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Erica Wheeler has made it — to WNBA All-Star Weekend

‘I have a chip on my shoulder because I am the only undrafted one here’

Editor’s note: Erica Wheeler was selected MVP of the 2019 WNBA All-Star game, scoring 25 points in her first career appearance in the game. She is the first undrafted player to win the honor.

LAS VEGAS — On the eve of WNBA All-Star Weekend, Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler sits in the lobby of the Delano hotel in Las Vegas. Despite a day of travel and meetings, she exudes a burdenless energy as her black T-shirt proudly displays the words “Team A’ja” across her chest.

As the conversation moves from her excitement about the weekend and her journey to get to this milestone in her career, Wheeler reflects on this moment.

“There are players with seven, eight, 10 years that haven’t even touched that All-Star — and I’m doing it in five,” said Wheeler, who is in her fourth full season with the Fever. “No disrespect to them, but just goes to show to never give up, just keep trying.

“Nobody is going to take this moment away from me. I’m in the moment, I’m here. This is my moment. I wear it proudly.”

Wheeler, 28, will take the court Saturday as the first undrafted All-Star since Erika De Souza in 2014. She was selected as a reserve by the league’s head coaches.

“I have a chip on my shoulder because I am the only undrafted one here. … No matter how long I’ve been in the league, no matter how I got here, you can call me an All-Star. … So respect me as if I got drafted No. 1.”

To hear Wheeler speak without context of her story is to misinterpret her confidence for cockiness and her self-assurance for arrogance. But almost a decade ago, Wheeler’s voice, which has become almost synonymous with her All-Star-caliber play, was almost silenced. Her career, over before it even began.

For Wheeler, this weekend is the realization of a dream and the culmination of a once-uncertain journey.

Wheeler is from Liberty City, Miami, an area known for producing major football talents like Antonio Brown and Chad Johnson. It’s also known as one of the toughest neighborhoods in Florida.

“It’s hard, make no mistake, it’s superhard,” Wheeler said when asked about growing up in the South Florida neighborhood. “It’s mostly hard because you can fall into any trap.”

When asked to specify what she meant by “trap,” Wheeler responded: “Narcotics.”

“When I grew up, that’s all I was around. It’s so easy to fall into that trap because that’s what’s in front of you. That’s what you see. That’s what looks right. … When you’re not around family, somebody is telling you, ‘Yo, this is how you can make money.’ That’s how it was.”

It was Wheeler’s family that steered her into athletics. Wheeler started playing football, then other sports followed, but it was basketball that stuck.

“Basketball just kind of fell in my hands and in my heart,” she said.

In the beginning, Wheeler viewed basketball simply as an activity to keep her from the distractions of the city. But a traumatic experience at 14 while she was hanging out in the Brownsville neighborhood changed her commitment to the sport. In a moment Wheeler labels as being in the “wrong time and wrong place,” she found herself caught in a crossfire. Two people were shot in the incident.

“I almost thought that I wouldn’t make it out. To be in it and not know if you’re going to make it out, that’s life-changing,” said Wheeler, who escaped the shooting. “That made me want to change my life a little bit and really stick to basketball.”

In high school, Wheeler received college offers from all over the country but chose Rutgers, coached by the legendary C. Vivian Stringer. In Wheeler’s first three seasons, Rutgers made three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Then, with her senior season on the horizon and Wheeler ready to make a statement in the Big East, her career was derailed. Her mom, Melissa Cooper, died of cancer in July 2012.

The formerly vibrant and vocal Wheeler became silent. Her willingness to pick up a basketball, even her desire to finish her senior year at Rutgers, had diminished. Wheeler’s mom was her foundation and her biggest cheerleader on the court.

“I felt like I didn’t have any purpose,” Wheeler said. “I wasn’t going back to school.”

Ready to walk away from Rutgers altogether, it was Stringer who reminded Wheeler of the promise she had made to her mom that she would graduate. Ultimately, Wheeler agreed to return to school in the fall.

Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer (center) is congratulated by Erica Wheeler (right) after defeating South Florida 68-56 in a game at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey, on Feb. 26, 2013.

Rich Schultz /Getty Images

Despite her return to the Rutgers bench, Wheeler struggled to regain her focus on the floor. She merely went through the motions on the court, and Rutgers missed the NCAA tournament.

When the 2013 WNBA draft came around, Wheeler didn’t expect to be drafted.

She wasn’t.

Wheeler began to get her swagger back after she decided to play in Puerto Rico in the summer of 2013. For Wheeler, neither the money nor the situation mattered. She was able to tap into that competitive spirit again. That was enough to motivate her as she made stops in Turkey and Brazil before receiving a call from the Atlanta Dream.

Wheeler believed she had finally reached her goal and broken through that elusive ceiling. She had made Atlanta’s roster and was finally a part of the WNBA.

When she was cut by the Dream midseason, it hit her hard.

“It broke me deeper than anything,” Wheeler said. “It made me question my basketball career.”

It’s in this moment that Wheeler recalled a lesson she had learned from Stringer:

Never give up when a door is slammed in your face. If somebody tells you no, you figure it out.

Then, the New York Liberty called. Wheeler finished the 2015 season with the Liberty and during that time made a commitment that she’d never let another door close on her.

“From that point I’ve been doing everything I can to try and stay in the league, and I’ve been doing a pretty damn good job,” said Wheeler, who has been with the Fever ever since. “I’m an All-Star in five years.”

“I personally can’t even fathom what it’s like,” said Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, who has supported Wheeler’s game and watched her develop as a player. “For someone like her to go undrafted and work her way up and prove herself, it speaks dividends to who she is as a person and who she’s becoming in the league. It’s inspiring.”

It was one thing for Wheeler to find a place in the WNBA, but it was another challenge to then prove she deserved to stay. In order to do so, she had to elevate her on-court play — an opportunity she found abroad.

During the 2018 offseason, Wheeler played in Russia. While playing in Europe, Wheeler experienced the hyperaggressive play that most WNBA players endure overseas.

“It’s a lot different from the WNBA. You have to protect yourself because you can get hurt out there,” Wheeler said.

For Wheeler to succeed, let alone survive a full season in Russia, she had to adapt. She found sanctuary behind the 3-point line.

“Teams always went under screens when we played,” Wheeler said. “I said, OK, I got to make sure I stay healthy, so let me stick around 3-point range so I won’t take too much contact.”

Wheeler’s comfort from beyond the arc grew with each game, and she helped lead her team to its first-ever EuroCup title. Her hot hand followed her thousands of miles to Indianapolis, where she’s established herself as one of the premier long-ball threats in the league, even earning her a spot in Friday’s Three-Point Contest.

Erica Wheeler of the Indiana Fever shoots a basket during the 2019 WNBA All-Star Three-Point Contest on July 26 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

At the All-Star break, she’s shooting a career-high 42.7% from 3-point range. Her previous career high was 33%. That puts her in the company of elite shooters like Kayla McBride of the Las Vegas Aces and two-time 3-point champion Allie Quigley of the Chicago Sky.

Wheeler has also harnessed another aspect of her game: team basketball. When she left the Liberty in 2015, head coach Bill Laimbeer told her that she needed to understand team basketball. This season, in addition to being an undrafted All-Star, she’s also on pace to break the Fever’s single-season assists record.

“She was always a very competitive player, has always been,” said Laimbeer, who will be Wheeler’s coach once more in Saturday’s game. “She had to learn how to get others involved. She’s done that, and success has followed.”

“She’s so much more patient,” notes Turner. “When you have that energy, sometimes you go a little too fast and you get one step ahead of yourself. Now she’s a lot more calm, her pace is a lot better, and it’s obviously paying dividends.”

On Saturday, as she does during the regular season, Wheeler will honor her mother on the court. When the energetic, confident player her mother always knew she could become steps to the free throw line, she’ll touch two tattoos dedicated to her mom: one on her shoulder, the other on her leg.

“She’d tell me to enjoy the moment,” Wheeler said.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.