Commentary

Kelsey Plum and the audacity of hoops

Updated: May 19, 2017, 2:24 PM ET
By Hallie Grossman | ESPN The Magazine

Jeff Wilson for ESPNStars guard Kelsey Plum says she's "excited to be the low man on the totem pole" -- a spot she hasn't had to occupy ... well ... ever.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 29 issue. Subscribe today!

The rain comes down in buckets on a January night in 2014, a true Seattle driving rain, but she braves it. She doesn't have a choice. Her Washington Huskies just beat Utah in overtime, but she doesn't revel in the win, or in her assist that put them up by four near the end, or in the layup she banked to seal it. Two months into her freshman year, her team can't stand her -- or at least it feels that way. Her coach named her captain just before the season started because she checked off 24 of the 27 traits he wanted in a leader, but the older players resent her for it. So Kelsey Plum leaves the arena alone -- she can't find a teammate to give her a ride -- and walks 2.5 miles home. The rain mixes with her tears. She thinks, This is the bottom.

***

THREE AND A HALF years later, Kelsey Plum rains T‑shirts on a San Antonio crowd already abuzz, with the Spurs charging toward a Game 5 win over the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2017 NBA playoffs. The shirts soar, improbably reaching the top of the AT&T Center's lower bowl. Fans roar their approval for their town's newest basketball phenom and her Aaron Rodgers-caliber arm.

Twelve days earlier, the San Antonio Stars had selected Plum, the NCAA's career scoring leader in women's basketball, No. 1 overall in the WNBA draft. So much is new to her on this introductory lap of the city -- the Spurs frenzy, the Alamo, the Mexican fare at Mi Tierra -- but the true novelty is this: Plum has never been an honest-to-goodness rookie before.

"I'm excited," she says. "Excited to be the low man on the totem pole."

Plum played 37.3 minutes a game in her first season (a school freshman record). She scored 3,527 points in her four years in Seattle (an NCAA record), 1,109 points last season alone (another NCAA record). She was a danger on every inch of the court -- a beyond-the-arc sniper, a midrange artist, a killer at the rim. She averaged 31.7 points in 2016-17 -- nearly six more than her closest competitor in Division I. She was not a physical marvel at 5-foot-8, but she was crafty and creative, agile and lightning quick in her release. She was fearless, to hear her tell it, which is another way to say she sought out contact, any contact. Opposing college coaches admitted to Stars GM Ruth Riley that they eventually ran out of ideas for ways to shut her down. She won the Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy, the Dawn Staley Award, the Nancy Lieberman Award and the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award in 2017, and she generally seemed to have zero interest in gently blending in until this moment.

"She's like an alpha female," says Brianna Ruiz, Plum's former teammate on the Huskies. 

She lives for moments like last July, when she challenged John Ross, Washington's star wide receiver and eventual top-10 2017 NFL draft pick, to go one-on-one because "guys think they can just take girls in a game." ("They think if they yell 'Steph Curry' before they shoot," she says, "they have a better chance.") She beat Ross 11-2. "John's broke!" she says now with a laugh. "He. Cannot. Shoot. To. Save. His. Life."

Six months later, with her No. 7 Huskies facing No. 10 Stanford, Plum traded in-game barbs with another Washington-area football player. "Ref! Travel!" he heckled from his courtside seat. Plum dropped her shot in, side-eyed the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Seahawks and playfully lobbed back, "Nobody traveled, Russell. Shut up."

Now consider the bull's-eye on your back when you're a cocky and hyper-capable freshman named captain from day one. Imagine the way that branding can burn if other players -- more experienced teammates, veterans -- feel affronted by your insta-spotlight. Picture how the weight of that responsibility would mark the end of a rookie campaign. 

"Low man on the totem pole" status isn't shameful to Kelsey Plum. It's liberating. "She's going to be a great follower," says her college coach, Mike Neighbors, "if that's who she needs to be for a while." 

She might not have a choice.

***

PLUM STEPPED ONTO the Washington campus in the fall of 2013 with intent: I'm coming in to get buckets, she remembers thinking. She grew up outside San Diego surrounded by elite athletes: Her mother and two older sisters played college volleyball, her father was a collegiate quarterback, her younger brother would become a collegiate tight end. She devoted morning after morning to "Breakfast Club," as she called the practice sessions spent with her high school coach, working toward their stated goal: 80 percent shooting on uncontested shots. She knew her value.

But now, on the eve of her first WNBA season, she insists she's ready to wait. She's joining the Stars with the mindset to be a teammate first -- something she says she didn't do in Seattle. Not immediately. 

"I was immature. I was a kid," she says. 

This newfound patience comes from experience -- born of how long it took for her teammates to grudgingly accept her captaincy -- and necessity. Plum is joining a crowded backcourt. 

No team has finished with a worse record the past two years than the Stars, but the one asset San Antonio can lay claim to is a young, intriguing core. Kayla McBride was drafted third overall in 2014, then made the All-Star Game in 2015. Moriah Jefferson went second overall in last year's draft and finished in the top 20 for points per game. Like Plum, they're both guards. 

"I only know what I hear," Plum says now. "It was just like, 'Does San Antonio need Plum? Does San Antonio want to trade Plum?' I didn't know." 

Uncertainty is foreign to her. So for clarity, she met with her new coach, Vickie Johnson, in an AT&T Center conference room. Johnson had watched Plum practice, taking in her funky shots off the backboard, the outrageous makes, and she saw a young Becky Hammon -- and Johnson doesn't dole out comparisons to WNBA greats lightly. She wanted Plum to understand not just that she was needed on this team but why she was needed. 

"I want three guards on the court that can actually handle the ball, can initiate the offense and can shoot the basketball," Johnson assured her. "It's like OKC when they had Harden, Durant and Westbrook. I love it." 

That, Plum says, was enough. "A lightbulb went off. Becky played the 2. Becky played the 1."

You can do that, Plum, she told herself.

***

Jeff Wilson for ESPNPlum will have to see how she fits in with San Antonio's young, exciting guard corps, which includes Kayla McBride and Moriah Jefferson.

IN EARLY MAY, with the Rockets in town to face the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Plum meets up with Irv Roland -- her family friend who works in player development for Houston -- for dinner at Ruth's Chris. James Harden strolls into the steakhouse to join them, and he comes bearing gifts: a pair of shoes, autographed for Plum. Harden lingers for a few minutes, and he and Plum swap pleasantries but not fawning adoration.

"I'd never gas him in front of him," Plum says with mock indignation. "I would never tell him he's that good!" Nor would she delve into the hours she has spent poring over his film, tracking the ways he draws contact, studying the intricacies of his Eurostep to add it to her own arsenal. She would, however, give Roland a pair of her own shoes, signed, with a request: "Yo, give these to James."

Plum grew up idolizing Connecticut great Diana Taurasi. She ordered a Taurasi poster and compiled a Huskies scrapbook. She recorded UConn's championships on VHS. Now Plum, who sprained her ankle in an early May practice, says that when she makes it back to the court, there's one person she can't wait to score on: Diana Taurasi.

"I'm going to tell her too," she says. "Yes, I will."

***

Mark Sobhani/NBAE/Getty ImagesPlum fires T-shirts to the crowd during Game 5 of the Western Conference first round series between the Spurs and Grizzlies in April.

ON A DECEMBER night in 2011, a junior in high school brings the ball up the floor in the Nike Tournament of Champions title game. The playcall is "white" -- an on-ball screen for the prolific scorer -- but her defender sags off, so she lets the ball fly. She misses. The next possession, her defender sags off again, so she shoots. Another miss. On the third straight possession, her high school coach screams across the floor. "Be patient! Wait for the screen!" But Kelsey Plum knows herself. I wake up hot, she thinks. So she doesn't wait, firing a quick deep 3. She drains it, smiles, points to her coach and runs back on defense.

Now rewind a few years, and the young player is lobbing shots in her yard, dreaming about hitting a WNBA title-winning shot someday. She wasn't pretending to be Diana Taurasi then.

"I was me," Plum says. "I was always me."

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