MINNEAPOLIS — Playing against WNBA scout teams comprised of former male collegiate players going full-bore hasn’t been a huge shock for Sugar Rodgers.
It might seem comical to imagine a smaller, younger version of the Minnesota Lynx’s rookie guard tearing across the middle of a football field and taking — or dealing — a shot. But participating in boys tackle football was one of the more pleasant points of an agonizing childhood for the second-round draft pick and final player to make Minnesota’s roster.
With the Lynx taking full physical advantage of an extra week of preparation time for Saturday’s season opener against the Connecticut Sun, Rodgers meets a trip to the Target Center’s Lifetime Fitness floor with a shrug, sometimes even a coy grin.
“I know what it feels like to get hit really hard,” Rodgers said.
Does she ever.
A dark home life that Rodgers kept mostly hidden from her friends growing up is no longer a secret, though the details’ abundance and grievousness create some haze. A summation yields a 23-year-old hoops phenom who has two deceased parents and whose closest relatives spent her most formative years in prison.
“Obviously, we’ve all read her story,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “She has overcome quite a bit as a person. As a basketball player, I’m really excited to find out who she is.”
What sticks out in Rodgers’ foremost memory are sensory tidbits. The sight of drugs and money exchanging hands on a Suffolk, Va., street corner. The smell of her mother’s excrement as she slowly succumbed to lupus. The empty pit in her stomach when a father she didn’t know nearly as well as she would’ve liked passed away last summer.
And the sound of a basketball, an escape from the horrors of street life in the young Rodgers’ world.
When she was young, the stellar shooting guard’s neighborhood ran rampant with illicit drug use, run-down housing and violence. Even before the loss of her mother, her entertainment came in the form of hustling neighborhood street ballers in games of one-on-one, taking and administering hits with her youth football team and working on a sound golf game.
“That was my hood,” said Rodgers, who first learned the art of knocking down jumpers on a beat-up goal erected in front of her house. “You know, gang-banging, drugs. You’ve got crack heads. You’ve got all of that. . . . And, you know, I loved it. I ran the streets as a young child, you know, hung out with the guys. Stood on the corner with the drug dealers. I’ve done a lot.”
When her mother fell ill, Rodgers became her caretaker changing her clothes, bathing her, ensuring food reached the table. She passed away on July 14, 2005, when Rodgers was 13.
Long before that day, a disabled mother and a largely absent father left Sugar whose birth name is Ta’Shauna, though she rarely goes by it today her brother DeShawn, her sister Sharon and her three children to fend for themselves.
The quickest way to financial viability was to procure and solicit drugs.
Such activities sent both DeShawn and Sharon to jail, further alienating Sugar from any sense of support system. She regrettably admits she at times dealt illegal substances, too, but quickly ceased when she observed her siblings’ consequences.
“If you catch a charge (as a minor), it’s not like somebody older catching a charge,” Rodgers said. “They kind of slap you on the wrist.
“But I saw what the drugs did to my brother and sister as far as them selling drugs. That’s where they was at, so I stopped. I just really pounded on basketball and academics.”
Not right away, however.
Bouncing from house-to-house while trying to help take care of her nieces, she rarely attended class until her junior year at King’s Fork High School. Her father, who died last summer, helped cart her around but never extended their relationship beyond that.
“It’s not that he wasn’t in the picture, but when I was going through what I was going through, he wasn’t there,” Rodgers said of her dad, who was 62 when she was born. “I was homeless. . . . You’d think as your child you’d take me in, or at least give me the option or help me find to place a stay.”
As she entered and exited the homes of friends, family, and even a basketball coach at one point, there was little evidence of any possible way out of such a bleak cycle.
Until Rodgers came into contact with a man called Boo.
Playing for a local AAU team her first couple years of high school, Rodgers was originally reluctant to join up with Boo Williams’ program — an entity that’s produced 14 Parade All-Americans, according to its website.
But then words like “college” and “scholarship” entered Rodgers’ vocabulary.
“I didn’t know what a scholarship was,” Rodgers said. “I played for Boo, and it was like, ‘You know, you can go to college.’ And I was like, ‘Go to college? I don’t know nobody in college.’ I was like, you know, ‘I’m not going to nobody’s college.’ I didn’t think I’d fit. I guess I was settling for less, because that’s all I knew.”
But an avenue away from the near-hopeless chaos that enveloped her existence had presented itself. And Rodgers took full advantage.
She didn’t just start attending class regularly, she hit the books as hard as the gym and the weight room. By the time she left King’s Fork, she’d qualified academically and athletically for a full scholarship to Georgetown University and graduated as her prep school’s career leader in every major statistical category.
A relationship with the Williams family helped keep her grounded. And a basketball in her hands helped keep her out of trouble.
“You take the negativity and turn it into something positive,” Rodgers aid. “As far as my brother and sister being incarcerated, I chose not to take that path. I took another path. The things that kind of broke them made me the person who I am.”
Rodgers developed a deadly 3-point shot to go with superb athleticism packed within her 5-foot-9 frame. It immediately translated to the collegiate level, where she was an all-America honorable mention three times and led the Hoyas to a trio of NCAA Tournament appearances, including the Sweet 16 in 2010-11.
Her 2,518 career points are the most in Georgetown history — men’s or women’s — and her 22.9 points per game as a senior ranked fourth behind first-round WNBA draft picks Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne and Florida International junior Jerica Coley.
“You just think about the little freshman coming in just trying to survive,” Terri Williams-Flournoy, Georgetown’s coach for Rodgers’ first three college campaigns and Boo Williams’ sister, told the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va., the day before the draft. “Whoever thought at this point she’d be waiting on April 15 to see what WNBA team she’s going to play with? It gives you chill bumps.”
The rewards for perseverance have been made manifest in a series of emotion-rocking moments the past several weeks.
On April 15, the Lynx called Rodgers’ name with the 14th overall pick in the draft. Rodgers’ two siblings — both released from prison in the past year — were on hand in Bristol, Conn., to celebrate with their younger sister.
It was the first time all three occupied the same room in more than a decade.
“They’ve grown and learned from their mistakes,” Rodgers said. “They’re just so loving and so caring and want to be a part of everything I’m doing. Just to have that — because I don’t really have a mom and dad, you know — my sister’s kind of like my mom and my brother’s kind of like my dad. Together, we’re just one big happy family.”
A bit of mild adversity struck at the beginning of training camp when a quad injury kept Rodgers out of practice for a week. She then missed Minnesota’s first exhibition game, but that was due to an accomplishment she holds higher than all the rest.
Adorned in a mortarboard and gown, she walked across the stage at Georgetown, accepted her diploma with a bachelor’s degree in English and became the first member of her family to graduate from college.
A life-hardened girl who rarely sheds a tear cried with joy that day, no shame involved.
She did the same thing last Thursday after Reeve took Rodgers aside and told her she’d survived training camp and would be a member of the Lynx. The decision reportedly came down to Rodgers and forward Shawnice “Pepper” Wilson, and Reeve opted to go with the hot-shooting two-guard.
A 2-for-5 3-point performance in a preseason loss to Connecticut earlier in the week that included a first-quarter buzzer-beater from the left wing surely helped Rodgers’ cause.
“We really threw her into the fire,” said Reeve, whose group features two other true guards and a pair of flexors in Seimone Augustus and Monica Wright that can play both the two and three spots. “She missed a whole week, and actually a pretty critical week where she wasn’t out there and then obviously with graduation missed a game. There’s a lot that goes on, a lot of teaching that happens. She was trying to do some things on the fly, not always knowing where she was supposed to be.”
With that in mind, the triumph tale of Sugar Rodgers, which she plans to publish soon in a book entitled, “A Bittersweet Life,” is far from over.
Next to her diploma, collegiate accolades and memories of the background she managed to rise above, Rodgers would like a WNBA title ring or two.
“You can’t settle,” Rodgers said Monday after a particularly lengthy practice. “It’s my time to continue to work hard, find my role on the team, do whatever to get back to the tournament, to get back to the championship.”
The hits will keep coming. But it’s likely they’ll be easier to absorb than the collisions from which Rodgers already has picked herself up.