Courtside with Erica Wheeler
An unfiltered Q&A with WNBA players — past and present.
Hello and welcome to Courtside.
Take a break from the game. Pull up a chair. Settle in. Have some water. And relax.
As often as I can, I’ll be bringing you honest, revealing and fun Q&As with some of the greatest players in WNBA history as well as rookies, veterans and All-Stars in the league today.
Now and again, I’ll also be posting columns focusing on what’s happening in the WNBA or sharing my thoughts about basketball-related current events, issues, and/or players in the news cycle.
Now, let’s get to the conversation.
Photo provided by Zack Weisleder
Erica Wheeler, 29, is a WNBA All-Star MVP (2019) and a point guard for the Los Angeles Sparks. She played college basketball at Rutgers University under the venerable Vivian Stringer, leading the team in steals as a junior. Right before Wheeler’s senior year at Rutgers, her mother passed away from cancer—a significant moment in Wheeler’s life that affected her drive and perseverance in a profound way. She returned to Rutgers to finish out her senior year, graduate and get her degree. It was an accomplishment her mother had always wanted.
After going undrafted in the 2013 WNBA Draft, Wheeler played basketball overseas for a couple of years before getting an opportunity to try out for the Atlanta Dream in 2015. She played in 17 games before being cut, then had a brief three-game stint with the New York Liberty. In 2016, Wheeler was invited to training camp with the Indiana Fever. She later signed with the team and hasn’t looked back since.
“Erica wasn't looking for an easy way out. I knew she’d be somebody real special.”
— Rutgers women’s basketball head coach, Vivian Stringer on Wheeler returning to play for her senior year, while struggling with the death of her mother.
Wheeler found a basketball home with Fever. She had a career high 33 points in 2017 against the Liberty, and led the team in assists. In 2019, Wheeler averaged 10 points and five assists per game for the Fever and earned her first trip to the All-Star Game, where she scored 25 points and tied the record for most three-pointers made (7), earning herself an All-Star Game MVP award—the first ever for an undrafted player. Wheeler was forced to sit out the 2020 Wubble season due to a positive COVID test and is eager to get back to the court. As an unrestricted free agent, she recently signed a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Here’s Wheeler’s unforgettable acceptance speech during the 2019 All-Star MVP Award presentation. Go ahead, try not to shed a tear:
You faced a lot of adversity off and on the court in your road to the WNBA. Where does your resilience come from and how did/do you stay focused on achieving your basketball dreams?
Honestly, just my mom. I lost my mom to cancer, you know, a couple of years ago. And now, I know more than ever that she’s watching me. So for me, I just got to make sure I go hard and make sure I give 100 percent in everything that I do.
I don’t know if you watched the video from All-Star (2019), you know, how touching it was that I had to speak in front of 10,000 people with so many emotions going through my head. It was really for my mom because of the things that she provided for me to get me to this point.
Looking back, what would you tell your younger self after the 2013 WNBA Draft came and went without hearing your name called?
I would tell myself, keep pushing. Because that’s how I was raised. When a door closes, you just open another door or wait until another door gets opened. You know, but never give up. I’m not cut from a family or a foundation of giving up. We always try to figure it out.
What does the Indiana Fever organization mean to you, especially since that’s where your WNBA career really began and flourished?
Indiana is a second home for me, you know. I owe them—(laughs in disbelief)—man, they kind of really took my career to a whole other level. And Tamika Catchings, having her in my corner, you know, a player that played in the league a decade—that’s what we all dream of doing. So, I was just super fortunate, you know, to have someone like that in my corner, talking to me and making sure I get things done.
They mean everything to me and I thank them from the bottom of my heart, but this decision was solely because, you know, for myself in the sense that I’m finally choosing myself first and not always putting people before me.
How did it feel going into the 2021 free agency period, being in the position to negotiate and find the right fit for the next phase of your career?
Man, the crazy thing is, you know, I’ve never been drafted. I don’t know what it’s like to be able to choose. It’s almost like teams have to choose me. So, just being able to have that option to be able to choose, I think that was refreshing. And it definitely put me in a position where I’m like, if you really work hard this can really happen. I definitely enjoyed having a couple of teams talk to me and tell me how they feel about me, so definitely soaked it up and enjoyed it.
What excites you the most about joining the Los Angeles Sparks?
Honestly man, just the coaches and being able to play for an NBA coach that played point guard. I think (Derek Fisher) is going to definitely take my game to another level. And man, it’s the Staples Center. Come on man, everybody loves playing in the Staples Center. And L.A. itself, from a marketing standpoint to what I want to do in the community (with the Wheeler Kid Foundation), you know, bring some of that Miami stuff down to L.A. and see how that’ll go. That’s definitely something I look forward to.
You sat out last season due to positive COVID test—tell me about that situation. Did you have symptoms? How hard was it to have to sit out and watch the season unfold without getting to play?
Well, it definitely was one of the hardest things I’ve had to encounter because I never had to sit out of basketball, I always was able to play. Nobody ever said, oh you can’t play basketball, stop playing. And it was tough. I didn’t have any symptoms, that was the most frustrating part. But they said, you know, I had COVID, I had fluid around my heart. You know, everything was so uncertain that they didn’t want to take a chance.
For me, it’s just okay, I don’t have symptoms, I don’t know what’s going on, I can’t play basketball. So, that’s a very hard challenge to swallow. By the grace of God, I bought a house. Then I just focused myself into doing stuff around my house. I actually built a walk-in closet myself, because I’m a sneakerhead. That was super therapeutic for me, man. Just being able to take walks through my new neighborhood and get a clear head.
This league is so tough to get into, make a roster, because of the talent level. What advice do you have for younger players who get drafted and don’t make a roster or who, like you, went undrafted?
I mean, honestly—it’s God, a little luck, and having an agent that believes in you. Because it’s not about what you know, it’s really about who you know. Who can put you in a position to, you know, really show what you got. Nobody knew who I was, but once I got in a position where I could showcase my talent, then at that point you can kind of just make a decision from there. And really, just trying to outwork everybody that’s in front of you. I think that’s the most important thing because you could be going in at any given moment. Just try to outwork anybody that’s in front of you.
What’s something about you that people would be surprised to know or wouldn’t expect?
Um, I like to get my hands dirty. Like, I don’t mind doing yardwork, doing garden work, I’m very handy, I’ll fix a tire, you know, I’ll definitely put some work in around the house. I’m not a lazy one.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Could be a song, movie, food, etc.?
Shopping, man. Buying shoes and clothes and being able to put it together—it’s killing me right now (because of COVID).
What’s your go-to hype song before a game?
Ready for War by MajorNine
Spread the ball around
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