It wasn’t just that Erica Wheeler was left off the WNBA All-Star roster that irked coach Derek Fisher. It was that the Sparks guard, whose stat line was comparable to the one that earned her a nomination in 2019, didn’t appear on the ballot.
Fisher, still peeved from Nneka Ogwumike’s omission from Team USA’s Olympic team earlier that week, said it just didn’t make sense.
Wheeler, meanwhile, had a lighthearted reaction after the WNBA announced its All-Stars on June 30.
“My Twitter finger itchhhhhhhhhhhhinnnnn!!!,” Wheeler tweeted with a GIF of rapper Soulja Boy walking away from a microphone. “But ima gone bout my business!”
In the face of another slight, Wheeler has no problem proving herself again. She’s been doing it her entire career.
The 5-foot-7 guard is the first undrafted player to win WNBA All-Star MVP and is now authoring the latest act of her unexpected career with the Sparks. She was the team’s life raft in the first half of the season, averaging 14 points, 4.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds while starting all 19 games.
But the Sparks, in the first year of a post-Candace Parker rebuild, languished to a 6-13 record before the Olympic break. They lost the last six games as point guard Kristi Toliver was sidelined because of an eye injury. Toliver joined a long injury list featuring Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike as well as promising rookie Jasmine Walker.
The Sparks’ struggles have overshadowed Wheeler’s return to the WNBA after she sat out of the 2020 season. She recognizes that some might have forgotten about her. The fiery guard wants to reintroduce herself.
“I just try to let the world know who I am as a person,” Wheeler said. “I’m an authentic person. … Whatever is in the tank, I’m going to give it to you.”
Sitting at a picnic table outside of the Sparks’ Glendale practice facility in June, Wheeler knows the only way to survive in the WNBA is to play all-out every night. Two teammates were recently released. She’s familiar with that fate.
Undrafted out of Rutgers in 2013, Wheeler waited until 2015 to get her first WNBA opportunity. She parlayed a training camp contract into a roster spot with the Atlanta Dream but was cut after playing in 17 games. The New York Liberty picked her up and she played in three postseason games.
The third team was the charm for Wheeler. She started 107 of 136 games in four seasons with the Indiana Fever, including all 34 in 2019 when she made the All-Star team. She averaged 10.1 points, five assists and three rebounds per game.
At the height of her career, Wheeler felt poised to build on the success in 2020. Doctors had a different idea.
After contracting the coronavirus in July, Wheeler sat out of the WNBA’s bubble season when doctors discovered life-threatening fluid around her heart. She was stunned.
Wheeler, who said she didn’t experience any COVID-19 symptoms, went from running at least a mile a day with 20 additional sprints to nothing more strenuous than walking. She did no physical activity for at least three full months.
While the league assembled in Bradenton, Fla., for a historic and difficult season, Wheeler watched on TV and stayed busy completing DIY projects in the house she bought in June 2020.
It has four bedrooms, three baths and a brick façade. Her neighbors are primarily older, retired couples. It’s in a quiet area in Atlanta. It seems like a world away from her childhood home in Miami.
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Growing up in Liberty City, which is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Miami, Wheeler had as many as 13 people living in her grandmother’s three-bedroom home. The group included her two older sisters as well as aunts, uncles and cousins. Wheeler was the youngest and she loved the energy in the home. What lurked outside was more problematic.
“Growing up where I live, it’s either sports or drugs,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, with the guidance of her mother, Melissa Cooper, chose the former. While football was her first love, she stuck with basketball after the hits from boys who were outgrowing her became too bone-crushing. She was named a McDonald’s All-American and earned a scholarship to Rutgers.
Wheeler’s mother owned a beauty salon and barber shop to support the family. She was rarely in the busy home because she was constantly working. Basketball was how Wheeler imagined she could support her family financially in the future while assuring her mother she was safe.
“I thank God for the mother that I had to let me know what was right from wrong,” Wheeler said.
In the nine years since her mother died of cancer — a shock that nearly sucked the desire to play out of Wheeler as she entered her senior year at Rutgers — Wheeler still plays with the passion she learned from her.
More than anything, she wanted to make Cooper proud, which is why she finished her career at Rutgers and kept playing basketball despite not getting drafted. She settled for playing in Puerto Rico. She made $200 a week, but it wasn’t about the paycheck.
“It was getting back to what I love,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s passion for the game has defined her winding road in the WNBA, longtime friend Danny Lopez said. Lopez watched Wheeler travel to Puerto Rico, Turkey and Brazil before breaking through in the WNBA. Even after being named to the All-Star team, Wheeler trained with Lopez outside during the hot Miami summer when the coronavirus closed gyms.
The Miami natives have seen each other at their lowest and when Wheeler experienced one of her L.A. highs — a massive Adidas-funded billboard — it was Lopez who recorded the viral video that showed Wheeler doubled over in disbelief.
“A lot of people say they love the game, but when these types of situations come, it’s easy to quit or give up on your dreams like, ‘Oh, this is not meant for me,’” Lopez said. “But Erica, she knows that this is her calling.”
The Sparks have needed Wheeler’s resiliency during the tumultuous season.
Wheeler averages 28.2 minutes per game, the most for a Sparks player other than Nneka Ogwumike, who missed 12 games. Wheeler needed to set the tone for a piecemeal roster constructed with free-agent additions and in-season signings. The experience has helped Wheeler show off the traits Fisher hoped to see when he signed her as a free agent.
“Erica’s ability to get downhill and get into the paint and utilize her speed to break defenses down or force team defenses to react, that’s a gift,” the Sparks coach and general manager said.
As the Sparks get healthier after the Olympic break, Fisher is optimistic that Wheeler’s scoring and assists can improve along with the team’s fortunes.
The Sparks were one of two teams without a representative at the All-Star game that featured Team USA Olympians against the WNBA’s top players. Players can return home for the month-long Olympic layoff to decompress. After carrying the Sparks in the first half of the season, Wheeler deserved the break, but she said she would only stay off the court for four or five days.
She’s not done working yet.
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