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Mama, Look at Her Now

Six years before she won MVP at this year’s WNBA All-Star Game, Erica Wheeler was making $200 a week and trying to crawl out of the dark hole created by her mother’s death. This is the story of Wheeler’s journey from undrafted free agent to the top of the WNBA.

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Two days before last Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game, lndiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler sat in the dimly lit lobby of the Delano hotel in Las Vegas, smiling and eating sticky chicken wings. Or, at least, she was trying to eat them. Between interview questions and greetings from her fellow All-Stars streaming in and out of the lobby, there wasn’t much time for food.

The 28-year-old was in high demand. Fever teammate and seven-time All-Star Candice Dupree—who is a mentor to Wheeler and calls her “one of the most positive people that I’ve ever met”—walked by and shook her head when she saw that Wheeler was in an interview. “Oh, is that why you’re not answering my calls?” Dupree said. “Ever since you became an All-Star, man.”

All-Star appearances are always special, but Wheeler’s selection this year was historic. She became just the fifth undrafted player to ever become a WNBA All-Star, in addition to Becky Hammon, who was first selected in 2003, Anna DeForge (2004), DeMya Walker (2005), and Erika de Souza (2009). But most of those players found a path to the WNBA early in their careers. Wheeler was forced to take some detours.

As she talked and ate that Thursday afternoon, she fiddled with the diamond-encrusted pendant hanging around her neck. It was a gift from her close friend, Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson. On one side, there’s a photo of her late mother, Melissa Cooper (“Mama Dukes”) smiling, and on the back, a personal message written in diamonds: “Look Ma, I am an All-Star.” Wheeler hardly took the necklace off all weekend.

Despite being the new kid on the All-Star block—and a longshot candidate at that—the Rutgers grad didn’t look out of place. She knew this was where she was supposed to be.

“This is my moment,” she said. “It’s been my moment from the start.”

She didn’t say that to brag. She was merely expressing her immense self-belief. Each year since 2014, Wheeler has made a list of goals on her iPhone’s Notes app. Sometimes she makes the image of the list her lock screen, so she’s faced with it every time she picks up her phone.

“You know, you gotta see it, vision it, believe it, believe it, believe it, and believe it,” she said. “You have no idea, like, the things I think I could do.”

Making an All-Star game was on her list this year. In 2014, her big goal was making the WNBA, which she achieved in 2015. In 2017, she added signing a multiyear WNBA contract to her list; this February, she inked a two-year deal with the Fever. She wouldn’t share the details of her 2019 list. But she was adamant that there was more to come—perhaps much sooner than even she expected.

“The year is not even over,” she said. “And there’s still a lot more to be accomplished.”

Wheeler grew up in Liberty City, Florida, a rough neighborhood in Miami. She lived in a house with 12 other people, three bedrooms, and only one bathroom. Her mother, whom Wheeler idolized, worked hard to provide for the family. They always got by, Wheeler says, but it was rarely easy. “You can imagine the cold baths I took,” she said. “I’m from the hood, poverty. Like we didn’t have luxury, we had to make things work. I know what a syrup sandwich tastes like. I know what sugar water tastes like.”

Sports saved Wheeler. She grew up playing football with the boys in the neighborhood—she says wide receiver was her specialty—but while the boys kept growing, she remained 5-foot-7. So she switched her focus to basketball.

“She is rough and tough,” Wheeler’s younger half-brother Eric Nottage said. “People knew she was different. She used to dominate the boys. She’ll talk trash.”

Early in her life, Wheeler crossed paths with another Miami basketball legend, six-time All-Star and 2017 WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles. Fowles was a high school basketball star at the time, and Wheeler was the 7-year-old ball girl.

“She was an annoying little kid,” Fowles said, laughing. “I don’t even know why we made her ball girl half of the time, because she never used to like to throw the ball. I think it was just something for her to do to keep her out of trouble, and if that was the case, I was all for it.”

Wheeler’s interest in basketball may have started as an outlet for infectious energy and an excuse to stay out of her crowded house, but it quickly became a passion. She was fast, shifty, a natural shooter, and hypercompetitive. Her senior year of high school at Parkway Academy, she averaged 20 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists per game, and led her team to a second state title. She was named a McDonald’s All-American, and ESPN’s Hoopgurlz ranked her 39th overall in the class of 2009.

Rutgers wasn’t on Wheeler’s radar until legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer flew down to Miami in 2008 and met directly with Cooper. During her visit, Stringer didn’t talk about the basketball opportunities available at Rutgers; rather, she assured Cooper, “Your daughter’s going to have a degree.”

The decision to leave Miami was tough, but ultimately Wheeler felt that a change of scenery would do her good. The hardest part, she says, was leaving her mother behind. Cooper sobbed uncontrollably when she dropped Wheeler off at the airport.

Rutgers’s Erica Wheeler during a February 19, 2013 game against Syracuse
Getty Images

There’s a fairly standard questionnaire in Rutgers women’s basketball media guides, so fans and media members can get to know a little more about players. In the 2009-10 version, for Wheeler’s freshman season, one of the categories was “Biggest fear.” Wheeler answered “Losing my mom.”

Wheeler fought against her own immaturity and inconsistency her first two years at Rutgers, but Stringer kept challenging her. By her junior season, Wheeler was averaging 8.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.6 steals. But the summer before her senior year, she got a call that changed everything: Her mother had stage 4 cervical cancer.

Wheeler knew that Cooper had been sick, but her family lied to her and said it was fibroids, which are typically benign growths on a woman’s uterus. Her mother concocted the story because she knew that if Wheeler found out what was really going on, she would have left school immediately. After learning the truth about Cooper’s condition, Wheeler took the first flight back to Miami and spent the final two months of her mother’s life by her side. She moved in with a friend during that time because she was so angry at her two older sisters for going along with the lie.

On July 17, 2012, Wheeler, her sisters, and other close family members were gathered in the waiting room at the Miami hospital, while Cooper, now weighing under 90 pounds, was resting in her room. Suddenly, the doctors ran by yelling, “Code blue!” They were headed for Cooper’s room. Wheeler and the rest of her family raced after them, but they weren’t allowed to enter the room.

“I’m looking through the window. My sisters, everybody’s crying around me—I’m the one looking. I’m brave like that,” Wheeler said. “I want to know, I want to see.”

She saw them performing chest compressions. She saw the doctor try and shock her mother back to life and then throw the machine across the room because he was so angry that it wasn’t working. She saw her mom’s last breath.

“I thank God I was there to at least to see that, because it sticks with me in a way that motivates me, you know, keeps me moving,” she said. “I have a responsibility to keep making her proud.”

That perspective didn’t come immediately, though. After her mother’s death, Wheeler didn’t see a reason to keep playing basketball.

“That was the lowest point in her life,” Nottage said. “I have never in my life seen my sister that low.”

Four years prior, Stringer had flown to Miami to make a promise to Cooper. The day after she heard the news of Cooper’s death, Stringer flew back to Miami to make sure she kept that promise. Stringer empathized with Wheeler—Stringer’s husband died of a heart attack in 1992—and during their visit, she convinced Wheeler to come back to Rutgers. Nothing about her final season there was easy, though.

“I remember vividly one game, I don’t remember who we were playing, it was halftime, and [Wheeler] ran into a room where we had eaten lunch and she just started sobbing,” said Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper, who was a freshman at Rutgers during Wheeler’s senior year. “It was unbearable. She was carrying around that heaviness.

“She came back to us and tried to function, still tried to be the leader. She always gave us the energy and the fight, she still never let us down. But it took a toll on her.”

Her senior season, 2012-13, Wheeler averaged 10.5 points, 2.5 steals, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. It was good, but not good enough to catch the attention of any WNBA scouts or premier international teams. In April of 2013, 36 players were selected in the WNBA draft. Wheeler wasn’t one of them. She realized that if she was going to achieve her basketball dreams, she would have to take a circuitous route.

The WNBA always has an orange carpet event on the eve of its All-Star Game, which provides players a chance to make a statement with their style. Wheeler took that edict literally. Her T-shirt for the evening stated in bright orange letters across the front: “Undrafted. WNBA - ALL STAR.” The back of her shirt detailed her journey since. It read “The way of EDUB: Never Give Up!,” referring to her nickname, and it listed every stop of her professional basketball career—all 14 of them.

Erica Wheeler walks the orange carpet during the 2019 WNBA All-Star on July 26, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada
NBAE/Getty Images

The summer after graduation, Wheeler didn’t even get an invitation to a WNBA training camp. So she worked at a True Religion clothing store and as a youth counselor at a drug rehabilitation facility in Miami. Later that summer, a friend she had competed against in high school called and said her team in Puerto Rico needed a point guard. She didn’t exactly give a compelling sales pitch: “They’re offering $200 per week. The team is not that good. Come play.”

Wheeler knew that it was going to be a struggle. But she also felt this was her chance to launch her professional career. Besides, it couldn’t have been any worse than staying home.

“She was like, ‘If I can survive here, I can survive there,’” Nottage said.

Her Puerto Rican team, Leonas de Ponce, had no trainers. They barely even had jerseys—players were allotted one jersey for the season, and they were responsible for washing it themselves. The games were free for fans. Transportation was sketchy at best. But Wheeler was playing again. Her grief wasn’t gone, but she was starting to rediscover her passion for the game. The team was 0-7 when she arrived. They ended up winning the Puerto Rican BSNF championship.

Next, Wheeler played six weeks in a low-level Turkish league for $2,000, total. She averaged 23.3 points, 5.4 assists, and 4.2 rebounds in seven games, but she still didn’t get any calls to join a WNBA training camp. So in the fall of 2014, she went back to Puerto Rico. That’s when one of her then teammates, Phoenix Mercury guard Yvonne Turner, put her in touch with her agent, Fabio Jardine.

Wheeler signed with Jardine and instantly got a better-paying job in Brazil for the fall and winter. The next spring, she scored a tryout with the Atlanta Dream. She got a training camp invitation and made the final roster, but was cut 17 games into the season. The New York Liberty signed her the following month, but she barely had any playing time. It wasn’t until 2016, when she signed with the Fever, that she truly found a WNBA home. Overseas, her profile—and paycheck—has continued to rise as well. She’s played for elite teams in Israel, Spain, and Turkey, and last fall she signed with Nadezhda, one of the top teams in Russia. Her season in Russia was cold, dark, and isolating, but she was named to the Eurobasket.com All-Russian PBL second team.

“For me, now, I’ll take on any challenge whether I fail at it or not,” Wheeler said. “That’s one thing about me. I’m not afraid to fail. Because I’ve had so many doors slammed in my face. It’s just like, OK, you can tell me no, but I’m gonna figure out another way. So you thinking I’m failing is not a fail for me. It’s just me figuring out another way to get it done.”

Through it all she kept adding—and achieving—new goals to her list: winning a championship in Israel; playing in the top European league; winning the EuroCup, an elite tournament in Euroleague; becoming EuroCup MVP; becoming a WNBA starter. Each year, her ambition grows, but her “why” stays the same.

“I know my mom is watching,” she said, “so I need to play my heart out.”

Sitting in the Delano lobby, after pausing our conversation so Wheeler can go bear hug and receive congratulations from 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, I asked whether she ever thought about where she might be had she quit the sport back in 2012. There was a long pause. She fiddled with her necklace.

“I’d rather not answer that, because it’s too honest and raw,” she said.

Nottage couldn’t make the trip to Vegas for All-Star. But the night before the game, he sent his big sister a text message: “Tomorrow, show the world that you’re a legend.”

He and a large group of friends and family commandeered a bar in Miami to watch, and when Wheeler hit her first 3-point shot, six minutes and 12 seconds into the contest, Nottage said everyone screamed so loudly that he couldn’t hear. It didn’t stop the entire game. One day later, he still had chills.

“I told her her name is now MVPE,” Nottage said.

Wheeler scored 25 points in the 129-126 victory for Team A’ja Wilson over Team Elena Delle Donne. Players from both teams swarmed her with congratulatory hugs and tears after the final buzzer sounded. It was instantly obvious she was the MVP. In the chaos, she found Dupree for a long, extended embrace.

As they hugged, Dupree told her, “I always knew that you belonged. I always knew it.”

Wheeler sobbed when Holly Rowe of ESPN handed her the MVP trophy and then pointed to Mama Dukes in the sky. There wasn’t a dry eye in the arena, though only a select few really knew how far she had come.

Erica Wheeler after receiving the MVP trophy at the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game
Getty Images

“I saw her broken into a million pieces, so to see her come out on top like that, it was so amazing,” said Copper, who was in Vegas to cheer on her Sky teammates. “You would have never thought she would have been able to recover.”

Before Wheeler addressed the press after the game, she took a couple of moments of quiet in a room with a few Fever and WNBA representatives. She tried to catch her breath, to process, to compose herself. This is typically the time of the year when she goes into a dark hole. Her mother died on July 17, 2012. For the next six summers, Wheeler spent most of the month of July avoiding friends and social media. She thought it was a way to respect her mother’s memory. But this year, she became an All-Star and an All-Star MVP in July. It’s a sign, she believes, that her mother doesn’t want her to go into that dark hole anymore.

During her press conference, Wheeler talked about the support she received from her peers and how much that meant to her—and pointedly reminded the world that she didn’t have a shoe contract or any big sponsors. This was her moment, after all, just like she said it would be. So she made the most of it.

As Wheeler walked out of the press conference and headed to her next media obligation, I couldn’t help but ask: “Was this on the list?”

She laughed and wiped away her tears.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “I might have to redo the whole damn list now.”

Lindsay Gibbs is a sports reporter at ThinkProgress, Washington Mystics beat reporter for The Athletic, and cohost of the feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down. She is currently working on a book with Beacon Press about female athletes on the front lines of social justice movements.

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