courtesy of Athletes Unlimited
An NBA replay operator, a former police officer and a music industry professional all wanted another shot. Another shot to play professional basketball on a large stage in the United States in front of friends and family. They all knew they couldn’t let another opportunity to shine pass them by.
Chances to play women’s professional basketball in the U.S. are limited. The WNBA has 12 teams with 12 roster spots. That’s 144 jobs at most.
Athletes Unlimited (AU) is adding to that number.
It’s an organization that’s jump-starting new domestic women’s volleyball, softball, lacrosse and basketball leagues. Their women’s hoops league began its inaugural season Wednesday night, reviving the careers of talented but overlooked athletes and providing an opportunity for WNBA players to earn a paycheck without going overseas.
AU also features some unconventional standards. The league doesn’t feature owners, general managers and official coaches. New teams are drafted each week and players are ranked based on a completely different scoring system
Taking place in Las Vegas over a five-week period, the league includes high-profile WNBA stars such as Natasha Cloud, Courtney Williams, Kelsey Mitchell, Mercedes Russell and many more.
But for most of the athletes, it’s about embracing a delayed dream and the cumbersome, alternate routes of life.
Former University of South Carolina Gamecocks guard Tina Roy has an impression to make. “I’m trying to shock a few people,” she said. “Everybody’s going to be watching. I want them to say, ‘Oh, Tina Roy got better. I thought she was just a shooter.'”
After Roy’s senior year at South Carolina, she was invited to Atlanta Dream training camp in 2016 but was waived following camp. Roy decided not to go overseas after an offer she received via her agent fell short of what she was seeking.
By the time 2017 rolled around, she was working at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department for a sheriff who was a huge fan of the Gamecocks. Roy was a deputy who was an office manager, and her primary responsibility was to oversee the body cameras that officers wore. Then in 2019, she made a rap for the department that went viral. She rapped to the beat of Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s “Fancy.”
Photo courtesy of Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
It served as a public service announcement to educate people on the role of the sheriff’s department. It was a method to facilitate community relations, and Roy was a recognizable face in Columbia, South Carolina. She referred to herself as a “community officer,” someone who would go into schools and talk to young people all about public safety.
But she realized policing wasn’t her passion. It was just a job that helped her learn a lot about what it means to be a professional in the “real world.” Since her days as a Gamecock, she’s learned that hard work leads to a “return on investment.” She realized she didn’t work as hard as she could have while playing for Dawn Staley from 2011 to 2016.
“In the real world, you have to work for everything, and you have responsibilities. You have to pay bills,” she told B/R. “In college, we didn’t have bills, so it just teaches you how to be an adult, you know. I’ve definitely grown up since college.”
When Roy moved to Atlanta in late 2019 to pursue her music career, she met former WNBAer Kiesha Brown, who is the assistant athletic director at The Galloway School in the metro Atlanta area. There, the two coached the girls basketball team together, while Roy worked at UPS as a package handler to pay bills.
But there was something nagging at her, telling her she should be playing professionally and that she should have given her playing career more of a chance.
After hearing about AU from Ty Young, one of the members of the league’s players executive committee who Roy had played with on smaller women’s basketball teams in Atlanta, including the Georgia Lady Fire, Roy knew this was her opportunity. She tried out in Atlanta in December and then got a call two-and-a-half weeks ago informing her that she had made AU’s 44-player roster. She was going to Las Vegas.
The league features non-playing facilitators rather than official coaches. These are people with coaching experience who serve as advisers to players during games and practices. They won’t dictate the plays but rather will be called upon as a resource.
What does that mean? Players with coaching experience such as Roy will be invaluable to their respective teams. As their basketball IQs have further developed, they will have opportunities to offer input in the form of play-calling and in-game adjustments.
“I think you can have all the skills, but I think having a basketball IQ gives someone leverage over you, honestly,” Roy said. “Because the person could be really good, but if they’re not a smart player, you’re not sure what they’re going to do when they get out there.”
But how, in a game that’s reliant upon teamwork and ball-movement, will players adapt to playing on a different team each week? And will AU’s individual-driven point system and lack of a formal team championship affect the level of basketball being played?
AU participant and Maryland Terrapin alumna Laurin Mincy, who began her own coaching business in New Jersey before a stint as an NBA replay operator, finds that without formal coaches, players are allowed to play with more freedom. Coaches tend to have specific systems. At times, players have to fill a certain role, which limits how much individuals can showcase their skill sets. And changing teams every week makes sure that players can demonstrate different skills.
“So at the same time, you do still have to sacrifice, and I think with being able to change teams weekly, your role changes weekly,” Mincy said. “I think that’s just the biggest takeaway: being able to still sacrifice but also being able to showcase your skills based on what team you are in and what your team needs weekly.”
But amid fewer constraints, the game itself is still a team sport, and while AU awards points for individual performance, what’s worth more is how the collective performs after each quarter and after each game. According to AU CEO Jon Patricof, around 70 percent of player points come from how well the player’s team performs.
“The biggest determinant in your leaderboard points is: Does your team win quarters and the games you’re participating in when you’re on the team?” he told B/R.
The individual points are awarded on:
Points scored: two-pointer made (20 points) and three-pointer made (30 points)
Assists (10 points each)
Rebounds: defensive (five points each) and offensive (10 points each)
Fouls drawn: personal foul (four points each), shooting foul (four points each) and offensive foul (eight points each)
Free throws made (10 points each)
Steals (10 points each )
Blocks (10 points each)
Points can be deducted on:
Missed field goals: missed two-pointer (minus-10 points) and missed three-pointer (minus-10 points)
Missed free throws (minus-10 points each)
Turnovers (minus-10 points per turnover)
Fouls committed: offensive foul (minus-16 points), personal foul (minus-eight points), shooting foul (minus-eight points) and other foul (minus-eight points)
Aside from the unique scoring system, Roy believes the goal in basketball remains the same: to win.
“I look at it like this,” she said. “Someone can score 30 points a game, but if you never won any of the games that you play, you probably wouldn’t end up being the No. 1 player because you get more points for winning. So you could do your part, but make sure you win the game. That’s all it’s about: winning the game.”
It’s been a while since WNBA fans have seen Essence Carson. She last played in the W for both the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun during the 2020 Wubble season.
Carson, who also has a career in music as the senior manager of label relations at Motown Records, is a WNBA champion and 13-year WNBA veteran. She hopes to make her return to the W this summer but also wants to be a part of something that will create more opportunities for future women hoopers.
Photo courtesy of the LA Sparks.
Both Carson and Mincy understand that this opportunity is bigger than them. Mincy wants fans who aren’t familiar with her game, don’t know her story and didn’t watch her at Maryland to walk away understanding how much she genuinely loves the sport.
“I am very passionate about this game,” she said. “This is a part of my life, a part of my journey that I take very seriously. And that I love dearly. And you know [the fans are] going to enjoy watching me play. I think when you have that genuine love for the game, it pretty much shows effortlessly on the court.”
Carson’s love and commitment to the game was what ultimately led her to a bump in the road. While in the WNBA bubble, she played through a foot injury. She never said anything about it. She’s the type of player who pushes through.
But that foot setback in 2020 set her on a 14-month journey recovering from various injuries. Carson didn’t need surgery for anything, but the recovery process and the interruption to her basketball career represented a heavy mental weight. While she was living in California, rehab was difficult to complete without the majority of her East Coast-based family by her side.
But after rehabbing and not playing professional basketball for over a year, Carson has emerged with a new outlook. She reflected on what she learned about herself throughout her recovery process.
“I’ve come to terms where sometimes things don’t happen the way that you think they should,” Carson told B/R. “But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get to where you ultimately want to be, and you have to trust your journey entirely. And you have to remain focused throughout that because it’s not always gonna be easy.”
Carson doesn’t only speak for herself. She speaks for her peers who are also embarking on this journey. Another opportunity to get back to playing the game they all love no matter how rocky the road was to get there.
“And you don’t know what that journey would look like,” Carson said. “And however it looks, you have to be willing to make sacrifices, and you have to be willing to understand that it’s not always going to go the way you envisioned. But that doesn’t mean that the show stops. It doesn’t mean that the ship has sailed.”
And Wednesday, the show began. Another shot.