Isabelle Harrison’s unwavering personality stands out for the Dallas Wings and WNBA
One of 12 siblings, Harrison has overcome injury, the loss of a sister and an autoimmune disorder to become one of the league’s most intriguing figures
Isabelle Harrison is no stranger to setbacks.
In early 2015, just months before being taken No. 12 overall in the WNBA draft, Harrison tore her ACL during her senior season at the University of Tennessee. The injury forced her to miss her rookie season.
Harrison was diagnosed with an undisclosed autoimmune condition which led to her having to sit out the entire 2018 WNBA season. That same year, she lost her sister after a battle with lupus.
Ankle injuries she endured during the WNBA’s 2020 bubble season led to an early exit out of Bradenton, Florida, forcing Harrison, a forward, to miss the Dallas Wings’ final nine games.
As Harrison says: “I have been through a lot of s—.”
“I’m happy that I had that adversity,” she added. “It changes you into a different person, not only on the court, but off. You become resilient to a lot of stuff.”
This year, though, Harrison’s adversity took on a different form.
Dallas will begin its playoff run Thursday in Game 1 of the first round versus the No. 3 Connecticut Sun. As part of a packed Wings frontcourt contingent all vying for minutes, Harrison’s role for Dallas has been in constant flux. Over the course of the season she’s rotated from starting to being a first option off the bench to anchoring the rotation.
“It’s been a high and low season for me,” Harrison said. “A lot of changes that I’ve faced this year, but I’m not going to let that take away from the goal that we have.”
As she does with each challenge that she’s faced during her career, Harrison has sought to find the lesson in the hardship. This year, that has been a lesson in understanding her worth and doubling down on that value.
“At the end of the day, I’m just glad that I’m able to remain the person that I am, stick with what I know and only get better,” she said.
For many families, having one child receive a scholarship to play college athletics is a remarkable achievement – a goal only attainable for the most gifted high school athletes in the country. It’s mind-blowing, then, to learn that Harrison’s mother Ida, who has been a nurse for more than 30 years, and her father Dennis, a former NFL Pro Bowl defensive end, have had 10 kids play college athletics.
“I joke with my parents all the time, ‘if we hadn’t gotten a scholarship, what were y’all about to do to send us to college?’ ” said Harrison, the 10th of 12 children. “They just laughed and said, ‘Well, y’all figured out a way.’ Athletics was our way.”
For Harrison, family has been the backbone of her career. It’s, in part, where a strong work ethic was instilled in her by her parents, who taught her to get her work done in the classroom before the court. More importantly, family has been her support system on and off the court.
When Harrison traveled overseas following the end of the WNBA season to countries such as South Korea or Poland, she’d often find herself trapped in the monotonous cycle of the pro ball lifestyle: practice, home, game, home, repeat. Though she was many miles away from friends and family, there was always one sibling who made her overseas stays feel closer to home.
Harrison’s big sister Danielle was her biggest supporter on the court. Whenever Harrison was overseas, her sister would keep track of her schedule, traversing the drastically different time zones to watch her sister play via stream.
“She would have my little niece watch me and that inspired my niece to continue to play,” said Harrison, who visited her sister at her home in Memphis, Tennessee, during the summers. “Not only was it helping her daughter, but it was also helping me because I knew somebody had their eyes on me.”
Her sister died in 2018 from lupus, an autoimmune disease that has afflicted multiple members of Harrison’s family.
“Her middle name was Joy, so we always said how joyful we would become when she was around us,” Harrison said. “Losing her was a lot, not just for me but my whole family.”
Two other members of Harrison’s family have lupus: a sister who lives near her in Texas and a brother, Daniel, in Indiana. Because of complications of the disease, her brother needs a new kidney.
“I joke with my parents all the time, ‘if we hadn’t gotten a scholarship, what were y’all about to do to send us to college?’ They just laughed and said, ‘Well, y’all figured out a way.’ Athletics was our way.”— Isabelle Harrison
Harrison said that her brother, who has had lupus longer than anyone else in her family, is on dialysis.
“He still has a smile on his face, amazing energy, while going through that,” Harrison said. “I talk about being resilient and I definitely learned that through my family.”
Following Danielle Harrison’s death, each member of Harrison’s family received a necklace that carries her ashes. Harrison brings the necklace with her on every Wings road trip. Just like when she was abroad, Harrison will always have that connection to her sister anytime she is away from home.
“That’s a reminder for me to just remember what she means to me and she’s supporting me through everything,” Harrison said.
Harrison believes that the path to becoming a mainstay in the WNBA doesn’t come overnight. The best players make gains outside of the standard team practice. Pushing for consistency trumps the quest for a breakout moment. She learned that from coach Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee.
In her sixth season, Harrison has learned more about what it takes to maintain longevity at the pro level: taking care of her body, improving her diet, getting sleep. She’s seen that when done consistently, it has made an impact on her daily during the season. That self-care extends to mental wellness and being able to cultivate passions away from basketball.
“I’ve always said I’m more than just dribbling a ball,” Harrison said. “I don’t like just tying my whole identity to that.”
For Harrison, that second passion is fashion. Harrison has established herself as one of the top figures in the WNBA when it comes to the pregame walk-in, drumming up engagement on WNBA Twitter whenever the Wings post player entrances before tipoff.
For the Wings’ season opener on May 7, Harrison arrived at the College Park Center in Arlington, Texas, dressed in a custom Jordan Brand Chicago Bulls jersey dress. The Wings posted Harrison’s entrance on social media and it went viral, receiving more than 29,000 likes on Twitter. The entrance was an important one to Harrison, who had been announced as the newest Jordan Brand athlete just a few days earlier – her first shoe deal.
At a time when brands are finally emerging (albeit still slowly) with more partnership opportunities for WNBA athletes, Harrison has positioned herself to take full advantage.
“I want that for more players in the W because we are supermarketable,” she said. “We have the most diversity of any league, so it doesn’t make any sense why those deals aren’t happening for us.”
One of the reasons Harrison chose not to play a season overseas was so she could capitalize on opportunities that instead could help her grow her personal brand. Had she not done so, she said, the deal with Jordan Brand likely never would have come to fruition. Harrison also interned with the Dallas Mavericks.
Dallas Wings coach Vickie Johnson has been a part of the WNBA for more than 20 years and has seen the growth of the league in every aspect of the game, including off-court opportunities for its players. She said she hopes to see the expansion of those opportunities continue but also cautioned players to not let brand building get in the way of basketball.
“Hopefully they have great agents to manage that or their team to be able to say build your brand but make sure you’re doing what you have to do on the basketball court,” Johnson said. “Don’t let your building your brand affect your game and what you have to do for your team to have your team be successful.”
For Harrison, it’s all about balance.
“I’m at a space now, with opportunities off the court, that I’m able to show [my life and career are bigger than just basketball],”said Harrison, who will be a free agent this offseason. “Basketball is always going to be my first love, no matter what. I’m slowly just trying to find that balance.”
On the court, Harrison entered the 2022 WNBA season with lots of momentum from 2021, which included a standout performance during Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural season last winter. Harrison was ready to take the next step up in her playing career, but her role for this year’s Wings team has been a “little different” than expected.
Harrison began the season strong, averaging 10.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists through her first 15 games, closely matching her 2021 averages as she split time in the Dallas frontcourt with teammates Satou Sabally, Awak Kuier, Kayla Thornton and Teaira McCowan. When Sabally was still overseas or battling injuries, Harrison was slotted into the starting lineup.
But at the beginning of July, Harrison, who was averaging 22.8 minutes, saw her playing time shrink and by mid-July had been moved out of the starting lineup in place of McCowan.
McCowan has been stellar for the Wings since the switch, averaging 15.9 points and 9.8 rebounds since the beginning of July. This week, McCowan was named the league’s player of the month for August for the Western Conference. Kuier has also seen more minutes. Sabally has been sidelined with an ankle injury since July 12.
Harrison, meanwhile, posted her lowest minutes per game average since her rookie season. In mid June, following a loss to Seattle, Johnson said in a presser that she needed more offensive consistency from Harrison, who scored four points following a 19-point showing the game prior. Harrison went on to score in double figures in four of Dallas’ next six games.
Johnson said Harrison’s decline in playing time came largely as a result of the presence of McCowan and the limited minutes she has at her disposal.
“It’s hard,” said Johnson, who was named the WNBA coach of the month for August..
Despite Harrison being moved to the bench and her decreased usage on the floor, her confidence on the court hasn’t wavered.
“I know I’m a hard worker … I know that what’s happening right now is for a reason and I know it’s only going to make me that much better of a player.”
Harrison has been a strong spark for the Wings off the bench. In her last 15 games, while averaging 12.5 minutes, she’s averaging 6.6 points and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 52.4% from the field.
“With the ups and downs, you just got to control what you can control,” Harrison said.
In past seasons where she might have felt overlooked, Harrison has chosen to remain silent, adding that, for much of her career, she felt like she had her head down and was just focused on putting work in in the gym or simply being able to stay in the gym. This season has been different.
“At some point, you’ve got to advocate for yourself and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Harrison said.
On multiple occasions this season, Harrison publicly hinted at frustrations with her role. In July, Harrison posted a TikTok video in which the text overlaying the screen read “When coach only calls plays for the guards,” along with the caption “like damnnnn i dont want to just rebound,” per Just Women’s Sports. A few days earlier, after playing just eight minutes in a game a day before, Harrison responded to a tweet in which the user asked why Harrison was getting pulled out of games. Harrison responded, “When you find out, lemme know.” Both social media posts were later deleted.
Harrison watched as players before her opted to speak up for themselves which, in part, inspired her to do the same. She believes in herself and is confident that she can produce on the court when given the opportunity to do so. In short, for Harrison it’s about knowing your worth.
“For me, this is your career. This is what you want to be known for. You don’t want to be passive when it comes to that,” Harrison said.
Johnson and Harrison have spoken about her playing time. Johnson knows that while Harrison supported the team’s best interest, she also understands Harrison is a competitor who wants to play a sizable role in her team’s success.
“At some point, you’ve got to advocate for yourself and I don’t see anything wrong with that.”— Isabelle Harrison
Johnson emphasized that for the minutes her players do get, they make the most of their time on the floor. That extends to Harrison, who will be an important piece for the Wings as they prepare for their second-straight playoff appearance.
“When I call your number, just come in and perform and do what you do,” said Johnson, who coached Harrison in 2017 with the San Antonio Stars. “Defensively, offensively, rebound the basketball, get out in transition, make your free throws. Play with a high energy and a focus. Just what [Harrison] does.”