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Erica Wheeler vividly remembers what Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who stood in the Wheeler’s house, told Wheeler’s mother that it would happen if her daughter played for her.
“She said to my mother, ‘She’s not just going to be a basketball player,'” Wheeler recalled the conversation between Stringer and Wheeler’s mother Melissa Cooper, who passed away in 2012 on camera, she’ll know the etiquette, she’ll know how you carry yourself and she’ll be a young woman when she graduates from college. ‘”
Wheeler, who will turn 30 in May, has worked to become the woman Stringer promised Cooper. She has shown a toughness that took her to 14 teams overseas on her professional journey after not being selected on the WNBA draft, to a regular-time playing with the Indiana Fever and now to a multi-year contract with the Los Angeles Sparks .
A parallel story played out in the life of 27-year-old Betnijah Laney, in her case a second generation stringer player. Laney’s mother, Yolanda Laney, brought Stringer’s Cheyney State program to a pair of final fours and played at a level Stringer said would have made her a top pick in the WNBA draft if the league existed when she did graduated.
Instead, Yolanda became a lawyer and brought her basketball knowledge to Betnijah, which Stringer got to know like a second mother and decided to play for her at Rutgers too. Betnijah Laney fought like Wheeler to gain a foothold in the WNBA. It was cut twice before flourishing with the Atlanta Dream in 2020 and winning the league’s Most Improved Player Award. That off-season, she signed a multi-year deal with the Liberty and is expected to take on a key role in an overhauled team with guard Sabrina Ionescu and newly acquired center Natasha Howard.
That’s not to say that Laney’s familiarity with Stringer – from basketball camps Yolanda trained at and attended on a family vacation – protected Laney from what she called “moments when she mentally tests you.”
“You will either come,” added Laney, “or be left behind.”
This is also part of the business that both Laney and Wheeler have to thank for having the strength to weather some early setbacks in their careers. It’s a common Rutgers story: an overlooked stringer sticks with it and proves herself in the league. This was the case with Chelsea Newton, who finished 22nd overall in the 2005 draft, before forming an all-rookie team and an all-defensive team two years later, as well as Tammy Sutton-Brown, who was in the draft from 2001 took 18th place and became a two-time All-Star.
But Stringer isn’t sure if a Rutgers player was born or made. She didn’t even bother to recruit Wheeler before taking a closer look at the 5-foot-7 spark plug in the scrum at an AAU tournament. Wheeler’s teammates had bowed their heads after the opposing team took a run, but Wheeler was on their faces, reminding them of what to do.
When Wheeler made her official recruiting visit to Rutgers, Stringer wanted to make sure the AAU version of Wheeler was part of the package.
“I said, ‘Can you tell the truth to the Force?'” Stringer said. ‘Because you’re going to be a newbie. As a member of this team, can you say the things you need to say? ‘”
Wheeler assured her that she could. Soon, Wheeler’s mother called Stringer while the trainer was on vacation at Walt Disney World and delivered the message for her daughter. She asked Stringer to “make her tough so she can go on the world”.
It was different for Laney, who had almost decided to play for Sherri Coale in Oklahoma instead. But one call from Stringer, Laney said, reminded her, “I know this woman. I am sure that she will take care of me, that she will be everything I need in a coach. “
Laney and Wheeler played two seasons together under Stringer. Laney knew what to expect based on her mother’s experience, but Wheeler was having a difficult adjustment period. Stringer asked Wheeler, a longtime rifle guard, to learn how to play the point in their sophomore year. Playing time was tight as she struggled with the new position. Wheeler said she was considering switching.
But both Wheeler and Laney spoke highly of Stringer’s brand intensity and their approach to helping them break down physical and mental barriers – “dismantle them to rebuild them,” Stringer would say, which means constantly questioning them to them To induce thought and action on purpose.
Stringer recalled that Wheeler had loudly objected to a rare time when Stringer was relaxed during conditioning exercises. Wheeler insisted that she and her teammates get ready. And Laney offered to switch positions from 3 to 4 simply because, as she explained to Stringer, “she was the one who could get those 10 rebounds for a game we needed.” And she did it, averaging 10.7 per game in her senior year.
Wheeler and Laney have stayed in close contact since college. The two of them texted each other during their free agent processes and connected via FaceTime after each signing a new contract. And they are there for current Rutgers players. Guard Arella Guirantes, who Stringer said should be the first choice in the 2021 draft, said she hears from Wheeler and Laney all the time.
“We like to call it a secret society,” said Guirantes. “Because we understand: you come here, you really stick to a standard. And those that we have in the league now, we always have our sisters. “
That standard led the Sparks to sign Wheeler this off-season to take on the starting point guard duties after increasing their assist percentage for three consecutive seasons. But Wheeler didn’t play in the 2020 season after learning she had Covid-19, with complications that resulted in fluid around her heart. She tested positive for the coronavirus in the spring but wasn’t able to play basketball again until October, she said.
It was Stringer’s voice in her head that reminded her that she could overcome this because she had so much else. Stringer’s voice also reverberates in Laneys head every time she gets into a defensive stance that is the result of years of practice and operates in Stringer’s famous “55” defense, in which all five players are under full pressure.
Even outside the field of play, the coach’s voice is clear in the head. Wheeler said she heard Stringer when she reached her goal of buying a home when she turned 30 last year. And she channels Stringer when her foundation, the Wheeler Kid Foundation, has another basketball clinic.
Is it just as demanding of the young players as the stringers of Rutgers players?
“No, I’m not that tough on her,” began Wheeler. But then she sounded a lot like her former coach. “I require a certain presence when you are in my camp. If you’re not ready to work or have fun, you can leave my gym. “