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 Ladies subsequent to the query, “Is She the Subsequent Michael Jordan?”
When Augustus, a W.N.B.A. legend who retired this 12 months after 15 seasons, displays on the moments that made her perceive her potential, she thinks of the stands at Capitol Excessive College in Baton Rouge, La. She led the staff to back-to-back state titles, scoring 3,600 factors and dropping simply seven video games in 4 years.
The college 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 way in which 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 12 months in the past, would have been hitting the locks with their elbows and zooming via have been abruptly embracing coming to the health club, desirous to expertise no matter it’s that they skilled whereas watching me play,” Augustus stated.
Solely then did Augustus begin to understand the sort of change her preternatural talents on the court docket may allow her to push for off it. “I feel it hit me then,” she stated. “It was only a melting pot of individuals, probably the most stunning surroundings I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Augustus’s legacy as a participant — a ladies’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 court docket and discover methods to make use of their affect to advocate for themselves and their communities exterior basketball.
“How can I make this a secure house so that you can simply be at liberty and specific your self via basketball?” she asks them.
Basketball has lengthy served as that sort of refuge for Augustus.
“Simply being me was exhausting, to be sincere,” she stated, explaining that she was bullied in highschool. “Day by day strolling down the hallway it was like: ‘She’s homosexual. She’s homosexual.’”
Augustus’s mother and father and household supported her, however others have been hostile. “You had mother and father coming as much as my mother and father and saying, ‘As a result of your daughter is homosexual, she’s acquired 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 little one is now selecting to precise.”
On the identical 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.
In the end, she determined to attend L.S.U. anyway: She needed the possibility each to remain near residence and to construct a profitable program as an alternative of becoming a member of a longtime powerhouse like Tennessee or Connecticut. “I had a variety of aged Black people who stated, ‘Simply to step on this campus was rather a lot for me, and I did that for you,’” Augustus stated. “I feel it helped give them a launch. Like, not 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 greater, on condition that she had simply led the Lynx to their first title, in 2011, and had been named probably the most helpful participant of that 12 months’s finals. However the choice was nonetheless dangerous. It will be years earlier than the W.N.B.A. began a leaguewide L.G.B.T.Q. satisfaction 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 truly 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 folks. I don’t assume it was an enormous shock, however for the people who wanted it, it actually helped them. I had so many individuals that came visiting, like, ‘I used to be capable of inform my mother after 40 years.’”
She continued to talk to the information media concerning the concern, 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 throughout 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 packages 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 would have very properly 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 Heart large open for folks to simply — in the event that they needed 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 folks don’t wish to be held accountable for his or her actions.”
Within the wake of George Floyd’s homicide final 12 months, the W.N.B.A. extra proactively inspired participant activism as part of its identification — 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 sort of exhausting 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 one of the inclusive and welcoming sports activities leagues when it comes to its dedication to gamers and followers,” she stated, including, “As we speak, that dedication continues to develop with numerous demonstrations of inclusivity and with an understanding that there’ll at all times be extra work to do.”
Augustus has at all times prioritized the sport itself, and that’s no totally different now that she’s a coach. However the seemingly easy method during 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 might inform you that she needs to be the loudest individual within the room, however she actually doesn’t,” Sparks Coach Derek Fisher stated. “She simply needs to assist folks get higher and serve others.”