The primary time Seimone Augustus realized what she was able to wasn’t when, as a 14-year-old, she landed on the quilt of Sports activities Illustrated for Girls subsequent to the query, “Is She the Subsequent Michael Jordan?”
When Augustus, a W.N.B.A. legend who retired this yr after 15 seasons, displays on the moments that made her perceive her potential, she thinks of the stands at Capitol Excessive Faculty in Baton Rouge, La. She led the crew to back-to-back state titles, scoring 3,600 factors and shedding simply seven video games in 4 years.
The varsity is on the middle of the predominantly Black neighborhood the place she grew up, a neighborhood she described as close-knit and stuffed with “a bunch of individuals that you’d by no means know who helped make my sport the best way it’s.” With every win, although, the crowds that gathered to see Augustus play on the Capitol gymnasium began to look totally different.
“The identical white of us who, had we seen them driving down the road a yr in the past, would have been hitting the locks with their elbows and zooming by way of have been all of a sudden embracing coming to the gymnasium, desirous to expertise no matter it’s that they skilled whereas watching me play,” Augustus stated.
Solely then did Augustus begin to understand the type of change her preternatural talents on the courtroom may allow her to push for off it. “I believe it hit me then,” she stated. “It was only a melting pot of individuals, essentially the most stunning surroundings I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Augustus’s legacy as a participant — a girls’s basketball pioneer, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the cornerstone of the four-time champion Minnesota Lynx, one among basketball’s nice dynasties — isn’t in query. However she can be one among sports activities’ most forward-thinking and undersung activists. Now, as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks, Augustus is working to assist her gamers discover the identical solace and freedom that she did on the courtroom and discover methods to make use of their affect to advocate for themselves and their communities outdoors basketball.
“How can I make this a protected house so that you can simply be happy and categorical your self by way of basketball?” she asks them.
Basketball has lengthy served as that type of refuge for Augustus.
“Simply being me was laborious, to be sincere,” she stated, explaining that she was bullied in highschool. “Daily strolling down the hallway it was like: ‘She’s homosexual. She’s homosexual.’”
Augustus’s dad and mom and household supported her, however others have been hostile. “You had dad and mom coming as much as my dad and mom and saying, ‘As a result of your daughter is homosexual, she’s obtained my daughter feeling like she’s homosexual,’” Augustus stated. “Folks I’ve by no means met in my life are blaming me for one thing that their baby is now selecting to specific.”
On the similar time, Augustus was racking up nearly each accolade a highschool basketball participant may hope for — and attempting to contemplate how the racist legacy of the Deep South neighborhood she grew up in would form the place she selected to play in school. Louisiana State College, her hometown college, didn’t make use of a Black professor, Julian T. White, until 1971. “The entire recruiting course of, I had so many individuals that have been like, ‘Don’t go there,’” she stated.
Finally, she determined to attend L.S.U. anyway: She wished the possibility each to remain near house and to construct a profitable program as a substitute of becoming a member of a longtime powerhouse like Tennessee or Connecticut. “I had numerous aged Black those who stated, ‘Simply to step on this campus was quite a bit for me, and I did that for you,’” Augustus stated. “I believe it helped give them a launch. Like, no less than we’re at peace sufficient to have the ability to get pleasure from this second.”
These experiences laid the groundwork for Augustus’s transition to public-facing activism, which demanded self-assurance and sensitivity. Her first foray into advocacy was fittingly private: She got here out publicly within the L.G.B.T.Q. journal The Advocate in Could 2012, detailing her relationship with, and plans to marry, LaTaya Varner, who’s now her spouse.
Augustus’s profile had by no means been increased, provided that she had simply led the Lynx to their first title, in 2011, and had been named essentially the most invaluable participant of that yr’s finals. However the resolution was nonetheless dangerous. It could be years earlier than the W.N.B.A. began a leaguewide L.G.B.T.Q. delight program, in 2014, and the timing was essential since Minnesotans would vote on a state constitutional modification banning same-sex marriage that November.
“That was like the primary time I really stepped out and used my voice,” Augustus stated. “I felt like I used to be at a spot in my life the place I used to be able to be open with individuals. I don’t suppose it was an enormous shock, however for the those who wanted it, it actually helped them. I had so many individuals that came to visit, like, ‘I used to be capable of inform my mother after 40 years.’”
She continued to talk to the information media concerning the subject, telling her personal story as a rebuke to the proposed Minnesota modification. It was defeated, and same-sex marriage grew to become authorized in all 50 states soon after Augustus and Varner were married in 2015.
“When she got here out in 2012 after which began doing a lot intentional work in Minnesota round marriage equality, we noticed Seimone after which different gamers inside the W.N.B.A. kick off conversations that grew to become actually harking back to the athlete activism of the ’60s,” stated Anne Lieberman, director of coverage and applications at Athlete Ally.
These conversations have been by no means extra influential than in 2016, when the celebrities of the Lynx — together with Augustus — started to publicly help the Black Lives Matter motion. They spoke out in opposition to police brutality and wore shirts throughout warm-ups that bore the motion’s slogan within the wake of the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling earlier than Colin Kaepernick, for a similar trigger, made waves by taking a knee in the course of the nationwide anthem at N.F.L. video games.
For Augustus, each killings resonated deeply. She had spoken out about racial profiling by the police in suburban Minneapolis in 2012, the place Castile was killed 4 years later; the nook retailer the place Sterling was killed was the identical one the place she used to purchase snacks when she was rising up in Baton Rouge.
“Clearly, we’ve all been stopped by the police earlier than,” Augustus stated. “My dad has been on the town in Minneapolis and gotten stopped by the police. That might have very nicely been my father or cousin or uncle or anyone.”
The W.N.B.A. fined players for wearing the shirts, earlier than rescinding the fines after participant and public outcry. Four Lynx security guards, all off-duty police officers, walked out throughout a sport in response to the gamers’ actions.
“We had cops stroll out on us and depart the Goal Middle huge open for individuals to simply — in the event that they wished to return in and do one thing to us, we didn’t have anybody there to guard us,” Augustus stated. “As a result of we wore T-shirts. As a result of individuals don’t wish to be held accountable for his or her actions.”
Within the wake of George Floyd’s homicide final yr, the W.N.B.A. extra proactively inspired participant activism as part of its id — 4 years after the Lynx first took a stand. “Now it’s like, ‘We’re celebrating you!’ And we’re like, ‘Uh huh, you’re celebrating now, however in years prior, it was type of laborious to get you to embrace it,’” Augustus stated.
She nonetheless remembers conferences the place the league, she stated, tried to goad gamers into sporting extra make-up and skimpier uniforms, and the way in her first years of taking part in it was the gamers with husbands and youngsters who appeared to get all of the publicity. “They might say, ‘We don’t have a cool issue,’ and I’m like, ‘We cool, what are you speaking about?’” Augustus stated. “It’s insane the conversations we needed to have.”
In an emailed assertion in response to Augustus’s feedback, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert cited the emphasis on L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights by the league’s Social Justice Council, which was established final season.
“The W.N.B.A. has lengthy been some of the inclusive and welcoming sports activities leagues by way of its dedication to gamers and followers,” she stated, including, “Right this moment, that dedication continues to develop with numerous demonstrations of inclusivity and with an understanding that there’ll all the time be extra work to do.”
Augustus has all the time prioritized the sport itself, and that’s no totally different now that she’s a coach. However the seemingly easy method through which she has built-in combating for herself and her neighborhood into her basketball profession appears prone to rub off on her protégés.
“She performed the sport with a aptitude and a confidence that may inform you that she desires to be the loudest individual within the room, however she actually doesn’t,” Sparks Coach Derek Fisher stated. “She simply desires to assist individuals get higher and serve others.”