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After two years away, Imani McGee-Stafford finds home with AU Basketball

(Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Imani McGee-Stafford doesn’t want there to be any mixup about why she chose to play in Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball season.

The new domestic women’s basketball league can serve as a proving ground for players looking to get a shot in the WNBA, as Taj Cole demonstrated Wednesday when the Connecticut Sun signed her to a training camp contract. While McGee-Stafford has goals of getting back to the WNBA herself, the former Dallas Wings center recognizes that what they’re trying to build with AU Basketball isn’t just a pipeline to the WNBA.

“That’s kind of been the narrative, but that’s not what we’re trying to do,” McGee-Stafford told Just Women’s Sports before the start of the season. “Like, don’t get me wrong, I think maybe a quarter of our roster are WNBA players, former W players, if not more. But this isn’t about the WNBA. This is about having an option to play offseason stateside and being able to be seen.

“When we’re playing here and with Athletes Unlimited, we’re trying to build this.”

A big part of that transition for the players is learning how to balance the individuality of AU with the team sport of basketball. Based on AU’s system, players earn points for different categories of individual statistics and for winning quarters and games. Each quarter is worth 50 points, while a game is worth 100.

“As much as it rewards individuals with the point system, it’s always about winning,” McGee-Stafford said. “I think that’s the fun part, honestly, because you’ve gotta gel quickly.”

McGee-Stafford can find even greater joy in the game after sitting out the past two years to go to law school. Becoming a lawyer has always been part of the 27-year-old’s career plan. A survivor of sexual assault, she wants to one day change the laws surrounding women’s rights and sexual violence.

Getting her law degree wasn’t supposed to happen until later on, but when COVID-19 threatened the 2020 WNBA season, McGee-Stafford knew she had one of two choices: get a job or apply to law school. Dallas’ ownership, she says, was supportive of her decision.

“I still have my contract with them,” she said. “They easily could have just cut me and it would have been a different conversation. But they were just like, ‘We get it. We think that’s dope. We love that for you. When you’re ready, come back. We’ll have a contract for you to earn.’”

She had always planned to return for the 2022 season, and began training again in August to prepare for WNBA training camps opening in April. At that point, heading overseas seemed like the only option she had to get back up to speed before attempting to make a WNBA team.

Enter Athletes Unlimited.

With AU, McGee-Stafford can still attend law school (she is taking just three classes this semester to avoid overloading her schedule) while getting live game experience.

“As much as I feel ready, you don’t really know if you are ready, ready until you get into playing,” she said. “So that was really exciting for me. I can’t hide it. I’m a little giddy baby here because I miss playing basketball and I didn’t know I would miss it as much as I do.”

While she admits there were nerves during her first days back in training, there were also moments where it felt like everything was lining up, like divine intervention.

One of AU’s basketball facilitators, Pokey Chatman, was the coach who drafted McGee-Stafford to the Chicago Sky with the 10th overall pick in 2016. Despite not having played in a WNBA game since 2019, she said Chatman gave her “the best compliment” after her first day of practice.

“I asked her how I looked after our first practice, and she said I look like me,” said McGee-Stafford.

She’s looked like herself through the first two game weeks of the AU season, too. On opening night last Wednesday, as a member of the team captained by Kelsey Mitchell, McGee-Stafford was all over the glass, bringing down 11 rebounds in a 92-85 loss. After entering COVID-19 protocols and missing the two games over the weekend, the center returned Wednesday night to contribute seven points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes played in Team Brown’s 83-76 win.

McGee-Stafford, despite the two games missed, is currently 13th on AU’s leaderboard with 1,079 points. Natasha Cloud leads the way with 2,047 points through four games.

Records and standings aside, after more than two years away from the game, McGee-Stafford is grateful to have found a basketball home with AU.

“The question about me has always been about my focus and dedication to basketball, so taking that time away for a while really gave me a chance to rejuvenate with my body and my mind,” she said. “And I’m 100 percent here now.”

Emma Hruby is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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