It’s rare for an athlete to come with his or her own fan base — think Heisman Trophy winners like Tim Tebow or Johnny Manziel. It’s even more rare for a women’s basketball player.
But after selecting the 5-foot-9 Shoni Schimmel out of Louisville earlier this year with the WNBA Draft’s eighth overall pick, the Atlanta Dream started realizing the size of the following that the rookie guard has every time the team posted something on its website or on social media about her.
In high school, Native Americans from Oregon and Washington state would drive hours to see Schimmel and her younger sister, Jude, play for the Portland school that their mother coached. On senior night at Louisville, Native Americans helped to fill the Cardinals’ 22,000-seat arena. When Louisville played Oklahoma this past season, thousands of Native Americans waited on line for autographs after the game.
At times, discussing the idea of whether an athlete is a role model can represent a tired exercise. But for Schimmel, who grew up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon until she was 17, it’s a role that she and her sister, who also plays at Louisville and has one year of eligibility remaining, have learned is part of life for them.
"It’s something Jude and I just embrace," she said. "We have younger brothers and sisters. I’m one of eight. It just kind of comes with that. I happen to be the second oldest so I know what it’s like to be a role a model and for (the idea) to just kind of carry over to the whole Native American community, you understand it. Jude and I both get it. It’s something that comes easy to us, so it’s not a bad thing at all for us."
Schimmel is not the only one who has embraced it. So have the Dream. The team announced that it will celebrate "Heritage Fridays," beginning on May 30 with Native American Night.
Schimmel, who has averaged 12 points, 10.5 assists and a team-high 37.1 minutes in her first two professional games, said that basketball was a big part of her life growing up — and a healthy influence. The United States’ 310 Indian reservations have violent crime rates that are more than two and a half times the national average, according to a February 2012 story in the New York Times that cited U.S. Department of Justice data.
"It’s huge on the reservation," Schimmel said of basketball. "It’s always been big in my family, too, and so for it to carry over into every generation, it’s stuck with us. My mom played it. … It just runs in the family. It’s something we like to do, something to keep us busy and stay out of trouble, especially on the reservation as a young kid. It helps you."
As she transitions from the NCAA to the WNBA, her coach, Michael Cooper, is trying to help her. Cooper said that Schimmel is a "baller," citing the 44 minutes that she played last Saturday in a double-overtime victory at Indiana.
"She’s such a joy to have," Cooper said. "Her basketball IQ is off the charts. My thing coaching her is trying to get her to see what I’m seeing out on the floor. She’s really, really close to that now."
Sometimes getting Schimmel to see his vision means having to be hard on her. That happened for the first time on Thursday in practice when Cooper did not like the way Schimmel defended the pick-and-roll. He let her know in straight-forward language that opposing players are going to test her athleticism on defense. In the season opener, Schimmel’s opposite number, San Antonio’s Danielle Robinson, made seven of her eight shots and scored 23 points.
Cooper said Schimmel was "thrown into the fire" in that game against one of the league’s fastest players. It’s part of the transition process to the pros where players are much more athletic than what Schimmel faced on a game-by-game basis in college.
"Each player, I coach them individually for how they are and Shoni can stand me getting on her a little bit, as you saw today," said Cooper, who has won two WNBA titles as a coach. "But, again, that same firm hand I’m going to be with her, I still have to have that loving and gentle hand when she does things well.
"She’s a rookie in that aspect."
When Schimmel was coming out of high school, Cooper served as the women’s coach at USC at the time and he recruited her — even though he lost her to Louisville. Schimmel said Louisville represented "the best package" for her and credited the school and the program for helping "me be my own person." In her final two seasons, the Cardinals went 62-14, losing in the 2013 national championship game to Connecticut.
With those four successful years between her recruitment and her WNBA rookie season, Schimmel said she still has a good comfort level with Cooper.
"That just comes with being the player and the coach," she said of his getting on her. "It’s just something to take with it and run with it. I’d rather him be yelling at me than not talking to me. I’m OK with it."
That kind of attitude ought to serve her well in her pro career.
It also helps to understand why she has such a large following, irrespective of her origin.
"I think you have to be fearless and that’s the main thing," Cooper said. "She’s not afraid of anyone."â