LAS VEGAS — When DeWanna Bonner got to Auburn in 2005, coach Nell Fortner knew exactly what she was getting.
Bonner was an exceptional talent with a tall, lanky frame, meaning she could play any position on offense and guard anyone on defense.
Bonner averaged 21 points and nine rebounds as a high school senior and was named a McDonald’s All-American. Her skills were already polished when she arrived at Auburn as an 18-year-old freshman, and she was bursting with potential. Not just as a college player, but as a WNBA prospect as well.
Everyone knew it.
That was the one thing that surprised Fortner about Bonner.
“I don’t think she had a clue as to how good she was, or how good she was going to be,” Fortner says.
One day at practice, the coaching staff pulled Bonner aside to have a conversation about her future.
“They told me I could be in the WNBA,” she recalls, “and I was like, ‘Me? What do you mean?’”
That was 17 years ago. Since then, Bonner has carved out a dream career for herself. At 35, she’s worked her way up from winning three Sixth Player of the Year awards to being a four-time All-Star. Now, she plays a key role for a Connecticut Sun team that’s fighting for its first WNBA championship.
Her talent is undeniable.
To everyone except Bonner.
“I still don’t think I’ve made it to that point,” she says. “Like to this day I’m like, ‘I should be better.’”
LaShelle Bonner has one of those laughs you can get lost in. She’s 52, but has a soft and sweet giggle like a cartoon princess.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in Birmingham, Ala., and LaShelle is between patients. She’s an in-home care nurse, a profession she’s held for 30 years. When she’s done with her workday, LaShelle will go home and turn on the TV to watch her daughter, DeWanna, and the Sun take on the Las Vegas Aces in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals.
She and her husband will watch the game together, but separately.
She watches upstairs and he watches downstairs.
“He says I don’t know how to act,” LaShelle says with that sweet laugh. “I get too intense. I can’t help it.”
LaShelle has always had that intensity when it comes to cheering on her daughter, on the basketball court and in life.
DeWanna’s father, Greg McCall, has been in California since she was young, so for a lot of her childhood in Birmingham, it was just DeWanna and her mom.
Eventually, she’d spend summers with her dad in California, learning about basketball and training with McCall, who currently coaches at California State, Bakersfield.
But as a kid, DeWanna didn’t gravitate to the sport her dad played. She wanted to participate in every athletic activity possible.
“Every time I turned around she wanted to play something else,” LaShelle says. “Baseball, basketball, volleyball.”
LaShelle worked two jobs, and her mom, Shirley Sanders, helped out so that DeWanna could do everything she wanted.
But LaShelle didn’t mind the extra work it took because DeWanna made being a mom easy.
“She was always an active girl, but she was never any trouble,” LaShelle says. “She’s always been humble and sweet.”
DeWanna was a breeze to raise, but life wasn’t always easy for the two of them. The Bonners lived in the projects of Birmingham where DeWanna and her mom shared one bedroom.There wasn’t money for anything extra, and sometimes there wasn’t enough for the necessities, either.
“I remember one time asking to go to the movies, but we couldn‘t afford it,” DeWanna says. “And the next day we were trying to figure out how we were going to eat.”
DeWanna doesn’t talk much about her upbringing. Not because she’s embarrassed, but because she’s done so well for herself that people don’t realize what life was like for her as a kid. She went to college at Auburn and studied psychology. Now, she splits her time between the WNBA and various overseas teams. There’s enough glamor in DeWanna’s life now that people rarely ask about her childhood.
“It’s the same cliché story a lot of people probably have but don’t speak on,” DeWanna says. “I embrace it, but I don’t speak about it much, because once I got to Auburn, people kind of forgot about where I started because I went to this amazing university.”
But DeWanna doesn’t forget.
Birmingham, the projects, her mother, her grandmother, all those things made her who she is today.
DeWanna has traveled the world. She went from Auburn to Phoenix when she was drafted No. 5 by the Mercury in 2009. She’s also played in the Czech Republic, Spain, Russia and, of course, Connecticut.
LaShelle, meanwhile, has lived her whole life in Birmingham and isn’t planning to leave.
“Unless my child can convince me otherwise,” she says.
But the two share a multitude of similarities, starting — but not ending — with their laughs. When DeWanna laughs, you can hear LaShelle’s sing-songy giggle.
“DeWanna is just an old maid like me,” LaShelle says. “We like the same type of old music, we like to sit out and just be to ourselves. We’re not too big on a crowd.”
When they’re together, DeWanna and LaShelle listen to Blues and talk about life. Sometimes, they like to go bowling, even though DeWanna always wins.
LaShelle cherishes those moments the two spend together back in Birmingham. She also tries to go to games whenever she can, and even if she’s watching on TV, LaShelle is radiating pride for her daughter.
“I’m a very proud mom,” she says. “From our background and where we come from, to now, very, very proud.”
DeWanna talks about her story being cliché, the tale of someone coming from nothing, but that’s not all it is.
Rather, for the longtime WNBA vet, it’s a story about never letting good be good enough.
LaShelle could have been content with DeWanna simply getting by, but instead she worked two CNA jobs so her daughter could play every sport in the book. And she always showed up for her, whether it was watching DeWanna as a cheerleader, waving her pom poms at the boys’ basketball games, or when she was older, driving two hours to Auburn for her college games.
Once, LaShelle was in the hospital with a blood clot and couldn’t make the trip to Auburn. Her doctor was going to discharge his patient, but then thought better of it.
“He didn’t trust me,” she says with a laugh. “He said, ‘I know you’re going to travel down there to that game, so I’m going to keep you one more day.’”
That’s where DeWanna got her tenacity and her intense work ethic.
It’s how she was able to work her way from a talented sixth player with the Mercury in her early WNBA years to playing the second-most minutes on the Sun roster and averaging 13.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game in 2022.
In the semifinals, Bonner helped the Sun get past a Chicago Sky squad that upset them in last year’s playoffs, with 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists in Game 5.
She’s also not afraid to go after loose balls or get into the occasional tussle with an opposing player. And after 13 years as a professional basketball player, DeWanna still looks for growth in every opportunity.
“I want to win, I want to do whatever it takes,” she says. “Losing sucks. Well, no, let me not say losing sucks, because you learn so much from losing, but I’m the ultimate competitor. I want my teammates to know I’m there, and I want to win the game.”
Her toughness, she says, comes from LaShelle. Though LaShelle prefers the word “strong.”
“I don’t know why she thinks she’s tough,” LaShelle says with a laugh. “You ask her for the shirt off her back and she gone give it to you.
“But she has the patience. She can manage anything. She can play ball and still tend to her kids. She’s a strong woman.”
Bonner has twin daughters, born in 2017, and though they are kindergarteners now, she still refers to them as “my babies.”
They take up most of her free time, which is fine with DeWanna since she prefers to stay in anyway.
“I love just being in my house,” she says. “We are on the road so much, airplanes, traveling, that when I get home I just want to enjoy my house.”
View this post on Instagram A post shared by DeWanna Bonner (@dewannabonner)
A post shared by DeWanna Bonner (@dewannabonner)
DeWanna loves grilling in the backyard, and watching movies during her down time. Her favorite is “The Holiday” — year-round, even though it’s a Christmas movie. But usually, she watches whatever Disney film her girls pick. One graviates to princesses, and the other to things like the “Incredible Hulk,” but she finds a way to cater to both.
For DeWanna, there is nothing more important than family, and her teammates fall into that category.
When the Sun had their backs against the wall in two elimination games against the Sky, she took matters into her own hands, calling a “players only meeting.”
“DB is a champion,” teammate Natisha Hiedeman told reporters this week. “She’s been there. She knows what it takes. Her speeches have been on point lately, so we’ve been feeding off of that. She’s leading the way, and we’re following.”
It’s easy to follow DeWanna, Fortner says. The current Georgia Tech coach saw her develop into a leader during her days at Auburn.
“At her core, she’s just a good person,” Fortner says. “Her mother raised a fine, young woman. When you’re on a team, character matters, and to me, that is where it starts for DeWanna Bonner.
“It’s not about her, and that is easy to respect as a teammate.”
DeWanna wasn’t always the confident player she is today. At 35, she’s had years to grow into herself. But when she was a kid in Birmingham, her lanky frame wasn’t seen as a positive.
That’s another cliché part of her story, DeWanna says, being the girl who was bullied for looking different.
Kids in middle school didn’t see her wingspan as a strength for defending, or her length as an advantage for finishing around the rim. To them, she was just tall and skinny, and that made her a target.
LaShelle remembers one day when the bullying was particularly bad, she had a heart-to-heart with her daughter.
“I told her, “You are this size and this height for a reason,’” LaShelle says.
And as she worked her way from shooting on the hoops outside her home in Birmingham, to AAU to Auburn and the WNBA, to now, playing for her third WNBA championship (the first two came with Phoenix in 2009 and 2014), DeWanna realized her mom was right.
“I learned to embrace it,” she said. “This is me. Like, I’m awesome, I’m amazing. And that paid off because now, here I am.”
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.