Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Imani McGee-Stafford Sees The WNBA As Just The Beginning

'If I die and the only thing people say is that I could ball, I'll feel like I failed. I want to make the most of the time I have'

By Michell C. Clark

Imani McGee-Stafford plays by her own rules. The 24-year-old WNBA center, who is in her fifth season in the league and her first season with the Dallas Wings, is equally concerned with performing to the best of her ability on the court and using her platform to speak out on issues like the anti-abortion bills emerging across the country. (She told ThinkProgress in May, “I am pro-minding-my-business.”)

The Los Angeles native, who is the daughter of gold medalist Pamela McGee and the younger sister of two-time NBA champion JaVale McGee, credits her family for teaching her how to embrace every facet of her identity. But her past also serves as a motivating force behind her work as a mentor and mental health advocate.

After her parents divorced when McGee-Stafford was three years old, her mother and JaVale moved to Flint, Michigan, while McGee-Stafford moved to Inglewood, California with her father, Reverend Kevin Stafford. She began experiencing suicidal ideations after repeated sexual molestation by a family member; she was also forced to live with different relatives, and subsequently turned to basketball as an escape. While attending the University of Texas at Austin on full athletic scholarship, she discovered slam poetry as a means of openly expressing, processing, and healing from painful memories.

Poetry continues to serve as a means of self-expression and healing for McGee-Stafford, who released a book of poems called Notes In The Key of Heartbreak in January 2018. The book details the emotional highs and lows of her first marriage and subsequent divorce. She also plans to launch her non-profit, the Hoops and Hope Foundation, later this year, and takes trips to college campuses to share her insights and experiences via closed-door conversations with administrators and female student-athletes. As an Adidas athlete, she takes part in the Adidas Legacy program by visiting inner city public schools with other women who work for the brand  to show students the different career paths that they can pursue through sports.

MTV News spoke with McGee-Stafford about her mental health advocacy, how she uses basketball as a vehicle to create opportunities, and what it means to nurture the full identity of Black athletes.

MTV News: How are you feeling about the beginning of this season? What dreams do you have for you and your team this year?

Imani McGee-Stafford: I'm excited to have a new opportunity in Dallas. Coach Agler is detail-oriented in a way that’s reminiscent of my college coach. We don't leave practice until we get it right. I appreciate perfectionism in a coach. It can be frustrating in the moment, but it lets you know that he believes in you.

I played for the University of Texas at Austin, so it's nice to be back around my Longhorn family. I didn't play much for the Atlanta Dream, so I’m hoping to carve my niche in Dallas. We have our sights set on the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what the situation is — that's the goal.

MTV News: It feels like people are finally paying more attention to the WNBA on social media and giving athletes like you your due. Have you seen a shift in how people are embracing the sport? What do you think led to that?

McGee-Stafford: CBS Sports starting to broadcast our games has been a big step. We have a long way to go, but we’re ahead of the curve in comparison to other professional women’s sports leagues. We’re the most accomplished, and the highest paid. Having people like Skylar Diggins and Liz Cambage be willing to put themselves out there means a lot. Having Derek Fisher as a WNBA coach is big, too.

MTV News: On the flip side, you’ve spoken out against the sexism you and your teammates have faced. What has that experience taught you?

McGee-Stafford: I was raised by powerful women, including my mother. I also grew up around men who advocated for me. I was never told to back down. My big brother JaVale would take me to play ball with him. The 2011 NBA lockout was the best time of my life because I got to go to open gyms and be on the court with him.

I’ve always had people pushing me forward, and I’ve grown comfortable with that. A lot of women don't have that. Men are given the opportunity to be openly imperfect. Women are told to shrink and fit in instead of embracing who we are. I've learned that it’s OK to be imperfect. I'm a mess sometimes, but I want you to see it, and to be comfortable with my imperfections.

MTV News: Why did you turn to basketball? Did you always want to compete at the WNBA level?

McGee-Stafford: My brother is seven feet tall, and I'm 6'7", which made it clear that basketball was what we were going to do. Everybody knew I was going to play basketball before I did. I didn’t play seriously until high school. I had my own website, sang, and wrote poetry. I thought I was going to be the next Alicia Keys.

During my freshman year in high school, I got the lead role in the school play and made the varsity basketball team. As I began to plan for my future, I realized that basketball was probably the only way I’d be able to pay for college.

MTV News: You have referred to basketball as a vehicle that provides unprecedented opportunities for athletes to experience the world. How do you ultimately seek to use basketball as a vehicle in your life?

McGee-Stafford: I believe that the only reason I'm playing basketball for a living is so that I can talk about mental illness, sexual abuse, and healthy relationships. I thought I was the only person experiencing those issues when I was growing up. Now that I have this platform, I have to use it to let people know that they’re not alone.

When basketball sucks I know that I have the chance to help people and impact lives. That's why I wake up every day. I’m launching a non-profit called the Hoops and Hope Foundation later this year. If I die and the only thing people say is that I could ball, I'll feel like I failed. I want to make the most of the time I have.

MTV News: What are your plans for the foundation?

McGee-Stafford: The Hoops and Hope Foundation has three purposes. The first is to facilitate family friendly conversations about sexual violence, sexual abuse, and healthy relationships. Secondly, I want to help bridge the gap between arts and athletics. I live in a gray area as someone actively living as both an athlete and an artist. We tend to force children to be one or the other at a fairly early point in life. I want them to know that they can be artsy and still be a boss on the court.

Lastly, I want to get funding and house therapists in inner city schools in order to help break the school-to-prison pipeline. Oftentimes the children who get labeled as “bad” need more attention and nurturing than public school systems can offer. They get shuttled from alternative schools to juvenile detention centers, and the cycle continues. My goal for inner cities is to give them the capacity to stop suspending kids and send them to therapists instead.

MTV News: The WNBA isn’t without its struggle points as an organization, in every respect from pay to fan support. What do you hope happens in the future of the WNBA, especially as a player?

McGee-Stafford: I want the WNBA to be around when I have kids. I'm the first second-generation WNBA player. My mom was the 2nd pick in the first WNBA draft in 1997. I'm part of the first age group of female basketball players that grew up knowing that it was possible to play basketball professionally in the United States after college. If I have a daughter, I want her to be able to envision that possibility.

MTV News: You advocate for nurturing the full identity of the Black athlete. What do you mean by that, and what would a better support system look like?

McGee-Stafford: When you're a college athlete, they don't give you time to love anything outside of the sport. You are an unpaid professional athlete. Many athletes graduate with no sense of self. They don't know what their other skills are, or what else they like to do outside of playing their sport. Everyone else in college is finding themselves. I'm always telling athletes to build other skills and do other things because their athletic career is finite.

My alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, has a Black student-athlete summit every year. I wish I was more aware of it when I was in school. The summit pushes athletes to have serious conversations and see that there are other options outside of professional sports. We need to have more of those conversations.

MTV News: What inspired you to open up about your own mental health journey?

McGee-Stafford: It was an accident. I was on the youth slam poetry team in college and we went to an international poetry festival. I had to miss practice in order to take that trip, so my coach made a deal with me. I had to take Longhorn Network, ESPN’s 24-hour network dedicated to University of Texas athletics, with me in order to generate some good publicity.

I was performing a poem about the abuse that I experienced as a child. I didn’t think my poem would be a big deal to a lot of people, but it ended up getting picked up by ESPN for a SportsCenter feature and became much bigger than me. So many people reached out with words of encouragement, or to share their stories.

I'm aware of the privilege I have to be able to talk about my trauma due to the fact that I'm no longer in active danger. I live in a profession where I can do what I want. I'm happy that I opened up and told my story because doing so allowed me to understand my purpose.

MTV News: Where do you find inspiration for your poetry? How has that work helped you in other areas of your life?

McGee-Stafford: Life inspires my poetry. For the longest time, my poetry was how I coped and dealt with extreme emotions. Now, it's just something that I do. I appreciate that I’ve healed from those extreme emotions to the point that I can simply enjoy the art. When I need to express myself, it’s fun to write things out. I love going to poetry readings and seeing other people take their walls down.

I had written enough poetry to put out a book by the time I was 15 or 16, but I didn't think any of my work was important enough to publish. My marriage changed that. I got married and divorced very early in life. I didn’t believe in divorce, and I still don’t — even though I had to choose that for myself. I released Notes In The Key of Heartbreak as I sought to memorialize something I was deeply ashamed of. I had to publicly express that while things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to, the love that I felt and the moments that we created were real.

MTV News: You’ve been vocal about your belief in the right to choose, especially in light of the anti-choice legislation sweeping the country. What inspired you to use your platform to support that cause?

McGee-Stafford: It's important. Certain media channels tend to portray women who get abortions in a negative light, but women who get abortions oftentimes have no other option. People who are [anti-choice] don’t believe in providing assistance once the baby is born. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business to judge a woman’s reasoning for getting an abortion. I can’t say for sure that if I got pregnant tomorrow, I would carry a child to term.

I got birth control at a Planned Parenthood for the first time when I was 16 or 17. I never knew a life without access to Planned Parenthood. When I went to college in Texas, they were shutting down Planned Parenthood, which served as the only accessible means of healthcare for a lot of people. I know firsthand how important they are, so I had to speak out.

MTV News: Speaking out on polarizing issues can be a point of contention for many athletes, especially in light of the way Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted after protesting police brutality. Why is it important to you to use your platform to speak out?

McGee-Stafford: My platform is a blessing and a privilege. I’m from Inglewood. A lot of my friends don't have a college education and are still at home working. As a part-time basketball player, I make more money than my father does. Many people would give so much to have what’s mine. I'd be doing myself and my people a disservice if I stopped talking about things that I think are important when I’ve been blessed to beat the odds.