There were three games scheduled Friday night to tip off the 2020 WNBA season. Bella Alarie, Erica Ogwumike and Mikayla Pivec could have been making their professional debuts in them.
Instead, with games postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis, the WNBA rookies are busying themselves with activities far removed from the court. This group of draftees is in a unique position. They know they will get a shot at making a regular season roster, one of the toughest sports to do it in. But they don’t know when that journey will begin or what it will look like.
“All that excitement builds around the draft, then you have this period where you’re just training and treating every day like you might go to training camp tomorrow,” Alarie, the Dallas Wings fifth overall pick, told Yahoo Sports from her family home in Maryland. “That’s kind of the mindset I want to have because I have no idea what’s going to happen. You just kind of have to stay ready.”
They’re also able to soak up time with family they wouldn’t get otherwise, especially if they make a WNBA team and subsidize their pay overseas in the offseason.
The three draft picks spoke with Yahoo Sports ahead of the first virtual draft in modern history and again this week to see what life is like in limbo.
Welcome to the group chat
Training camp should have come and gone by now with final cuts made to trim rosters to 12. Instead, teams are trying to keep their players engaged with Zoom chats that cover some semblance of team building and the playbook. Strength and conditioning coaches are available as are resources for nutrition. The Atlanta Dream, who took Pivec at No. 25, brought on a sports psychologist who told players it was good to look at the silver linings — but it’s also good to acknowledge it’s tough.
There are some rookies fortunate enough to know their new teammates. Wings draftees Alarie and Tyasha Harris of South Carolina played together at the 2019 Pan American games in Peru. Dream picks Pivec, Chennedy Carter (Texas A&M) and Brittany Brewer (Texas Tech) were also on the silver-medal winning team. Pivec and Brewer were roommates at camp in Colorado Springs and have talked about places to visit once in Atlanta.
“Those shared experiences help you get closer and I know we have our fair share of inside jokes that we can share when we’re back together,” said Pivec, who heard from fellow Pac-12 Dream talents Monique Billings (UCLA) and Maite Cazoria (Oregon) on draft night.
Ogwumike found it awkward introducing herself on the group chat, but necessary. The younger sister of Los Angeles Sparks stars Nneka and Chiney, she already knows most of her Lynx teammates. That she’s already a “little sister” to Sylvia Fowles helped ease the rookie in.
“She’s a leader [and] captain on the team,” she said. “I think knowing that she’s pretty close to my sisters allowed me to feel at home and still comfortable when I got drafted to the Lynx. It didn’t feel extremely foreign because I knew her.”
‘Nerve-wracking’ waiting out start to season
All three are in areas that have or are beginning to open back up. But they are all taking the virus seriously and have largely remained at home without much basketball-specific training. Alarie gets in work on her backyard quarter-court, Ogwumike works on her form on a hoop in her small Houston driveway and Pivec has been able to use an Idaho gym closed to the public.
“I’ve kind of gotten used to it, being outside and playing,” said Alarie, who finished her degree at Princeton. “It is like my safe space during this time and I really enjoy being out there.”
Ogwumike told Yahoo Sports before the draft it was potentially good to mentally take a step back from the game. But now it’s been a month and there’s the tease virtual team teaching sessions provide.
“It’s a bit more nerve-wracking because we should have been in training camp already by now,” she said. “It’d be nice to be able to work out on a court [since] we’re about to jump right in. I’m not doubting my skills in any way, but there’s confidence in preparation.”
Alarie is keeping to structure and routine and preparing as if training camp will start tomorrow, whenever that tomorrow is. Pivec, a planner by nature, is learning to shift her focus.
“I think the initial couple of weeks after the draft I was more, ‘OK, what’s coming, what’s coming?’ And then as a couple more weeks passed I was like, ‘OK, you kind of just have to shift your mindset and adapt,’” she said. “It doesn’t do you any good to worry about when it’s coming or [that] you can only prepare so much. You can’t worry about when the timeline is actually going to be there.”
Preparing for life with cooking, projects, hobbies
In their spare time, just as with most of the nation, they’re finding hobbies. Ogwumike continues to upload videos to her YouTube page as a way to store memories for herself. She is learning the basics of cooking from Nneka, making Moroccan black bean burgers from scratch, though she’s not about to share photos of her baking progress. She’s reading more, recommending “I’ll Teach You to be Rich” but unsure her other non-fiction choices would be well-received. Then there’s a new routine.
“[I’m] trying to make myself floss every single night, which is terrible,” she said. “I don’t know how people do that.”
Ogwumike is done with classes at Rice University and finalized her medical school choice, but is focused first on competing for a Lynx roster spot.
“I’ve been really open and transparent with the medical school [and] they’ve been super supportive,” she said. “I don’t really think the deadline is going to clash. They know that I’ve worked really hard to get into med school so they’re happy, they gave me an acceptance and now they know I’m going to work hard to make the team. And from there I’ll make the decision.”
Pivec is also cooking, working on perfecting Asian foods, slow cooker ideas and even sharing a DIY California rolls recipe for the “QuaranDream” cookbook. She’s been able to stay involved with her Oregon church now that it’s virtual. She had already split her final required Oregon State classes over spring and summer quarters, thinking she’d be busy at training camp. So she added Spanish and “Innovation for Social Impact” to take advantage of her scholarship.
“My Spanish skills and cooking skills were subpar, but now they’re not bad,” she said from Idaho, where she’s staying with her sister and family friends.
Alarie, who celebrated her 22nd birthday in quarantine and has a full video chat schedule, is working on arts and crafts. She painted an old beat up pair of Air Force sneakers and competed in a family powerpoint competition of random topics. Her father Mark, a first-round NBA draft pick out of Duke, did his on “tall people are better.”
When will the WNBA start up?
The WNBA has not shared plans on when it will hold its season, if it does. The original schedule ended in October with a break for the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to next year. All three rookies, who began receiving health benefits May 1, said the league has been very good at communicating, but there’s little news to share. Engelbert hasn’t taken any scenario off the table. Right now there’s little clarity for any sports league.
Ogwumike said she’s anxious about it, but knows the WNBA Players Association — led by Nneka and with Chiney on board — will make good decisions. (They haven’t given her any insider information, she said.)
In the larger sense of things, though, all three said they are fortunate and recognize their situations are still better than many people right now. They have parents to help and eventually basketball will be back. It’s just a waiting game.
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