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Ruthy Hebard Won’t Let a Virtual Draft Affect Her Real WNBA Goals

The former Oregon star was picked no. 8 by the Chicago Sky on Friday night. This weekend she spoke to us about the virtual draft process, having her senior season abruptly canceled, and more.

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On the day she had dreamed about since she was a kid, Ruthy Hebard spent most of her time setting up a camera. This was not how she’d imagined it when she first thought about playing in the WNBA. This was not how she’d envisioned it even last month, when Oregon head coach Kelly Graves texted her to say that the NCAA tournament had been canceled due to coronavirus restrictions.

No, this was different, all right. The Ducks’ second-leading career scorer suddenly had to learn how to broadcast her big moment for herself. So ahead of Friday night’s WNBA draft, she set up the camera ESPN had sent her in the corner of her family’s living room in Fairbanks, Alaska, laid out the 12 hats and the interactive welcome package the league had mailed her, and waited. Some things went wrong: Due to technical difficulties, she was the only one of the top picks who didn’t get to have her in-draft interview with ESPN reporter Holly Rowe. But in the end, the one thing that mattered went right: Hebard was taken by the Chicago Sky with the no. 8 pick.

This weekend I caught up with Hebard to discuss being able to play in the city where she was born, how her celebratory car parade came to be, and going through a virtual draft process.

Your season at Oregon was cut short. From the time that the NCAA tournament got canceled to now, what has that whole process been like for you?

Well, I mean, it’s pretty crazy. I feel like for myself as a senior, I was kind of preparing for the season to be done and for a celebration, of course. But then all of a sudden, it stopped, so it was really hard. But I think after a few weeks—and we figured out how intense this virus is—I think it was just better. I knew it was for the right reason some stuff was canceled. But of course, it hurts. It was hard to have a season cut short, especially when none of us were ready, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to all my teammates.

When did you find out, and where were you when you heard the news?

I was in Eugene [Oregon], and Coach Graves texted us, because after the Pac-12 tournament we had a week off before we’d get back to practice. He texted us and was like, “Hey, I’m sorry for everything. If you guys are at home, you guys can stay home because they canceled the tournament.” I was like, “Dang. What?” I never really thought it would have gotten to that point.

Once the tournament got canceled, how did you prepare for the draft? Because obviously, that process was different this year.

For a few days I was kind of sad, but then I just started working out again. Because as I said, I know there’s a lot more that’s going to happen in the future. I still have a lot of basketball to play, so [I figured out] how to be happy, how to look forward to that. Anyway, there’s going to be calls from different WNBA coaches and working out and just looking forward to what’s next, and then just spending time with the family.

Were you able to keep working out?

Yeah. The campus has a couple of rec fields and stuff. One of my close friends is trainer Corey Gantt. We just did conditioning, footwork, and stuff like that together. Then he has a little gym that we were allowed to get in, and we did some basketball workouts as well. Just really using what’s around us. When we were outside, a lot of conditioning and footwork, but we got in the gym when we could.

How do you think the draft process was different this year?

I mean, I knew that coaches would call you, and you’d talk to them, that kind of stuff. I think it was just different because we couldn’t really see them, and also none of us are in New York and all together. That whole process and, of course, the virtual draft, and having the WNBA send you stuff, and doing Zoom meetings with everybody, that was really different. But I was happy that they were able to put together something for all the draftees. It was really fun.

You were doing Zoom meetings with the coaches?

Yes. Meetings over FaceTime and stuff like that.

Do you think that if you’d gone through a more normal draft process you’d have had a better sense of where you would be drafted?

I think it was kind of the same. I just talked to different teams, and they had watched me at games this year and followed my career. Some of them were at the Pac-12 tournament in Vegas. I felt like they did know me. It was really nice to be able to know that they did watch, especially the last few games of my college career.

So take me through everything you had to do on draft day. How was it?

ESPN and the WNBA called a lot. We had to get the camera sent to us, a phone, and we had to position it just right. They’re telling us to move up and down and to move stuff away, stuff around our house. I think it was really exciting, and all that led up to the draft. Then doing my makeup, just sitting there and watching my teammates and other girls get jobs. I think they did it really well. It was really fun.

I was watching the broadcast. I think there was a slight delay, because when commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced your name, they went to the camera at your house and you and your family were just watching the TV.

[Laughs.] I know. We were chilling. Oh, my gosh. Yeah. There was definitely a delay. I’m glad on some social media there’s stuff of us celebrating after, but at first we were just chilling. When I got my name called … I was sweating, but when I got my name called, it was Chicago. I was so happy. [My family] was so happy, it was awesome, we had sparkling cider. It was really fun for them to be there and be so excited for me.

Did you have a sense for when you would get picked?

No, I didn’t know. I had a sense of where I probably wouldn’t go … but I didn’t really know if I could go nine, 10, 11. But when they called me I was like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s awesome.” Then Coach [James Wade] called afterward and was excited. It made me even more happy that he was just so excited.

There were more technical difficulties, though, right? Because you were supposed to do an interview with Holly Rowe.

Yes. That did not work.

Did you figure out what happened or why did that not work?

We don’t know what happened at all, but I started to have technical difficulties. Then the call-in where the interview was, they called me and they were like, “OK. We’re going to try to fit you in,” but it never happened. I don’t know. I don’t know what happened, but it was technical difficulties.

I’m sure part of you wishes that you had a normal draft experience, but how was it for you to be with your family and celebrate there, too?

Yeah. I mean, it was always fun to be able to watch previous years, all the girls are just up there and together in New York, but it was actually really special. It was fun to be home with some of my family and the comfort of my own home. Then after, everybody was going crazy for me, so that was awesome. I was very happy, actually.

I saw the parade video in your town. How did that come about?

One of my aunts was like, “We want to do a parade for Ruthy.” Everybody said, “OK.” Then they set it all up all together. They did it in a day. Everyone was out there honking and waving. It was so fun to see coaches, and old teammates, and teachers, and counselors, and just everyone.

It looked like a lot of fun. I’m not sure many other draft picks are getting a car parade.

[Laughs.] I know. It was awesome. It was really a blessing and something I’ll remember.

There were three Oregon players [Hebard, Sabrina Ionescu, and Satou Sabally] drafted in the first eight picks. What do you think about the team’s accomplishments now that three of you are going into the WNBA?

I think it’s really special. I mean, just looking back, and thinking about us, and practices, all the airports and all that, having fun, and also being able to play the game at such a high level. It’s just been so fun for me, and to see two of my closest friends, and see people who I know put the work in every day, getting drafted. It’s just awesome to be able to be a part of that with them. I know that it was all special in our own unique ways, and I think that’s something that is really awesome.

Have you talked at all since the draft?

Yes. Sabrina and I FaceTimed a little bit. I have a bunch of callbacks after this, because all of our phones are getting blown up.

How do you feel like you fit in with the Sky, and what are you looking to bring to the team?

I’m super excited. I mean, I talked to the coach. Diamond DeShields called me, and Courtney [Vandersloot] and Allie [Quigley] texted me. It’s just been awesome. They seem like such a fun group of girls who love to work hard and love the game, but also are a family and push each other. I’m just super excited to be a part of that family. It already seems like such a good fit. I’m just hoping to bring spirit, and consistency, and a lot of energy to the team, and just hopefully make an impact in whatever way I can when I get there.

You are from Alaska, but you were born in Chicago. What’s it going to be like to go back there to play professional basketball?

I’m actually super excited. I’ve been there a few times for AAU basketball in high school, but nothing to the extent to be able to go there and explore. It’s cool to be able to go where you were born and just see the life there. I know it’s going to be super different than Alaska and Oregon, so it’s another adventure.

There was a moment there in the draft when it seemed like you could go to New York, too, because they had the ninth pick, and you would have been with Sabrina. Were you thinking about that possibility?

Oh, yeah. We saw it. I said, “Dang. Maybe they can put us back together. That would be so fun.” Oh, yeah. I would love to play with her, but I’m super excited to go to Chicago. I know she’s going to kill it in New York, so I’m sure we’ll see each other again.

Going back, was there a moment, or a game, or some time when it hit you that you could do this—not just play college ball, but be in the WNBA and then be a first-round pick?

I think there’s a couple of emotional moments. When I was in middle school, we went to a Los Angeles Sparks game. I saw a bunch of the girls there. It was just so cool to see all the ladies there, the African American girls that looked like me and were tall. We were playing AAU basketball, of course, we were in the gym and stuff, but just being able to get out of Alaska, and see other girls, and be able to kind of like match up to them and say, “Oh, you know, maybe I can play with them. Maybe I can do this.” After that, it was just working hard.

Is it stressful to think about, like, “I just got drafted, but I don’t even know when I’m going to be in Chicago, or when I’m going to be able to play”?

Yeah. It definitely is. But I think now that I know where I’m going, that makes me a little less stressed, because I know I have a team and I know that they want me. I don’t know if it will be in a month, or weeks, or whatever, but I’m just hoping to be able to stay in shape and get in the gym as much as I can so whenever we get cleared and can play again, that I can just go out and make an impact right away.

We’re about to have the NFL draft and then likely the NBA draft online. As somebody who just went through it, what advice do you have for other prospects who’ll be doing this in the near future?

Once you get in there, just be ready and maybe try to be excited a little more than I was. Be ready all the time. I looked like I was in a straitjacket. [Laughs.]

You never know when the camera’s going to show you.

Definitely. The camera is always on you.

Did they tell you when they were going to go to you?

No. Because it kind of switched back and forth, too, especially at the beginning. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. Here I am.” [Laughs.] So yeah, always be ready.