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Angel McCoughtry Brings Her Story to Life

McCoughtry is an executive producer and one of three stars of the WNBA’s short film, “We Are the W.” Boardroom caught up with her to delve into her legendary basketball career and multidimensional platform.

The Atlanta Dream own the No. 1 overall pick in 2022 WNBA Draft on Monday night. The last time the Dream selected in the No. 1 slot was 2009, and that April night, the franchise took Angel McCoughtry out of Louisville.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve told myself, ‘Relax. You’re gonna go through some ups and downs here, but you’re going to be the best player to ever wear an Atlanta Dream uniform. There will be no one else like you,'” McCoughtry told Boardroom.

The five-time WNBA All-Star is particularly reflective lately. At 35, she is preparing for her second comeback from an ACL tear — this one cost her all of the 2021 season, her second and final with the Las Vegas Aces. She signed with the Minnesota Lynx in February with visions of WNBA MVP honors and championship glory that has eluded her so far.

“The milestones never stop,” she said, “no matter what age you become.”

McCoughtry’s proverbial shelf of achievements is stacked and on full display in “We Are the W,” the WNBA’s first-ever short film debuting around the tip of the 2022 season, May 6. McCoughtry is also credited as an executive producer.

Across 23 minutes, viewers receive a more intimate glimpse into the basketball journeys of McCoughtry, New York Liberty reigning All-Rookie selection DiDi Richards, and Dallas Wings forward Izzy Harrison.

But the first face seen, the first voice heard, is McCoughtry’s. The opening minutes chronicle the two-time Olympic gold medalist’s upbringing in Baltimore, collegiate years at Louisville, and professional career to this point. She offers insight into the identity issues she endured during her first recovery from a knee injury in 2018, and how Louisville head coach Jeff Walz’s lessons about being a good teammate pervade the humanitarian work she does through McCoughtry’s Mission.

“I love bringing stories to life,” McCoughtry explained, specifically citing her interest in music and film. “When I got the call, if I would be interested, I said absolutely because I just feel like our stories are not told so much. People know we play basketball. They might know who Sue Bird or Diana [Taurasi] is, but they don’t know who we are, really.

“What are our stories? Our backgrounds? Where do we come from? They know nothing about that. We know LeBron is from Cleveland, and he grew up this way β€” all the backstories β€” but nobody knows really our backstory.”

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Balling in Baltimore

As a girl, McCoughtry used to get in trouble for not making it home before the streetlights flickered.

Most days, she was the only girl on a basketball court filled with boys. She wasn’t intimidated. She was inspired β€” so much so that she didn’t want to stop playing once the afternoon gave way to dusk. From a young age, she understood that she was going to be treated differently from the boys on the court β€” and in life β€” because of her protective father.

“Dad, I was just at the basketball courts,” McCoughtry would tell him when she’d get home late, met by his disapproval.

“You’re a girl,” he’d say. “You gotta come home early, before it gets dark.”

“What do you mean? The boys don’t.”

“I didn’t understand that,” McCoughtry recalled. “All I heard was boys get to stay longer and girls can’t. Me and dad, we were getting into fights about that. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that my dad did that. We know in this world, in certain instances, a young woman shouldn’t be out late. She should probably be home early. But to me, everything should be equal.”

McCoughtry’s father, Roi, was a pastor. When she was 16 years old, she begged him to let her compete in the church basketball league. He told her no because it was for the boys, and there was a rule against girls joining.

“Can I at least practice?” she asked him.

He relented.

“And I killed the guys in practice!” she said, reminiscing with pride. “I think that’s the first time my dad realized how good I was. You just keep competing, and you keep working. The main thing in life is consistency. I showed my dad I was better than all those guys he had on that church team.”

McCoughtry mastered the delicate balance between developing the necessary thick skin to thrive in athletics and letting the unfair circumstances tarnish her love for the game.

When the WNBA debuted in 1997, McCoughtry was thrilled to see women who looked like her. To see proof of what she had always believed. In “We Are the W,” she narrates that she no longer felt ashamed about being taller or having bigger feet.

McCoughtry appeared to be well on her way to becoming one of the women playing on television when she signed with St. John’s out of Baltimore’s St. Francis High School. She had dreams of New York and Big East competition, but it all came crashing down when she couldn’t score high enough on the SAT to obtain freshman eligibility.

“I didn’t graduate,” she says in the doc. “I’m embarrassed to tell you my SAT score. I had to figure out another path.”

The same way she found a door into her dad’s church league, she enrolled for one year at Patterson School in Lenoir, North Carolina, to set herself up for recruitment again. It was a grueling experience, away from her family and stranded in an unfamiliar place. But it paid off when she landed at Louisville.

McCoughtry became the face of a then-burgeoning Cardinals women’s basketball program. She built the foundation for the powerhouse it is today, leading Louisville to its first women’s NCAA championship game in 2009.

McCoughtry was named an All-American and Big East Player of the Year as a sophomore, and by the time she left for the WNBA, she was the school’s all-time leader in career points (2,779), rebounds (1,261), and steals (481). In 2010, the program retired her No. 35 jersey, making her the first women’s basketball player at the university to have her number hang from the rafters.

12 years later, she has also secured WNBA immortality and is hungry for more.

Obstacles and Opportunity

McCoughtry’s transition to the WNBA was seamless.

She was named Rookie of the Year after leading her draft class in points and steals. Her individual dominance was paired with team success, as the Dream appeared in the WNBA Finals three times during McCoughtry’s 10 seasons in Atlanta.

The Dream lost to the Lynx two of those times, in 2011 and ’13. It was devastating then, but it’s poetic now that she will chase her first ring with the Lynx.

“During free agency, I actually thought I would’ve came back to Atlanta β€”where it all started β€” but it didn’t work out the way,” McCoughtry said of her decision to sign with Minnesota in February. “They weren’t really as interested as I thought. That’s the part of the story where it’s, Who still believes in me? [Lynx head coach] Cheryl [Reeve] said something that really raised my confidence. She said, ‘Angel on one leg is still better than a lot of players.’ This is the coach that I need to be with in my comeback. They have the best facilities coming back from an injury. I get to play with Sylvia [Fowles] for her last year and make history. It was a no-brainer.”

McCoughtry is determined, but she isn’t single-minded. Not anymore. She wants to be a WNBA champion, but she doesn’t need a trophy to feel good about herself.

Her first ACL tear in 2018 forced her to reckon with how much of her identity was wrapped up in basketball.

“The first injury taught me that [basketball] is what you love to do, but it’s not your whole identity,” she said. “That’s when I started figuring out, what else do I like to do? I like doing music. Let’s get in the studio and record. I love doing films. Let me learn about the camera. I’m able to do this documentary and get an executive producer credit. Blessings come out of every lesson. If I would’ve kept going, I don’t think I’d be as far as I am now because I would just be blurred by playing so much.”

In the documentary, McCoughtry is positioned as “The Legend.” And she undoubtedly is one, but she is inexplicably still treated by some as an unknown β€” despite her on-court accolades, partnerships with Adidas or Honey Stinger, and broadcast work with ESPN and PlayersTV.

Do you ever get tired of still having to rattle off your credentials by this point in your career?

“I enjoy the journey of overcoming it,” McCoughtry said. “It can be annoying at times. You work so hard, you give your all, and then it’s like, where are the stories being told? This is why it’s important to tell our story. It’s time for women to be out there. If people know who we are, they’ll come to the games. Every time I meet someone, they want to come watch because they know who I am now.”

The women’s NCAA Tournament wrapped last weekend with the most-watched women’s national championship game since 2004 with 4.85 million viewers, according to ESPN. That is an 18% year-over-year increase and 30% increase from 2019.

“We haven’t even reached our peak,” McCoughtry added, speaking of the evolution of the WNBA and women’s basketball overall. “I told people, 10 years from now, you’re gonna see more women dunking than ever before. You’re gonna see the first girl get her first $1 million dollar contract. I wish I could find those interviews. I have to dig them up from years ago because sometimes when the women say things, it just doesn’t get out.

“I’m proud of the evolution that when women speak out and say things, it’s heard.”

That can be felt in how the WNBA has led the charge in social justice initiatives across sports. McCoughtry has been a driving force. It was her idea to print Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of each player’s jersey for the 2020 season after the 26-year-old Black woman was senselessly shot and killed by police in her Louisville home that March.

“I kept hearing people say, ‘Let’s stop playing. Let’s not play. Let’s forfeit the season,'” McCoughtry said. “I’m like, ‘Well, you didn’t forfeit the NBA season.’ Racism didn’t start 10 years ago, but now we have the voice to continue to speak even while we play. Of course the NBA hopped on it, which I’m glad they did, but that goes to show that our ideas are meaningful. Where’s the woman’s credit when we say things? Obviously somebody’s hearing what we’re saying, whether they take the idea or not.”

McCoughtry isn’t ready quite yet to leave the W behind, though she will be proud to leave it in the next generation’s capable hands once that time comes. She isn’t waiting for retirement to also make a reverberating impact away from the floor.

Angel, the Creator

McCoughtry’s resiliency in basketball has instilled in her a fearless approach when it comes to her creative pursuits.

On May 1, McCoughtry will release the single “Reaching for the Stars” from her forthcoming album New Hope. The project will be accompanied by an original NFT drop.

“If you really want stuff to be successful, you gotta put your heart into everything,” she said. “It has to be you. It has to symbolize you, it has to be a part of you, because then people will really respect it. They’ll feel it. They’ll love it because you love it. Even though Will Smith smacked the sβ€”t out of somebody, we love his films because he puts his all into them. When you put your all into something, they know it. That’s where the fame comes from.”

It’s a lesson McCoughtry passes on to the youth she works with in McCoughtry’s Mission, through which she is building a basketball court in Louisville. Kids recognize her more now than when she first entered the WNBA. Some of them cry. All of them “need love” and “a way out” from struggling in situations out of their control.

McCoughtry has expressed a desire to run for governor of Georgia “in a couple years,” and authentic to her album’s title, she will run on the message of hope.

“That’s what people need,” she said. “There’s war. There’s so many wrong things going on. Who’s out here selling the hope that people need?”

 “I don’t need to get a million followers from drama, or things like that,” she added. “I could care less. I just want to help inspire. We need more people to really follow their dreams. What are the people really good at? What are people’s gifts? You have so many people that have gifts that are not even using them. We don’t want it to be wasted anymore.”

McCoughtry is intentional about representation. She has embodied grace in failure as much as she has embodied joy in triumph. She indulges in every emotion, every challenge, and she relays what she has learned to younger players. She tells them to be patient. She assures them it will be worth it.

“The beginning, the middle, the ups, the downs, the heartache, the pain, the tears β€” none of that is shown on social media. You just see the end,” McCoughtry said. “It’s not gonna happen tomorrow. It takes years. I tell them to get started now.”

“We Are the W” is a manifestation of that advice, showing what can happen when you refuse to let the world confine you.

“I’ve always been a creator,” she said. “People ask, ‘What do you want to do when you retire?’  I’m a creator, and people don’t understand that. People want you in that box. I create things. I do all things. I’m not in one box. And I love that.

“I want for everybody to learn something about us and come out to watch our games. Hopefully, our documentary can get an Oscar, and we’ll be sitting there.”

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