NEW YORK – She can’t help but grin while walking out of the locker room for pregame warmups. This is Sami Whitcomb’s very first trip to New York City, and she is about to perform inside the world’s most famous arena.
“This is legendary,” Whitcomb told WNBA.com. “I mean, Madison Square Garden is where all the big games happen. You grow up hearing about it. So it’s really exciting to not just be here, but to get a chance to play on the court.”
She checks in for the first time in the final minute of the opening quarter. Whitcomb replaces former Rookie of the Year Jewell Loyd and now shares the court with five Olympians, including Seattle Storm teammate Sue Bird and the New York Liberty’s Tina Charles. She would go on to drill two jumpers in the first half, one from three-point range and another off an inbounds play from inside the arc.
Whitcomb and the Storm eventually fell to New York on Sunday, squandering a fourth-quarter lead and dropping their second straight game. Whitcomb didn’t score the rest of the way and played just 11 minutes off the bench. Nonetheless, it was a day the 28-year-old rookie won’t soon forget.
Especially considering the journey she took to get to this point.
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Born and raised in Southern California, Whitcomb went north for college and became an All-Pac-12 player at the University of Washington. Back then, the Huskies weren’t churning out WNBA draft picks like Kelsey Plum, this year’s No. 1 selection. UW finished below .500 in each of Whitcomb’s final three years on campus.
As a result, she was not among the 36 players selected in the 2010 WNBA Draft. The Chicago Sky invited her to training camp, but she ended up being the final cut. When her agent was unable to find an overseas team interested in her, Whitcomb temporarily gave up on playing professionally.
Instead, she pursued a different avenue in the game of basketball. Whitcomb re-joined the UW program as a video coordinator, hoping to work her way up and become a coach one day.
“It’s still something that I’m very interested in, at some stage, at some level,” Whitcomb said on Sunday. “It was interesting to me, and I thought that was a good foot in the door.”
She continued playing basketball in local rec leagues and any pickup game she could find. At the end of her first season on the coaching side, Whitcomb knew she wasn’t in the right place. She quit the job, hired a new agent, and stumbled upon an opportunity to play in Germany.
Whitcomb played for two different German teams for one season apiece, had a brief stint with a Slovakian club, and landed with a semi-pro team in Australia. At this point, nobody was even showing interest from the WNBL – Australia’s top division – much less the WNBA. But Whitcomb proceeded to dominate the second-tier league, winning three straight MVP awards and a pair of championships.
In the midst of her success on the court, Australia became home. As she puts it now with a hint of an Australian accent, the move Down Under was a “life-changing” experience.
Whitcomb got her shot in the WNBL in 2015, accepting an offer from the Perth Lynx. She made an immediate impact by earning All-Star honors and helping her team improve from last place to league runner-up. In her second year with the Lynx, Whitcomb set new WNBL records for points and three-pointers in a single season.
She had been an avid fan of the WNBA since high school. Yet, during all her adventures overseas, that dream rarely crossed her mind as a possibility.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking about it too much,” Whitcomb said. “It was something that I hoped, if I continued to develop and grow, maybe another opportunity would present itself. But more than anything, I just wanted to reach my potential. And if that meant an opportunity here, then that’s fantastic. But more than anything, it was just about continuing to get better.”
As she was breaking WNBL records this past season, the phone finally started ringing.
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“We didn’t guarantee her anything,” Seattle coach Jenny Boucek told WNBA.com.
After six years of zero interest from the WNBA, multiple teams were in contact with her, Whitcomb said. The Storm showed the most interest of all: Boucek watched extended film of Whitcomb, talked to her agent, and got to know the sharpshooter through several phone conversations. It would not be easy to make Seattle’s star-studded roster, but both sides agreed the team’s system was a perfect fit.
Three-point shooting has always been Whitcomb’s specialty, going back to her UW days. The Storm, from 2010 to 2014, ranked first or second in the league in percentage of shots coming from beyond the arc. Last season, 32 percent of their shots were three-pointers, the highest percentage of any team since 2013. This year they have continued to launch from distance at nearly the same rate (31 percent).
Whitcomb made the final roster over returning veteran Jenna O’Hea, who boasts one of the highest career three-point shooting percentages in league history.
“They like to shoot, they like to get up and down, and they’re a high-intensity team. I think all of those things speak to what I try to do and what I like to do,” Whitcomb said. “It just seemed like it would be a good fit, that they could use someone off the bench that can come in, make a couple shots and bring some energy.”
Her comfortability showed in the preseason, when Whitcomb flourished during a pair of games against Phoenix. She scored a team-high 15 points in her debut – sinking a trio of three-pointers and notching four steals in the process – and followed it up with 12 points the next night. Whitcomb finished 6-of-14 from three-point range in preseason action.
That success carried over to the regular season, when she put on the performance of a lifetime.
In just the third game of her WNBA career, Whitcomb was called into action during crunch time after Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had both suffered injuries. Whitcomb entered with Seattle trailing the Liberty by 10 points, and she sparked a comeback by draining six three-pointers in the final 12 minutes, tying the league record for triples in a half. She scored the final five points of the game to seal an 87-81 victory, finishing with 22 points on 6-of-8 from beyond the arc.
The performance sent KeyArena into a frenzy. Whitcomb said it was a game she envisions every time she gets extra shots up in the gym. For Boucek, it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen from her rookie shooting guard before.
“I’ve seen her do that in Australia. That’s why she’s here,” Boucek said. “I haven’t seen another player that can heat up the way she can. She did it consistently overseas, so we know it’s in her. We’ve seen a little of it in practice, but she did it a lot in Australia.
“She’s stayed really patient and done a lot of extra work. Every time I go to the gym, she’s in there. It’s to the point where I wondered if she was overdoing it and if we needed to regulate it.”
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Whitcomb is living her dream as a WNBA player. After initially settling for rec leagues once her college career finished, she now plays for the Seattle Storm, a team she followed and worshiped during her four years at UW.
Seattle is 5-4 and features two of the league’s best young players in Loyd and Breanna Stewart. With Mosqueda-Lewis sidelined due to a knee injury, Whitcomb figures to play a prominent role coming off the bench for the foreseeable future.
Knowing all of this, what are Whitcomb’s goals moving forward?
“I just want to take it day by day and make the best of the opportunity,” she said. “I was really excited just to get that challenge of playing against some of the most talented players in the world. I think I got really lucky that it worked out.”
The WNBA is one of the most cutthroat sports leagues in the world. Whitcomb knows she must be one of the best 144 players in the game, and that the Storm could go in another direction at any time.
She calls Australia home, but the sharpshooter wouldn’t mind spending every summer in Seattle for the next decade. For now, Whitcomb doesn’t have time to think about the future.
She’s too busy getting buckets at Madison Square Garden.