Pondexter Traveled Long Road to Reach WNBA

By Mark Heller
East Valley Tribune
July 16, 2006

The gym is empty. A 5-foot-9 woman walks in and sits down. She’s furiously pushing buttons on her phone-turned-keyboard, typing messages to friends and family. She politely answers questions but with few words and rarely looks up. Public speaking never was a Cappie Pondexter forté.

She doesn’t want to talk about her tattoos. Her neighborhood was “rough.” Nothing more. It hurt having basketball taken away from her twice at Rutgers. It hurt having a family member gunned down. Nothing more. If it’s not basketball, it’s nobody’s business. Everyone loves the Mercury’s rookie All-Star. Teammates love her ability and humility. Coaches love her desire, all-around game and seamless transition from All-American to No. 2 draft pick, to the WNBA’s thirdleading scorer in a six-month span. Fans love watching her.

“I love the gym,” she said. “Basketball is my life.” Ah, but there is more.

BEATING THE STREETS

Not everyone finds the straight and narrow in Chicago’s west side, where gangs and violence roam the streets.

Vanessa Pondexter wanted Cappie, sister Latoya, and older brother Ronald to see the world. She raised her three children in the church to keep them humble, and made sure they saw a life beyond poverty and street violence.

She figured the eyes of God were always watching.

Ronald picked up his little sister from school every day, and they’d head to the YMCA for pickup games. Ronald played. Cappie watched and mimicked her brother’s moves. Anything to get his attention.

Still, Cappie wasn’t allowed to play against the bigger boys until her mother stepped in.


For more coverage of Phoenix sports,
be sure to visit eastvalleytribune.com
Soon after, she was challenging the neighborhood boys in the back alley between church services. She’d come back into church with scuffed shoes and a dirty dress, until she learned to take a change of clothes and shoes to services.

Every day thereafter was the same.

At age 9, she was beating 12-year-old boys. In eighth grade, she was on hall-of-fame coach Vivian Stringer’s radar at Rutgers. By the time she played at legendary John Marshall High School, she was the only female regularly profiled on the Chicago Preps television show with Shawn Marion, Dee Brown, Sean Dockery and Eddy Curry.

After years of parental rejection, Ronald finally took 18-year-old Cappie to get a motivational tattoo of the WNBA logo with “The Future,” inscribed on her right arm.

All the big-time basketball schools were after her, but it was Stringer, a hall-of-fame coach, who came across as a motherly figure.

Low test scores forced Cappie to sit out her freshman year. Rutgers went 9-20. Some losses made her cry, as if she could have made a difference. She called home frequently, but rarely talked around teammates. Even coaches and those she lived with didn’t know her.

“Her defense was to detach herself,” said former teammate Mariota Theodoris. “She’s very shy, but it’s a good thing (Stringer) pushed her out of it.”

The next season, Rutgers went 21-8. Pondexter averaged 18 points, five assists and five rebounds per game. The awards piled up. Rutgers went to the NCAA Tournament.

An early tournament loss didn’t hurt. Not like the loss nine months before.

A LOSS THAT LINGERS


Pondexter was one of four rookies to appear in the 2006 WNBA All-Star Game in New York on July 12.
(WNBAE Photos)
The pictures are always with her.

On her dresser. In her wallet. Robby Brown is gone, but not really. Her cousin still goes wherever Cappie goes, just like the old neighborhood. They were more like brother and sister than cousins. He was her neighbor and protector.

“They were each other’s heroes,” Theodoris said.

He was going to be a football star. Cappie was sure of it, until May 21, 2003, when the 16-year-old high school junior was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Robby was at a party when two older men tried to enter. Parents said no. The men left and came back with guns. Robby was a random target.

Without concrete evidence and witnesses, the two men are still at-large. Vanessa still wants justice, but has forgiven the gunmen.

Cappie hasn’t.

“He was 16, doing positive things on his way to college,” Cappie said. “A lot of good things were about to happen.”

She lost weight and sleep. Nightmares were constant for weeks. She spent nights on end in roommates’ rooms. She called home and cried in the middle of the night. She’d ask why.

Friends and family still notice that her game struggles each May.

No one says a word. They know why.

“God gave us the time we’re supposed to have,” Vanessa said. “What did you learn from it? The good and the bad. Then you have to go on.”

There’s a tattoo on Cappie’s arm. It says “Festai.” It means “hope” in Swahili.

BECOMING A HUMBLE STAR

Cappie poured herself back into basketball, but it was taken away again.

She missed the fall semester of 2004 for “personal reasons.”

She wouldn’t say why. No one would.

Without school or college basketball, she learned about the working world at her first job at Foot Locker. And how basketball can be taken away.

She returned to Rutgers the same humble, unassuming person. The player who wrote notes of encouragement to teammates before games. The player who smiled watching Theodoris answer reporters’ questions after a breakout game her sophomore year. The next day, Cappie drove around town picking up newspaper clippings of the game and left them on her bed.

“You expect someone from the end of the bench to do that stuff,” said former teammate Chelsea Newton, now with the Chicago Sky. “Cappie was always the first.”

Cappie easily was a top-five WNBA pick after her senior season, but the chance to win a national title for her beloved coach brought her back to campus for a fifth year.

With Newton graduated, and a half-dozen freshmen and sophomores surrounding her, this was Cappie’s team.

She was the Big East Player of the Year and became the first player in Big East history to be first-team all-conference for four seasons. She was runner-up for National Player of the Year, given to friend Seimone Augustus.

“It’s really rare to find someone who’s accomplished so much and doesn’t know it,” Stringer said. “I don’t think she knew it then, but (2005-2006 season) was her completion. It was time for her to move on.”

The WNBA has done little to stop Cappie. She became the third person in league history to score 30 points in consecutive games (teammate Diana Taurasi has done it twice). In a win over Detroit last week she scored a rookie-record 35 points. The box scores, however, are only numbers.

“It’s about wins and losses,” she said. “Nothing else matters.” The 23-year-old likely will play overseas when the Mercury’s season ends. With a degree in Africa Studies, teaching elementary school kids could be her first non-basketball venture.

“You’ve got to let kids be themselves,” she said. “They have lots of energy, lots to say. There’s so much you can teach them. Just gotta have patience.” But that’s a decade away. This time is for basketball. Nothing more.

COPYRIGHT 2006, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.