Making it out: How one WNBA player escaped struggle and poverty
By SUGAR RODGERS
The Players' Tribune
I'm going to tell you something I haven't even told most of my New York Liberty teammates. When I go to bed at night, I triple check the lock on my door. Then I slide a chair in front of the door. Then I keep the TV on mute to keep me company while I fall asleep.
I'm still dealing with anxiety from something that happened to me when I went back to visit my family in the South. A relative who I am very close to had just moved out of the projects and into a nice neighborhood. Let's call her Tanya. She's a little older than me — she's 29, and I'm 25. So Tanya's three young kids are like my nieces and nephews. It was a big deal for the kids to get out of the public housing atmosphere. When I got down there, they were all excited to show me the house.
I was asleep on a couch in the living room when I heard their side door slam. Bam. It shook me awake. My first thought was that it was Tanya's boyfriend coming home. But then I pulled out my phone and I saw the time: 3:49 a.m. For some reason, I'll never forget that. Years and years of survival instincts took over and I thought, Uh oh. This isn't right.
When I rolled over and looked toward the back door, I saw a man in a red hoodie holding a gun. He walked towards the couch. Behind him, another man held a machine gun.
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The thing is, I have been through this scenario so many times before in my head. Anybody who grows up in the projects has these thoughts. As a kid, I heard gunshots every day. You think to yourself, Oh, if that ever happens to me, I'll just grab the gun. I'll grab my phone and call 911. I'll do this, this, and this.
But when you see a gun in real life, you don't do any of that stuff. It's not like a movie. You just freeze.
My nephew was sleeping on the floor next to me. He came out in the middle of the night because he complained his room was too hot. Now I was wishing so bad that I had sent him back to his room. I rolled over and woke him up. Then I stood up and said, "I know y'all robbing us."
The guy in the red hoodie walked over and said, "Shut the f*** up." He put the gun to my forehead and told me to get on the ground. I laid right on top of my nephew.
Then I felt the gun on the back of my head. I started breathing really heavily.
"What do y'all want?" I asked. "They got little kids here."
"Shut up," he said. Then he jammed the gun harder.
We laid there for 15 minutes just like that — with the guy holding the gun to my head while his partner went back to Tanya's bedroom. Her other two kids were sleeping in the next room. I was praying that they wouldn't wake up.
I whispered to my nephew, "Listen, you know where all my stuff is right? If anything happens to me and your mom, you'll be OK."
I couldn't see what was going on, but I could hear it. Tanya was screaming at them, "We don't have any money here. Just take whatever you want and leave." Then we heard the sounds of a taser. Tanya was screaming. They kept asking where she kept her money. At that point, I thought I was probably going to die. I just hoped they wouldn't hurt the kids. Then, out of nowhere, I felt the gun lift off the back of my head. All I heard was footsteps running out of the house.
Tanya's two other kids had woken up at this point and they were screaming in their room. Then I heard gunshots ring out in the front yard: Pop, pop, pop, pop. Then it got quiet. After a few minutes, Tanya's boyfriend walked back into the house. While the robbers were tasering her, he was able to grab a registered gun he keeps for protection. The robbers scrambled and he chased them out of the house.
You know how most people cry in this situation? Well, I'm so used to crazy things happening that I don't cry. I just get this feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like ... here we go again.
The police never caught the robbers. Where I'm from, that's not uncommon. Usually people in the streets or in the jails know who did it before the police do. As sad as it is to say, the reality is that you just charge it to the game. You suck it up and your life goes on.
I was traumatized for a long time. But here's the thing that might shock you: It's hard for me to feel angry at the robbers. You never know what people are going through at the time. I came from the same kind of neighborhood they're from. I grew up with drug dealers and robbers and hustlers. They were my friends. Some of them were even my family. Where we grow up, it's like crabs in a bucket. Everybody is trying to make it out of the bucket at all costs. The only way to get to the top is to pull somebody else down. People who don't really understand true poverty, they'll say, "Why can't those people just do an honest day's work and make it out of their situation?" But the reality is that the economy is non-existent. If you're not a natural genius in the classroom or in sports, your options are to work at McDonald's for minimum wage, or to sell drugs and hustle. In my neighborhood, working at Wal-Mart was considered a great job. People never mentioned the word "college." That was like saying you were going to the moon.
You only know what you know. If your parents grew up stealing and dealing, you grow up stealing and dealing. It becomes a cycle.
I know, because I was part of the cycle. My sister and brother were in and out of prison. The neighborhood boys used to sell drugs and play dice right out of front of our house. This was where I learned how to play basketball. My brother set up a hoop with a wooden backboard and a crooked rim on the side of the house. My mom would give me a dollar, and I'd head outside and challenge the drug dealers to play me for a dollar a shot. At first they'd look at me like, Is this little girl serious? But while they were shooting dice and hanging out, I'd be practicing my jumper. And then I started taking their money.
Sometimes the dealers would start taking bets on the kids. So you'd play 1-on-1 and all of a sudden everybody's putting money into a hat. Once, a guy had $100 on me and I won. The guy gave me $50. At that time, I thought I hit the jackpot.
I grew up in chaos. There's no other word for it. But sports was always my way of coping with the day-to-day struggle. Now, up until this point, my story is playing out like you might expect. You might be saying to yourself, See? All you have to do to escape poverty is to keep your head up and work hard. That's how feel-good movies work. But that's not how real life poverty works. Here's how it works:
When I was 14, and just starting high school, my mom started to get really, really sick. I didn't know it at the time, because I didn't want to know, but she had lupus. When I was younger, my mom would tell me, "At some point, I'm not going to be here anymore, and you're going to have to fend for yourself." All I knew was that her sickness had suddenly gotten worse and she couldn't take care of herself anymore. We didn't have the money to hire a full-time nurse or to send her to a nursing home. So I became her full-time nurse. Just like how your mom bathed you, fed you, changed your diaper — I did that for my mom. For a long time, I didn't show up for school. When I look back on it, I feel like it set me up for life. People don't know what it's like to pick up 160-pounds of deadweight and carry it from the bathroom to the bedroom.
I watched death come for her. You can just tell.
One day, the cops showed up at our house during a drug bust. When they came inside, they saw how bad my mom was and they took her to the hospital. She ended up being transferred to a nursing home. She never came out. Then they condemned our house. We couldn't even go in and get anything. Two weeks later, the house was completely torn down. It was nothing but rubble.
I became an adult at the age of 14.
I didn't have anywhere to go. My mom was gone. Our house was gone. It wasn't the best living conditions, but it was the only home I had. I didn't have anyone in my ear telling me I had to get up and go to school. I could sleep all day if I wanted to. I remember thinking to myself, I have two options: Either I sit out here on the corner and sell drugs, or I find a way to survive for four more years until I'm 18, and I can sign up for the military. I had no dreams of the WNBA. I didn't even have dreams of college basketball.
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This is the point in the movie where the shining father figure comes in and saves the day, and I go live in a nice house in the suburbs and get new Nikes. The reality is that I bounced around from couch to couch over the next year with everything I owned in a backpack. Different people took me in for a few weeks at a time. The neighborhood took care of me. My brother would make sure I had basketball shoes. Tanya would make sure I had clothes, even if it meant she had to use the five-finger discount.
The closest thing I had to stability was AAU Basketball. I played for Boo Williams' team (Boo is like an AAU legend). My first game, I literally had one point. It took me forever just to even get any playing time. But Boo kept giving me a chance, and when we went down to Walt Disney World to play a junior national tournament in July, I dropped 40 points almost every game. It was the one-year anniversary of my mom's death. It felt like a sign from her telling me that everything was going to work out alright. I guess some things are like a movie.
After that tournament, I started getting letters from Georgetown. I still didn't have a home, but it felt like I finally had a chance. Because even if I didn't make it and play professionally, I could get a good job with a Georgetown degree.
And that's why I'm telling you this story. I understand that some people won't understand where I'm coming from. You might think you understand poverty from reading about it or seeing it on TV, but you can't understand how complicated it is until you've really lived it.
I ended up becoming the leading scorer in Georgetown history. I ended up making it to the WNBA, and I even got to play professionally overseas. And that's cool and all, but that's not the only way you can "make it."
Where I'm from, "making it" might mean graduating from high school and getting a good job and being able to pay your bills. It might mean going to college. It might mean moving out of public housing and getting your kids their own bedrooms. It can mean a lot of different things.
For me, it meant going to Georgetown and seeing another world. I remember going to the cafeteria the first few weeks and getting hamburgers and chicken tenders, and just being so happy. You mean I can go every night and eat whatever I want? The other students looked down on the cafeteria. They had the money to eat out every night. But for me, it was amazing. When the basketball team would go on roadtrips, we would eat at the fanciest restaurants, and I'd order chicken tenders and fries every single time. Finally my coach had to step up and say, "Sugar, you have to try something else."
I'm like, "Coach, that's the only thing I know. I don't know what the heck this calamari is."
Then I'd try it and it would be delicious. But I wasn't used to eating like that. I was used to eating to survive. It was an amazing, eye-opening experience for me. Like I said, you only know what you know.
The professors and the coaches at Georgetown would work with you to make sure you were on the right path, and I remember being cautious of them at first. I didn't trust them. My feeling was, why would this person care about helping me? What's in it for them?
Crabs in a bucket. That's how I saw the world.
But I slowly started to realize that they wanted what's best for me. And then my whole world opened up.
It amazes me that I was able to make it out, to get my college degree and to play a game I love for a living. But I still go back home as much as I can, because I love my neighborhood. My neighborhood took care of me when I didn't have a roof over my head. Whenever I go back, all the kids ask me, "What's it like to go to college? What's it like to play in Madison Square Garden? Do you know LeBron?" I was able to break the cycle, and now they have someone to look to who was in the same situation they're in. I want to see those kids believe and achieve. My message to them is that life is not a fairytale. There are going to be days when things are bad. But you just have to keep a smile on your face and get past it.
There's always a way out.
This summer, Tanya's son came to visit me in New York. He had been having a lot of trouble sleeping since the robbery. So we thought it would be good for him to have a change of scenery and see what life is like somewhere else. When I told him my coach on the Liberty is Bill Laimbeer, I didn't expect him to know who he is. He's 10! But he's like, "Oh my god! The Bad Boy Pistons!"
These kids now are like mini historians with their iPhones. They've seen all the YouTube highlights. He got to meet Bill, which he thought was the coolest thing in the world.
When I would leave in the morning for practice, I'd say, "Okay, I'm going to work."
He'd say, "That's not work! You're just going to play basketball."
But as the summer went on, he got to see how see how much work and commitment goes into what we do. He got to see another way of living. At the end of the summer, he was talking about, "I wanna go to Georgetown and play ball! I wanna go to North Carolina!"
Eventually, he had to go back home. Back to his friends. Back to the influences. I told him the truth. I'm real with him. I told him that I get scared at night now, too. I sleep with the TV on. I get anxiety. But I told him that you can't be angry. The only thing you can do is smile and keep moving forward. Just keep moving. You never know where you might end up.
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