The rain comes down in buckets on a January night in 2014, a true Seattle driving rain, but she braves it. She doesn’t have a choice. Her Washington Huskies just beat Utah in overtime, but she doesn’t revel in the win, or in her assist that put them up by four near the end, or in the layup she banked to seal it. Two months into her freshman year, her team can’t stand her — or at least it feels that way. Her coach named her captain just before the season started because she checked off 24 of the 27 traits he wanted in a leader, but the older players resent her for it. So Kelsey Plum leaves the arena alone — she can’t find a teammate to give her a ride — and walks 2.5 miles home. The rain mixes with her tears. She thinks, This is the bottom.
THREE AND A HALF years later, Kelsey Plum rains T‑shirts on a San Antonio crowd already abuzz, with the Spurs charging toward a Game 5 win over the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2017 NBA playoffs. The shirts soar, improbably reaching the top of the AT&T Center’s lower bowl. Fans roar their approval for their town’s newest basketball phenom and her Aaron Rodgers-caliber arm.
Twelve days earlier, the San Antonio Stars had selected Plum, the NCAA’s career scoring leader in women’s basketball, No. 1 overall in the WNBA draft. So much is new to her on this introductory lap of the city — the Spurs frenzy, the Alamo, the Mexican fare at Mi Tierra — but the true novelty is this: Plum has never been an honest-to-goodness rookie before.
“I’m excited,” she says. “Excited to be the low man on the totem pole.”
Plum played 37.3 minutes a game in her first season (a school freshman record). She scored 3,527 points in her four years in Seattle (an NCAA record), 1,109 points last season alone (another NCAA record). She was a danger on every inch of the court — a beyond-the-arc sniper, a midrange artist, a killer at the rim. She averaged 31.7 points in 2016-17 — nearly six more than her closest competitor in Division I. She was not a physical marvel at 5-foot-8, but she was crafty and creative, agile and lightning quick in her release. She was fearless, to hear her tell it, which is another way to say she sought out contact, any contact. Opposing college coaches admitted to Stars GM Ruth Riley that they eventually ran out of ideas for ways to shut her down. She won the Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy, the Dawn Staley Award, the Nancy Lieberman Award and the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award in 2017, and she generally seemed to have zero interest in gently blending in until this moment.
“She’s like an alpha female,” says Brianna Ruiz, Plum’s former teammate on the Huskies.
She lives for moments like last July, when she challenged John Ross, Washington’s star wide receiver and eventual top-10 2017 NFL draft pick, to go one-on-one because “guys think they can just take girls in a game.” (“They think if they yell ‘Steph Curry’ before they shoot,” she says, “they have a better chance.”) She beat Ross 11-2. “John’s broke!” she says now with a laugh. “He. Cannot. Shoot. To. Save. His. Life.”
Six months later, with her No. 7 Huskies facing No. 10 Stanford, Plum traded in-game barbs with another Washington-area football player. “Ref! Travel!” he heckled from his courtside seat. Plum dropped her shot in, side-eyed the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Seahawks and playfully lobbed back, “Nobody traveled, Russell. Shut up.”
Now consider the bull’s-eye on your back when you’re a cocky and hyper-capable freshman named captain from day one. Imagine the way that branding can burn if other players — more experienced teammates, veterans — feel affronted by your insta-spotlight. Picture how the weight of that responsibility would mark the end of a rookie campaign.
“Low man on the totem pole” status isn’t shameful to Kelsey Plum. It’s liberating. “She’s going to be a great follower,” says her college coach, Mike Neighbors, “if that’s who she needs to be for a while.”
She might not have a choice.
Read More (via ESPN.com)