Erica Wheeler still remembers vividly what Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer, standing in the Wheelers’ home, told Wheeler’s mother would happen if her daughter came to play for her.
“She told my mom, ‘She won’t just be a basketball player,’” Wheeler recalled of the conversation between Stringer and Wheeler’s mother, Melissa Cooper, who died in 2012. “‘She’s going to know how to speak in front of the camera, she’s going to know etiquette, she’s going to know how to carry herself, and she’s going to be a young woman when she graduates college.’”
Wheeler, who turns 30 in May, has worked to become the woman Stringer promised Cooper she would be. She has shown a toughness that has carried her on her professional journey to 14 teams overseas after she wasn’t selected in the W.N.B.A. draft, to regular playing time with the Indiana Fever and now a multiyear deal with the Los Angeles Sparks.
A parallel story unfolded in the life of Betnijah Laney, 27, in her case a second-generation Stringer player. Laney’s mother, Yolanda Laney, took Stringer’s Cheyney State program to a pair of Final Fours, playing at a level Stringer said would have made her the top pick in the W.N.B.A. draft had the league existed when she graduated.