Whenever a W.N.B.A. team steps on the floor during the 2020 season, Angel McCoughtry’s influence is there.
Each player wears Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of her jersey, an idea that came from McCoughtry. Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot and killed by the police while asleep in her bed in Louisville, Ky.
“It’s a lot deeper than just the jersey,” said McCoughtry, who played basketball at the University of Louisville. “But I think that’s a great start.”
McCoughtry’s activism carries weight in part because of her stature as one of the W.N.B.A.’s premier players for more than a decade. She is a five-time All-Star, two-time scoring champion, seven-time all-defensive performer and two-time Olympian. This season, the 33-year-old is reinventing herself on a new team, two years removed from major knee surgery. She is now the savvy veteran for the ultra-talented Las Vegas Aces, who are vying for a championship inside the league’s bubble in Bradenton, Fla.
On Friday, after the W.N.B.A. postponed two days of games as players joined N.B.A. players in protesting racism and police brutality, McCoughtry expressed pride in the W.N.B.A. players’ unity.
On a video conference with reporters, she said that change did not happen overnight, “but we continue to fight because it will happen.” But she also called the past few days “draining,” and added, “You guys should be drained, as well, watching this stuff and seeing this stuff over and over.”
“As an American, us as people, I’m tired of living in the most racist country in the world,” McCoughtry said. “Who wants to live in a world like that?”
McCoughtry was joined on the video conference by her Aces teammate A’ja Wilson. They are a powerful pair on the court as well; McCoughtry is the Aces’ second-leading scorer behind the All-Star Wilson, unleashing efficient-yet-explosive play on both ends of the court. McCoughtry wonders why outsiders are surprised by her successful comeback.
“What was I supposed to look like?” she said. “In my mind, all my tools were already still there. Your skills don’t leave because you have a bump in the road or because you have a knee injury.
“I’ve been through a lot, but none of that distracts me from my game.”
A few months ago, McCoughtry was still walking with a slight limp and still struggling to run, jump and move laterally while playing overseas in Russia.
She initially tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in her left knee in an August 2018 game against, coincidentally, Las Vegas. Moriah Jefferson, then an Aces guard, dived for the ball off a rebound and inadvertently collided with McCoughtry’s leg. It was McCoughtry’s first serious injury.
After missing the 2019 season, she called her doctor from Russia and was assured that her recovery was on track. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit just as she felt she was back to “smooth sailing” physically, sending her home to trade game action for park workouts as a means of strengthening her leg. “Maybe this is a blessing in disguise,” she said she thought then.
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It was a fraught time: McCoughtry was preparing to play for a new W.N.B.A. team for the first time after a decade with the Atlanta Dream. As the league’s wild free-agency period began last winter, McCoughtry said she felt “pushed out” by Atlanta. She said she had to get past the initial shock that she would not finish her career with the franchise she helped lead to three W.N.B.A. finals.
Then, she made a list of priorities for her next destination: championship contender, great coach and on-court fit.
Las Vegas Coach Bill Laimbeer made his pitch to McCoughtry over dinner in Louisville. He candidly shared that the Aces would continue to be anchored by Wilson, the third-year forward who is already one of the league’s biggest stars and a front-runner for the Most Valuable Player Award this year. But Las Vegas needed a seasoned small forward who could create her own shot — and help a young group make a deep playoff run.
“They’re hungry to get there. They want it,” McCoughtry said she thought at the time. “And I’m going to add some veteran leadership. It’s like, ‘This is the perfect place for me to be.’”
Laimbeer’s bluntness has not wavered since that first meeting, a quality McCoughtry said she had always “craved” in a coach. She said Laimbeer’s direct style most reminded her of Jeff Walz, her college coach at Louisville, and the legendary Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, whom McCoughtry has played for with Team U.S.A.
“When she’s not engaged at the mental level or the physical level I think she should be, I will tell her in front of everybody else,” Laimbeer said.
Yet Laimbeer is also quick to praise.
The coach said McCoughtry was striking the right balance between imparting knowledge without being overbearing. She has taken a particular mentoring interest in Jackie Young, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2019, who plays the same position and is a spark off the Aces’ bench.
“As soon as she got here, she’s really just been someone that I can count on to just talk to,” Young said. “Somebody that motivates me. Somebody that’s just been in the league for a really long time and understands the game. So any time I have any questions or if I’m getting down or just whatever it is, she’s just always there to help me.”
McCoughtry’s off-court approach with teammates is translating to games. Laimbeer compared it with last year when the Aces acquired Liz Cambage, whom he said once had a reputation, like McCoughtry, as someone who too often took over games in a way that was detrimental to the team. Both have changed minds with their play in Las Vegas, he said.
With Las Vegas, McCoughtry is putting up the best shooting numbers of her career from the field and 3-point distance. She is still capable of swiping a steal on one end and dashing the other way for a transition layup, enhancing the Aces’ focus on consistently attacking the basket. Laimbeer’s choice to play McCoughtry in deliberate four- and five-minute bursts gives her the freedom to play relentlessly, and helps keep her knee healthy and her body fresh.
Yet the first thing Laimbeer mentioned when asked what has most surprised him about McCoughtry’s game is that “she makes the best vision passes of anybody we have — by far.”
“Before I got her, I just thought she was an overwhelming talent,” Laimbeer said. “But the way she sees the game and the game goes so slowly for her — which is a compliment — that’s what I didn’t know.”
But before McCoughtry was wowing the W.N.B.A. with her veteran game this season, she was having a social impact on the league. It began with a mid-July photo of her holding up an Aces jersey with Taylor’s name printed under hers. Shortly after, the W.N.B.A.’s players’ union helped organize a video conference with more than 100 participants and Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, which McCoughtry called “emotional” and “inspiring.”
McCoughtry hopes that, once it is safe to gather at sporting events again, she can invite Palmer to an Aces game.
“It’s just really an honor that our ideas are in the forefront,” McCoughtry said. “People are listening to us and they’re coming to fruition. With this jersey idea, I feel like this is just the beginning.”
The Aces will be even more star-studded in 2021, when Cambage returns after opting out of this season and Kelsey Plum, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, is expected to be healthy after tearing her Achilles’ tendon. Laimbeer was transparent that, given McCoughtry’s age and the Aces’ salary-cap future, she is a shorter-term answer for the win-now franchise. It’s the perfect comeback stage for one of the league’s best.
“I feel like I’m in the right place,” McCoughtry said.