Why Natasha Cloud decided to opt out of the 2020 WNBA season
‘I understand that I chose the path that was much greater than myself and much greater than basketball’
Basketball hasn’t been at the forefront of Natasha Cloud’s mind for the past few months. The starting point guard for the reigning WNBA champion Washington Mystics can’t stop thinking about three people she never personally knew, but to whom she now feels eternally connected.
All three are African Americans who had their lives tragically taken as the product of an enduring culture of systematic racism and police brutality in the United States. Cloud has come to learn their stories and won’t stop speaking their names:
“We are George Floyd. We are Breonna Taylor. We are Ahmaud Arbery,” said Cloud, a 28-year-old biracial woman who identifies as Black.
She’ll never forget May 25, the night she first saw the horrific footage of the 46-year-old Floyd being killed while in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers.
“I watched the whole video for 8 minutes and 46 seconds … and, I mean, I had tears rolling down my face,” Cloud recalled. “You literally see every part of that man losing his life and being murdered in broad daylight in front of people. I was sick. You go from seeing him telling the officer, ‘I can’t breathe’ to him calling out for his mom. You see his nose start bleeding. You see him take his last breath. You see him dead on the ground. You see them just throw his dead body on a gurney. It shook me to my core. …
“I didn’t need to know George to feel shook, because I am George Floyd. … Every Black American, man or woman — we are him. That is the reality in which we live every single day.”
Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds incited the already outspoken Cloud to speak up even louder.
On May 30, she penned a thoughtful essay for The Players’ Tribune. The message in the 1,300-word piece — a call to action to anyone who dared to read what she had to say — can be summed up by her unapologetically audacious final four lines:
“If you’re silent, you are a part of the problem. If you’re silent, I don’t f— with you, period. Because I’m just out here trying to stay alive. And your knee is on my neck.”
On July 25, exactly two months to the day after Floyd was killed, the WNBA will return to play at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Mystics will be without their floor general for their title defense.
“It’s hard to think about basketball with the climate of what we’re in right now socially after George Floyd was murdered,” Cloud said. “It’s been really hard to be motivated to even play basketball. Because as a Black person in America, you feel it to your core. … We feel this differently.”
For the first time in her life, Cloud will miss an entire basketball season. Though her decision to sit out wasn’t easy, it was carefully considered.
The Mystics had a team meeting previously scheduled for the day following the killing of Floyd. But when Mike Thibault, Washington’s head coach and general manager, joined the video call, he steered the conversation in a different direction.
“It originally was gonna be a basketball call on X’s and O’s. But it certainly was more the time and place to be talking about things rather than basketball,” said Thibault, the WNBA’s all-time winningest coach. “We’ve finally reached the point where we have something that was so graphic that it was hard to dismiss for anybody. I don’t care who you were. You couldn’t dismiss it. I think that, unfortunately, maybe the world needed something like that to put us over the edge and on the right path.”
After addressing the entire team, Thibault reached out to his point guard directly. They started engaging in conversations that over the course of the ensuing weeks would help Cloud arrive at her decision to sit out the season.
“Coach T began checking on me every day,” Cloud said. “And he was not only just checking in on me as Natasha Cloud, his player, but also his Black daughter. That’s how he treats us all. And he understands my calling is much bigger than basketball.”
Cloud first popped onto Thibault’s radar during her college days, which began at the University of Maryland before she transferred and played three seasons at Saint Joseph’s University. Cloud’s defensive prowess and vocal leadership stood out to Thibault, leading the Mystics to select her with a second-round pick in the 2015 WNBA draft.
“When we drafted her, we knew that she was an outspoken person on her college team — that she would speak her mind,” Thibault said. “She was somebody who, if she had an opinion, you were gonna know it. And as she kind of found her footing here in D.C., while becoming an integral part of everything we did, her leadership on the court got better and it enhanced off of it.”
Throughout the Mystics’ 2019 championship season, during which she was presented with the prestigious Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award, Cloud put her voice and platform as an athlete on full display by confronting gun violence reform head-on in Washington.
When the WNBA participated in National Gun Violence Awareness Day June 7, players throughout the league were provided with T-shirts that read “The W Wears Orange” in support of the Wear Orange campaign, organized by Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country. But Cloud felt compelled to do more, especially after three bullets, within a month, were shot into Hendley Elementary School, located in Southeast Washington, two miles away from the Mystics’ home arena, forcing the students’ field day to be canceled.
“That was an ‘aha! moment’ for her,” Thibault said. “She took on gun violence as her first major cause to stand up for as a player in D.C.”
In response to the shootings, Cloud used social media to publicly call out Washington mayor Muriel Bowser and local city council member Trayon White for failing to address the multiple shootings in the community.
Here’s @T_Cloud4 on Instagram, announcing a media blackout tomorrow at the WNBA Finals rematch if Ward 8 rep Trayvon White and Mayor Bowser don’t get back her w/ a plan to address gun violence in Ward 8. She visited an elementary school that’s seen 3 bullets in 1 month. pic.twitter.com/LjDOmrmLto
— Lindsay Gibbs (@linzsports) June 13, 2019
After Cloud didn’t receive a response from either elected official, she held a media blackout following the Mystics’ June 14 home matchup with the Seattle Storm, a rematch of the 2018 WNBA Finals. She served as the only player on her team to speak to reporters after the game, while vowing not to address anything — and intentionally not basketball — outside of the gun violence that affected Hendley Elementary. “I will only discuss this topic,” Cloud said that night, “until it’s fixed.”
For the rest of the season, en route to the Mystics winning the 2019 WNBA title, Cloud continued to advocate for gun violence awareness by rocking her “The W Wear Orange” T-shirt ahead of every game.
“She was wearing that same shirt to warm up before games because she still wanted that message to be out there,” said Atlanta Dream point guard Renee Montgomery, one of Cloud’s close friends in the league. “That triggered in my mind, ‘OK, she’s really about this life.’ ”
When Floyd was killed, Cloud was less than a week from one of the biggest moments of her career. After five seasons in the WNBA, she was set to announce she had landed a major endorsement deal with a footwear company. Converse noticed the stature Cloud had risen to as much more than an athlete — from her willingness to speak out against racial injustice to her advocacy for gun violence reform in the nation’s capital, as well as for the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community, as an openly bisexual woman. She would become the first women’s basketball player to partner with Converse since the brand relaunched into hoops in 2018, after nearly a decade away from the sport.
“Natasha Cloud is the starting point guard for the reigning champion Washington Mystics. Everybody should understand that’s a big reason she deserves this deal,” Montgomery said. “However, when Converse signed her, they specifically stated that they signed her for her social stances. That’s huge. Because companies are showing that they don’t only value you on the court, but they value you as a person off it. To me, that said a lot.”
Though she signed her contract with Converse in December, the official announcement wasn’t scheduled until May, which would end up being the same week of Floyd’s death.
“We were building up to this late May launch with her and were really excited about approaching the nuances of how to bring her story to life,” said Ron Johnson, Converse’s general manager of global basketball. “Then we saw George Floyd being brutally murdered by the police and Natasha was very quick to say, ‘There is something more important to talk about right now. There is something more important to leverage my platform behind.’ We got behind her 1,000% from that point. We delayed the launch and flipped the script completely on its head.”
While the announcement of her deal was delayed, Cloud wasted no time continuing to use her platform. She attended protests in Philadelphia, near her hometown of Broomall, Pennsylvania, where she was raised as the only Black member on her white mother’s side of the family. And Converse pledged a $25,000 donation on behalf of Cloud, who decided to direct it to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
On June 8, Converse finally shared news of its partnership with a powerful statement from Cloud: “The biggest thing is for me to use my platform as a microphone. That’s the goal, be a voice for the voiceless.” In the midst of the country’s current racial climate, Cloud took pride in becoming the face of Converse in women’s basketball — particularly as a Black woman.
“It’s important for us to be led and to partner with the right people,” said Johnson, who is African American. “Natasha’s ability to touch on, speak to and lift her community, and all the communities she supports, in a very authentic and real way, is important.”
Cloud had reached the peak of her career with a WNBA championship and new brand deal in tow. But she had also arrived at a crossroads. In late May, Cloud, as a representative on behalf of the Mystics, participated in negotiations between the league and players union for a new start date to the WNBA season. But now she was starting to contemplate whether she would even play this season and have the opportunity to represent Converse on the court in 2020.
Cloud was skeptical about entering the WNBA’s bubble at this juncture of the fight for social justice in America — and she wasn’t alone in her thinking.
Led by Brooklyn Nets All-Star Kyrie Irving and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Avery Bradley (both of whom opted out of the NBA’s restart), a conference call on the night of June 12 was held between more than 100 players. The Lakers’ Dwight Howard — whom Cloud developed a friendship with while the big man played in Washington during the 2018-19 season — invited the Mystics point guard to join for an open discussion about plans for basketball to return this season.
On the call, Irving reportedly said, “I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bulls—,” while also expressing that he was “willing to give up everything” for social reform. Cloud saw where he was coming from.
“He raised valid points but was drowned out. Because at the end of the day, when we take these jerseys off, we are humans. We are Black men and women. These issues that we’re fighting for, these issues that we’re raising, they directly affect us every single day of life.
“You can support me, you can support Kyrie, on a basketball court, when we’re scoring and winning championships. But you can’t support us in our everyday life as Black people in America? Don’t support me on the court, if you can’t support me in my everyday life.”
Cloud was one of six WNBA players on the call — a group that included Montgomery, who on June 18 became the first player to opt out of the 2020 season due to social justice reform.
On June 19, the Mystics and Washington Wizards, led by Cloud and two-time All-Star Bradley Beal, observed the Juneteenth holiday by teaming up for a march in Washington from Capital One Arena to the city’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
“I knew before the march that I was going to sit out,” Cloud said. “But I didn’t want to take any attention away from the march and how powerful it was. I held onto my decision and announced it three days afterward. I didn’t want the march to be about me. I wanted it to be about how impactful we, the Mystics and the Wizards are as a united front in D.C.”
That weekend, before she officially made her announcement on social media, Cloud spoke to Thibault once more. The phone call marked the fifth conversation between the head coach and point guard in the four weeks between Floyd’s death and her final decision.
“As she talked,” Thibault said, “she just said how draining this all was becoming and that she didn’t know — both from a physical and mental standpoint — whether the right thing for her to do was to play basketball this summer.”
Cloud had thought long and hard about traveling to Florida and envisioned what her daily life would be like upon entering the bubble for the season. But in the end — through countless conversations with family, her fiancee (professional softball player Aleshia Ocasio) as well as teammates — she just couldn’t imagine a scenario that would allow her to dedicate an equal amount of energy to both basketball and advocating for racial and social justice.
“In this very moment, there’s never been this much momentum and this much leverage behind Black Lives Matter. There’s never been so many big companies and white counterparts jump on board,” Cloud said. “So you have to capitalize on that. Going into a bubble, being off the front lines, being out of my community, that’s not capitalizing, personally, for me. Capitalizing is forgoing a three-month season.
“Athletes are perfectionists and having three games every week, where I have to watch endless amounts of film, I have to prepare to guard the best player on the opposing team, I have to prepare for setting my team up as the point guard and floor general — that takes away from my commitment to social reform. I didn’t want to be one foot in, one foot out with basketball. And I didn’t want to be one foot out, one foot in with social reform.”
During that last call, Thibault raised one important question.
“I played devil’s advocate, just on, ‘Do you feel like you have a big enough platform doing it on your own? Or do you want the platform of the league to give you more visibility because of your status?’ ” he recalled. “But she felt like she just wanted a year to see where this went. …
“She’s gotten her voice publicly because she’s a basketball player and now she’s saying, ‘How do I use that and not just be looked at as a basketball player?’ That’s admirable.”
As she came to her decision, Cloud felt obligated to keep Converse in the loop. Similar to her conversations with Thibault, she spoke candidly to Adrian Stelly, the brand’s director of basketball sports marketing, about her thought process.
“I was nervous,” Cloud said. “Like, ‘Damn, I just signed with Converse. Now here I am saying I’m not gonna play.’ It technically is a breach in my contract … but I just had to be open and honest.”
Stelly acknowledged the sacrifice Cloud was making. So he worked with Johnson and Jesse Stollak, Converse’s chief marketing officer, to ensure that the partnership provided Cloud with support in the biggest possible way.
“I understood that I was going to take on a huge financial burden by sitting this season out, but I was willing to,” said Cloud, who won’t receive any of her WNBA salary for the year. “It was about understanding money isn’t everything, but this fight is.”
In late June, Stelly called Cloud with unexpected news that brought tears to her eyes.
“Once we learned about Natasha’s decision, we quickly acted and said we’d match her forfeited players’ salary,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
For the past few weeks, as players arrived in Florida to prepare for the start of the 2020 WNBA season, Cloud has maintained her mark as one of the most powerful voices in the league, even without entering the bubble.
After Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, reached out to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert to denounce the league’s plans to dedicate the season to the Black Lives Matter movement, Cloud responded to the letter on Twitter — “Get her weak a– out of our league,” she wrote — before appearing on CNN to discuss the problematic impact of the politician’s words.
“Our league is made up of 80% of Black females,” says WNBA star Natasha Cloud about Atlanta Dream co-owner Sen. Loeffler’s critic of the WNBA’s Black Lives Matter initiative. “To be a partial owner…but you don’t support them when they take their uniforms off—it’s a problem.” pic.twitter.com/s6eHOhIolQ
— CNN Tonight (@CNNTonight) July 8, 2020
When Mystics star and reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, who suffers from Lyme disease, had her medical opt-out request for the 2020 season denied, Cloud spoke up again on Twitter. “It’s bulls—. @WNBA either play or risk her life … what do we stand for? Cause apparently it’s not the players,” Cloud said in support of her teammate and close friend.
“Natasha speaks without regret,” Montgomery said. “She says things boldly. That’s her personality. That’s her message. That’s just her. And it works.”
Don’t expect her volume to be turned down anytime soon. Cloud, who plans to return to the WNBA in 2021, will continue to employ her voice and platform while away from basketball. Exactly two months ago, Floyd’s death completely reshaped America as well as the role sports can play in society. And in the process, that moment had a lasting effect on Cloud, who saw herself, and those who look like her, in the video documenting the killing of yet another Black person in this country.
“Opting out of a whole season is a scary thing,” Cloud said. “The WNBA is a small league of 144 players. It’s extremely hard to get into our league and keep your job. I do feel confident in who I am and how I’ve solidified myself as a championship point guard. So if it comes down to it, and God forbid, something happens with my career in the WNBA, I’ll be OK with it.
“Because I understand that I chose the path that was much greater than myself and much greater than basketball.”