Seimone Augustus found his voice long before training

The first time Seimone Augustus realized what he was capable of was not when, at age 14, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Women with the question “Is it She the next Michael Jordan?

When Augustus, a WNBA A legend who retired this year after 15 seasons, reflects on the moments that made her realize her potential, thinks of the bleachers at Capitol High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He led the team to consecutive state titles, scoring 3,600 points and losing just seven games in four years.

The school is in the center of the predominantly black neighborhood where she grew up, a neighborhood she described as tight-knit and filled with “a group of people you would never know who helped make my game the way it is.” However, with each victory, the crowds that gathered to watch Augustus play at the Capitol Gym began to look different.

“The same white people who, if we had seen them driving down the street a year ago, would have been pounding the locks with their elbows and zooming in all of a sudden were hugging when they got to the gym, wanting to experience whatever they experienced while watching I play,” Augustus said.

Only then did Augustus begin to realize the kind of change his supernatural abilities on the court could allow him to push. “I think I figured it out then,” he said. “It was just a melting pot of people, the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen.”

Augustus’ legacy as a player: pioneer of women’s basketball, three times An Olympic gold medalist and the cornerstone of four-time champion Minnesota Lynx, one of basketball’s great dynasties, is not in doubt. But she is also one of the most innovative and progressive sports activists. Now, as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks, Augustus is working to help her players find the same comfort and freedom that she had on the court and find ways to use her influence to advocate for themselves and their communities outside of basketball.

“How can I make this a safe space for you to feel free and express yourself through basketball?” she asks them.

Basketball has long served as that kind of refuge for Augustus.

“To be honest, just being me was difficult,” she said, explaining that she was bullied in high school. “Every day walking down the aisle I was like, ‘She’s gay. She’s gay. ‘

Augustus’s parents and family were supportive, but others were hostile. “There were parents who came up to my parents and said, ‘Because her daughter is gay, she makes my daughter feel like she’s gay,’” Augustus said. “People I’ve never met in my life blame me for something their son is now choosing to express.”

At the same time, Augustus was racking up just about all the accolades a high school basketball player could hope for, and trying to consider how the racist legacy of the Deep South community he grew up in would determine where he chose to play in college. . Louisiana State University, his hometown school, did not employ Black Professor, Julian T. White, until 1971. “Throughout the entire recruiting process, I had so many people say, ‘Don’t go there,’” he said.

In the end, he decided to attend LSU anyway – he wanted the opportunity both to stay close to home and to build a winning program rather than join an established powerhouse like Tennessee or Connecticut. “I had a lot of older black people who said, ‘Just stepping on this campus was a lot for me, and I did it for you,’” Augustus said. “I think it helped them break free. Like, at least we’re at peace enough to be able to enjoy this moment. “

Those experiences laid the foundation for Augustus’ transition to public-facing activism, which required self-confidence and sensitivity. His first foray into defense was appropriately personal: He was publicly featured in LGBTQ magazine. Lawyer in May 2012, detailing his relationship and plans to marry LaTaya Varner.

Augustus’s profile has never been higher, given that she had just led the Lynx to their first title, in 2011, and had been named the Most Valuable Player of the Finals that year. But the decision was still risky. It would be years before the WNBA started a league-wide LGBTQ pride program in 2014, and the timing was crucial as Minnesotans would vote on a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in November.

“It was like the first time I went out and used my voice,” Augustus said. “I felt like I was in a place in my life where I was ready to be open with people. I don’t think it was a big surprise, but for the people who needed it, it really helped. I had so many people come, like, ‘I was able to tell my mom after 40 years.’

He continued to speak to the media about the issue, telling his own story as a reprimand for Minnesota’s proposed amendment. He was defeated and same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states. shortly after Augustus and Varner married in 2015. They later divorced.

“When he came out of the closet in 2012 and then started doing so much intentional work in Minnesota around marriage equality, we saw Seimone and then other WNBA players start conversations that were very reminiscent of the activism of athletes from the 1960s,” Anne said. Lieberman, Athlete Ally Director of Policy and Programs.

Those conversations were never more influential than in 2016, when Lynx stars, including Augustus, began publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. They spoke out against police brutality and wore T-shirts during warm-up exercises bearing the motto of the movement in the wake of the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling before Colin Kaepernick, for the same cause, made waves by kneeling during the national anthem. . at NFL games.

For Augustus, both murders resonated deeply. She had talked about racial profiling by police in the Minneapolis suburbs in 2012, where Castilla was murdered four years later; the corner store where Sterling was murdered was the same one where she used to buy snacks as a child in Baton Rouge.

“Obviously, the police have stopped us all before,” Augustus said. “My dad was in the city of Minneapolis and the police arrested him. It could very well have been my father, my cousin, my uncle or anyone else. “

The WNBA players fined for wearing the jerseys, before rescinding the fines after the protest of the player and the public. Four Lynx security guards, all cops off duty, came out during a game in response to the actions of the players.

“We had cops abandon us and leave the Target Center wide open for people to just – if they wanted to come in and do something to us, we had no one there to protect us,” Augustus said. “Because we wear T-shirts. Because people don’t want to be held accountable for their actions. “

In the wake of George Floyd’s assassination last year, the WNBA more proactively encouraged player activism as part of its identity, four years after Lynx first took a position. “Now it’s like, ‘We’re celebrating you!’ And we thought, ‘Aha, you’re celebrating now, but in previous years, it was kind of hard to get you to accept it,’ ”Augustus said.

He still remembers meetings where the league, he said, tried to entice players to wear more makeup and smaller uniforms, and how in his early playing years it was players with husbands and children who seemed to get all the publicity. “They said, ‘We don’t have a cool factor,’ and I was like, ‘U.S cool, what are you talking about? ‘”Augustus said. “It’s crazy the conversations we had to have.”

In an emailed statement in response to Augustus’ comments, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert cited the emphasis on LGBTQ + rights by the league’s Social Justice Council, which was established last season.

“The WNBA has long been one of the most inclusive and welcoming sports leagues in terms of its commitment to players and fans,” he said, adding, “Today, that commitment continues to grow with countless demonstrations of inclusion and with the understanding that there will always be more work to be done. “

Augustus has always prioritized the game itself, and that’s no different now that she’s a coach. But the seemingly effortless way in which she has integrated fighting for herself and her community into her basketball career seems to rub off on her protégés.

“She played the game with a style and a confidence that would tell you she wants to be the loudest person in the room, but she really doesn’t,” said Sparks coach Derek Fisher. “She just wants to help people improve and serve others.”

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