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First-Time All-Star Sugar Rodgers Defines Perseverance

NEW YORK – Earlier this week, Sugar Rodgers checked her phone and saw she had a voicemail from WNBA president Lisa Borders. Borders told Rodgers to call her back, not spoiling the surprise yet. When the two were eventually able to connect, Borders informed a delighted Rodgers that she was indeed named an All-Star.

“I just told her thank you, and that I’m just excited to go out there and have fun,” said Rodgers, who now heads to Seattle for her first career All-Star Game. “It’s my first year, but I kind of know what to expect. I’ll have Tina out there to guide me.”

Liberty teammate Tina Charles is among the many perennial All-Stars that will join Rodgers in the Pacific Northwest this weekend. An injury to one of them, Elena Delle Donne, is the reason Rodgers has this chance to represent the Eastern Conference. Delle Donne won’t play in the All-Star Game due to an ankle sprain, and Borders named Rodgers her replacement on Wednesday. She will also participate in the Three-Point Contest at halftime.

Simply put, Rodgers might have the best story of perseverance in the WNBA, and perhaps all of sports. Making the All-Star Team is just the latest checkpoint on her unbelievable journey of overcoming the odds.

If you aren’t familiar with her story, here’s the short version. Rodgers grew up around violence and drugs in Suffolk, Virginia. She helped take care of her ill mother until she died from lupus in 2005, when Sugar was 15. Her father was mostly out of the picture, and he also passed away in 2012. Rodgers’ brother and sister were in and out of jail. After their mom passed, Sugar was homeless during high school, bouncing around with various friends and sleeping on couches. As she wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune, “I grew up in chaos.”

She wears the No. 14 because her mother died on July 14, 2005, 12 years ago last Friday.

How Sugar became a WNBA player – much less an All-Star – is beyond comprehension.

“I think it means everything for her and her family,” Charles said of her teammate. “It means a lot to individuals who have a similar life, a similar path, knowing that you can get out and do certain things to change your situation. You don’t have to let your situation define you.”

Rodgers’ incredible story extends to on-court perseverance. She has improved every year since entering the WNBA as a second-round pick in 2013, when she played just eight minutes per game for the Lynx. Rodgers took full advantage of her opportunity in New York, working her way up to a starting role last season.

If there was an All-Star Game in 2016, Rodgers likely would have been there. She averaged 14.5 points on one of the best teams in the league and nailed a franchise-record 86 three-pointers. The Georgetown product was among the most accurate three-point shooters in the WNBA at 41 percent. Hence the selection to the Three-Point Contest.

Now, Rodgers is going through yet another challenging situation. After starting the first 15 games, she has been relegated to the bench. The Liberty were struggling, and with one of the lowest-scoring benches in the league, coach Bill Laimbeer needed to make a change.

But one of the reasons she’s so valuable and respected is her selfness nature. Early this season, Rodgers told, “I’m there to do whatever the coaches need me to do, whether that’s scoring, defense or rebounding. Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m there.”

Fast forward a couple months, and in a completely different role, Rodgers has the same mindset.

“Nothing really changes. It’s just me coming off the bench,” she said. “I can bring energy and scoring off the bench. Just being able to play with both groups is a sacrifice that I had to make for the betterment of the team. I’m willing to sacrifice so that we can collectively be a great team.”

The sacrifice has paid off. Since Rodgers moved to the bench, New York is 2-0 with emphatic victories over the two best teams in the East (Washington and Connecticut). Rodgers provides essential scoring in the second unit – she’s averaging 11 points in the last two games, close to her season average – and remains a constant threat from three-point range.

When asked what she’s most looking forward to in Seattle this weekend, Rodgers said the Three-Point Contest, without hesitation. Not because of the potential bragging rights, but so that Rodgers can be the one to donate $10,000 to her charity of choice. That would be Hopey’s Heart Foundation, founded by Charles, which provides Automated External Defibrillators to help prevent heart failure in young athletes all over the world.

Even if Rodgers doesn’t come out on top and win $10,000 for Charles – whom she calls her big sister – this weekend is momentous for one of the WNBA’s brightest stars. It’s a celebration of someone that has overcome all odds to reach the top of her profession.

As she always has, Rodgers will make the most of her opportunity.

“The work she’s put in both on and off the court over the years to get to where she is, this is the reward,” Laimbeer said. “She’s worked very hard at her game, over the last three years especially. This is the culmination of getting recognition for her hard work.”