A Higher Call of Duty

Author Jodi Picoult penned the following warning to would-be mothers in her novel My Sister’s Keeper: It becomes “24/7 once you sign on to be a mother; that's the only shift they offer.” Chicago Sky forward Le’coe Willingham is one of only a handful of mothers in the WNBA who have found a way to strike an unusual balance between motherhood and the demands of life as a professional basketball player.

When Willingham gave birth to her son, Derrick, 11 years ago, she had already found her calling: basketball. Earning All-Southeastern Conference honors as a freshman at Auburn University was the easy part. What happened next caused her to step away from hoops and school while re-examining her priorities – both immediate and long-term. “When I was pregnant with my son at the age of 19, I was uncertain about my future and what was going to happen,” she said. Many didn’t think it was possible for such a young single mother to raise a child while obtaining an education and making a living. “The biggest challenge, then, was proving people wrong. It was tough raising a son in college while playing basketball, but I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”

You never hear of an NFL star taking the season off because he’s expecting a child. You don’t hear about NBA players skipping a game because their child is graduating. And you certainly don’t hear about NHL players complaining of chest pains after a hit because they’re still nursing. Part of what makes the WNBA – or any women’s league for that matter – so unique is that child-bearing directly affects the athlete’s time, her performance and even her pay. It is all the more remarkable, then, when a player like Willingham must make these sacrifices and yet she would never admit they were such.

Before returning to Auburn and receiving another pair of All-SEC honors, Willingham had to shed 60 pounds and get back in game shape. She realized she had a gift and that she must use it to help put her through school and support her son. With Derrick as a source of newfound motivation, Willingham also realized she wouldn’t be living for herself anymore. “It’s tough, but I’ve been doing it for 11 years,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without a good support system, so the transition has been relatively easy.” During the offseason, Willingham plays overseas while her son stays with family in her hometown of Augusta, Ga., and attends school.

Some might argue that because of Willingham’s career, Derrick never enjoyed a “normal” childhood. At the age of 3, Derrick moved to Connecticut when his mother joined the Sun right out of college. After four years, they packed and headed for Phoenix, then Seattle and now Chicago. “It’s a life of travelling, a life of living out of a bag,” Willingham said. “That’s a part of the business.” But his mother would say Derrick is lucky he hasn’t had a typical childhood because it’s been so much more than that. “He’s been all over the world with me. He’s been blessed to see other countries,” she said. Derrick also gets free reign around the stadiums, hangs out in the locker room after the games and meets some of his favorite athletes. “Everybody just takes him in like he’s a part of the team. He remembers everything; he knows every basketball player, every team.”

It also doesn’t hurt that he inherited some of his mother’s genes as he stars in basketball, track and football. Willingham gushes, as any mother would, about her son’s potential. “He’s got a lot of raw talent. He’s tall and skinny; he just has to work harder. When he’s with me at workouts, I get pretty hard on him,” Willingham said. The hope is that Derrick will learn to push himself at whatever he chooses to do, be it sports or otherwise. “I just want to nurture his gifts and interests,” she assured. “Whatever he excels at and whatever he’s most comfortable in, then I’m there to support that.”

When she’s not practicing with the team, watching video or attending team activities, Willingham takes her son to Navy Pier, the beach, or to discover new sites around Chicago. With so many demands between her career, raising children and travelling overseas, Willingham can relate with any woman who knows of the sacrifices it takes to be a good mother. There are no days off. She doesn’t get paid overtime. And she doesn’t expect a handout. But she does it all with a smile that only mothers possess. “It’s just a part of my life,” she said. “I love being a mother.”