RETIRED WNBA ALL-STAR
It’s been a little over a year since Cappie Pondexter announced her retirement after spending 13-years playing in the WNBA; a legendary career that saw a girl from the west side of Chicago blossom into a two-time champion, Finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist, 7-time all-star, and simply one of the greatest WNBA players of all-time.
Always a scorer and lockdown defender since her days at Rutgers University, Cappie has switched up her game from the rigors of juggling a hectic practice and game schedule, to adjusting to life within a “new normal” while pivoting her energy and focus into a post-WNBA career. It hasn’t been easy, but she is up for the challenge.
“One of the last conversations I had with Kobe Bryant was about that exactly: Knowing when it’s over and knowing when to walk away,” Cappie began.
“I remember Kobe saying, ‘This is the most fun I have ever had in my life.’ To hear that meant a lot.”
Last March while contemplating closing out her storied career, Cappie and Kobe had the chance to team-up and speak to about 150 girls at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California. It was an opportunity to help inspire and encourage the next generation of female athletes and basketball players through the WNBA and NBA’s shared campaign, “Her Time To Play”. While the sudden passing of Kobe signified an unpredictable start to 2020 that morphed into a pandemic and civil unrest in wake of the George Floyd tragedy, Cappie’s fighting spirit keeps her moving forward as she strives to motivate young players through basketball and life. Even in retirement Cappie remains a true professional, a valued voice, and someone who is determined to make a difference. In many ways, it’s still Cappie’s “time to play”.
In this “1 V 1 with Ballin’ 4 Peace” series, we go one-on-one with Cappie Pondexter to talk about the realities of retiring from the WNBA, her influence and impact on the game,, becoming an advocate for fair pay, mental wealth and wellness, and why it was important for Cappie to play in the 5th Annual Ballin’ 4 Peace Charity basketball game last year at St. Francis College, among much more...
You are from Chicago, live in California these days, but New Jersey is home in a lot of ways for you since playing at Rutgers University. Do you make it back East very often? Before COVID-19 I was traveling to work with corporations and organizations focused on helping kids but that has changed now. I am not big on the ZOOM calls and conference panels, so I have been leaving it to those who are really good at it and just watching from afar to see how I can improve moving forward.
After playing basketball professionally for 13 years and retiring last June, how has the life adjustment and transition been like for you? I tried to give myself time and not have a schedule and workout -- to enjoy my friends and living in real time in real life. When you think about your career being over, you think about all of the things you’d like to do with that time and I have done that over the past year. I have been in the house a lot, so COVID really didn’t hit me like that but I can say that I have some anxiety in terms of going back outside.
When retirement hits you, it just hits differently. You can understand it unless you are in it. You really suffer from P.T.S.D. even if you don’t think so. It’s really true, because you’re so used to being on a schedule and so controlled. When it’s all said and done, you have to figure out your day-to-day. That’s the hard part. You’re so used to waking up early and going to work, but now you don’t have those obligations. So trying to figure it out mentally, it’s tough. And that is why I am here talking about it and I am not afraid to talk about it. A lot of people are hurting because of it and I think both leagues (the WNBA and NBA) and sports in general need to do a better job of providing help when players retire and help them transition into the real world.
Is that because the current models of transitioning out of league that are in place are now outdated? There’s just not enough attention for it to even be outdated. There’s just not enough emphasis on it (players retiring). For me, I feel that because athletes are paid so much, organizations believe that should cover everything. When in reality, people are hurting because something they have done for so long is no longer there and people don’t know how to adjust. I am a strong person and I always knew things were bigger than basketball in my mind. You can’t beat yourself. You have to understand that it’s a process and it’s not going to happen overnight. We are talking about starting to play basketball at the age of 10 and playing until I was 36 years old...that’s a long time. That’s me everyday preparing myself to be a great athlete, and then all of a sudden there’s no more of that. That’s it. That’s the end of it. It can be hard mentally to push through.
Do you lose a sense of yourself in that way then, going from playing to not playing? You have to reinvent yourself without losing your identity. It can be a form of growth. It’s a question of, how do you build from what you have done and what everyone knows you from, to then do something different. That’s a whole different fanbase and audience to gain. I know the transition from experience is not easy.
Looking back on your time coming into the WNBA, does that feel like forever ago now? In some ways. We are talking about 2006 and coming out of Rutgers. It has been a journey. I used to get a lot of junk for going to Rutgers University and playing for Coach C. Vivian Stringer, but during these times it’s pretty cool to see the evolution of everything. The whole world -- and the political world -- people wanted me to go to UCONN which is great because I enjoy learning and love playing for Coach Gino Auriemma, but I really felt a connection with Coach Stringer. It was deeper than basketball. Our conversations were never about basketball. We’re talking about the most elite African-American coach in women’s basketball. Her struggle is what I related to more than most college coaches I connected with. It was a deep connection and one that I am thankful that I have. She taught me so much about the business side and being an African-American woman.
Is that what has stuck with you the most from Coach Stringer and the influence she had on you -- those talks about being an athlete, but also a person? When we would have team bonding experiences at her house, they were always the coolest thing. She has this library and that was my thing -- to go to her library and just see the wealth of knowledge that she had and what she studied. That’s what stands out. I was always thinking outside of the box, and while I love basketball, I always thought I would be bigger than basketball and that my brand would be bigger than basketball. I love it, but I don’t think it is everything. The year 2020 has shown us that sports isn’t everything.
Did you know right away when you began your career in Phoenix that those teams were going to make it tough for competing WNBA teams? The funny thing about it is, I was supposed to play with Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. That was the plan because I was going to go to UCONN, so instead we became competitors. But when draft night happened to me I thought, ‘Oh, it’s about to be scary!’ Diana and I knew we had the same mentality because we started playing Team USA basketball at age 15, but we really didn’t know it was going to be like that. She never treated me like a rookie. She always looked it like, I was her friend and she needed me as a teammate. That was the conversation we had and then we just put the work in together. Every single day. We never left the gym without putting up shots. We always made sure we were the first in the arena. It was a bond and an unspoken language. It was a championship mentality that we both carried, without even saying it. We just showed it. We had the mindset that no one could stop us. I think we were the best combination that the league had ever seen.
The two championships you won in Phoenix -- are they more special today now that you’ve had time to look back on them? Or were they more special when they happened? I don’t think I realized the significance of what we were doing because we were so young when we came into the league and had success so early in our careers. There was no adjustment period as a rookie for me -- instead it was success, success, success, right away! We did a great job of handling all of that and the criticism because we were so competitive and we talked a lot. We amped each other up and that was something the league had never seen before. For us, it was necessary for the league to grow.
Is there any part of you that feels like you could still play? Or do you feel you were forced out before your time was up? Oh, yeah...they forced me out. I got ‘blackballed’ toward the end, and that’s OK. I am a strong individual and maybe my ideas were against what the league wanted to do. I wanted to see the league grow. The league is so young and they are still trying to get that, so I understand. I support the WNBA and I’ve given my whole life to it, but they do push players out. We just don’t see the back side of the story. There are politics behind it. Mentally, I was ready to retire because I was over the business aspect of organizations. I am happy with my decision and I don’t want to go back. I want to help the league grow and move forward. I think my voice is imperative and important. I will develop a group of young players that watch me, and study me, and look up to me because I have had that impact.
What does it mean to you to know your style and stature influenced the WNBA? I didn’t have role models growing up. I didn’t have that. I didn’t have conversations about college, playing, and branding myself, until much later in my career. You can imagine what it does if a kid has that energy or influence to be successful, that can really gear a kid up especially if you are coming out of the hood. I grew up on the west side of Chicago and in a single parent home. I wasn’t supposed to make it out. I made it with tough grit and determination and with will to succeed, you can make it out. But now? In some ways it’s easier because there are mentors and people willing to sacrifice so these kids don’t have to go what they went through. It was different for me. I was public with how I felt and had all of these tattoos and being from the west side of Chicago, I was already stereotyped from the beginning. I am creative and a visionary person and that’s why I wanted to leave Phoenix. I wanted to go to New York for that reason. I thought New York was the Mecca of basketball and I wanted to go. No disrespect to Chicago, but New York is just a different atmosphere when it comes to sports.
You were such a fan-favorite with the Liberty because of your defensive approach...is that how you endeared yourself to New York? For someone who hasn’t played in that kind of environment, how would you describe that experience? In order to play in any New York arena, you have to have energy. There’s a certain toughness. And if you don’t have it, the fans and the people aren’t going to respect you as a player. I brought that every single night and it turned me into a whole different person. I gave the defensive energy because I learned that from Teresa Weatherspoon. The Liberty fans loved her. I thought, I can give that to them too.
Aside from your time in the WNBA, you also played overseas from Turkey, to Russia, and Cyprus...did you ever feel like the spotlight was brighter or you were under the microscope because of what you brought to the table as a player? I can honestly say that I am blessed to have played in Europe. To play in Fenerbahçe in Turkey as a rookie, that was pretty unheard of to make that kind of money right out of the gate. It was like a dream come true. I took my cousin with me and he lived with me whenever I went to Europe, so it made the transition that much easier. I have always loved traveling and learning about different cultures. So my transition was fairly easy from every country that I have played in. I could go back and start a whole life over there because of the respect and connecting with so many people. That’s such an important part of it all over your retirement and have been able to embrace -- those connections and relationships. That was the respect the people gave us as WNBA players. I was fortunate to experience the life and time that I did in Europe.
From your time playing in the WNBA, overseas, and the Olympics, why was it important to you to suit-up and get on the floor to give back with Ballin’ 4 Peace last year at St. Francis? My family in Chicago has been plagued with gun violence. We have lost four family members, all under the age of 22, within the span of four years. It was huge for our family. We have an annual walk that we do during Memorial Day for one of my cousins that we lost while I was in college when he was gunned down and shot 16 times at a party. Thanks to the work we have been doing, we helped clean up the block that he was killed on. We helped get cameras installed and Neighborhood Watch involved. I felt that anyone who felt the loss and grievance that we felt in our family and was doing the work, I thought it was necessary to do the work. Obviously, basketball is something we love and could connect us with but the message that we are ballin’ for something bigger was vital. When Haron brought up Ballin’ 4 Peace, I just wanted to be a part of it. It’s important for our communities to know who these people are. We see the praise and worship for celebrities, but it’s the people who are out doing the work on the frontlines that are the heroes. I’ve seen that from the beginning and that’s why I wanted to do Ballin’ 4 Peace.
The competitive part of me is gone. I was in love with basketball, but it’s not the same anymore. Now it’s about giving back and teaching. One of the last conversations I had with Kobe Bryant, was about that exactly: knowing when it’s over and knowing when to walk away. I remember Kobe saying, ‘This is the most fun I have ever had in my life…’ To hear that meant a lot. Whatever you are doing in life now is just for fun. It’s not for the high stakes and for the money. It’s about giving back and giving people the opportunity.
People don’t understand what families go through when they lose loved ones. It’s hard to bounce back. I have seen my aunties lose kids or a child and want to give up and die themselves. To see that pain is heartbreaking. I want to use the voice that I have to make a difference.
Professional athletes have such a huge influence and voice when it comes to society and current events. Why’s it important to you to use your platform to speak out on matters like pay equality, mental health, civil unrest, race? It can be uncomfortable for a lot of us to have these conversations. Obviously we know that racism, systematically has been what has plagued America and has silently been our killer. We are in a time period now where 2020 has given us -- from Kobe’s death, to the Coronavirus pandemic, to justice and unrest. This is the time now where we need to deeply reflect as human beings. Forget about us as professionals. This is a time for us to all settle down a little bit, figure it all, and see how we can all make a difference going forward. I don’t have room for negativity. I don’t have room for violence and racism. I have seen it and maybe I didn’t understand it becauseI was playing basketball and covered in that. But now that I see the whole world in its existence, it’s easy to make a difference. We have to be willing to do it as individuals
I envision a time where a high school player goes straight into the WNBA and makes a million dollars and doesn’t have to go to Europe to make that kind of money. They can make millions staying and playing here. That’s what I see over the next three to five years. I’ve always said, ‘maybe I won’t be the first to make a million in the WNBA, but I can push for someone to be the first to make that’. To manifest that, it would just fill my heart.
Read more in the “1 V 1 with Ballin’ 4 Peace” series...
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