Fighting for an equal cut of what their male counterparts make for playing the same game, life for WNBA players is not all balls and no pay.
There are 12 teams in the league and 144 players, 89 of whom have signed up to play during the off-season in overseas leagues, places where salaries tend to be much higher than in the States. This year, though, players have collectively become a voice -- a voice advocating and preaching the gospel of reaping the same pay and benefits that male NBA players are accustomed to receiving.
To play in the WNBA requires strong grit, tenacity, will-power, and a relentless drive that will not just die down. It’s all heart baby, a quality that Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Sylvia Fowles possess.
Mothers, philanthropists, intellectuals, and spokeswomen are just a small glimpse of the attributes that these talented ballers bring off the court. And as such, their voices need to be amplified and their work celebrated.
The women went one-one-one with Instyle during the WNBA’s All-Star Game weekend, and the magazine captured them all together for a fashion shoot. Stunningly, it was a first in the league’s 22-year history -- before now no one had been diligent enough to set one up, citing (“we’ve always been told that magazine editors wouldn’t be able to pull clothes in their sizes,” one agent mentioned on set.)
Brittney Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury, is a power player with a wingspan of more than 7 feet, and she stands at 6-foot-9. The five-time WNBA All-Star leads the league in blocks and dunks. During the fall months, Griner will play for the U.S. National Team and then head to Russia for seven months to play with UMMC Ekaterinburg. There is one good thing about playing overseas that Griner can’t deny. Unlike her super-star status in Phoenix, when she travels, Griner is able to roam a bit more freely. “I love how people come up and take pictures, but when I go overseas, I actually feel normal.” Off-court, the gentle giant is planning to marry the love of her life, girlfriend Cherelle, to whom she recently got engaged.
Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith averages 18 points and six assists per game, and the popular player willed her team to three Final Fours. Diggins-Smith is the first female athlete signed to Roc Nation Sports, which is owned by Jay-Z.
“We just talked for 20 minutes,” she said. “He was the most down-to-earth guy ever … it didn’t take a lot. He didn’t have to convince me. Everything he touches turns to gold and it was a lot of talk about Roc Nation and him joining the sports agency sector.
“Like I said how do you say no to that?”
In building her brand, Diggins-Smith has acquired endorsement deals with Sprint, Zappos, Body Armour and Nike, the latter of which includes her own headband line. She also became a Puma spokeswoman, the first basketball player to do so since Vince Carter in 1998. With all that she has going on, including speaking engagements and the traveling kids’ basketball camps that she runs, Diggins-Smith is able to stay close to home with her husband, friends and family.
“I understand how I’m blessed just to have this opportunity,” Diggins-Smith says. “I’ll play as long as I love it, but I also understand that my impact in the game will go beyond my actually being on the floor. MY ability to connect with people through the game of basketball will be something I expect to take advantage of for the rest of my life.”
Here we have center Sylvia “Big Syl” Fowles for the Minnesota Lynx, who was 2018’s defensive player of the year. She stands picturesque at 6’6 and carries 220 pounds of pure power and force. The two-time WNBA MVP won her second honor in 2017, when she also helped her team win its fourth title.
With a ball in her hand, Fowles is a force to be reckoned with, but off-court, she is a soft-spoken intellectual who loves to read poetry and listen to jazz; she is also studying to be a mortician. At 33, she is a veteran among her peers, but she still gives younger players a run for their money.
“My first five years I had injuries back-to-back, and it made me dislike the game a litte. To be in the place I am now and the age I am now, I feel like I’m making up for lost time.”
In 2017, Louisiana State University retired the three-time Olympic gold medalist’s jersey, making her just the 12th athlete or coach to be so honored by the school. Fowles, who was inducted into the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015, was a two-time All-American center for the Lady Tigers, and she led LSU to four consecutive Final Four appearances from 2005 through 2008.
“I’ve always been a vocal person, so to have those issues recognized by LeBron [James] was huge,” says A’ja Wilson, the Los Vegas Aces power forward who entered the league as its most dominant player in decades. A newbie that dominated on the court, Wilson became an All-Star -- the only rookie chosen for the W.N.B.A. All-Star Game -- and she was unanimously voted the Rookie of the Year. Her impressive start into the league inspired her alma mater, South Carolina, to create a statue of their former Gamecocks star outside Colonial Life Arena.
The WNBA’s No. 1 draft says she was surprised when the University of South Carolina announced it will build a statue in her honor.
“I thought graduating was exciting enough, but this really caught me off guard,” Wilson said.
Wilson struggled with dyslexia and was officially diagnosed during her sophomore year of high school. Now, she advocates for people with dyslexia through her namesake foundation, launching efforts to bring awareness and create solutions for others who are also going through experiences similar to hers.
Get to know Skylar Diggins off the court - Rapid Fire Question & Answers
The interviews originally appeared in Instyle Magazine.