No matter where Candace Parker goes in Las Vegas, she’s recognized. At the airport, the grocery store, and even at the gas station when she’s filling up at the pump, people call out to her with a familiar refrain.

“Go Aces!” they yell and wave.

The 37-year-old WNBA legend can’t help but smile. The Aces started the 2023 season right where they left off after winning the 2022 championship. At 8-1, they are in first place in the WNBA standings and hadn’t lost a game until three weeks into the season.

The energy around town is palpable, and Parker feels it wherever she goes. The same fans that once rooted against her when she was with the Los Angeles Sparks (2008-2020) and then the Chicago Sky (2021-2022) are now cheering for her, elated to see her in an Aces jersey. Parker engages them, calls back and interacts with fans, young and old.

“We had a season ticket event with all our season ticket holders,”she says, “and just being able to meet all the fans that are little kids was a treat for me. Because I love getting to know [them].”

Parker’s reception of the fans is not an act. It’s a reflection of her genuine appreciation and awareness of just how far the WNBA has come. It’s also a reminder of how far she’s come in her basketball career, and the journey she’s still on.

Parker burst onto the national basketball scene in 2004 as the first woman to win the dunk contest during the McDonald’s All-American High School Game. She then went on to win back-to-back NCAA titles under the legendary Pat Summit at Tennessee. Among Parker’s long list of accolades are a collection of moments cemented in time: becoming only the second player in WNBA history to dunk in a basketball game (Lisa Leslie was the first), winning Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season (2008), playing for Team USA and collecting two Olympic gold medals (2008, 2012) along the way, and winning her first WNBA championship with Los Angeles in 2016.

After all, Parker is a moments person. Small moments. Big moments. Happy moments. Hard moments. It doesn’t matter. She savors each one down to the very last drop, then tucks the memory away in her back pocket like a Polaroid for safe keeping.

With 10.5 seconds left to go in Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals, the Sky were up 78-74 against the Phoenix Mercury, and Chicago veteran Courtney Vandersloot was at the foul line. As Vandersloot hit the first free throw and then the second, Parker couldn’t contain her emotions. She began to cry. After spending 13 seasons with the Sparks, she had returned to her hometown city with the goal of bringing the Sky their first WNBA title in franchise history.

In that moment, it was happening right before her eyes. Winning the WNBA championship in front of her family and friends, and for the city of Chicago, Parker reveled in the joy to the fullest extent. But in the days and weeks that followed the championship celebration and parade, she began to think about her future.

“I was like, I could just go out on a high, this is it. I mean, 14 seasons? That’s a lot, like, whatever,” she says. “I had my ankle injury that kind of kept me in and out. It was a tough season.”

Parker celebrates bringing a WNBA championship to her hometown with the Chicago Sky in 2021. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Still, the thought of running it back with the same roster and playing another season fully healthy drew her back in. Chicago went 26-10 during the regular season and entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed with expectations of another Finals trip. But after they beat the Liberty in Round 1, the Sky’s storybook run came to an end against the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals. Despite Parker’s best efforts in the series, the Sky were eliminated in Game 5 after letting the Sun go on a 24-5 run in the fourth quarter.

The retirement rumors swirled. But Parker wasn’t ready to bow out.

“We lost last year and the way in which we lost, having a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter, kept me up at night and just ate at my soul,” she says. “It was kind of just one of those things where I was like, I can’t end like this. The last time I play basketball, we’re not gonna blow a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. So, I think that kind of refocused and motivated me.”

Parker wants to win. And having the opportunity to win in different places, in different systems, with different pieces is a challenge she enjoys. She also loves to compete, even when she’s not on the basketball court.

“I mean, I’m an idiot. I’ll be on the Peloton and it’s like Pedals By Patty is trying to beat my score and I’m like, ‘Nooo!’” Parker laughs. “It’s just the competitive element. Even on chill days, I can’t let Pedals By Patty beat me.”

Feeding that competitive fire, Parker knew she wanted to play basketball for at least one more season. The only question was where. Going back to Chicago had been a dream opportunity, but the move had also been hard on Parker’s family, especially her daughter Lailaa. Flying back West for a couple of hours at time, and Lailaa missing school when she came to Chicago, didn’t make for a sustainable schedule. She also had a newborn son to care for with wife Anna Petrakova.

With her house still in Los Angeles, Parker says she considered a return to the Sparks. But it was Lailaa who suggested Las Vegas as a possibility, which had a lot to do with Aces point guard Chelsea Gray.

Gray and Parker became close friends while teammates with the Sparks from 2016 to 2020. They were in each other’s weddings. Parker introduced Gray to good wine. Gray and her wife, Tipesa, are godparents to Parker’s son. They’d spend hours sitting by a fire pit together talking about basketball and about life. And since they’d gone their separate ways to play for different teams, somehow they grew even closer.

“When you’re teammates, you know you’re gonna see that person in like a day or two. If it’s an off day, you know the next day you’re gonna see them,” Gray says. “And sometimes, it’s taken for granted — those moments. So being away from each other, we would have our long talks, but via FaceTime just to check in and talk about a bunch of stuff to make sure we’re not missing anything.”

Parker and Chelsea Gray became close friends during their five years together on the Sparks. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Watching each other succeed from afar became routine during the past two WNBA seasons, with Parker’s championship in 2021 and Gray’s transcendent playoff performance in 2022. Gray waited until the aftermath of the Aces championship to reach out to her friend.

“(At first) we were talking like, ‘How’s her body feeling?’ Like outside of just trying to get her in Las Vegas, just having casual conversation,” Gray says. “And then I’d make the statement, ‘I’m putting on my Las Vegas Aces point guard hat — listen, this is a franchise that’s doing right by its players, that wants the best, that wants to win championships.’

“And that’s when the conversation kind of turned.”

“One thousand percent Chelsea had an impact,” Parker adds. “I mean, we were close when we played together, but we’ve gotten closer even since.”

After her initial chats with Gray, Parker spoke with Aces head coach Becky Hammon. She also connected with Aces president Nikki Fargas — someone Parker has known since her days at Tennessee, where Fargas was a former player and an assistant coach.

“Obviously, I go back with Nikki,” Parker says. “I can’t call her Nikki Fargas, it’s Nikki Caldwell. But we go back, and we started having conversations.”

Despite those encouraging conversations and her ties to Gray and Fargas, Parker says her final decision came down to what was best for her and her family. The flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles is only 40 minutes, a fact that stuck with her when she ultimately chose to sign with the Aces on a one-year contract.

When Parker first arrived in Sin City, she says it took about a week and a half to get to know the lay of the land. She set up her home and got her family settled. Her teammates gave her tips on the best places to eat, shop and get her nails done. She reunited with Gray on the court and got to know her new teammates during training camp.

“Being away from her and then having her come back and seeing her every day in practice, it’s really cool to see,” Gray says. “Like, damn, I miss seeing you play this closely. And it’s been a cool dynamic to see her play with others that haven’t ever had that experience.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t really feel real still,” Kesley Plum marveled during a post-practice press conference before the season. “For me, I’ve just been really impressed with her humility. I think that Candace has come in from the jump and just been like, ‘Alright, what do I need to learn?’ Figure out the offense, learning our defensive schemes, how we do things. I know that our connection, with us two and then her with the rest of the team, is just going to continue to grow.”

Nearly a month into the WNBA season, the Aces look as if they haven’t lost a step since adding Parker to their championship roster. While her stats don’t jump off the page like they used to at 8.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, she’s still making an impact and has embraced her role as a supporting cast member on a team of All-Stars. She’s also enjoying all the amenities the organization has to offer — including the state-of-the-art practice facility and the fact that, for the first time in her 16-year career, she actually has a locker.

“I mean our practice facility is unbelievable. We have everything here, I don’t have to really go out of house,” Parker says. “It’s not like we gotta get on the court and off the court at this time because somebody else has to come in. That’s what I’ve been through in my career. I’ve been through two-a-days, I’ve been through 6 a.m. flights, I’ve been through all that.

“Now to be able to be in a place that makes sense, I think that’s a credit to the growth of women’s basketball as well.”

Parker has embraced her role as part of the Aces' stacked lineup. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

In her 16 WNBA seasons, Parker has seen the league evolve for the better in a variety of ways. Owners are spending money and investing in their players. Player visibility has never been higher. At the college level, NIL deals are changing the way players are marketed, setting them up to enter the pro game with a large following of dedicated fans.

“I think the progress in women’s sports has been being able to recognize women and know them from a long time ago,” she says. “You see that in the NBA. The players own their brand. It’s so important to understand the value and power of that. It’s not just about the game.”

Parker knows the importance of visibility, both as a longtime player and as an NBA analyst for Turner Sports. She sees the disparity between the men’s and women’s games firsthand and is doing her part to help close the gap.

“What it does with her sitting in the analyst seat is it allows people to really hear how smart women are when it comes to the game of basketball,” says ESPN WNBA analyst LaChina Robinson, who has been covering Parker since she came into the league.

“We’re just getting to the point where people are realizing how great of players women are, but now you’re adding another layer of she can talk the game. For people who need that validation, that women belong in sport, it’s just another opportunity to show that. Candace’s IQ is off the charts. It’s just awesome to hear her do that on such a big platform like the NBA.”

Broadcasting is only one facet of Parker’s life outside of playing basketball. She’s also dabbling in private equity, tech, wine, tequila and even artificial intelligence, setting herself up for life after the WNBA.

“I have a million things I want to do. It’s not gonna be just one thing. I truly believe the biggest thing I’ve taken from basketball is to be versatile,” she says. “That’s in income, but it’s also in the things that you do. I just like to do a lot of different things. My wife always jokes, ‘You will not be bored.’”

Parker talks on the set of TNT's NBA studio show with analyst Ernie Johnson. (Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images)

Back in 2020, when Parker last played with the Sparks during the WNBA’s pandemic-induced bubble season, she had already begun to think about what might be next. It was her 13th season in the WNBA, and she knew she had more basketball behind her than she did in front of her. Her career up until that point had been just as rewarding as it had been draining, with many challenging seasons mixed in with the championship years.

“I never thought of quitting after a hard season, 100 percent. If anything, I wanted to come back more and prove whatever I needed to prove,” Parker confesses. “I didn’t think I even needed to prove anything, but whatever. I think 2019 was really difficult. It was really hard. Just from a physical standpoint, from a health standpoint, but also from the moving piece of an organization.”

During the 2019 season, Parker battled through an injury, appearing in 22 games and recording 11.2 points per game, the lowest scoring average of her career. After going 22-12, the Sparks secured the third seed in the playoffs before being swept in the semifinals by the Connecticut Sun. In an odd twist, Parker played only 11 minutes in a must-win Game 3. Then-head coach Derek Fisher explained her benching in the fourth quarter as a way to initiate “a spark.” Shortly afterward, Penny Toler was dismissed as general manager and an ESPN report revealed growing tensions within the organization. Last year, Fisher was fired 12 games into the season amid additional team controversy.

As Los Angeles struggled to find its way forward and a new identity as an organization after years of success, Parker felt a shift. The WNBA’s power structure was changing, and she was changing as a player, a person and a mother. After the 2020 season, there was a rebirth. Parker emerged rejuvenated in Chicago. Now, at this stage in her basketball career and life, there’s a new feeling.

“Instead of using the word content, I think it’s peace,” says Gray. “Like she has a bit of peace about her in all facets of her life and the decisions that she makes, and being OK with that. Like, surrendering control but also having fun while she’s doing it. I don’t think she’s content or satisfied with where she is. I just think she’s at peace with how she’s going about life.”

When Parker does walk off the court for the final time, she’ll leave behind a lasting legacy as one of the greatest WNBA players of all time. For multiple reasons.

“Candace’s legacy is definitely far and wide-reaching,” says Robinson. “I don’t know that we had ever seen anyone that had inside/outside scoring, handles, passing ability, athleticism at the rim — just an incredible combination of skill set. Off the court, Candace has been one of those players that has allowed us a look into the challenges and the rewards of being an athlete mom, and when it comes to the marketing of the league, she has been arguably the most marketable player the league has ever seen and a trailblazer for Black women in that space.”

Parker is currently eighth all-time in the WNBA in career points (6,485) and second among active players, third in total rebounds (3,415) and seventh in assists (1,593). She’s also tied for first in the league with three regular-season triple-doubles in her career and first with three double-doubles in rebounds and assists. Parker is known just as much for her defense as her offense, ranking fifth all-time in blocks (612) and earning Defensive Player of the Year in 2020.

More significantly, Parker has become one of the most recognizable players in the history of the league. But before she became known around the world as CP3, she was simply “Ace” in the early days. Maybe it’s serendipitous then that she ended up playing for the Aces in what could be the final season of her career.

Parker will know when her playing days are over, just like she’ll know when it’s time to start her next life venture. Candace Parker is a moments person, after all, and the moment to hang it up hasn’t come just yet.

“I think the closer you get to the end, whenever that will be, I think the more you don’t take for granted,” she says. “And I said back in 2021 sometime — you don’t have to tell your story, time will. I firmly believe that. I’m still in the league, so … that’s a win.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Arike Ogunbowale didn’t watch the 2023 WNBA Draft. She was doing what she does every Monday night — playing pick-up basketball. But her cell phone was close by, and she kept checking it for updates.

Ogunbowale liked what she saw. Dallas not only grabbed NCAA leading scorer Maddy Siegrist at No. 3 overall, but continued to accumulate top-tier shooters as the rest of the draft unfolded, making four selections in the first round and and six overall.

“I thought we did really good,” she says. “It’s pretty much what I envisioned them to be drafting. I was happy with it.”

Since she entered the WNBA as the Dallas Wings’ fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, Ogunbowale has become the backbone of the franchise, and Dallas has been intent on building the team around her. But while Ogunbowale has racked up many individual accolades over the past four seasons, including WNBA scoring champion in 2020 and All-Star MVP in 2021, the Wings have struggled to achieve consistent roster balance and find success in the postseason. They were bounced from the playoffs in a single-elimination first-round game in 2021 and, after finishing the regular season with a .500 record, lost 2-1 in a first-round series against the Connecticut Sun last season.

At this point in her four-year career, Ogunbowale wants more for her team and for the city of Dallas, which has not had a winning season since 2015 or a playoff series win since 2009. Ogunbowale wants to experience a full postseason run.

“My first year (in the playoffs), that’s when it was still the one and done. Last year’s was two out of three. Sadly, I wasn’t able to play in that because I was injured,” says Ogunbowale, 26. “I’m just excited to actually play a playoff series at that and get a chance to go. But the goal for sure is more than the first round this year.”

Ogunbowale is a two-time WNBA All-Star in her four seasons with Dallas. (Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s not as if Wings president and CEO Greg Bibb hasn’t tried to round out the roster with additional talent and find the best combination of players, particularly through the draft, to try to achieve that same goal.

In 2020, Dallas plucked Satou Sabally (Oregon) with the second overall pick, Bella Alaire (Princeton) with the fifth, Tyasha Harris (South Carolina) with the seventh and Luisa Geiselsöder (Germany) in Round 2. In 2021, the Wings used their first and second picks to grab bigs Charli Collier (Texas) and Awak Kuier (Finland), then added Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas) and Dana Evans (Louisville). The 2022 draft yielded Veronica Burton (Northwestern) and Jazz Bond (North Florida).

Still, out of all of the players drafted in the past four years, only five remain in Dallas — Burton, Collier, Kuier, Sabally and Ogunbowale.

“We’ve been on a multi-year journey in terms of building our roster,” Bibb says. “And I believe we were at a spot by the end of last season where we were very much on the way to where we want to be, but there were several roster-related shortcomings or deficiencies that we wanted to address — first in free agency and then in the draft.”

During the WNBA’s frenetic February free agency period, Dallas picked up Diamond DeShields, Natasha Howard and Crystal Dangerfield through trades. And this year’s draft produced another haul of riches. The Wings cast a wide net, selecting Siegrist (Villanova), Lou Lopez Sénéchal (UConn) and Abby Meyers (Princeton) in the first round, then added Ashley Joens (Iowa State) and Paige Robinson (Illinois State) with their subsequent picks. Dallas also traded future draft picks for the rights to Stephanie Soares (Iowa State), who was originally selected fourth overall by the Washington Mystics.

With six draftees and no trades to garner any future picks for themselves, the Wings appeared to be scooping up as much talent as they could to throw out on the court in training camp this week and see what sticks. It’s seemingly the same script they followed for the past few seasons under former head coaches Brian Agler (2019-20) and Vickie Johnson (2021-22).

Bibb insists that isn’t the case.

“A lot of people ask us about our draft class. It’s kind of become this thing, this narrative that Dallas always drafts a ton of players and always has too many players and not enough spots,” he said in the Wings’ introductory team press conference in April. “I’m not sure where the narrative that Dallas does this over-drafting or draft-and-stash [comes from]. It’s just not what we do.”

Ogunbowale and new signing Natasha Howard participate in the first day of training camp Sunday. (Dallas Wings)

After losing their second- and third-leading scorers Marina Mabrey and Allisha Gray in offseason trades, Bibb says he targeted what Dallas needed the most through the draft — shooters. But he also added size for position, focusing on players who have the ability to excel in multiple positions and use their individual skills in a variety of ways on the court.

Siegrist fits that mold perfectly. As the all-time leading scorer in the Big East and the leading scorer in the nation this past season at 29.2 points per game, she has the ability to get buckets at all three levels. More importantly, depending on how many minutes new coach Latricia Trammell grants her, Siegrist can go in and compete right away.

“I love a scorer. You know I’m a scorer, so I love that (Maddy) can score in a lot of different ways and do it easily,” says Ogunbowale. “I think adding her is really good. She has good size, so she’ll help us with that department. But I think she’ll stretch the floor for sure, she can knock it down. I’m really excited about her.”

Soares is still recovering from a torn ACL she suffered in January and is being billed as a future investment, with the hope that she’ll be ready to go next season. Lopez Sénéchal played with a lingering knee injury for the second half of UConn’s season, and it remains to be seen how it will affect her play. But she, along with Meyers, Joens and Robinson, will be front and center of what is expected to be a highly competitive Wings training camp.

Dallas traded for Iowa State center and No. 4 pick Stephanie Soares on draft night. (Evan Yu/Just Women's Sports)

Seeing all of the picks taken before and after her, Meyers knows there’s no time to revel in the dream of getting drafted. The reality of the situation is clear to the former Ivy League Player of the Year — every draftee is competing for a spot alongside established young talent and valuable veterans.

“I think for me, I gotta do really well at the intangibles. I have to do really well at the small things,” Meyers says. “So I have to shoot well, I have to move off the ball well, I have to communicate well. I gotta do everything that makes a great all-around player.”

Since arriving in Dallas, Meyers has been hitting the gym and training with the other rookies, having fun and soaking up as much knowledge as she can. She’s also spoken with some of the vets, including DeShields, who told her to drop the rookie mindset and remember that, at the end of the day, they’re all pros.

“I know what I need to show and work on,” Meyers says. “But yeah, it’s gonna come down to the little things I think. It’s gonna come down to consistency, come down to meeting expectations of not only myself as a player, but also the expectations of what the coaches are looking for in a player for the team.”

Dallas currently has 18 players on its roster and only 12 open slots. As has become the norm, getting drafted in the second and third rounds is often more of an open invitation than a guarantee. But Trammell has said she’s going to treat every player that steps on the court as if they’re going to be with the team all season.

“It’s probably the most competitive that it’s been, honestly even since before I was here,” Ogunbowale says. “There’s so many good players — the players we have now and the players added, we got a lot of players in free agency. I think it’s gonna be super, super competitive. I’m excited to watch people compete, I’m excited to obviously compete against them. Hopefully my spot is locked down.”

As camp begins and the WNBA season fast approaches, the Wings’ new coaching staff has their work cut out for them. With the roster cutdown deadline set for May 18 and their season opener against the Atlanta Dream on May 20, the Wings have just over two weeks to finalize the roster and figure out rotations, player combinations and positions with the hope of contending in a newly top-heavy league.

The question remains: Will this be the year it all comes together?

Ogunbowale is optimistic.

“I think this is gonna be our best year yet. I feel like with the new coaching staff, they’re excited and seem super knowledgeable in the sport and just want to see us be great. They seem like they’re putting everything together to give us the tools to be great,” she says.

“I think we have players now that are super skilled, that have won championships. Just adding those other pieces and the pieces that we have, I think it’s gonna be a really good season for us.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

When Angel Reese first arrived at LSU last spring — after shocking the women’s basketball world when she transferred out of Maryland after just two seasons — she was ready to resume her college career wearing number 10. It’s the same jersey number her mother, Angel, used to wear when she played. The same number her younger brother, Julian, wears as a sophomore for the Terps. And the same number that now hangs in the rafters of her high school alma mater, St. Francis Academy in Baltimore.

“Number 10 is just our number, really,” Julian says. “Like, when you see number 10, you see the Reese family.”

There was just one problem. Number 10 was already taken by LSU graduate senior Ryann Payne. So, Reese had to settle for the number one instead.

In a way, it seemed fitting — a new number for a new start at a new school.

Transferring wasn’t something Reese had planned on when she first embarked on her college career in 2020 as a five-star recruit and the No. 2 player in the nation. But basketball sometimes takes players places they hadn’t intended on going. And to fully understand Reese’s basketball journey thus far, you have to go back to where it all began.

“My whole family played basketball. My aunts played basketball, my brother plays basketball, my grandparents played basketball. So, it kind of was like, ‘You’re gonna do this,’” says Reese, who tried everything from ballet to cheerleading while growing up. She also ran track and was a standout in volleyball.

But basketball was always the sport. And Reese’s mother, who raised her as a single parent, was the catalyst.

“I used to go to my mom’s games when I was younger. She used to play in a little league, and I used to always go watch her games on Sundays. That was something that was always inspiring to me,” Reese says. “She’s always been independent and she molded that into me. I am who I am because of her.”

When Reese first started playing, she was a point guard. A growth spurt in high school forced her into the frontcourt instead, but her point-guard abilities — ball handles, court vision, defensive agility and passing ability — went along with her. Those skills, combined with her 6-3 height and ability to rebound, set her apart.

Reese averaged a double-double throughout her high school career. And when the time came for her to pick a college program, Maryland seemed like the right choice.

“It was staying close to home, and also my development. Shay Robinson was there at that point [as an assistant coach], and I wanted to play with a post player, so we had Shakira Austin,” Reese says. “Brenda drove me there as well. She had recruited me since I was in the eighth grade and she had a great bond with my family, so it seemed to be a perfect fit for me, going into it.”

The expectations that followed Reese to Maryland were sky high. In her debut for the Terps, Reese notched 20 points and snagged nine rebounds. But the rest of her freshman year didn’t pan out the way she had hoped.

Austin had transferred to Ole Miss before the start of the 2020-21 season, COVID-19 was still impacting NCAA game scheduling, and Reese suffered a foot fracture just four games into the season. The injury and subsequent surgery kept her off the court until late February.

“Yeah, that was an emotional rollercoaster because I’ve never been hurt and I’ve never had to have surgery before,” Reese says. “It was tough. Like honestly, I’m not gonna lie — it was so tough on me because I had a lot of expectations.”

Reese eventually hit a mental wall, feeling like she was disappointing her team when she couldn’t be out there. But she stayed as engaged as possible, attending practices and standing firm on the sideline during games, hopping on one leg and cheering the team on. In turn, her teammates and coaches supported her throughout the recovery process.

By the time she returned to the court, Reese was ready to help Maryland win in any way that she could. She played limited minutes for the rest of the season, averaging eight points and 5.6 rebounds per game. The Terps made it to the Sweet 16 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, losing a close game to Texas, 64-61.

When the 2021-22 season rolled around, Reese was determined to make her mark. She wanted more for Maryland and for herself. She wanted more than the Sweet 16. As a sophomore, Reese played in all 32 games while averaging 17.7 points and 10.6 rebounds. Though she often got into foul trouble, which left an already short Terrapins bench strapped, she finished second in the nation with 5.3 offensive rebounds per game and was named to the 2022 All-Big Ten Team.

Reese led Maryland in points, rebounds and blocks per game as a sophomore. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

Despite another bumpy season for the Terps — full of injuries to key players and COVID-19 infections — they made it back to the Sweet 16, this time against Stanford. Reese put up 25 points and grabbed nine boards, but it wasn’t enough. Maryland came up short once again, 72-66.

“I think we did what we could do,” Reese says of the season. “Some games we only had six players. I think only three players last year played every single game or were at every single practice. I mean, it was a rollercoaster and I think we did as best as we could do. We didn’t finish where we wanted to finish, but I think overall, it was great.”

After the game, Reese tweeted, “We’ll be back, I’ll be back, TRUST ME.”

But once the rigors of the college basketball season ended, she began to think otherwise. Her up-and-down sophomore year, combined with the injury setback during her freshman year, had been taxing. And Reese says she needed a fresh start.

Ten days later, she entered the transfer portal. In one week, Maryland lost its top two scorers, Reese and Ashley Owusu, and three other players to the portal, coinciding with a growing trend in college basketball that Frese said she was prepared for.

“Our new reality is the transfer portal,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said back in 2020. “Kids come and go, and they do what’s best for their unique situations. As a program, you have to do what’s best.”

When asked for comment from Frese, a Maryland spokesperson said this week, “We certainly wish Angel and her family all the best in her career.”

For Reese, doing what was best for her meant looking for a different opportunity that would help her grow as a player, with her sights set on the WNBA.

“I wanted more for myself,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to develop into that stretch-four player, so being able to do that and play under a coach that could help me get to that level — because I know I’m not gonna play the five at the next level. I know I’m not gonna be sitting down in the post. I mean, there are way bigger players than me in the WNBA, so I know that I would have to play that stretch-four position.”

As one of the top players in the transfer portal, Reese was soon courted by a handful of elite programs. Her family and AAU coaches advised her to go where she felt most comfortable. Reese scheduled visits with South Carolina and Tennessee, thinking her decision would come down to being either a Gamecock or a Vol.

LSU wasn’t even on her radar, until Kateri Poole intervened.

Poole and Reese had been friends for a long time. They met on the Blue Star 30 circuit and stayed close throughout high school. After playing two seasons at Ohio State, Poole decided to transfer as well. She had been zeroing in on LSU since the Buckeyes played them in the Sweet 16 of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. As soon as Reese hit the transfer portal, Poole suggested they take a visit to Baton Rouge together.

“We got there. The food was awesome. We’re both from the East Coast, so it was new to us,” Poole says. “We both got the whole experience. The Southern hospitality was really good. I think that was the main thing for us, and I think she fell in love with how real Kim was.”

Later on in the visit, during a team dinner at Mulkey’s house, Poole and Reese walked into the sprawling backyard and agreed — they were going to LSU. And on May 6, it became official.

“When I came here, I just fell in love with everything — the environment, the people, everything that Coach Mulkey did in one year,” Reese says. “My development, where she had me as a plan for the next two to three years — all of that was set up for me so I was just like, yeah, this is the perfect place for me.”

Reese was also impressed with how much LSU supports its women’s sports teams. She was amazed at the size of the crowd during the Tigers’ preseason games, and in early January she acknowledged a billboard featuring her and her teammates alongside players from the men’s team. “Recruits,” Reese wrote on Twitter, “when you choose a school, choose somewhere where they treat both the mens and womens teams EQUAL.”

From day one, the energy she felt from LSU athletics and Mulkey herself felt different.

“She’s gonna keep it real with me. She’s never told me a lie. She’s always kept it real with me,” Reese says of Mulkey. “That’s something that I love. She’s really, really competitive. Like, super competitive.”

In turn, Mulkey says she knew from the first intra-squad scrimmage just how good Reese could be, because nobody on the team could stop her. And what she saw during practice over the spring and summer has since translated into the regular season.

“She’s playing extended minutes. She’s never played this many minutes before because she would always get in foul trouble. So, I think she’s more disciplined,” Mulkey said during a press conference in early January. “She sees every defense imaginable and yet she’s still one of our assist leaders. She’s gonna look for the open player. It’s impressive.

“I don’t care who you play, she’s capable of doing that every game.”

Since November, Reese has accumulated 18 consecutive double-doubles while averaging 23.9 points and 15.4 rebounds. She leads the nation with 6.1 offensive rebounds per game and 104 total rebounds on the offensive glass — more than 13 Division I schools have as a team.

The Tigers are currently 18-0 and ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25, but they have played just one ranked opponent so far this season. A softer schedule can often inflate statistics and make teams look more efficient on both ends of the floor. Still, it’s hard to overlook Reese’s numbers and overall impact. Her stats are up across the board, and she’s firmly in the conversation for Player of the Year.

“I haven’t seen a significant role change. I think she still has the same skill set. It’s just that she’s got a change of scenery,” says ESPN women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli. “She’s the top offensive rebounder in the country. To me, that says a lot about perseverance and being relentless and aggressive and knowing her role.”

“I’m just happy,” Reese says. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been playing. I feel like I’m back to my game. I came out of high school as the No. 1 wing, so being able to go straight to the post, that was a hard shift for me. And then being able to come back to playing here at LSU, being a versatile post player, being able to do things outside of just being a post player — I’m really happy.”

Later this month, LSU will go up against SEC foes Tennessee and No. 1 South Carolina. Both matchups will be litmus tests for the Tigers. Despite what their schedule indicates so far, Reese is confident in what her team has built this season, with all of the new pieces coming together. And she has her eyes set on bigger goals.

“I mean, that would be great if I won Player of the Year, but I want to win a national championship. I want to get past the Sweet 16,” Reese says.

“People remember the Player of the Year. But when you have that ring, like, I want to be able to do something legendary here at LSU.”

Reese recently shared a photo of herself standing next to LSU alum and WNBA legend Seimone Augustus. It was taken in 2011, when Reese was 9 years old. On Jan. 15, Augustus received a statue in her honor outside of Pete Maravich Assembly Center with Reese in attendance.

That’s the kind of legacy Reese hopes to leave behind. She wants to be as memorable of a player as Augustus, and as dominant as Sylvia Fowles, who currently holds the LSU record for most consecutive double-doubles with 19, which Reese can tie with another double-double Thursday night against Arkansas. And she wants to continue her career at the next level in the WNBA, just like they did.

Julian has no doubt his sister will get there.

“I feel like she’s playing great. I see her working hard this offseason, and I feel like all that hard work is paying off,” he says. “She’s just showing her true self and coming out of her shell. There’s more to come for her.”

Perhaps it’s serendipitous, but Reese is back to wearing number 10 again. Four games into the season, Payne finished up her graduate studies and decided to move on from basketball. When the number became available, Reese wasted little time asking the coaching staff if she could have it.

“I was like, ‘Hey you guys, can I get number 10?’” she laughs. “And they were like, ‘We’ll let you know, we’ll see.’ They kept playing around. They were like, ‘I don’t know, Angel. If you switch to number 10, you still gonna do what you gotta do?’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I will.’”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Editor’s Note: To close out the year, we are recognizing our best stories of 2022. This is the third in that series, originally published on May 4. The other stories feature the NWSL’s journey to a historic CBA and Naomi Girma’s rise to stardom.

There was a different kind of energy in Gainbridge Fieldhouse during the Indiana Fever’s media day last Wednesday. The atmosphere was relaxed, and loud music, laughter and the sweet anticipation of things to come filled the air.

The WNBA season tips off this Friday, and with it, the Fever embark on a new rebuilding phase in the franchise’s 22-year history. Indiana finished last season with the worst record in the league, winning only six games. After making the playoffs every year from 2005-16, the Fever haven’t had a winning season since 2015 and have missed the last five postseasons, the longest active drought in the WNBA.

This season, the Fever are counting on their youth to help turn the franchise around. With four selections in the first round of the WNBA Draft, the most a team has ever made, Indiana infused its roster with elite college-level talent: NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Lexie Hull and Queen Egbo. They then scooped up the star of the NCAA championship game, South Carolina point guard Destanni Henderson, in the second round.

“We’re all a group of talented, young women,” Egbo says. “We bring a lot to the game and we know what we’re capable of doing.”

“I’m not even gonna lie, [we] just want to do better than they did last year” adds Egbo’s former Baylor teammate, NaLyssa Smith. “I mean, we have a great group of people that can help get a lot further than they did last year and potentially make a playoff run.”


When Lin Dunn first returned to the Fever in mid-February to take over as interim general manager after Tamika Catchings stepped down, she didn’t realize how different the role would be from coaching.

“It’s challenging,” she says. “I think I said this when I took the job — I wouldn’t have done this anywhere else. I have a longtime relationship with the Fever, Pacers Sports and Entertainment, and the connections I have with those people. So when they asked me to help, there was no way I could say no. But now I’m finding the role very challenging, very interesting.”

Dunn, a 50-year coaching veteran who won a WNBA championship during her prior tenure with the Fever from 2004-14, was all in on the opportunity to rebuild the franchise. She made initial changes during free agency, waiving Kysre Gondrezick (the fourth overall pick in 2020) and trading Teaira McCown (third overall in 2019) to the Dallas Wings. Then, Dunn got to work on preparing for the draft. For two months, she focused on the best players available and didn’t get too caught up on position — though it was obvious Indiana needed immediate frontcourt help.

“Of course, we were all over researching Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith, because we agreed with the media that those were the two best picks in the draft,” Dunn says. “We spent time on them because we knew we were going to get one of them.”

As expected, once the Atlanta Dream took Howard with the first pick in the draft, Indiana scooped up Smith with the second.

“I was excited to get drafted to the Fever,” Smith says. “Just because I knew it was a franchise that needed people that could help them. And I knew I could come to this [team] and help it.”

After Smith, Indiana — thanks to multiple offseason trades — had three more first-round draft picks at its disposal. They discussed the next best available players at four and at six, and then looked to fill other holes on the roster as the draft went on. Engstler, the Louisville standout forward who does a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor, was the next pick at four. Then came Stanford’s sharpshooter, Hull, at six. And when media pundits and analysts opined that the pick may have been a reach, Dunn guffawed.

Right after she made the selection, she says, her phone buzzed with a text from another team asking what she wanted for Hull. If the Fever hadn’t grabbed Hull at six, Dunn believes she would have been off the board by the time they picked again at 10.

“So, obviously I made the right decision or we would have lost her,” Dunn says. “I don’t really care what the pundits or the media think. I care about what I think we need, and Lexie is exactly what we needed.”

Smith and Egbo have reunited on the Fever after playing all four years together at Baylor. (PSE/Matt Kryger)

Egbo (10th pick) and Henderson (20th pick) rounded out the Fever’s first- and second-round class. Dunn walked away from draft night more than content with the results, emphasizing that the Fever not only got the players they wanted, but also the players who can come in and make an immediate impact.

“If you’ve done any research on our roster, these people are gonna play,” Dunn says. “It’s not like some of the other teams that are drafting people to play backup roles or limited minute roles. We drafted people to play. And so, even though we were the last-place team, if I was a prospect, I’d want to go to Indiana because I want to play.”


After commissioner Cathy Engelbert called Engstler’s name for Indiana, Smith sent her a text right away. And as Engstler made her way through the media gauntlet on the draft floor in New York City, she kept a close eye on the stage.

“I saw Lexie get drafted and I was like, ‘Oh snap!’ Like, Stanford, Baylor, Louisville, South Carolina. These are the top, top players you can get,” Engstler says, beaming. “I had just played against Destanni, and she was killing it in the tournament. [I’m] super excited to get a chance to play with her. I knew Queen and ‘Lyss, so I was excited to get to see Queen again. So, old friendships, making new friends, and just great people.”

The rigors of a WNBA training camp are challenging, especially for rookies. The women’s college basketball season is long, and for teams that make it far into the NCAA Tournament, it’s even longer. For players like Engstler, Hull and Henderson, whose teams competed in the Final Four in Minneapolis, they had just over a week to transition from March Madness, to the draft and to a whole new city with a fresh set of teammates. That’s why, for this group, entering the next phase of their basketball careers together is unique.

“I don’t think a lot of players get that opportunity, to really get drafted with a bunch of other draftees and kind of restart with such a young group,” Engstler says. “People might think that’s an issue, but I think that’s going to set us apart from a lot of teams. We’re gonna be fast, eager to learn and be educated, and I think that’s exactly what we’ve been doing since we’ve gotten here.”

That sentiment is shared among the whole draft class. Each rookie is not only excited to be in Indiana and to be a part of the rebuild, but they are also all relishing the opportunity to do it together.

“I feel like we all bring something different, but we all mesh together really well,” Egbo says.

“Lexie can shoot the s–t out of the ball. So can ‘Lyss. They’re amazing scorers. You have Emily who can do a little bit of everything. I take a lot of pride in defense and taking that defensive game to the floor. And Destanni’s just a true point guard. She looks to get other people open, she looks to make the right play and the right read, and she’s very selfless.”

“We can rely on each other coming from the collegiate level, and just all learning and growing at the same time,” adds Henderson. “Joining all of our styles of play together, being able to play a little bit freely, just making it happen on and off the court, whatever the case may be.”

The talent level of the Fever’s rookie class is off the charts. But chemistry is also an important part of any roster, and this core group seems to have plenty of it. As they prepare for their season opener against the Washington Mystics on Friday, the Fever have had very little downtime during the three-week preseason, but the rookies have tried to bring levity to the locker room and team meals.

“I love being around them,” Egbo says. “They always make me laugh. I could be sad, I could be mad, and once they come around, it’s just nothing but giggles. They’re all so funny. We just gel really well together.”

“It’s been awesome. We’ve hung out outside of basketball and everyone’s just great people, so it’s a great place to be, great people to be around and I’m excited for the next few months,” Hull adds.

The immediate goal for this group is to win more than six games. It’s something they all agree on, but they also don’t want to just stop there.

“All of the rookies and I were talking and we’ve never been on a losing team,” Hull says. “We want to win and win games — as many of those as we can, that’s our goal. And if we can make the playoffs, that’d be great.”

Engstler, Henderson and Hull were drafted to the Indiana a week after playing in the Final Four with their college teams. (PSE/Matt Kryger)

There’s a lot of talk of surprising people, moving up in the standings, making the playoffs and even putting together a championship run. The latter might seem like a stretch for a young team with so many rookies, and no one expects it to happen overnight, least of all Dunn.

Between Dunn, 74, and head coach Marianne Stanley, in her 21st year coaching in the WNBA, the Fever are not focused on wins this season as much as they are on marked improvement in certain areas — notably hitting more 3s, increasing their 3-point percentage and playing better defense.

“What we’re gonna do, we’re gonna play these young players and we’re gonna let them play through their mistakes and we’re gonna let them grow up,” Dunn says. “Just like a child, they’re gonna crawl and walk and run. And hopefully by the end of the season, they will have continued to get better and realize what it takes to be a pro.”

Regardless of where Indiana ends up in the standings at the end of the season, the organization is confident in the foundation it’s building. After all, there’s never been a rookie draft class quite like this before.

“We’re just going to come in and make the best of it, showcase ourselves and show people the great things we can do,” Henderson says. “We can lean on each other when things get hard, ask questions and grow together.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

I’m not asking for much this holiday season — just a few simple things to help make the New Year bright for the WNBA. Coming off another successful season, with a continued rise in viewership and fan interaction across the board, there’s a lot to look forward to this upcoming season. But there are also some things the WNBA can and should improve upon next season.

In the spirit of the holidays, I present my 10-item WNBA wish list for 2023.

1. Throwback jerseys

Ahead of the regular season in 2021, the WNBA partnered with Nike to create a collection of new jerseys for each team in the league. The set featured three editions — Rebel, Heroine and Explorer — that were well-received by players and fans alike. But there have been no additions to the collection since then. NBA teams, on the other hand, have an average of four jerseys in their rotation, and recently, they’ve released new designs every season.

The WNBA is due for more jersey editions to stir up preseason hype among fans. How cool would throwbacks look for each team? Give me a 1997 New York Liberty design or a Las Vegas Aces/San Antonio Silver Stars retro look. Imagine how quickly they’d fly off the shelves.

2. Big free agency moves

WNBA free agency has never been more exciting. Just as the weather turns particularly cold and bleak in February, things heat up in the WNBA. While fans speculate, players take meetings with teams around the league who are desperately trying to lure them in. When the free-agency period kicks off, watching JWS analyst Rachel Galligan and others break new signings left and right only adds to the fun. This year, there are some big-name free agents in the mix, including Breanna Stewart, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Alysha Clark, Brionna Jones and about half of the Chicago Sky roster — Candance Parker, Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman and Azurá Stevens.

Taurasi and Griner have both indicated they will stay in Phoenix, but other decisions are up in the air. Will the Sky keep their core together? Will Stewie return to her home state to play for the Liberty? Will the Ogwumikes stay in Los Angeles as a package deal under new Sparks head coach Curt Miller? I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper brought a competitive edge to the series. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

3. Team rivalries

One of the many reasons the 2021 Finals series between the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury was so captivating is because of the on-court and off-court action. There was trash-talking, memes, Twitter beef, chippy play, a fist-fight with a locker-room door and some amazing basketball on display. But the rivalry didn’t extend into the following regular season as many had hoped, and currently, there’s no real WNBA rivalry to get behind. Remember Los Angeles Sparks vs. Minnesota Lynx? Detroit Shock vs. Phoenix Mercury? And Los Angeles Sparks vs. New York Liberty back in the day?

The WNBA needs team rivalries. They’re good for the league and fun for fans, making for must-see-TV during regular season broadcasts and upping the competitiveness for the players.

4. All-Star Weekend planning

Let’s be honest: WNBA All-Star Weekend could be so much more organized than it is, especially for fans. While last year’s festivities in Chicago were a success in terms of fan turnout and viewership, there were also some notable missteps. Saturday’s 3-point contest and skills competition were not held at Wintrust Arena due to a scheduling conflict, and fans were unable to attend. Additionally, location and event schedules weren’t released until Friday, causing confusion for attending fans.

The WNBA would benefit from getting ahead of schedule and planning accordingly this year, well before the regular season gets underway (there is already a report that the All-Star Game will return to Las Vegas in 2023). That would allow for fans to book flights, make hotel accommodations and prepare for what should be a celebratory and memorable weekend for the league.

The 2022 WNBA All-Star Game brought a mix of fun and confusion for fans. (David Banks/USA TODAY Sports)

5. All-Star Weekend activities

While we’re on the topic of All-Star Weekend, let’s talk about adding more activities. The WNBA could get extra creative, mixing in events that are fun for both the fans and players. Giving fans a chance to watch and enjoy the skills competition is a top priority, of course. But how about expanding Saturday’s lineup? Add some one-on-one games — a Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson matchup would be prime viewing. Host a rookie versus vets game, or a rookie showcase game. Invite celebrities to come and participate. There’s a lot to explore and plenty of room for All-Star Weekend to grow.

6. Honoring the past

At times, it feels like there is a disconnect between the WNBA’s past and present, especially from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Aces owner Mark Davis set the bar this season by making it a point to honor former San Antonio Silver Stars — the Aces’ previous franchise — during Aces home games. The WNBA as a whole can follow suit and become more conscious of celebrating its lineage. That might include catching up with former players on a regular podcast or video series, acknowledging them on national broadcasts throughout the season, or featuring them in articles that explain what they are up to now. There’s a rich history with the league that is worth revisiting on a more regular basis.

7. Even more games on television

Between live broadcasts and streaming, the WNBA showcased a total of 147 regular games in 2022. Disney’s group of channels (ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC) aired 25 nationally televised games, which accounted for the league’s most-viewed season since 2008. Overall, viewership between CBS and Disney networks was the highest in the WNBA’s history with those partners. Each team in the league will play 40 games in 2023, and the WNBA has yet to release its broadcast and streaming schedule. But one thing is clear: There need to be more games on television and on channels where people can easily find them. As the fan base continues to grow, those viewership numbers will keep rising.

8. New and improved marketing

Some of you might not remember the WNBA commercials from the late ‘90s — but I do. They were so well-written and funny. For those who didn’t know who Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes or Cynthia Cooper were, those TV spots put a face to players’ names. They also built momentum for the league and kept the start of the regular season on peoples’ minds. What happened to them? I don’t know, but they remind me of the league’s marketing possibilities.

Last February, the WNBA announced that it had raised $74 million in investment capital. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert pledged to use a portion of that money toward marketing efforts. The league needs to keep attracting fans in order to grow, and an overall marketing strategy helps give players opportunities, lure in would-be viewers and keep the WNBA relevant during quiet periods.

Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud is one of multiple WNBA stars playing for AU in 2023. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

9. Offseason content

In my recent conversation with Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA veteran made it a point to talk about the league’s lack of promotion of players during the offseason. The WNBA season is short compared to those of other major sports leagues, and from October to April, there’s a recognizable lull in coverage. With more and more players opting to stay stateside rather than compete overseas during the offseason, there are plenty of stories worth telling. Players are participating in the 2023 Athletes Unlimited basketball season, juggling multiple business ventures, getting into broadcasting, connecting with their alma maters as coaches and mentors, taking on modeling and fashion gigs, etc. The WNBA (and more independent media outlets) could provide fans with updates, pulling back the curtain on players’ lives when they’re not balling.

10. BG’s emotional, mental and physical recovery

Brittney Griner was unjustly detained in Russia in early February 2022, and after 10 months was finally released on Dec. 8. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotional, mental and physical ramifications of her imprisonment, and I hope she recovers in all three aspects of her life. It was encouraging to read her statement that she intends to play in the WNBA this season with the Mercury, and to see that she dunked after picking up a basketball for the first time in almost a year. My biggest holiday wish is that BG heals fully from this experience and ultimately basks in the joy of being on the court again.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Angel McCoughtry still has more to give to the game of basketball. At 36 years old, she’s not ready to retire. Even if the thought is there, lingering on the horizon and staring her down, riding off into the sunset is just going to have to wait.

Instead, McCoughtry is looking ahead to January, when WNBA free agency begins. And she’s intent on finding a team.

“I definitely want to go to a contender,” she says candidly. “I deserve that. But even if it’s somewhere that was not a contender before, I believe I’m the type of player that can help them become contenders.”

McCoughtry says she’s healthy and has been working to get back into game shape. And with the possibility that players will face suspensions when the WNBA’s prioritization clause goes into effect next season, there could be teams that need her veteran presence.

“She’s experienced, she’s been around championship-caliber players, she’s a gold-medal winner, she’s carried a team,” one WNBA assistant coach says of McCoughtry. “She understands her injuries have changed things, but that experience and her mindset could help.”

Rey Jefferson, McCoughtry’s agent at RSTAR Sports and Entertainment, believes she’ll have a positive impact wherever she ends up. As veteran salaries continue to increase under the WNBA’s current CBA, he expects teams will be more inclined to sign players to one- or two-year deals to fill roster needs while remaining under the salary cap.

“It gives you that flexibility to be able to hold the franchise accountable, but also keeps your options open,” Jefferson says. “For her, I think two is the sweet spot.”

McCoughtry’s 13-year pro resume speaks for itself. Drafted first overall by the Atlanta Dream in 2009, she won WNBA Rookie of the Year and has gone on to be named a five-time All-Star, two-time scoring champion, two-time steals leader, seven-time All-Defense First Team member and a part of the WNBA’s 25th Anniversary Team. Add in two Olympic gold medals with Team USA and multiple championships overseas, and it’s fair to wonder what else there is for McCoughtry to accomplish on the basketball court.

“I need that riinnnnng,” she says, laughing. “I’ve been so close so many times, but I think it’s time for me to get one.”

McCoughtry played her first nine seasons with the Dream. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

The first time McCoughtry had a shot at a ring was in 2010. In just her second season, the Dream made it to the WNBA Finals but were swept by the Seattle Storm 3-0. Atlanta made it back to the Finals in 2011 and 2013 but again fell in three games, each time to the Minnesota Lynx. McCoughtry’s last shot came in 2020 after she signed with the Las Vegas Aces in free agency. The Aces reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history, with McCoughtry playing a pivotal role, but the series ended on a familiar note in a three-game sweep to Seattle.

It’s understandable for McCoughtry to feel that she has unfinished business. She missed the 2021 season with the Aces after tearing her ACL and meniscus in a preseason game, just two years after sitting out the 2019 season with an injury in her other knee. And last season, after she joined the Lynx in free agency, things didn’t pan out the way she had hoped.

“I’m out there practicing for two hours, and I just wasn’t ready to be practicing at that extensive moment coming back from injury,” McCoughtry says. “I think I was trying to prove that I was back and I was making myself worse, if that makes sense. And then I just think that I didn’t fit with that team. Some things are just not a fit, but there’s no hard feelings.”

McCoughtry and the Lynx parted ways just two games into the 2022 season. Minnesota bought out her contract and waived a number of other players in a tumultuous start to their season. McCoughtry and Jefferson put out feelers around the league with the hope that a contending team would scoop her up.

“Honestly, I was hurt because I thought I was just gonna go back to Vegas from the jump,” McCoughtry says. “I feel like I should have stepped up and had a conversation with A’ja (Wilson) and Coach (Becky Hammon) before the season. But I didn’t, and it just didn’t come out in a conversation, which I wish I would have done.

“But that was their moment to win a championship and move on. At the end of the day, I was definitely trying to get picked up by other teams. I had contacted (the Washington Mystics) because it was home. But since nobody picked me up, I said, well, enjoy life and have fun.”

McCoughtry averaged over 15 points per game for the Aces in the 2020 playoffs. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

For the rest of the summer, McCoughtry spent time traveling, training and working on her multiple business projects — from overseeing Happy Cow, her ice cream shop in Atlanta, to producing an upcoming horror movie. She also recently ventured into the tech industry, creating a website and app called, a platform where people can leave gifts and messages for their loved ones after they pass away.

“I’m grateful because after my first injury, I had nothing to do. And it was like, I’m losing my mind,” McCoughtry says with a laugh. “ I was like, I really have to figure out what I want to do after basketball. So the first injury helped with that. The second one, I had so much to do. Matter of fact, too much.”

Part of McCoughtry’s busy schedule involved mentoring Chennedy Carter. Having spent the early part of her career in Atlanta and experiencing what she calls “a lot of mistreatment behind closed doors,” she felt a kind of kinship with Carter. The two bonded on and off the basketball court, and McCoughtry shared video clips of them playing basketball together on social media. Carter even signed with Jefferson’s agency.

“I know what it’s like when you’re alone and nobody reaches out. It’s like nobody cares,” McCoughtry says. “So I wanted to show, like, I cared. I definitely tried to help her as much as possible.”

The relationship has since fizzled out, as McCoughtry and RSTAR each recently parted ways with the young hooper.

Carter’s young career has been a bumpy one. After getting drafted fourth overall and making the WNBA All-Rookie Team with the Dream in 2020, she was suspended indefinitely the following July after a locker-room confrontation with then-teammate Courtney Williams. Carter didn’t play for Atlanta the rest of the season, and in February she was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks as part of a package deal. In what was seen as a fresh start, Carter played limited minutes under Sparks interim coach Fred Williams, and the two didn’t always appear to get along.

“She still has a long way to go,” McCoughtry says of Carter. “Sometimes, when you help people, you try to help so much that you really don’t see them wanting to help themselves after a while. You have to kind of just move on from it. … She always has my number to reach out when she’s ready to really better herself.”

The Sparks and Carter did not respond to a request for comment on her split with McCoughtry and RSTAR.

McCoughtry says she’s open to mentoring other young players, but they have to be willing to put in the work. She comes from an “old-school” basketball mentality where spending countless hours in the gym was a given, and every single minute on the court was earned.

“I think that social media shows these kids the glitz and the glam of it, and I wish they could get more of the backstories,” McCoughtry says. “That’s why I tell them, ‘Look at everybody’s backstory and how they got to where they are. You’re gonna see a lot of ups and downs.’ They just don’t see that side of it. They want the glitz and glam. And I’m like, you know what it takes for that?”

Throughout her decade-plus career in the WNBA, McCoughtry has seen younger generations of players enter the league and take it by storm. She’s also seen her fair share of evolution. Now in its 26th season, the WNBA is marketed and promoted much better than it was when she came into the league in 2009. But McCoughtry still feels there’s more work to be done, especially when it comes to sharing individual player stories. Being involved with the “We Are the W” documentary with fellow WNBA players DiDi Richards and Isabelle Harrison showed her what kind of storytelling is possible.

“I just want the league to promote everybody and what they’re doing off court. Get into what these girls are doing,” McCoughtry says. “Soon as the guys do anything — a winery, a restaurant — the NBA blasts it. I want the WNBA to start blasting what these girls are doing off court. They’re trying to be business women, you know what I mean?

“The offseason is the time to really dig into this stuff.”

McCoughtry last played a WNBA game with the Lynx in May. (Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

As November trickles into December, McCoughtry continues to work on her businesses, projects and music. She’s also thinking about basketball and where she might want to play next season. A return to Atlanta is top of mind, but where she ends up hinges on a number of factors.

“I think that the way I had to leave was cut short with politics and a lot of mistreatment. Because I will say that when I went to Vegas, I saw what a franchise should treat their players like. It’s a true example,” McCoughtry says of her time with the Dream, in the years before co-owner Kelly Loeffler’s public rift with the players and sale of the team.

“And now that Atlanta has those kinds of people now, I think I need to get my just due on that. I think I need to be able to fill that here, where I’ve given so much.”

If she can stay on the floor, those in and around the league believe McCoughtry will add value wherever she ends up.

“Obviously when healthy she is an extraordinary talent,” says ESPN basketball analyst LaChina Robinson. “While playing in Las Vegas after her first ACL (tear), Angel was impactful because her versatility, athleticism and relentlessness are elite even when not at 100 percent.

“In the end it’s difficult to forecast Angel’s best fit because I don’t know how healthy she is, but if you’re looking for a fairytale or deserved ending to her career, Atlanta jumps off the page for me. The unfortunate part is that with an 11 or 12 player roster, WNBA players don’t often get to retire with the fairytale ending or on their own terms.”

While Jefferson has touched base with the Dream and some other teams to let them know that McCoughtry is under new representation, the real discussions will begin in January when WNBA teams can start negotiating with unrestricted free agents. From there, it comes down what the best fit is for everyone involved.

“I think for someone like Angel, the storybook ending of playing where you were first drafted, where you put a lot of your time, blood, sweat and tears, and came of age — that I feel like is definitely on her heart,” Jefferson says. “But my back and forth, as her representation, is what is the best deal I need to present to her. Because there will be options.”

Whether it’s with Atlanta or another team, McCoughtry’s primary motivation is to get back to the WNBA Finals. After coming close a handful of times, she’s still after one thing.

She wants that ring.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Caitlin Clark still has a sour taste in her mouth when she thinks about it.

With 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Iowa’s second-round game in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, Creighton (and former Iowa) guard Lauren Jensen hit a 3-pointer to put the Bluejays in front, 63-62. The game had been a physical slog from the start, and the Hawkeyes were spent. Still, there was plenty of time on the clock. All Iowa needed was a single bucket.

The ball was inbounded and passed over to Clark. She drove to the left side of the lane and put the ball up against the glass. But like so many of Iowa’s shots that night, it didn’t fall.

The Bluejays eventually walked away with a 64-62 win on the way to their first Elite Eight appearance in school history. Clark and the Hawkeyes just walked away.

“Obviously, being the Big Ten champion, being the regular season champion, which had never been done before in the history of our program, that’s certainly to be celebrated,” Clark says. “But when you end your season in that manner, I think it kind of gives you that fire.

“And maybe we didn’t have that last year, and that’s why it ended that way.”

Looking back, Clark points to more than a few things the Hawkeyes could have done better throughout the game, the most glaring being Creighton’s 52-37 rebounding advantage.

“When you get into the tournament, there’s going to be things that don’t go your way,” she says. “Shots aren’t going to fall, and you need to find another way to win. It’s focusing on everything else that you can do to get better and not let that happen again.”

Each summer, Clark usually commits to playing internationally with Team USA. This year, after wrapping up her sophomore spring semester, there wasn’t anything available in her age bracket. Plus, she wanted to be in Iowa City, spending the bulk of her time in the gym and on the court with her teammates.

Clark learned a lot about herself and her game last season. After fooling defenses in her first year with her pinpoint passing and long-range shooting touch, earning a couple of Co-Freshman of the Year honors with UConn guard Paige Bueckers, teams took a more physical approach to defending her in 2021-22. Going into the offseason, Clark felt she needed to add strength and muscle to be able to withstand the extra pressure and hold her own for the length of the season.

“I would say the biggest difference for me was the consistency in the weight room. Getting bigger, stronger, faster,” Clark says. “That’s something you have to be consistent with if you want it to get better.”

She wanted to be stronger in the lane as well and worked on a few post moves to be able to leverage her height against smaller guards.

“You’re not going to see me do it if I have a tall, athletic guard on me. There’s other things I can do to get open in that manner,” Clark laughs. “But if I have a [shorter] guard on me, why not?”

It’s hard to fathom Clark becoming more skilled than she already is as a player. Ever since her freshman season, she has been a part of the Player of the Year conversation. Bueckers won the award in 2021, and Aliyah Boston got the nod last season while leading South Carolina to a national championship.

Boston, a 6-foot-5 forward, and Clark are two distinct players who excel in different areas, making it hard to compare them head-to-head. But Clark has always been close in the race, and this year there’s little doubt she’ll be in the mix once again. She has learned that the comparisons come with the territory.

“I think it was Coach [Dawn] Staley that said this — I think that discussion is so great for women’s basketball. You want people to talk about who should be Player of the Year. That makes people excited about our game, makes people want to watch our game,” Clarks says.

“And that’s the most important thing. At the end of the day, you don’t play for those awards. That’s not why you play.”

With Bueckers out for the season with a torn ACL, Clark’s path to the top honor is clearer than ever. But that’s not what’s motivating her this season. After turning down multiple offers as the No. 4 recruit in 2020 to attend Iowa, winning an NCAA title for her hometown university is what matters most.

“When I committed here, that’s what I said and I believed it. Maybe at the time, not every girl in the locker room believed it,” she says. “But right now, every single person in our locker room and in our program believes that’s where we can be.”

“I think Caitlin, the way she handles herself allows that,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder adds. “Everybody sees that she’s the hardest worker. Everybody sees all the extra time that she puts in.

“She’s a great teammate as far as crediting her teammates with success and building them up all the time. I think part of that is due to Caitlin, and I think part of it is the culture of our program and that we really stress that everyone is important on our team. Everyone matters.”

Over the past six months, Bluder hasn’t shied away from talking about Creighton, either. In fact, she brings it up almost daily — not so much the loss to Creighton, but the lessons that came out of it.

“Yeah, it was really crushing at the end, and it just is a great reminder to everybody that every possession counts. One basket counts, one rebound counts, one turnover counts. That’s all it really came down to,” Bluder says. “If you focus just on a loss, that’s a little depressing, right? And who wants to come to practice then? We really try to use it more as a fuel for fire than anything else.”

Bluder knows her team fell short of expectations despite putting together a historic season, and the pressure to exceed last year’s results only seems to have increased. Iowa is ranked fourth overall in the AP preseason poll, in a top five that also consists of No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Texas and No. 5 Tennessee.

The spotlight is brighter, but Bluder is confident.

She points to Clark, who led the nation with 27 points and eight assists per game last season and was unanimously voted the 2022-23 preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. And she talks about the return of Monika Czinano, who ranked first nationally with a 67.9 field-goal percentage, providing consistency and power in the paint.

Clark celebrates Iowa's Big Ten tournament title last season with coach Lisa Bluder and teammate Monika Czinano. (Robert Goddin/USA TODAY Sports)

All of Iowa’s five starters are returning, but it’s the new wrinkles to the Hawkeyes’ lineup this year that could make the difference, particularly Central Michigan transfer Molly Davis. The guard led her team in scoring last year and left as the program’s all-time leader in scoring average, with 17.7 points per game.

When Bluder first approached Davis about joining the Hawkeyes, she was upfront about the situation: Davis would serve as the backup point guard to Clark and compete for off-guard minutes. But as the offseason unfolded, Davis showed the Iowa coaching staff just how well she plays off the ball.

“She’s crafty, she’s deceiving, she’s a smart basketball player,” Bluder says. “So I’m very, very excited. I think that’s going to be an X-factor that people haven’t figured out with our team yet.”

Clark agrees.

“I think it’s going to help us in a lot of ways — number one, handling the ball,” she says. “We’ve never really had a true backup point guard. When you’re in high-pressure games, I didn’t really get a chance to get a breather quick. So it’s a huge addition for us. But at the same time, we can play together, which I think is going to be a really interesting dynamic.”

For the past two seasons, Clark has had the ball in her hands the majority of the time, and for good reason. She’s the best player on the team and a dynamic shooter. But at times, the Hawkeyes became one-dimensional as teams focused primarily on Clark. Having another guard who can handle and distribute the ball will make them even harder to defend.

“Her basketball IQ is through the roof. So I think that’s going to help me off the ball,” Clark says of Davis. “She knows when to get me the ball, where. And obviously I only have a short window to catch the ball coming off screens, off cuts, because I am guarded so closely.”

“Having two point guards on the court allows for anyone to push in transition and get the ball up the floor quickly,” Davis adds. “It also takes some of the pressure off of Caitlin having to bring the ball up every time.”

Clark is equally as thrilled to have a familiar frontcourt presence in Czinano back for another season.

“I was probably the happiest person in the world when I knew that Monika was coming back,” she says. “Me and Monika probably have one of the best connections in the country. We just really understand each other’s game well, play off of each other super well. I don’t always think that Monika gets the recognition she deserves.”

When Clark and Czinano first started playing together in 2020, Clark says she hit Czinano in the head more than a few times when passing the ball inside. Now, they are so in sync that Czinano knows when the ball is coming, whether Clark is looking at her or not, and Czinano knew she wasn’t ready to give up on that on-court connection just yet.

“I think it took me three days to decide that I wanted to come back,” Czinano says. “I knew how special this team was going to be and would have felt weird not being a part of it knowing I had an opportunity to.”

Clark led the nation in points and assists per game as a sophomore last season. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

Bluder knows it’s going to take a full-team effort for the Hawkeyes to achieve their goals this season. They have the talent to reach the first Final Four in program history and even bring home an NCAA championship. And she has said as much to her players.

“Billie Jean King told me that one time: ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ That’s what we are trying to use. She actually wrote that on a piece of paper and signed it for me, and we have it framed in our locker room. It’s something I want my players to see,” Bluder says.

“This is what you work for is to be ranked high in the country. Does it bring pressure? Yes. But man, you worked hard for it, so you’d better enjoy it, too.”

Clark is taking that pressure in stride, but she doesn’t want to relive another early exit in the NCAA Tournament. The sour taste it left behind still lingers.

As Clark looks ahead to this season, beginning with the Nov. 7 opener at home, she’s preparing for a different result. One that tastes much, much sweeter.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

When she was 9 years old, Sam Gordon just wanted to play football.

She didn’t plan on becoming a viral YouTube star. But that’s exactly what happened. In 2012, she was thrust into the national spotlight when her father, Brent, uploaded a highlight reel of her running roughshod all over the field during a youth football game, with the football tucked tightly under her arm and her blonde ponytail peeking out of the back of her helmet.

Run after run, little Sam juked defenders out of their cleats, broke tackles and sprinted her way to the end zone.

“When I first stepped on the football field, I didn’t think anything of it — that I was a girl doing something or I was gonna change the world by making this play,” Sam, now 19, says. “I just loved playing football and that was it going forward, too.

“When I look back at it in hindsight, I see how little there was with girls’ involvement in football and that it was such a story because nobody had seen a girl playing against the boys yet.”

Three days later, the video had amassed almost five million views and Sam became known as “Sweet Feet.” She appeared on ESPN, Good Morning America and other nationally televised programs. She was featured in Sports Illustrated and on the cover of the Wheaties cereal box — an honor reserved for superstar athletes like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams. Sam even attended Super Bowl XLVII as a special guest of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and she rubbed elbows with numerous celebrities and professional athletes, including Carli Lloyd, Shaq, Rebel Wilson and Snoop Dogg.

Now a sophomore at Columbia University, Sam is living a life that looks a lot like that of an average student. She’s majoring in film, playing on the soccer team and navigating the rigors of college. It’s been a decade since her viral video, giving her time to sit back and reflect on that period in her life, how the experience has shaped her and, in turn, how she has made a lasting impact on the evolution of women’s tackle football.

Breaking the mold

Brent Gordon saw firsthand how damaging gender stereotypes could be when friends and people in their local community actively discouraged his ex-wife from pursuing a career in accounting. Living in a conservative area of Utah, Brent knew she was being treated differently because she was a woman. And it stuck with him.

When his daughter was born, they decided to give her a gender neutral name. “I was intentional about that because I wanted to make sure that whatever she wanted to do, she could do,” Brent says.

Years later, after a divorce, Brent took on the role of single dad and used sports to pass the time and keep his kids busy. They’d eat dinner together before heading out to the yard, where games of football became a regular occurrence. Eventually, Sam inquired about playing on a team.

“When she asked me, ‘Hey, can I go play football,’ I was actually excited about it because I thought, ‘You know what, I think she can f— the other kids up,” says Brent with a wide grin. “And I think it’d be awesome. I really did. I thought she could. … She could show people that she could do just as well as anyone else.”

At first, Brent started filming highlights of Sam himself, just for fun. Through word of mouth, he discovered a company that would film them for him. Each week, he’d put together clips of Sam and post them on YouTube. At the most, he thought he’d get 25,000 or 30,000 views. He never anticipated going viral.

“The first three or four months after the video blew up, there was an intense amount of activity going on,” Brent says. “Especially for the first month, I only think [Sam] slept on her own maybe two or three nights. But she was loving it. She was having a blast, doing all these fun things and going to different events. And then it started to slow down for the next few months, and then at the end of the spring, it basically died out.”

“I still remember having a talk with my dad, and there was a chance to go to New York for another interview and I was just like, ‘Noooo.’ Like, I don’t want to do another one of these,” Sam says. “So there were times when it was a lot, but overall, I found it very fun.”

For the most part, Sam’s moment in the limelight had been a good experience. Aside from a few YouTube comments from men twice her age saying they could “destroy her on the field,” the response was positive and affirming.

But when football season rolled around again, Sam felt the shift. In her first season, she scored 25 touchdowns and had 10 extra point conversions. She ran for 1,911 yards (8.2 yards per carry) and racked up 65 tackles. She felt pressured to keep the momentum going, and every time she had the ball in her hands, she wanted to make a big play.

“When I came back that next season, I definitely had a target on my back. It was a whole different level,” Sam says. “That first year, it was my ponytail and that was what set me apart. And the next year it was like, ‘That’s the girl that’s famous and that’s the one that was making the highlight reel, so we need to go crush her.’”

Even though she was still having fun playing football, Sam says it was stressful at times. No matter how many touchdowns she scored, how many yards she gained or how many tackles she made, she felt she had to keep proving that girls could play, too, and that it all rested on her tiny shoulders.

Not long after Sam’s viral video and others that followed, parents would continuously come up to Brent and ask him how their daughters could get involved in football. Those conversations stuck with him.

He knew the interest for girls wanting to play was there. He just had no idea how much there actually was.

Gordon burst onto the football scene against boys at age 9.
(Photos courtesy of Brent Gordon and Larry Gordon)

The dawn of a new league

In March 2015, 12-year-old Sam spoke at a local Utah middle school assembly and asked if there were any girls in the audience who wanted to play football.

“I was there with her,” Brent says. “It seemed like almost every hand went up.”

At the time, Brent knew that Crys Sacco — a former semi-pro women’s football player and middle school football coach — was interested in starting a girls’ tackle football league in Utah. The day after the assembly, Brent called Sacco and told him that Sam could help promote and market the league.

Sacco was in.

Together, Brent and Sacco set up the non-profit organization, created a website and put together a board of directors. They hired coaches, ordered jerseys and equipment and scheduled playing fields. In May 2015, they held their first tryouts for the Utah Girls Tackle Football League. There were only four teams and 50 open roster spots available, but they filled up in a single week.

“I get the credit for founding [the Utah Girls Tackle Football League], but it was also my dad and some other people who had been wanting to start a league for a while,” Sam says. “And it was such a quick turnaround.”

Today, the UGTFL is thriving. The league is comprised of 34 teams, with over 600 players and four divisions: third and fourth grade, fifth and sixth grade, seventh and eighth grade, and high school.

“The Utah Girls Tackle Football League wouldn’t be what it is without Brent and Sam. I love them dearly,” says Sacco, who recently stepped down as league president but still serves as a coach and an active board member. “Brent has been a mentor, and Sam has been paving the way for girls’ and women’s football since she was 9 years old.”

This past summer, the UGTFL got another boost when Under Armour stepped in to partner with Sam and the league as a sponsor and to develop the first football cleat designed specifically for girls.

“The women’s Blur Smoke Cleat that all the girls in our league were wearing this last season is amazing,” Sam says. “It’s been great to have your own and not have to wear a soccer cleat or a baseball cleat to find one that fits. And it also shows that you are meant to play this game, that you have a cleat that’s provided for you, women’s football.”

Some companies and brands are quick to jump on the women’s sports bandwagon on social media, lending their support with statements and catchy phrases. But both Sam and Brent say Under Armour is taking that next step by putting action behind its words.

“When Under Armour came out and said, ‘We want to support you,’ it was like, we kept getting, ‘No, no, no,’ from everyone. To finally have someone to say, ‘We’re here and we’re on your side,’ that meant a lot to me,” Brent says.

He knew Under Armour wasn’t just going to put Sam in a commercial and call it a day. They were going to support the league by providing uniforms, front some of the operating costs and facilitate getting the championship games played at the University of Utah — just like the boys.

Under Armour also helped organize two girls’ tackle football summer camps, one in California and the other in Utah, each for 100 participants. Both were fully attended.

For Sam, it’s yet another affirmation that girls’ tackle football is growing and evolving.

“It isn’t known that football is a sport that women/girls can play. It’s difficult to battle the stereotypes that go hand-in-hand with women and contact/physical sports,” she says. “You have people who are pushing against it sometimes, like those YouTube comments. And you’ve got to not look towards those but find like-minded people who are willing to fight the fight and get to that next level.”

“All the time, I tell Sam this, ‘You know, we don’t need to change people’s opinions,” Brent adds. “What we need to do is find people who already agree with us.’ And that’s what we’re doing.”

(Photo courtesy of Under Armour)

The ongoing fight for women’s football

Sam never imagined having to give up playing tackle football. But after graduating high school, she didn’t have much of a choice. Sam aged out of the UGTFL, and there’s no option to play women’s tackle football at Columbia — nor at any college or university. Joining a semi-pro league would cost money and require a generous time commitment, two things a college student can’t readily afford.

“I miss [football] so much, I joined the rugby team,” Sam says. “It’s such an untapped opportunity.”

Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director of diversity, equality and inclusion and a UGTFL board member, is actively invested in growing women’s football and providing opportunities for women to become involved in football through NFL programs. She views the lack of a sustainable and consistent pipeline as a glaring issue.

“The problem is that girls growing up don’t get to see the future of the sport and what they could do with it,” Rapoport says. “Girls’ tackle football needs to be further legitimized. Girls need to play it across the entire country. It needs to be a high school sport, which would then lead into all divisions of college football so girls could get college scholarships — not just in NAIA but other places as well — and then that would ultimately lead up to women’s professional or semi-professional.”

Brent agrees. It’s part of the reason why he filed a Title IX lawsuit against the Utah School District in 2017.

“Our goal from Day 1, and it might sound a little far-fetched, but for real, when we started the lawsuit in 2017, the goal was to create a pipeline,” he says. “Our goal is to see girls have high school football teams, then college football teams, and now you’ve got a pipeline to fill talent on a professional league roster.”

The lawsuit stipulates that the Utah School District is in violation of Title IX because they do not offer the same athletic opportunities for girls at the high school level as they do for boys. What it comes down to, Brents says, aren’t the number of sports available but the number of participants across the board.

“So you have football over here. And some of these boys’ high school football rosters are 120 to 140 deep,” he says. “And then say you have girls’ golf on the other side, and you only have eight to 12 participants. That doesn’t comply with Title IX. And I knew that.”

The solution, Brent told the Utah School District, is to offer girls’ tackle football.

“They were like, ‘No, we’re going to pass,’ so I sued them,” he says.

Under Title IX and the equal protection clause, Brent is confident they can mandate the district to offer girls’ football. Arguments in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals — on whether Utah schools can avoid liability for Title IX by being part of a high school activities association but refusing to sanction girls’ tackle football — began the first week of October. A decision is expected to be reached in three months to one year.

In the meantime, the UGTFL soldiers on as one of the few girls’ tackle football leagues in the country. And Brent continues the fight for equality, as both the proud father of a football phenom and a women’s sports advocate.

As for Sam, she’s focused on enjoying college. Her time in the spotlight was exciting, but she learned at such a young and vulnerable age to not let it define her.

Not long after the highlight video went viral, Sam began uploading other clips to YouTube showing her hanging out with friends, telling stories and being a goofy teenager. She wanted the world to know she was more than just a ponytailed kid in a football helmet. The balance helped her navigate her sudden fame and kept her grounded.

(Photo courtesy of Under Armour)

“She didn’t set out to be this pioneer or anything like that. She just wanted to play the sport that she loved. But she is that for people — she is the pioneer that started the girls’ tackle football movement,” Rapoport says. “And in 10, 15, 20, 100 years, when girls are finally playing tackle football in leagues that have been created to give them the opportunity, it will be because of Sam.”

Even though Sam isn’t able to play tackle football anymore, she’s still looking for a way to be a part of the sport and its continuing evolution. But much like a Hail Mary pass, what that means for her in the future is up in the air.

“I’ve definitely thought about staying involved with football, and I don’t know what route that is,” she says. “One of the reasons I’m picking film [for my major] is being a sports broadcaster or something like that, where I’m getting to be involved in the game and still be in a space where there needs to be more women involved. Coaching and all that might be on the plate.

“I’m still figuring it out.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

When Sylvia Fowles stole the ball from Jackie Young in the middle of the second quarter of the WNBA All-Star Game last month, she dribbled the length of the court with a full head of steam. No one was in front of her — just an empty lane and the basket. A second later, Fowles leapt and stuffed the ball into the net with such force that it sent everyone in Wintrust Arena into a frenzy.

Especially the players.

“I think I heard, like, my teammates and the crowd and I was like, OK, just go for it,” Fowles, 36, told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game.

While the dunk itself injected much-needed energy into the building, the moment was also symbolic. Fowles last dunked in her very first All-Star game as a member of the Chicago Sky in 2008. This season, her last in the WNBA, she did it again — and in Chicago no less — putting a stamp on her illustrious 15-year career.

In the years since Fowles went No. 2 overall to the Sky in the 2008 draft, behind No. 1 pick Candace Parker, she has spent seven seasons in Chicago and eight with the Minnesota Lynx, receiving accolades, winning awards and setting all-time records along the way. She is a two-time WNBA champion with Minnesota, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP, a WNBA MVP, an eight-time WNBA All-Star and a four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

As the 14-20 Lynx fight for a playoff spot in their two remaining games of the regular season, Fowles heads into the final phase of her career as the all-time record holder in defensive rebounds (2,855), total rebounds (3,982) and field-goal percentage (59.9 percent).

“I feel like the impact that she’s had on the game and the league, I feel like, just as a post player — I mean she’s changed the game when it comes to posts being able to be big, strong but also mobile,” says New York Liberty center Stefanie Dolson. “Finishing around the rim, I feel like she’s one of the greatest at that. At rebounding. Just everything in general.”

Dolson still remembers the first time she matched up against Fowles in the post. She calls it her “welcome to the WNBA” moment. Mike Thibault, her head coach at the time with the Washington Mystics, told her with a simple shrug, “Do what you can.”

“I did, and she killed me. She just dominated me,” Dolson says. “I realized I had to get stronger because I figured if that was what all post players were like, then it was gonna be tough for me. It’s made me a better player, a better post player.”

Fowles’ overall impact on the game and accomplishments are evident. But what makes her one of the most beloved and respected players in the history of the WNBA goes way beyond the boundary lines of the hardwood.

“Sylvia has carried the torch unheralded for a long time in this league,” says Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller. “She should be mentioned with the all-time greats, in sentence one. She probably has never really gotten the credit that she deserves. That’s how good she’s been. But also, everyone speaks so highly of her. To listen to players talk about her is just a credit to what a great teammate she has been.”

Mama Syl. Sweet Syl. Big Mommy.

These are just a few of the nicknames players around the league have bestowed upon Fowles. And with good reason. Anyone who has teamed up with her, or even played against her night in and night out, will gladly tell you why.

“It’s my dream (playing with her),” says Lynx teammate Damiras Dantas. “I dreamed one day in Brazil I’d come to this league. I watched Syl on YouTube, like videos of offense and defense, and now I’m here and it’s a good opportunity to learn something, play together. I come here every day and Syl teaches me something new — on and outside the court.”

Dantas has played five seasons with Fowles in Minnesota. (David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Dantas describes Fowles as someone who’s always dancing before games, having fun and lifting up others.

“I feel like she’s my mom,” Dantas adds. “She does everything right and she dominates post play, defense, rebounds. So for me, she’s the best post player in this league and the world.”

Jessica Shepard is quick to agree. The Lynx forward comes in every morning and receives a hug from Fowles. And when they hit the gym, Fowles shares lessons she’s learned along her storied basketball journey.

“Syl’s one of the most amazing people you’ll ever be around. She’s so caring with all of her teammates, and every day she’s checking in on you,” Shepard says. “And then you get on the court and you watch the greatest really every night. It’s fun to watch, and just being on the court with her makes [the game] a lot easier.”

Before Rachel Banham joined the Lynx, she spent four years playing against Fowles as a member of the Sun. Every time Banham had to run through a screen against Minnesota, she knew what was waiting for her on the other side.

“I remember we used to always double her and I was like, she doesn’t even feel me down here,” Banham says about Fowles with a laugh. “I was like a little ant. So that always made me laugh. I would tell her that after games and be like, ‘You didn’t even feel me down there, did you?’ I was a little rag doll.”

Now that they’re teammates, Banham has gotten to experience how the other half lives.

“It’s been really fun because she sets such good screens that I’m always open when I come off of ball screens,” she says. “And I can throw any kind of pass at her and she always catches it. I can throw it so high and somehow she always catches it. So that’s been fun. She just makes basketball easier.”

Danielle Robinson, Fowles’ former teammate with the Lynx and a current guard for the Indiana Fever, has nothing but good things to say about her. The two got to know each other during one WNBA offseason when Robinson was recovering from an injury. Fowles invited Robinson to come stay with her and train in Miami, where Fowles grew up and still resides.

“[She] welcomed me into her home and cooked dinner for us, and spent time. … This is her space, and you know how people love their space,” Robinson says. “For her to invite me down there — I think I was down there for like a week — just to see her regimen and how she trains and who she trains with. She took us to the beach and everything. It was just a cool moment.”

Once, when Robinson was holding an event in downtown Minneapolis to provide meals for the unhoused, Fowles volunteered to join her.

“She’s there for you and always willing to help,” Robinson says. “On top of that, she’s just the best person. Literally, you call her Sweet Syl for that very reason.”

“The first thing I think of is somebody with so much dominance and aggression that carries so much grace,” says Los Angeles guard Brittney Sykes. “She is an amazing human being. Like, I just love her so much. … She is the sweetest person ever. Like, the sweetest teddy bear.”

The Chicago crowd erupted after Fowles dunked in her last WNBA All-Star Game on July 10. (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

In 2015, the Lynx faced the Indiana Fever in the WNBA Finals, and the series went to a deciding Game 5. Lindsay Whalen, former Lynx great and current head coach at the University of Minnesota, recalls head coach Cheryl Reeve drawing up four main plays. Three of them, she says, were for Fowles.

“And that’s why we beat Indiana,” Whalen says. “They just did not have an answer for Syl. She carried us. She really did. 2015 and 2017 are two examples where she just carried us to the championship.”

Whalen first connected with Fowles at Team USA basketball camp when Fowles was still with the Sky. The two had great on-court chemistry from the jump, fitting into their designated point guard-center roles seamlessly. Whalen knew exactly where to lob the ball into the post, and Fowles knew when it was time to screen and create a lane. Together, they won two Olympic gold medals at London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and naturally they became friends off the court as well. Once Fowles joined Whalen in Minnesota, their bond grew even stronger.

“She’s probably the kindest, nicest superstar that there’s ever been,” Whalen says. “I mean, she’s helping fold laundry after the games with the support staff and helping the managers organize the Gatorade bottle. She’s so down to earth, it’s pretty incredible.

“Our friendship continues even after our playing days. She’s someone who I’ll always look up to and admire. I’ll always consider her more than a teammate.”

Fowles and Lindsay Whalen won two Olympic gold medals and two WNBA championships as teammates. (David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

As the 2022 season winds down and Fowles’ retirement draws near, Whalen knows Fowles will miss the game but that new adventures lie ahead. And whatever Fowles goes on to do in her career — she earned her degree in mortuary science while playing in the WNBA — Whalen has no doubt in her mind that Fowles will be content.

“I know she’ll miss it, like we all do. You don’t get it back. And it’s such a big part of our lives for all of these years,” she says. “but I think she’s the type of person who will be successful in a lot of different areas and a lot of different things.”

For now, Fowles continues to excel at the highest level despite her age and the toll of running up and down the court for the better part of her life. If the Lynx are to make the playoffs for the 12th straight year after a slow start to the season, that road will likely go through Fowles, who is averaging 14.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 27.6 minutes per game.

“Nowadays, you’re seeing a lot of people spread the floor and shoot, but she dominates the block,” Banham says. “She’s a true five, and she’s so strong. She can rebound, she can score, she can block shots. She makes it really tough for people inside to figure out how to guard her and how to stop her.”

“Even now in her last year, she’s drawing double- and triple-teams and still finishing through that,” adds Robinson. “And I think that’s just a testament to how hard she works, honestly, and just the skill set that she has.”

Even before she set out on her farewell season, Fowles’ basketball legacy was firmly intact. But the impression she’s had on the players and coaches around the league will last far beyond her final game.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Have you ever thought about having a regular conversation with a WNBA player? Say, over coffee or just hanging out at a backyard barbecue? That’s the kind of vibe I aim for with And One — a regular series for Just Women’s Sports involving 10 questions. I ask about basketball things, of course, but also about their lives off the court so you can get to know the players of the WNBA a little bit better.

After the New York Liberty wrapped up a recent afternoon practice, DiDi Richards stepped off to the side to chat with me over the phone. She sounded as relaxed as if she had just been at the nail salon, one of her other favorite hangout spots besides the basketball court. Richards may only be in her second season in the WNBA, but she’s already made quite an impression. Her relentless defense, ability to inject her team with energy and ignite the crowd, and one-of-a-kind pregame fits have made her a fan favorite — not only in the Big Apple but across the league.

Richards’ WNBA career is just getting started after New York selected her in the second round of the 2021 draft. A hamstring injury sidelined her earlier this season and she’s had to work her way back to the court, appearing in only 13 games so far. The Liberty (13-20) have three games left this week to try to secure one of the remaining two playoff spots.

Not even two years removed from an on-court collision that left her temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, the former Baylor guard and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year is still coming into her own on the court. We talked about her goals to become a better all-around player, the Liberty’s new coaching staff under Sandy Brondello, her experience taking part in the “We Are The W” documentary and, of course, fashion.

1. What were your overall thoughts about this Liberty team heading into the season?

I mean, I was excited. You could see all of the potential on the team so I was excited to get the preseason started. Plus, me not going overseas, I was just really excited to play basketball on its own.

2. What were some of the steps you wanted to take individually in your second year in the WNBA?

Just being more of a defensive anchor, whether that’d be guarding the best player, not the best player, being able to use help principles, an on-ball defender, and to be a threat offensively. Not like the offensive threat, but just someone they can respect.

(Laughs) My entire offensive game. Shooting, actually.

3. How have you been able to get back into the groove on the court and with this team after being out for a month with an injury?

It’s still a work in progress. But it’s been helpful having a team that is as supportive as they are, whether that be my coaching staff or my teammates. They constantly encourage me and tell me that it’s my time, just keep getting comfortable and keep getting better. They’re real patient with me. So I’m very thankful for that. It’s been frustrating … to say the least.

4. The Liberty struggled in May, played well in June, were up and down in July and found a spark in your first couple of games in August. What’s the reason for the switch?

I think people forget that we have a new coach and we’re also still a young team. We have a whole new staff, a whole new offense it feels like. So it was just honestly getting accustomed to the offense and buying into the offense and into our coaches. So once we did that, it was uphill from there.

5. What does this team need to do to lock up one of those final playoff spots?

Win. We need to win (laughs). That’s the one thing we need to do.

6. What was it like being involved with and featured in the “We Are The W” documentary?

It was super special. For me being a rookie, my first year, and being able to be a part of the “We Are The W” film was kind of humbling — that I was even picked for that and thought about for that film. It was super exciting to be with Izzy (Harrison) and Angel (McCoughtry), who are well-established players. While we weren’t filming, I would definitely be picking their brains for off-the-basketball-court, on-the-basketball-court stuff, for sure.

7. Who are some of your favorite fashion icons?

One of them, I think Devin Booker. He’s very minimalist, like he doesn’t do too much. He stays well within himself and he’s very, very comfortable with what he wears. So, I think him and PJ Tucker. I’m super girly and they’re super not, like — they’re them. And I think that’s kind of cool.

8. If you weren’t playing professional basketball, what would you be doing?

I’d be modeling. It’s definitely in the works. I spent my offseason trying to figure out different ways to get into that industry. So, this is my second offseason and I’m excited to see what it has to offer.

9. What’s something WNBA fans would be surprised to know about you or wouldn’t expect?

Um … that I’m super … I second-guess myself a lot. Like, I’m not as comfortable as I look. I don’t know why people say that (laughs). But I’m super, like, in my own head. Or for the longest time, I really didn’t feel like I was good enough. So I think that’s something that’s shocking about me or people always find it shocking.

10. Who’s the best dressed on the Liberty roster?

I can’t say myself? (Laughs)

I’m just gonna say me.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.