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Sparks’ Tierra Ruffin-Pratt takes her seat on social justice council

Sparks guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, left, tries to steal the ball from Sun's guard Alyssa Thomas last season.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt should have been celebrating one of the best days of her basketball career. She made the Washington Mystics roster as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Instead, the night kicked off a nightmare as her 22-year-old cousin, Julian Dawkins, was fatally shot by an off-duty Arlington (Va.) County Sheriff’s deputy after the family’s celebration.

Getting the news crushed her. Then waiting for the investigation into the shooting to unfold made it worse. Waiting for the deputy to be arrested. Waiting for the trial. Waiting for justice. And then to hear that 45-year-old Craig Patterson was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

Seven years later, Ruffin-Pratt hopes she can make someone else’s wait a little easier as a member of the WNBA’s new social justice council.

“I know from a personal standpoint that getting justice is very important,” said Ruffin-Pratt, now a guard for the Sparks. “But justice to me may not be just as for someone else, so just being able to be there and be a helping hand in any way that I can.”

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Sparks forward and WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike offered Ruffin-Pratt’s name for the committee, which the WNBA announced July 6. The social justice council, headed by New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon, will lead campaigns to address inequality, implicit bias and systemic racism in the United States, the WNBA said in a statement. The group, which includes Chicago guard Sydney Colson, former league MVP Breanna Stewart of Seattle, former No. 1 overall pick A’ja Wilson of Las Vegas and Dallas rookie Satou Sabally, will host community conversations, virtual roundtables and player-produced podcasts.

“Even if we’re locked away in this bubble, we can still use our platforms as best we can [to] get everybody on the same page within the league,” Ruffin-Pratt said from Bradenton, Fla., where the WNBA plans to play a quarantined season amid the coronavirus outbreak at the IMG Academy. “Just get our voices out there and continue to be heard, even though we are not able to be out on the front lines.”

For some WNBA players, a strictly quarantined season, a pandemic and social unrest were reasons to pass. For Parker, those were reasons to play.

Four years after fining players for wearing black warmup shirts in a Black Lives Matter protest, saying the decision violated the league’s uniform guidelines, the WNBA seems to be fully embracing its role in social advocacy as barriers between sports and society continue to blur. For many within the league, it’s a good thing.

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“In this country, I think we’re finally ready to have these conversations and to feel uncomfortable while we do it,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said. “For many years, definitely the generation that I came through, it just was not something that was as acceptable for players to speak to issues that maybe we did not have experience in. If we were not social activists, then what role do we play in that regard? But that was just conditioning.”

During the WNBA’s opening weekend, which starts July 25, players will wear special jerseys with names of women who have been victims of police brutality and racial violence, including Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. Throughout the season, players will wear warmup shirts reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name.”

After six years in Washington, during which she helped the Mystics organize a Black Lives Matter protest and media blackout in 2016, Ruffin-Pratt started all but one game during her first season with the Sparks last year. She averaged 6.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game in the regular season. Like her willingness to help in any way possible on the social justice council, the 5-foot-11 guard is prepared to take on whatever role is necessary to help the Sparks chase a championship this season.

“If they need me to be a spot-up shooter, I’ll be that,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “If they need me to be a slasher, I’ll be that. But just helping the team out in any way possible.”


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