Erica Wheeler still vividly remembers that Rutgers C. coach Vivian Stringer, who was standing at the Wheelers house, told Wheeler’s mother that it would happen if her daughter came to play.
“She told my mom, ‘She’s not just going to be a basketball player,'” Wheeler recalled of a conversation between Stringer and Wheeler’s mother, Melissa Cooper, who died in 2012. ” She will know how to speak in front of the cameras, she will know etiquette, she will know how to cope and she will be a young woman when she finishes college. “
Wheeler, who turns 30 in May, struggled to become the woman Stringer promised Cooper would be. She showed toughness that took her on a professional journey to 14 teams overseas after not being selected in the WNBA Draft, to regular playing time with Indiana Fever and now a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Sparks.
A parallel story unfolded in the life of Betney Laney, 27, in her case the second generation of Stringer players. Laney’s mother, Yolanda Laney, took Stringer’s Cheyney State program to a pair of Final Fours, playing at a level Stringer said would have been her best choice in the WNBA Draft had the league existed when she graduated.
Instead, Yolanda became a lawyer and poured her basketball knowledge into Betniah, who met Stringer as a second mother and decided to play for her as well, at Rutgers. Betnijah Laney, like Wheeler, fought for a foothold in the WNBA, was cut twice before she flourished with the Atlanta Dream in 2020 and won the Best Player of the League award. This offseason, she has signed a multi-year contract with Liberty and is expected to take on a key role for the revamped team, which includes goalkeeper Sabrina Ionescu and newly acquired center Natasha Howard.
This is not to say that Laney’s knowledge of Stringer – from the basketball camps where Yolanda trained and visits during family vacations – protected Laney from what she described as “moments in which she mentally tests you”.
“Either you come with us,” Laney added, “or come back.”
And that’s part of the deal, the one Laney and Wheeler attribute because it gave them the strength to persevere through some early failures in their professional lives. It’s a common story about Rutgers: The overlooked player Stringer stays and proves himself in the league. Such was the case for Chelsea Newton, who was selected in 22nd place in the 2005 draft before becoming an all-rookie team, and two years later in the defense team, and for Tammy Sutton-Brown, who was in the 2001 draft. .selected 18th and became a double All-Star.
But Stringer isn’t sure if the Rutgers player was born or created. She didn’t even set out to recruit Wheeler, before taking a close look at the 5-foot 7 spark plug in the crowd at the AAU tournament. Wheeler’s teammates had their heads down after the opposing team ran away, but Wheeler was in their face reminding them of what they could do.
When Wheeler was on an official visit to Rutgers, Stringer wanted to make sure the AAU version of Wheeler would be part of the package.
“I said,‘ Can you tell the truth to the authorities? ’” Stringer said. “Because you’re going to be a freshman. Can you say what you need to say as a member of this team? ‘
Wheeler assured her he could. Soon Wheeler’s mother called Stringer while the coach was on vacation at Walt Disney World and delivered news for her daughter, asking Stringer to “make her tough, so she could save the world.”
It was different for Laney, who all decided to play for Sherri Coale in Oklahoma. But Stringer’s phone call, Laney said, reminded her, “I know this woman. I’m sure she’ll take care of me, that she’ll be everything I need in a coach. “
Laney and Wheeler played together for two seasons under Stringer. Laney knew what to expect from her mother’s experience, but Wheeler had a difficult period of adjustment. Stringer asked Wheeler, a longtime shooting guard, to learn to play the point in her sophomore year. There was little time to play as she struggled with the new position. Wheeler said she was considering a transfer.
But both Wheeler and Laney boasted the strength of Stringer’s trademark and her approach to helping them overcome physical and mental barriers – “breaking down to build them,” Stringer would say, meaning he constantly interrogates them to make them think and action with purpose.
Stringer recalled that Wheeler loudly objected to the rare instances when Stringer was light during exercise conditioning. Wheeler insisted that she and her teammates finish. 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 in the game we needed.” And it did, averaging 10.7 per game in the senior year.
Wheeler and Laney have remained in close contact since college, while the two of them sent messages, encouraging each other during their free agent processes, and connected via FaceTime after each signed a new contract. And there they are for current Rutgers players. Guardian Arella Guirantes, who Stringer said should be the best pick in the 2021 draft, said she is constantly heard from Wheeler and Laney.
“We like to call it a secret society,” Guirantes said. “Because we understand: you come here, you really stick to the standard. And those who are in the league now, we always have our sisters. “
That standard led to Sparks signing Wheeler this season to take over as starting point keeper, after increasing her assist percentage for three consecutive seasons. But Wheeler didn’t play in the 2020 season after learning she had Covid-19, with complications that led to fluid around her heart. She tested positive for coronavirus in the spring, but was not allowed to continue playing basketball, she said, until October.
Stringer’s voice in her head reminded her that this could prevail like much else. Stringer’s voice, too, echoes in Laney’s head every time he enters a defensive stance, the fruit of years of practice and action in Stringer’s famous “55” defense, where all five players are engaged under pressure on the full field.
Their coaching voice is clear off the field. Wheeler said she could hear Stringer when she achieved her goal of buying a house by the age of 30 last year. And she channels Stringer whenever her foundation, the Wheeler Kid Foundation, runs another basketball clinic.
Is she as demanding of the young players as Stringer is of the Rutgers players?
“No, I’m not that strict with them,” Wheeler began. But then she sounded awful like her former coach. “I require a certain presence when you are in my camp. When you’re not willing to work out or want to joke, you can get out of my gym. “