Going back, can you talk about the time you first got the error, when you first realized you were really good at the game and really liked it?
I first started playing because I have an older brother – three years older – and in fact, whatever sport he plays, I just wanted to do it too, and be able to play with him and his friends. I managed to keep to myself. And then, the moment I knew I was really good was when I started playing AAU basketball and traveling. I mean, at travel ball our team was good, and I was good on the team, but going to the Nationals and then seeing all the 10-year-olds all over the country and feeling like I was one of the best was a bit shocking, I think, For both me and my family.
Also, basketball helped me feel more comfortable in my body because it was the only place where I felt that my height was a good thing. I was definitely always much taller than the boys and girls in my class. And when I was young it was really hard. You’re dealing with some mean comments from kids. Feeling different isn’t always the best thing as a kid. I don’t know exactly when I got to 6-5, but in high school I was definitely in the 6-foot range. So when I got to the basketball court, it was like, “Oh my God, that height is a good thing, actually — and there are other people who are really tall.” So I think I find not only love in basketball but also comfort in it, where I can really be myself and be celebrated for being different.
You’ve talked about the importance of being visible – whether it’s showing up as an athlete or seeing the difference.
I think it’s huge to have a bunch of different archetypes that kids can be able to look up and maybe connect with something they’re feeling. As a kid, I was obsessed with Cheryl Swoops and Michael Jordan, being two of the greatest players who have ever played the game. But I was also confused about my sexual orientation for a while, too. I never had models like myself that I could really look up to, and there were no books or commercials or any of that featuring gay couples. It wasn’t there when I was younger. So it was a very confusing feeling trying to figure out, “Is something wrong with me? What is this? Do I need to push this aside? This is not good.”
For me, being tall and gay and being athletic, all of those things, it’s very important to have a more diverse view of role models. I actually didn’t feel that comfortable until college when I could just go and be myself and start exploring. And then when I got to the WNBA, I was like, “Oh my God, this is the most unbelievably accepted league I’ve ever seen!” I felt very safe and comfortable in this league, in the W and not only with the players that came out, but also with the fans and how that pride was celebrated. It was something I had never experienced before.
You have to hear from fans all the time. Do you have stories that stay with you?
I have a lot of fans out there LGBTQ+ . community who thanked me for just being open on social media about my marriage and my love for my wife Amanda. I’ve had my parents say, like, “Because you showed your love to Amanda, it really helped me figure out how to go about my kid coming out to me.” I love hearing it. Unfortunately, I feel like with human nature, you just have to see more things, yourself, to understand it, so I think it’s very important to show our lives and our love for each other to be celebrated. Hopefully it helps others to understand or others who are just struggling to be comfortable with who they are.
Are you also getting a negative reaction?
A long time ago, I decided not to read all the comments and not get caught up in it because social media can be a great tool where you can connect with people and share your life and story, but it can also be negative and painful. Because people get that powerful sound when they can hide behind a curtain. So I’m sure, yes, I did get some pretty tough comments here and there, but I try not to pay attention to them. And the love I receive from fans is so much more than just a couple trolls here and there.
It reminds me a bit of when you were transferring to UConn as the number one recruit out of high school and then decided [the first week of summer training] Coming home for family reasons – having to make that decision as an 18-year-old, and make it public, with people you don’t even know comment and criticize.
That was really hard, especially because I was younger, and I didn’t really develop rough skin, so to speak, for not paying attention to what people were saying about me. But luckily my parents, and especially my mom, kind of protected me from that when I made the decision to go home and do something else.
People will say what they want to say, but it was the greatest decision I could ever make, and it happened my way the way it was supposed to. And I ended up where I belong and back on this basketball journey. But I needed to take this huge step in order to find who I was outside of basketball: Who was Elena? I’ve always identified myself as Elena a basketball player and used that to protect me from other things in life. You can never be just one thing. I realized the importance of ways to not get tired and develop other interests off the field and be multifaceted. So it was essential for me to explore all of that, especially at that point in my life.
You’ve spoken about the impact of your older sister, Lizzie, who is blind and deaf, has cerebral palsy and autism, and called her the bravest person you know.
yes. I mean, you’ve taught me more than anyone in my life. She cannot speak. So it takes into account how well she can communicate. I think the most important thing for me is just seeing the things doctors have said over the years about what you can’t do: She can’t do this, she can’t do that. then blew up [past] their expectations and they did so much more. At a young age they told my parents that she wouldn’t be able to lift her head, let alone walk, she wouldn’t have the strength to do so. And she not only raised her head, but still walked. She is very strong, even having had more than 30 surgeries in her life. And a lot of times they would say, “Oh, it’s going to be a three-month recovery.” And within two weeks: Bum is back to normal. You taught me a lot about not allowing self-pity and all of those things to influence you from achieving what you can truly do. We are more capable than we understand. Too often we get stuck in these expectations that are placed upon us. And I learned from Lizzie to break those barriers. And create your own way.
You’re now, I think, 10 WNBA players in a special shoe.
I think there are now only three active players with them right now: me, Stewie [Breanna Stewart] I think, Candice Parker. Again, vision and women’s sports, I think signature footwear is a big part of that. I hope this closes the door open for many players in the league. I feel like this is a huge next step to show that these huge companies believe in us, and put the money behind them to develop these shoes, market these shoes, and get them to be there. We hope that this will make other companies join the league and continue to invest. More brands are jumping on board and investing, although clearly more is needed. But I think the league has grown a lot and the vision has been much better. You’re watching more of our games now on TV.
I even noticed I was outside and that way more people would notice me and stop me and ask about mystics. I’m like, “That’s a great sign.” Because before I was very undercover. My height gives me way off here and there, but I feel like there are a lot of people who know about our league who are supportive and watching because it’s available.
You’ve talked about the fact that 50 percent of girls quit sports during puberty. How do you think about why this is happening and what can be done to change it?
A big reason for that is just to feel helpless, “Okay, where is this going to take me? I don’t see professional sports. I don’t see the benefits of dedicating my time to this.” Another big reason is also period poverty, not being able to access the products they need to stay competitive when they are menstruating, and then also the lack of trainers there as well. So I think there are a lot of different variables that go into that. So we have to spend in grassroots programs that support young athletes. Because even if you don’t go on to become a professional athlete, sport develops people, develops leadership skills, how to work with a team, how to motivate and try to achieve a goal, or even how to deal with loss.
Speaking of the league and gender equality, you said that men come to you and just assume they can beat you at basketball because you’re a woman. How often does that happen? And what is your reaction?
A fair amount happens. We’ll be at the airport or something, and it’ll be like, “Hey, do you want to go one-on-one?” It’s just annoying. It’s funny because the NBA players respect our game so much, and they respect our level of play so much. So when you see a high school come to you like, “Yeah, I can beat you one-on-one.” It’s like, “Okay, let’s not do this.” But she waned during my time in the league, and I hope it’s because of opportunities to watch us and express like, “Yeah. No, I couldn’t beat her on a one-on-one.” or “I couldn’t stand a chance on this team.”
I have been outspoken in urging the Biden administration to find a way to bring a WNBA player home Britney Greiner. How was her ordeal reflected in the WNBA? And what is thinking about how management values it, and how much of that relates to the issue of gender?
It was sad to see this happen to such a kind, wonderful and tender person. BG, if you meet her, she changes you because of how sweet and caring she is. The first thing she always asks me is, “How’s Lizzie doing?” To go through this and for so long now, it’s hard to even wrap your head around it.
I think the part that was really frustrating for all of us in the league was knowing that management waited so long to meet Britney’s wife. Like, why does that have to take so long? That was worrying for me if you can’t even come to this meeting, what do you do to get her home? As a group, we were just trying our best to keep talking about Britney, and hopefully give her some hope that we’re trying everything we can do to get her home. But I hope something will happen and she will finally come home and be with her family.
If you could point to one thing you learned, advice to live by, what would you say?
I guess I’d just say run your own race. I think sometimes we get caught up in what other people think we should do, or we get caught up in judging or comparing what other people are doing. The bottom line is, you just have to run your own race and do what’s best for you. And you are the only one who can direct that. Guide it and know it.