At WNBA Finals, players don’t lose sight of broader basketball mission

Sophie Cunningham speaks to a group of high school girls during a Her Time To Play panel discussion. (Courtesy of the WNBA)

PHOENIX — Two days after the WNBA celebrated the 25 best players in the league’s 25-year history during Game 1 of the Finals, Sophie Cunningham couldn’t get the image out of her mind.

As she reflected on the moment Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and other basketball icons walked onto the court for the ceremony at half-court, the third-year Phoenix Mercury guard realized she might never again see that many WNBA legends in one place. It also reminded her why she was sitting on a Zoom call with a group of high school girls basketball players the night before the biggest game of her career, sharing her story in the hopes of inspiring young women who want to be in her position one day.

“Those are people who started our league, and you were kind of in awe and you wanted to make them proud,” Cunningham said Tuesday night after speaking to 40 girls from two Phoenix high schools, who took part in the panel discussion, a mindfulness session and a basketball clinic at the Footprint Center as part of the WNBA and NBA’s Her Time to Play initiative.

“But it also is our responsibility to make it,” she continued. “You might not see the change now, but you might see it in 10 years for the younger people.”

Cunningham, 25, can appreciate the power of a role model. Growing up in Columbia, Mo., she wasn’t around a lot of people who played professional sports and could show her what it took to get there. When she started traveling for basketball, Cunningham met players from the East and West coast who had the types of connections and resources she never did.

“It’s a college town and that’s about it. Everything else is farmland,” she said of her hometown.

So, Cunningham looked up to her parents and her older sister, who turned almost everything into a competition in their house, and soccer star Mia Hamm. “I just thought she was a badass,” Cunningham said, “and I was like, ‘I want to be that. I could be that one day.’”

Chasity Melvin, Mercury assistant coach and former WNBA player, described a similar upbringing during the panel Tuesday night.

Drafted into the WNBA in 1999, two years after its inception, Melvin didn’t have a stable professional women’s basketball league to aspire to while she was growing up in rural North Carolina. Instead, she drew inspiration from her dad’s belief in her and the daily competitions with her two brothers and two sisters.

“You just know where you come from,” Melvin said. “I think Sophie and I already know our history and how hard it took us to get here. So it’s nothing to try to give back to the young girls because we were once those young girls.”

Local high schoolers participate in a basketball clinic at the Footprint Center in Phoenix. (Courtesy of the WNBA)

The day before Cunningham and Melvin spoke on the panel, along with former WNBA star Marie Harris and AT&T’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Jamika Doakes, Sky guard Kahleah Copper took part in a similar conversation with girls aged 10-17 from the Chicago area. Her Time To Play, launched in 2018 with the purpose of empowering young women through basketball and recently expanded to reach 20,000 girls, held the two events in between Games 1 and 2 of WNBA Finals week.

Copper, leading the Sky’s pursuit of their first championship after a breakout season, explained to the girls over Zoom that it took her a while to realize she was good enough to play in the WNBA. A naturally shy person, she said the player they now see on the court is her “alter ego.”

Not being afraid to show your competitive side is something Cunningham also preached to the Phoenix high schoolers. Our society often confines girls and women into a box, expecting them to look and act in a way that fits conventional standards of femininity. Cunningham, known for her spirited play on the court, rejected that concept.

“You don’t have to look a certain way. You don’t have to be a certain color. You don’t have to be the most athletic,” Cunningham said. “I clearly don’t jump the highest, I’m not the quickest. But I do things well and I try to do them as best I can every single day.

“So I just want, especially young females, to be confident in who they are and know it’s OK to be goofy. It’s OK to smile, laugh, but also be super competitive and put someone on their ass.”

As the Sky and Mercury prepare to meet again for Game 3 Friday night in Chicago, driving the players is not only the chase of a WNBA trophy but also the appreciation of their careers coming full circle.

“We’re in the middle of the WNBA Finals and I’m making time for these kids because it’s important,” Copper said. “It’s important to inspire them so that when they grow up and make it, they’ll be like, ‘You know what, somebody inspired me and I’m going to inspire the next generation.’”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.