For Storm’s Tanisha Wright, basketball doors can close and life will bloom
Tanisha Wright could be ending a 10-year career as the heartbeat of the Storm. Basketball gave her a drive to succeed despite the pain of being abandoned by her mother before the age of 3. She knows there’s more to life than points and passes.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tanisha Wright file
Height, weight: 5-11, 165
Age: 30, born Nov. 29, 1983
Hometown: Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., raised in West Mifflin, Pa. Offseason home is in Charlotte, N.C.
High school: West Mifflin Area HS
College: Penn State
Drafted: No. 12 overall in 2005, by Storm. First Penn State player chosen in first round.
By the numbers
3 Times named Big Ten defensive player of the year
4 WNBA all-defensive first team (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013).
12.2 Points averaged during 2009 season, career best.
1,003 Assists, second in Storm history behind Sue Bird
Tanisha Wright and Tina Thompson sat next to each other on a postgame platform after being eliminated from the WNBA playoffs last year, teammates talking of a Storm season they called rewarding, despite a 17-17 record and first-round playoff loss.
Wright’s body sank and her head dipped when she was asked about playing with Thompson, whose Game 2 defeat was her retirement exit.
“She’s played 17 years,” Wright said, emphasizing every syllable. “I am tired now. I am absolutely exhausted after my ninth season.”
Backstage, she questioned whether she could even play a 10th, with deteriorating knees and dreams of life outside basketball. Now Seattle (12-21) prepares for its final game of the season Sunday at KeyArena, and it could be the last for the player who has been the heartbeat of the team for a decade.
Olympians Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Thompson got most of the attention, but players and coaches have pointed to Wright as the one who made the Storm tick.
Wright’s contract will expire at the end of the WNBA playoffs. Wright, 30, is an enigma who’s just now willing to reveal herself. And she’s planning for a future that’s just as enigmatic.
“Tanisha is going to walk away faster than any of us knows it,” said James Whitner, Wright’s cousin who has looked over her like a father. “It’s going to be because she wants a family. Basketball has run Tanisha’s life since she was 12 years old. She’s ready to be a human.”
Wright has missed only 10 WNBA games. Yet many in the KeyArena stands who wear her No. 30 jersey don’t know much about the player born in Brooklyn, abandoned by her mother before she was 3 and raised by her grandmother in West Mifflin, Pa., a borough southeast of Pittsburgh.
WRIGHT’S WORDS CUT like a cardiovascular surgeon when she describes how she’ll extract herself as the heart of the Storm and enter a life that could have little to do with basketball. Pieces have already been carved.
There’s her home in Charlotte, N.C. An established real estate company. And a bank account that could afford her an early retirement.
“Y’all don’t get the life when I’m not in Seattle and I’m doing other things and setting up a life outside of basketball,” Wright said, in her blunt style. “It would look abrupt, but to me, it would be very methodical, very planned out and it would be, ‘All right, this is the time.’ It would be true to me.”
The desire to have a normal relationship that can’t be cultivated while chasing a basketball dream around the globe is starting to pull Wright. Her most cherished love was a high school boyfriend she had through her sophomore year in college. They remain close as adults.
Wright, currently single, has a desire to be a mother but she can’t tell you much about her mom. Drugs destroyed her mother Victoria’s body and their relationship. Victoria died of heart failure in August 2011 at the age of 54.
Victoria had tried reaching out to her daughter, the second-oldest of 10, two years before her death. Phone conversations and face-to-face interactions between Tanisha and Victoria were brief because of the year-round schedule of a women’s pro basketball player.
And Tanisha was in the midst of the happiest time of her professional career. She helped the Storm through a historic 7-0 playoff run to win the 2010 WNBA championship, receiving a shoutout from President Obama when the team was honored in June 2011.
When news of her mother’s death came in August, Wright played that night in a loss to Atlanta. She cried uncontrollably later at the funeral, missing just one Storm game in the process of helping family deal with the loss.
But three years later, the statement is the same.
“I did not know my mother,” Wright said with a sad look.
TANISHA DOESN’T REMEMBER being abandoned by Victoria. Or the day her paternal grandmother, who already had taken custody of her, decided it was time to move the 3-year-old from the environment in Brooklyn she described as “trouble.”
Tanisha’s father was in and out of jail and unable to care for his daughter. Charles Berry, who died in 2007, did make appearances in her life, however.
“That was my son’s daughter,” said Thelma Berry, 74, Tanisha’s grandmother. “I already had custody (of Tanisha), and her mom — she had a strong personality; you’re not going to tell her too much.”
Berry said her granddaughter, one of her 16 grandchildren, has a strong mind, too. The similarities between Tanisha and her father’s side of the family is evident in Berry and Tanisha. They each seem to always have wide smiles on their faces and possess loud laughs and raspy voices that are often indistinguishable.
“I know exactly what I’m going to look like when I’m older,” Wright said, beaming.
Wright’s middle name is “Lovely” and she’s exactly that, like her grandmother. Berry, who had five children, is everybody’s grandma, Ma or Auntie, and still strong enough to care for her mother, who is 97 and suffers from Alzheimer’s.
Berry lives atop a hill not far from the projects in West Mifflin where she raised her granddaughter and near the family church, Morning Star Baptist. Berry said caregiving is in the family DNA, and runs through Wright.
Tanisha won’t flinch at having to care for her grandmother.
But that’s not necessary yet.
Berry worked nights as a janitor and other jobs to provide Tanisha safety in the projects. The television was always on, and Wright always had her own room with a TV, posters of the boy band Immature and hip-hop artist Mase on the walls.
“I used to love Romeo when I was a kid,” she admitted sheepishly.
“ ‘T’ valued the people that were there,” said Cash, her former Storm teammate. Cash was raised by a single mother across the river in the McKeesport projects. As a senior in high school, Cash’s team held Wright scoreless for the only time in Wright’s career.
“We’ve had conversations and (Wright) has to understand and have certain forgiveness for her mom,” Cash continued. “But her grandma was a rock for her. Her dad had an impact on her life. Those are special people that she really hung on to. When ‘T’ becomes a mom, she’s going to be amazing because she’s been through so much.”
WRIGHT’S BASKETBALL CAREER began on a playground in West Mifflin. The court was in the center of a 47-building housing complex. You could see the school bus enter and circle around the court. Kids would time the last play to the final second so they could still grab their bags and rush to catch the bus. Sometimes Wright had to race the same path to escape gunfire between gangs.
The volatile upbringing added to her grit and tough personality.
“The player that the Seattle Storm gets is not full-on Tanisha,” said Whitner, who is five years older. “In street ball, she’s going to go at your throat.”
Nish, as Wright was known, had hair barely longer than the dimples on a basketball because her grandmother was unable to style it.
Berry made sure Wright wore small hoop earrings to make it known she was a girl. The look evolved into a staple for Wright as an adult — the bigger the earrings the better, plus short, natural hairstyles.
Family describe Wright as a “girlie girl.” One with such strong maternal instincts “they were calling her ‘Ma’ at 3,” her grandmother said.
“When she went to prom, my neighbors, that was the first time they’d really seen her,” Berry said. “They couldn’t believe how beautiful she was.”
The easy conversion from tomboy to girlie girl could be why she didn’t have a problem in college at Penn State, where coach Rene Portland proudly had a rule: “No lesbians allowed.”
As Wright and childhood best friend Jess Strom were leading the Nittany Lions to the NCAA regional finals, teammate Jen Harris allegedly was being harassed by Portland for looking like a lesbian. Wright said she never had any problems with Portland.
“Rene was tough and she was tough on everybody equally,” said Strom, now the coach at California University of Pennsylvania. “(Portland’s rule against lesbians) was never brought up and it was never an issue.”
The opinionated Wright said she was able to challenge Portland without any backlash. The only problem was when Portland tried to make Wright play point guard as a freshman, prompting Wright to quit the team. For one day.
“I am not a point guard,” Wright says, so often and so quick it’s become a fun way to tease the slashing shooter. Wright will always have the last word, though.
“I’m not a point guard,” she repeats.
Wright was drafted by the Storm with the 12th pick in 2005. Brian Agler, who became the team’s coach in 2008, helped Wright take on point-guard duties, telling her she’d get more minutes if she could handle the ball and run the offense.
Last week, Wright became the 19th player in the WNBA to record 1,000 assists. She’s second to Bird on the Storm’s all-time list.
“Don’t tell her that’s a point guard’s stat,” Strom said, noting it was when the pair entered college that Wright said she was going to focus on becoming a great defender.
That was the skill that convinced former Seattle coach Anne Donovan to draft Wright. And it’s the role that helped Wright coexist on a decade’s worth of rosters with the best in the game, and be named to the league’s all-defensive team four times.
WRIGHT’S 10th WNBA SEASON has been her toughest.
Sellouts and victories at KeyArena had been the norm, including a perfect 17-0 run at home during the Storm’s 2010 championship season.
After the sixth home loss of this season, Wright couldn’t hold back the tears.
“I’m just not used to this,” Wright said a day after Seattle lost to New York in July. “I’ve been here for 10 years and we’ve had winning teams. ... Winning is a big part of the tradition here and the history. Sue and I are the only ones who really know and felt that.”
Thompson taught Wright that there’s more to basketball than the on-court successes. There’s the experiences off the court, the relationships, a world that’s irreplaceable. And when it’s time to leave, go.
Whitner, who owns the retail chain Social Status, convinced Wright to establish her Sky’s the Limit, LLC. She has rental properties around Charlotte and her avid television viewing now includes HGTV shows.
Wright’s savings were padded from overseas play in France, Israel and Turkey, in addition to her WNBA base salary ($107,500 this year). Whitner made sure Wright started saving money when she was young.
Wright drove a blue 2002 Dodge Stratus until she purchased a sleek Jaguar in 2013. Bass thumps through tinted windows as Wright rolls into the KeyArena parking lot for games.
“I acted like I didn’t have money to keep my money,” Wright said of her fiscally responsible nature.
Wright’s proudest purchase is her home in Charlotte. Teammate Camille Little lives about two hours away. Wright has family in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, short flights away. The space Wright helped design is always filled with love.
“To be where we come from and to be in this league and do things we’ve done … it’s an accomplishment,” said Cash.
It might be time for Wright to start enjoying it.