As the WNBA Playoffs tip off this week, there are star players in the league who are running out of chances at the top prize: Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles.
They are not retired yet but Parker is the youngest at 35 and has already started crafting her post-playing career on the likes of TNT’s NBA coverage.
They have all taken care of their bodies and have received lengthy careers in return, with each of the above winning championships. But they are also among the lucky ones – health won’t always be there.
Take, for example, Elena Delle Donne. She won a championship in 2019, but was dealing with a back injury that she picked up in the previous season’s Finals run, and then played in the FIBA Women’s World Cup for Team USA.
As a result, she missed the 2020 season – also due to concerns about Covid-19 – and the Washington Mystics missed the chance to defend their title. This year her health has failed again with a bad back. She hopes to be on the court again one day, but it goes to show that athletic playing careers are short, and leaving the game is not always your choice.
Then there’s Ruthie Bolton. During the early years of the WNBA, ‘Mighty Ruthie’ was a force. She was the first ever Player of the Week and finished the inaugural season on the All-WNBA Team.
Bolton had an advantage of being a professional basketball player for several years by the time the league started in 1997, much like two-time MVP Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.
After graduating from Auburn eight years earlier, Bolton played in Sweden, Hungary and Italy while also representing, and leading Team USA to multiple Olympic and World Championship gold medals.
While she could be a go-to scorer, it was her defensive presence that set her apart, being a rare stopper at the small guard position.
Bolton’s Sacramento Monarchs didn’t have the outrageous talent to compete with Cooper-Dyke’s Houston Comets or Lisa Leslie’s LA Sparks early on, but the franchise added the likes of Ticha Penicheiro, Yolanda Griffith and Tangela Smith over the years to complement Bolton’s talent.
They became one of the best teams in the league, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. While the regular season records were still great, they kept flaming out in the playoffs, and with Bolton being at her peak when the WNBA first tipped off in 1997, it was becoming difficult to maintain her status as a starter and a leader as the league grew.
The youth movement came. The likes of Rebbekah Brunson, Kara Lawson and Nicole Powell took on bigger roles before the Monarchs encouraged Bolton to retire at the end of 2004.
“It felt like rejection,” Bolton told Sky Sports.
She competed for a spot at training camp in 2005, but it wasn’t to be.
However, it was that season, with Bolton taking on a back-room job away from the court, that the Monarchs finally broke through and won their first and last WNBA championship.
She said: “That was one of the toughest times in my life. It was a tough place. I felt like I was sinking in a hole. After all the years I’d played, and commitment to the organisation, some things didn’t go the way I wanted. I wasn’t ready to retire and I felt like I was rejected and abandoned in some ways.”
The Monarchs folded in 2009 but those few years during the middle of the decade, it felt like Sacramento was ready to become the home of basketball – not only in the WNBA but with the Sacramento Kings in the men’s NBA as they battled with the LA Lakers for championship opportunities.
The sucker punch of missing out on a championship, and the empty city left a huge hole in Bolton’s life.
She said: “My father had passed away at the time and he was my rock and I couldn’t talk to him. He was my anchor. Dealing with that at the time, and retiring from something I’d done for 25 years, it all came to a screeching halt… I had to really dig deep and pray, I had to face my adversaries.
“I felt like the organisation had done me wrong. That situation was so easy for me to become unhealthy mentally, as I was still working for the organisation and had to show up to work every day.”
There’s no denying she had slowed down by 2004 but in that first year she showed her professional experience, averaging 19 points, nearly six rebounds – reminder, she’s 5ft 9in – two and a half assists and more than two steals per game.
As the talent around her grew, she did less in the scoring column, but as they started making the playoffs in 1999, that was where ‘Mighty Ruthie’ showed up. She was the best player on the court through the two games they played in 2000 against the Houston Comets.
If the WNBA had started five years earlier and it was presenting its top 30 players of all time this season, she would probably be on the list, but the tail end of her peak came too soon, just as the league was beginning to blossom.
Bolton isn’t upset about not being named in the W25 – the top-25 player list as voted on by the media, which was released last week – but she played with the likes of Ticha Penicheiro and Yolanda Griffith, both of whom made it.
However, Rebbekah Brunson’s absence caused some shock – she is the only player ever to win five championships and was the all-time rebounding leader until last season. Tangela Smith is in the top 25 all-time scorers but was also not voted to be a top 25 player.
Bolton said: “I’ve heard a lot of discussion about the top 25. I think there’s a lot of great players and there will always be players that are unhappy. There’s always going to be that discussion over this player or that player. It’s an honour for those that get it.
“I wasn’t up there, it doesn’t affect me, but I heard there was a lot of players who were disappointed. It’s one of those things where the people who are voting are doing the best job they can – it’s a testament to the talent that has been in the WNBA that there’s so much discussion. It’s hard to pick the top 25 because there’s so many great players out there.
“There were a lot of players that could have made the list but didn’t for whatever reason, but I have to trust the people that vote. It doesn’t take anything away from others.”
In terms of picking her WNBA GOAT, Bolton found it hard to nail down just one, but she was keen to remind the world about the talent level in the first few years of the league.
“I think the GOAT should be a question by position. I played with Lisa Leslie and she’s one of the best players to ever play the game. She was versatile, could bring the ball up, she’s a four-time Olympian. But when you talk about a guard, maybe Cynthia Cooper-Dyke as far as the legends go. To me, I was one of the best defenders in the world and it was tough for me to defend her.
“I know people will say Diana Taurasi, and for the younger generation, sure. She plays with an edge and a tenacity and a proven champion and five-time Olympian – it would be a close race, but as far as a legend who affected the game, I would say Cooper.”
Don’t forget the history. That’s Bolton’s key message. And history shows that it’s important to make the most of moments you get in the playoffs and especially in the championship rounds.
In 2014, the Phoenix Mercury won it all with Diana Taurasi leading the way. The next year they stood a great chance of repeating, but she was paid by UMMC Ekaterinburg to rest for the WNBA season so she was fresh for Russia. For her Mercury teammates, it was an opportunity lost.
Seasons are lost to injury, just like the New York Liberty in the early 2000s. They made multiple trips to the WNBA Finals but their first ever draft assignment Rebecca Lobo was not available to help after that first appearance due to a torn meniscus.
Big games are lost to freak shots, like Dearica Hamby’s heave during the closing seconds of the Las Vegas Aces’ playoff game against the Chicago Sky.
Other seasons, it might be the Olympics or international FIBA competitions that are the priority for some players, such as Emma Meesseman.
Or players might become pregnant. Candace Parker gave birth in 2009, one year after winning the MVP and the Rookie of the Year Award in the same season, as the Sparks look primed to pass the torch from Lisa Leslie to the new star with one last championship. Parker returned halfway through the season but suffered a knee injury and the team never looked like a threat to win it all despite having the talent. Leslie retired that year.
These are the types of stories that need to be shared with the younger generation, which is a big part of what Ruthie Bolton does today on her AIM HIGH programme.
She said: “I remember what my dad taught me about rising above circumstances – don’t let any circumstances steal your joy. I wrote this programme called AIM HIGH, how to love yourself, how to deal with adversity – because it can make you bitter as well as better, and can help change your mindset. I had to do that, it was part of getting through that moment. If I hadn’t started writing, it could have really drowned me and suffocated me. It helped me.”
More recently, Bolton has become involved with the Jr NBA and European players have been able to benefit from her knowledge.
She said: “Basketball is a sport that bridges the gap between countries and continents. It’s a beautiful way to express yourself. The Jr NBA does a good job of creating a space for young people to chase their dreams and to play the game that I love dearly. I enjoy working with them and it’s a great concept. It’s good to be part of the journey.
“It seems to be just basketball, but it’s so much bigger. Giving these players a space to have hopes and make an impact. Giving them the time, they need it. They are dependent on us during this time from one day to the next. When you’re teaching someone how to shoot, you’re always teaching them to aim high, aim high over the basket. If it hits the front of the rim, it won’t have a chance to go in. Give them the opportunity to dream.”
The Phoenix Mercury, New York Liberty, Minnesota Lynx, Connecticut Sun, Chicago Sky, Dallas Wings, Seattle Storm and Last Vegas Aces now have that opportunity to dream. But they just need to look to Bolton to realise how rare it is.