In 1997, the WNBA held its inaugural draft, with Tina Thompson and Pamela McGee, both out of the University of Southern California, going Nos. 1 and 2 overall, respectively. The moment was a historic one, not only for the WNBA, but the sport as a whole, as they helped shape the premier women’s basketball league in the world. Little could the two pioneers know that 20 years later, they would still be shaping the future of the WNBA.
Three years before the first WNBA draft, Pamela McGee gave birth to a baby girl. That girl would grow — taller even than her mother — into a 6-foot-7 defensive powerhouse under the tutelage of Thompson at the University of Texas, before being selected No. 10 overall by the Chicago Sky in the historic 2016 WNBA Draft. That girl was Imani Boyette.
Between her mother, her father (Kevin Stafford, who played overseas) her brother (JaVale McGee, who plays in the NBA), her cousin (Jarron Gilbert, who played in the NFL), and numerous coaches and friends, Boyette grew up surrounded by current and former professional athletes. Which, as Boyette told WNBA.com, made the transition to the professional level much easier for her.
“I’m definitely blessed to grow up in a family where I do have a lot of professional athletes and to be around a lot of professional athletes,” Boyette said. “It was easier in terms of knowing what to expect, and what everybody wants to see from you from different perspectives, so that was really helpful. And it made me wonder like, ‘What do normal people do?’ (Laughs) ‘Cause I don’t think I could have done this without asking all these questions from all these people.”
But despite her connections, it wasn’t a charmed life for Boyette. Between her parents’ split early in her life, an often tumultuous relationship with her mother (during the rare periods they had a relationship at all), and numerous instances of sexual abuse, Boyette dealt with more hardships in her formative years than most people will in a lifetime.
“‘I kind of imploded and I didn’t know how to talk about it,'” Boyette told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year in regards to her sexual abuse. “So I never pressed charges. I can’t tell you exactly what happened. I could tell you it’s wrong. … I could tell you I’m haunted.'”
As a result, she became depressed at an early age, and attempted suicide three times before she graduated high school. “I never imagined myself being here, not necessarily professionally, just like, in life.'” Boyette told the Chicago Tribune in the same interview. “In terms of mental illness and depression, you don’t think there’s an end. To be here now and see the other side and remember what it felt like when I was in it, I just want to grab people and say, ‘Please, just hold on!'”
Eventually, Boyette was able to find her way, thanks in large part to poetry. Turning in earnest to basketball later in her life than most of her contemporaries, Boyette preferred the arts early on. Her love of poetry, in particular, played a vital role. As she told ESPN during a special SportsCenter feature story, “I always say poetry is air, because I think it’s something I can’t live without. I credit poetry for saving my life.”
Initially, the poems were personal, but at the University of Texas, she was introduced to slam poetry, and became empowered to start telling her story — both for herself, and for others going through the same struggles she dealt with.
While she doesn’t have as much time to write poetry these days, it’s still something that’s a big part of her life. And as she told WNBA.com, she one day hopes to put out a poetry book. For now, however, Boyette is finding other ways to use her platform to help others, especially young girls suffering from mental illness and sexual abuse. Despite being just 21 years old, Boyette has already begun to channel her powerful voice into positive change.
“I’m doing a charity event at the end of the month that I’m really excited about with the YWCA and a lot of organizations for young women in Chicago,” Boyette said. “So I’m really excited to get involved in that, and I think it’s important that I use my platform for something that I think is meaningful.”
Big community service event announcement coming this weekend! Stay tuned!! Excited to work w @YWCAChicago and so many other great orgs!
— Imani Boyette (@ImaniBoyette) August 5, 2016
And while she continues to blossom off the court, her game on the court is following suit. It was a bit of a slow start for Boyette, as her minutes fluctuated over the first few weeks. “I definitely expected [to contribute right away], because everyone expects to be the best when they go somewhere, but then I got here, and I was like ‘maybe not!’ (Laughs) It was definitely a wake-up call.”
Boyette kept working, however, and on June 10, she had her coming out party. She put on a clinic, dropping 16 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, as she lead the Sky to a 73-64 victory over the defending Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever.
Since then, she has played less than 20 minutes just five times. And over the team’s final six games, due to injuries and teammates with national team commitments, Boyette found herself thrust into the starting lineup.
The move into the starting lineup was not only a boost for the Sky, as they went 4-2 over the stretch, but Boyette as well. “[My veteran teammates] believe that I’m good enough to start with them and be in the game with them. So that’s really a confidence booster and that’s helped me in terms of where I think I belong, and what I think I’m good at.”
And why wouldn’t they think she belongs? Over Boyette’s six starts, she averaged 7.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per night. For the whole season, Boyette’s 1.8 blocks a game rank eighth in the league, as her 6-foot-7 frame is already proving to be imposing down low.
There was one downside to the increased minutes Boyette started playing before the break, however. “Right before the Olympic break, my legs were just dead,” Boyette told WNBA.com. “It was an increase in minutes and I just didn’t know how to recover. I tried, but it didn’t really work.”
That’s why over the Olympic break, her main focus is figuring out how to take care of her body. “Figuring out the perfect recovery strategy for my body is something that I’m working on,” Boyette said. “As well as my wind and my conditioning, because it was definitely noticeable between the first and second half of the season.”
Working on her game and her body isn’t the only thing Boyette has been up to during her time off, however. She had a to take a night to finally meet one of her idols: 50 Cent. Boyette has been lobbying the rapper to come to a Sky game all season long, and while she was in Los Angeles working out, she finally had the chance to meet him in person.
Here’s how it went down.
“For the Olympic break I spent the first half in Texas with my husband, and the second half I spent in LA ’cause that’s where I’m from and that’s where my trainer is and everything. So I spent the second half in LA and the last day before we came back from break he posted his appearance,” she relayed.
“I texted my trainer, like, ‘Can’t go to work out, gotta meet 50, sorry.’ It was like an hour away, and my trainer was like, ‘No, you’re gonna workout.’ So I just drove an hour and I got there and I told his bouncers who I was, and finally they talked amongst each other and told his manager, and his manager remembered me. So he let me meet him … and then I had to workout at like 10 PM (laughs).”
As for the important question, is he going to come to a game?
“Yeah, he totally is,” Boyette said, excitedly. “His manager was like, ‘No, we actually have you scheduled for September, like you’re on the calendar, we’re actually coming.’ So that’s really cool.”
Hate it or love it, but with 50 Cent finally on board, the Sky winners of four of their last six, and Boyette emerging as a presence in the paint, the underdog’s on top. And she’s gon’ shine, homie, until her heart stops.