’m not going to take care of you when I’m a professional soccer player.”
My mom loves to tell that story. In my mind, I was going to be the greatest soccer player in the world.
But when I was 12, one of my coaches on the national team pulled me aside for a private conversation, just randomly. He sat down across from me, and the whole vibe was off. He was asking me all these questions about this girl who I was really close with. She was younger than me, and she was new to the team, so I was always trying to look out for her. I was kind of like a big sister to her, you know what I mean? Or I was trying to be.
My coach said, “This girl, what are you trying to do with her?”
I didn’t understand a word he was saying. I was totally confused. You know when you’re a kid, and you get exposed to some weird adult stuff for the first time, and it’s just so … I don’t even know how to explain it? Like, you wanna scream, “Yo! I’m just a kid!”
He kept saying, “People are saying a lot of things about you. People are saying that maybe you like this girl.”
Remember, I’m 12 years old! I’m nowhere near being able to understand anything about my sexuality. I don’t know anything about anything. I’m 12! I’m just this innocent kid. And then out of nowhere, this grown man is just … saying this confusing stuff.
I was so, so hurt. I think you can only feel that kind of hurt when you’re a kid, and your heart is totally open. I was devastated, but also confused, embarrassed, angry. I’m still wounded by it. But at 12, honestly, I couldn’t even deal with it.
That one conversation made me lose my love for the game. It was something so innocent and pure … and then I couldn’t even look at a soccer ball without feeling pain.
So I ended up pouring all my energy into basketball — which was kind of ironic, I guess, because a lot of the time I’d be the only girl out there. There were only three indoor courts on the whole island, so it was a small world.
It wasn’t like: “Hey, can the girl play?”
It was like: “Jonquel is always out here, killing it, balling.”
Those were my guys!
What’s funny is, my main outdoor court was right off the beach. That wind coming off the water was so crazy that you had to be a real mathematician. No, for real though! You had to factor in that ocean breeze to the calculus of your jumper. That’s Bahamian basketball right there.
I ended up pouring all my energy into basketball — which was kind of ironic, I guess, because a lot of the time I’d be the only girl out there.
If I wanted to play in a real gym, I had to wake up at six in the morning so my dad could drive me all the way to Freeport to practice with this legendary coach, Moon McPhee (yes, indeed — father of Ole Miss women’s coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin! Shoutout to Coach Moon!)
One of the other kids who was always there was named Buddy, and he was a character.
Buddy is my guy.
He was so dedicated, it was crazy.
This kid would be at the gym every day. Buddy was never not there. Then one morning, randomly, somebody’s like, “Yo! Where’s Buddy?”
Ten minutes pass, 20 minutes pass … Buddy’s not showing up.
We’re like, actually worried. That’s how weird it is to not see Buddy.
So we start playing, and all of a sudden, the doors to the gym fly open, and here comes BUDDY. Full sprint.
His shirt is off, he’s sweating like crazy, and he just runs right out onto the court — doesn’t even stop — doesn’t even break his stride — doesn’t even take a drink — he just runs straight out onto the court and starts D’ING UP.
We’re like, “Buddy, where were you, man?!”
Buddy says, “Oh, I missed the bus. So I had to run here.”
We’re like, “You ran here?!?!?!”
This dude ran 6 miles, in the Bahamas, in the heat, all the way to the gym, and he didn’t even say nothing. He just started playing. And playing hard. I’m talking hard! And he was smiling!
That’s Buddy Hield for you. That’s my guy.
If you would’ve told me way back then that I was going to get drafted into the WNBA, and Buddy was going to get drafted into the NBA???? I would’ve had goosebumps for sure. Two kids from the Bahamas? That’s crazy!
But if you told me we both were going to get picked at No. 6? In the same year?
Man. That’s gotta be fate. Or it’s gotta be something.
I think that story about Buddy really just shows you how hard we worked for it. When you’re growing up on an island with three basketball courts, you have to be willing to do whatever. You deal with so much stuff that people in the States take for granted. Hurricanes would roll through and mess up our lives so often that I honestly can’t even keep them all straight. Frances. Jeanne. They just happened, and you accepted it.
But when Wilma came through …. Damn.
Hurricanes would roll through and mess up our lives so often that I honestly can’t even keep them all straight.
That one hurt the most. I remember we came back from the shelter to check the damage, and the roof of our house was peeled back like the lid on a can of tuna. We walked into the living room, and there were fish swimming around our couch.
Real fish, just chilling.
You can replace stuff. What you can’t replace are memories. The thing I’ll never forget is trying to dry off our family photo albums, wiping away the water from the Kodak prints. And for a minute, it worked — and you could see all these memories again. And then the image would slowly fade to black.
We lost years of our history as a family, and that’s why I work so hard to really remember things how they were, because that’s all we got now.
So much of my life has been on the move. I love the Bahamas, I love my people so much, but I was always trying to get off that island to explore the world. From the time I was 12, I was telling my mom the master plan: I wanna go to high school in the States, I wanna play college basketball, and then I wanna go pro.
In the ninth grade, I got the chance to go to a private school in Maryland, and I was all about it. But what’s crazy to me is how my mom handled it. I mean, can’t even imagine if that was my daughter. She flew to Maryland with me to meet my coach, Diane Richardson, who offered to let me live with her. But I think my mom was still really skeptical and scared about leaving her baby. How could you not be?
But then I remember my mom and Coach Rich went upstairs and talked by themselves for like two hours, and my mom came back down and gave me a hug and told me, “I feel like I’ve been raising you your whole life for this moment.”
I had no idea at the time, but I was actually sitting there that day with my two moms that day. Coach Rich ended up becoming like my second mother, and I needed her to be, because those first two years in Maryland?
Oh my gosh.
I love my people so much, but I was always trying to get off that island to explore the world.
High school is hard enough right? For anyone. But when you’re coming from a whole different culture? In ninth grade? Oh my gosh. I have this image in my mind, and it’s so random, but I just remember going to my first basketball practice, and I had just come off the plane from the Bahamas with all my stuff — literally from the airport — and I ran into the locker room to change, and I’m already late, so I forgot to put some lotion on, and I look down at my knees and I’m like ….
Oh my gosh, you’re gonna be ashy at your first practice! This is a problem!!!!!
I was literally hunched over the sink in the bathroom, splashing water all over my knees in a panic. That’s exactly how I remember my first two years of high school in the States. Just so out of my element and awkward. And it wasn’t even like I was killing it on the court. I was so raw that they had me on the JV team in the 10th grade.
When I made it to varsity, I was riding the bench. I’ll never forget what my teammate said to me one night. I was sitting on the bench, watching the game, bummed out … and she just turns to me out of the blue and says, “You know, if I came all the way from the Bahamas? To like … Maryland? And I wasn’t even playing? I think I’d like … just go home.”
I used to call my dad, complaining, crying, and he would tell me, “Do not come back here. Do not come back. This is your dream.”
I needed to hear that. It gave me a lot of strength. Those first two years, I poured everything into trying to get better and better. I would just shoot, shoot, shoot. Constantly. It would be the middle of a snowstorm, and mind you I didn’t even know about snow until I got to Maryland, and I’d be out in the driveway shooting jumpers in these gloves that I got from Walmart — the ones with the finger flaps. And you always had to have a broom, because the ball would get stuck in the frozen net, and you’d have to poke it out.
I don’t know, I just loved it. You either love it or you don’t.
I hit my growth spurt at the end of 10th grade, and after that it was on. I remember I got my first recruitment letter from Brown University, and I am not ashamed to say that I was going c r a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a z z z z z z z y.
That was such a great phone call, telling my parents the news, after everything that we had been through. My mom and dad really held our family together through so much. People think of the Bahamas as just fancy resorts and everything, like it just sprung up out of nowhere for people to go on vacation, but my family had lived on our land for generations. We’ve been there for a long, long time, and we’re really close. So for them to let me go away all alone at 14 to pursue my dream of being a professional athlete … especially a female professional athlete … it’s amazing to me.
Pretty much every step of the way to the WNBA, I had these moments when I’d call them, freaking out, crying about how I was never going to make it, and they’d tell me exactly what I needed to hear. But I gotta be honest with you. I gotta be honest for every single kid reading this who might know exactly what I’m talking about…. When I was in college, and I started figuring out who I really was, whenever I would fly back home to the Bahamas, I wasn’t really going back as me.
I was acting like the person I thought I was expected to be. I’d be coming off that plane wearing dresses! Super proper, super conservative. Even when I got drafted into the W, it was such a crazy moment, because they rolled out the red carpet — literally — for me and Buddy. They actually had a motorcade for us and everything, and people were lining the streets. But I was still kind of wearing those scars from what happened when I was 12 with my soccer coach, and I didn’t know how to be myself.
For me, everything changed when I went to play abroad during my first couple of WNBA offseasons. That’s when I really found my strength. I found it through pain, man! Suffering!
I mean, you think we don’t grind? Listen, I challenge any Twitter Hater to go play ball in South Korea. Just go over there and try to finish one practice with Asan Woori Bank Wibee and I promise you’ll be CRYING.
When I went over there in 2016, I was not prepared.
I remember one of my teammates on the Sun, Shekinna Stricklen, warned me. She said, “Oh, you’re going to Korea? Girl, you’re gonna be run-innnnnnnnnnnnnn’.”
I was like, “Yeah, sure, O.K. I like to run.”
I was so naive.
The first practice, we started running, and we never stopped running.
I mean, you think we don’t grind? Listen, I challenge any Twitter Hater to go play ball in South Korea.
I was in the bathroom throwing up, every single day.
Any Twitter tough guy who’s like, “I could do what y’all do! I could….”
No! Listen! Go practice with Asan Woori Bank Wibee. You think this is a GAME?
Our coach didn’t speak five words of English, and he would be yelling like crazy, and then our English translator would turn to me and, God bless her heart, she’d be like, “O.K., he says you must run more.”
I think she was softening the curses for me! Thank you, Miye!
After two weeks, I called my brother in the Bahamas, crying my eyes out, saying “I can’t DO this anymore, I gotta come HOME, bro!”
And he said exactly what I needed to hear.
He said, “If you quit, I swear.… You gotta rep the 242! You gotta show them we’re not soft! You are not coming home! 242!!!”
So I stayed, and I was still throwing up almost every single day, but that experience took me to the next level. We won the Korean league chip, and when I came back to the W the next season, I won Most Improved Player, and I set the single season record for rebounds (shout out to Kawhi — BoardWoman gets paid, too!).
But you know what? That whole experience wasn’t really about me as a hooper. It was about me as a human.
Until you’re so far outside your comfort zone like that, you can’t know how strong you are. Until you’re on your own like that, you can’t really know who you are.
When I came back from Korea, I started feeling comfortable with my true myself. And I started to be me, even when I went back home to the Bahamas. I started dressing like I really dress, and acting like I really act.
And the last time that I saw my mom at the WNBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, when we were sobbing in front of that billboard, I actually got to introduce her to a really special person in my life. My girlfriend.
Until you’re so far outside your comfort zone like that, you can’t know how strong you are.
And that felt really, really good — just to be myself. The Bahamas is pretty traditional in a lot of ways, and maybe not everyone understands yet. But that’s O.K. As long as the right people understand, I’m good.
And that’s the thing that I kind of left out of the story about the billboard.
See … when I was standing there with my mom, and we were looking up at that billboard, those two pictures were so, so powerful.
An old grainy image of me, 14 years old, in my basketball uniform. Fresh off the plane from the Bahamas to Maryland. The new kid. Totally out of my element.
Then cut to a super-high-def image of me in my Connecticut Sun uniform, shooting a turn-around J over some helpless defender in the damn W!
Ohhhhhh, we were sobbing, man.
We really were.
But the thing that sticks with me now isn’t the billboard.
It’s what my mom said to me.
She gave me a hug, and she said, “Thank you so much for being the person that you are.”
The person that you are.