Erica Wheeler said it quietly, her head half-bowed, clutching the silver trophy that goes to the WNBA’s All-Star Game Most Valuable Player. It seemed as if she was talking to herself in that moment as much as anyone else in an arena full of people.
With some of the world’s best basketball players standing behind her wiping tears from their eyes, with ESPN’s Holly Rowe holding her tightly and barely containing her own emotions, Wheeler provided what might turn out to be one of the most indelible moments of the 2019 season.
She indeed belongs.
There was hardly a doubt as she stepped on to the floor of the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Saturday afternoon, but Wheeler played like she wanted to nail it down for good. By halftime, Wheeler had 18 points. She would finish with 25 points and an All-Star Game record-tying seven 3-pointers, including a trey with 22 seconds to go that sealed Team Wilson’s 129-126 win over Team Delle Donne.
One of six first-time All-Stars in this game in a season when many of the league’s biggest stars are sidelined with injuries, Wheeler hit her first six shots of the game. She added four rebounds and seven assists to a star-making day in which she played just short of 19 minutes.
It was all part of the plan, which came together perfectly for Wheeler.
“My main goal today was that I wanted to be unforgettable once we play this game,” Wheeler said. “And I think I did that. My main thing is just to be able to inspire the youth to never give up, and I think I’m a walking never-give-up (example). If you go in a dictionary and say ‘Never give up’, I think they should put Erica Wheeler there because of the path I went.”
The Indiana Fever guard came into Las Vegas with the rest of the league really learning for the first time about her compelling personal story. The undrafted All-Star who grew up in tough circumstances, lost her mother to cancer in the midst of a college career that she never dreamed she would even have, and the resilience, hard work and perseverance that led her to this unforgettable moment.
Wheeler, only the fifth undrafted player to be named to the All-Star team and now the first to be named MVP, said she came into the game feeling confident.
“My confidence was through the roof because I had a chip on my shoulder,” Wheeler said. “I knew I was the only undrafted player. I don’t have a shoe contract. I don’t have no contracts besides the WNBA. So, for me, it was to make my mark, and I think I did that because nobody is looking at me. I’m a no-name. I think I left today with a name that everybody can remember.”
Kayla McBride, Wheeler’s All-Star game teammate, said Wheeler’s story is “powerful.”
“It’s the epitome of what we all fight for, and to have a moment like that…It was great to see her shine in that moment and it’s crazy how everything works out,” McBride said.
“I was crying my eyes out,” said Wheeler’s captain, A’ja Wilson, who handed out tissues when the ceremony was over. “It was so real. It is moments like that that people don’t really see in our game. For those who don’t know her story, I suggest you look her up. She’s someone we all need to know … It was so great to have her feel that.”
Wheeler’s first thought when the game ended, knowing she did what she came to do, was of her late mother, Melissa Cooper, who died before her senior year of college at Rutgers.
“The first thing I said to myself was like, ‘Mom, thank you,’ because more than ever I know she’s watching me, and like I tell everybody, what I do and how I do it, I do it for my mom,” Wheeler said. “So that’s the first thing I said was thank you, and I said, ‘Thank you, God,’ because without him, I’m not here. So that was going through my mind, just to give my mom that praise.”
Indiana Fever teammate Candice Dupree, who shared a big embrace with Wheeler after she claimed her MVP trophy, said Wheeler’s success is a product of hard work and she sees it every day.
“She’s always had my back and vice-versa,” Dupree said. “I’m extremely happy. She has a great story and I think that story is why she works as hard as she does.”
This moment, Wheeler said, has left her “speechless.”
“I’ve been trying to gather my words,” Wheeler said.
In the moment, she found the right ones.